Tag Archives: choir

Two Choirs, Two Different Singing Experiences

For the past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of being able to sing with two different choirs–my local Choral Society and my church choir. But I hadn’t really stopped to think about how differently each choir affects my life, and how differently I sing in each setting. Both provide me with uplifting experiences, as you’ll see!

Choral Society: Performing with a Community of Singers

In my local Choral Society, I sing with a variety of other people in the community–some who have trained in professional solo singing, some who just enjoy singing for its own sake, some who also perform in small ensembles, some who use their voices as part of musical theater, etc. The common thread that binds us is that we all enjoy the craft of singing, and we’re all pretty great at it.

Because of this, I feel myself lifted to a higher standard of singing when I rehearse and perform with this group. I’m in the midst of lovely voices, and I have the honor of adding my voice to this. Within Choral Society, I can use my abilities to hold up the alto part, and both hear and see how our voices blend together in graceful swirls of colorful melodies (thanks to my synesthesia).

Church Choir: Performing for God

In church, I’m still singing alto with a choir, but I’m performing with a group of people who love to use music to praise God. That is our form of worship, to use our voices to tell about God’s power and grace; that is what pulls us together as a choir.

Because of this, I am less concerned with being as perfect as possible during “rehearsal” and “performance”–those two words don’t even really fit church choir, because every time you lift your voice in church, it’s just for God and no one else. Instead, I concern myself with understanding the meaning of the text we’re singing, letting that meaning move me emotionally, and allowing that emotion to be seen and felt through my singing.

And Yes, Both Experiences Are Perfectly Valid!

The best part about being able to sing in both of these choirs is that each experience brings me joy in a different way. In Choral Society, I enjoy music for music’s sake, and enjoy the process of learning, polishing, and performing choral works with others who are just as passionate about singing as I am. In church choir, I use music as a way to speak to God, reaffirming my own salvation story and experience of God every time I sing with the choir.

I enjoy both choirs, but for different reasons, and it’s a rather unique experience to have both those experiences in my life. I love that about the arts–they are so malleable that they work into every area of your life and give it a little touch of awesome.

Choral Synesthesia

I’ve written quite a bit on my blog about my synesthesia, and how musical notes generate color in my head (back in June 2011 and more recently in August 2012). However, it recently occurred to me that my experience of choral music, in particular, is pretty different from just perceiving specific notes and note colors.

How different, you might ask? Take a look at the following illustration, which is but a poor visual representation of what I see when I hear individual voice parts singing.

descant_mercury Top soprano/descant
soprano_silver Soprano
alto_gold Alto
tenor_copper Tenor
bass_hematite Bass

I’ve been tacitly aware of this as long as I’ve been singing in choirs (late childhood). When I listened to or sung in choirs, for instance, I would see these various metallic colors as if superimposed on my vision when the sopranos would sing alone, or when the tenors would practice their part, etc. When a group of like voices sings together, my synesthetic experience does not reflect the individual pitches they hit; instead, the single metallic color seems to represent an overall “sense” of the harmony line they are building.

Hearing an entire choir together, however, is a much different experience from hearing each voice part separately. A piece of choral music is like a sculpture being built in mid-air out of mere threads of metal, always twisting, twining, and shaping into something glittering and light. Adding my voice to this lovely object, which only exists as a flickering in my imagination and looks thin enough to pop like a soap bubble, is an amazing feeling–my voice becomes one of those thin strands of metal winding into the choral sculpture.

I haven’t tested this very often with bands or orchestras, but it seems as though this is specific to choral music. Perhaps the human voice lends a special timbre to the harmony lines, which creates this awesome mental artwork in my head. (Unfortunately, I cannot produce this artwork with my hands and do it any justice, but I can at least help others imagine it with my words.)

Does anyone else experience synesthetic events like this when listening to large ensembles of voices (or instruments, for that matter)? Tell me in the comments!

Joining My Voice With Others

Choirs have been a major part of my life since childhood, and I have loved every rehearsal and performance of it. Even though performing with any group, be it a dance troupe, an acting company, a band, or a large choir, is a commitment that takes dedication, it has helped anchor my life in many ways. The interdependency of a performance group is one reason I love choir–you become a family of sorts, understanding how each other operates, helping each other learn, working together for the common goal of producing beautiful music.

And yet, I would have never known my future interest in choir if I hadn’t taken a risk in 7th grade…and I wouldn’t have known just how important it was to me until I couldn’t be in a choir for a while.

My Personal Experience in School Choirs

Though I sang with my elementary school choir in 5th grade, I never really thought I had much of a singing voice until 7th grade, when I joined the choir “just to see if I liked it.” If I didn’t like choir, I reasoned, I could always go to band the next year.

I started out the year singing as I had always done: very softly, because I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right. But my choir teacher kept urging us to “sing from the diaphragm”–take deeper breaths and somehow push a louder sound out. I couldn’t wrap my head around what she wanted, so for a few weeks I continued singing very, very softly.

Finally, one morning she was fairly exasperated with us because we weren’t really trying much that day–most of the class wasn’t paying much attention. Right in the middle of her instructions on how to produce bigger sound, a knock came at the door, breaking her concentration. “All right, I’m going to say this one more time,” she said quickly, as she went toward the door. “Take a deep breath–don’t move your shoulders–tighten your stomach, and produce the sound!” Then she opened the door and talked to whoever was outside.

In the 30 seconds it took for her to talk to the person, understanding suddenly flashed in my head. Tighten the stomach? OH! THAT’S what I was supposed to do! I thought, “Well, is that all? Heck, I can do that.” When she came back into the room and took up her position at the music stand again, I was ready to sing, with my deep breath and tightened tummy.

From the expression on her face as we sang through one or two measures, she was not ready for the explosion of sound that came from the alto section. She motioned for us to stop singing, and in this shocked voice, she whispered, “Who was THAT?” It felt like every finger in the alto section pointed to me, and I wasn’t sure if her reaction was a good thing or a bad thing at first. 😀 But the big smile that dawned on her face let me know I had done at least something right.

From that day, I became one of the strongest altos in the section, and I never did make it to band. Finally, after nearly seven years of feeling like I had no place at school and that I would never do anything of consequence, I had found a place for myself, a place to be useful to other people. Many of the other altos were, like me before, still too shy to sing, so I produced tons of sound…which, I found out later, helped some of the other girls become more comfortable with the idea of singing with every rehearsal. The rest of seventh and eighth grade passed in this way–and, by the end of eighth grade, most of the altos I sang with had found their confidence as well. We thus had a strong corps of ladies ready to move on into high school choir.

I made it from the freshman Glee Club to the highest-level Chamber Choir in tenth grade, as one of only three ladies to be promoted immediately from Glee Club to Chamber Choir that year. Three successful years of Chamber Choir followed, under the direction of our high school choir teacher, who worked with us just as hard to shape our sound. (Some days I was worried he was going to have a stroke in front of us, he worked so hard!) But I did learn how to produce the tall vowels and enunciated sounds he consistently looked for in performance and rehearsals.

I carried this experience and knowledge into my college career, with one year of singing with the Women’s Glee Club and three years of singing with the Women’s Choir. My knowledge of choral music and my ability to adapt to different song styles grew as I sang in college, and by the time I’d graduated with my undergrad degree, I had sung in at least 13 different languages, traveled to sing in New York and England, and met a number of wonderful musicians who enriched me just by singing beside them.

The Break from Choir

Unfortunately, when I got into my graduate degree program, I had to largely quit choir to pay more attention to my studies in Middle-Grades Education. Other than my church choir, which I got to sing with only on Sundays I came home from college (and even then, not as often as I liked), I was out of the organized singing groups I had been used to singing with for nearly 10 years.

This break from choir, oddly enough, helped me realize what I loved about singing, and what I missed about it. I missed the camaraderie formed by trying to learn songs together (and often missing notes, lol); I loved performing with my fellow altos, keeping our line strong and helping the other three parts to stay on target. Though I did get to sing on occasion, I missed the constancy of rehearsals more than once a week, learning many different pieces, building up to a huge performance. I honestly felt lost without a group to perform with, and I think it contributed to my sinking heart and low state of mind.

A Joyous Return

But a serendipitous meeting with an old choir buddy (at Walmart, of all places) let me know of a new opportunity–the local Choral Society, a group of all levels of singers, was looking for altos. That was the impetus for me to attend a rehearsal, which led me to join up within the week. It was an electric experience after having been out of regular choir for so long. I snapped back into place like a long-lost puzzle piece, and I haven’t even entertained the idea of dropping out since.

My Current Choir Experience

I’m now involved in Choral Society as well as my church choir, and both choirs fulfill me musically, but in different ways. Church choir is a time for me to praise God for the ability to sing and the ability to make music; it’s not so much about the technical perfection of the music, but about the feelings and meanings that propel that music along. Choral Society, by contrast, is a time for me to sing with other choral musicians who enjoy rehearsing and learning challenging and lovely music–striving for technical perfection is part of the enjoyment (even if you don’t quite get there in one rehearsal, LOL!).

I enjoy singing with others much more than singing alone, though singing alone is cool; there’s just something about hearing your voice meld with others’, hearing it build in intensity, hearing it recede and return like audible ocean waves. It’s almost an animal in and of itself, moving, growing, and changing moment by moment…it’s awesome. It may not be a powerful soloist’s career, but for me, it’s a powerful experience. I’m so glad I took the chance to “see whether I liked choir”–it led to a lifelong love.