How to sing in a choir 2
The chorus master is the poor sod who has to rehearse the choir and bring them just to the peak of perfection, only to hand the songsters over to the conductor of the concert who then takes the credit for the fine job they’ve done on the night. If he (or she) is lucky he’ll be brought on stage at the applause end of the concert.
Who can this unfamiliar figure be? ask the audience as they are busy clapping. The off stage posthorn? No he got a clap when he returned to the stage midway through the twenty seventh movement. Yes, you’ve guessed—it is the chorus master, blinking in the unaccustomed glare of the reception. If you’re lucky, he (a) has remembered to change out of his Mr Whippy jacket into the compulsory penguin suit, and (b) is reasonably sober.
The reason for his premature celebration is that, after two months or whatever of drilling his band of singers, the show is actually going rather well.
Let us consider a typical choral work. The ever popular Carmina burana is well known for reaching the peak of its artistic life [nadir?] when it provided the theme music to the Old spice ad; though its many devotees will know that it goes on for a good hour after that particular bit, which is entitled O fortuna—or Oh God, not again in English.
What does the chorus master have to do?
Now the chorus master’s job is quite tricky. Firstly of course he has to get the singers to learn the music. This is achieved by making them sing the music many times. However the real purpose of rehearsing it is to get some idea of an interpretation of the music—a bit of dynamic shading here, a bit of colour there. The chorus master hopes, through dint of his charm and persuasive powers, that the singers will mug up on the music in their spare time. No, really.
Of course each singer decides that he/she is too busy to do this and anyway they know the music, and anyway all the other singers will be mugging up so they needn’t bother. Actually, the only people doing any mugging up are the new eggs who are petrified they are going to be slung out if they don’t make a good showing in this seraphic juggernaut to which they have rashly decided to sell their soul.
The second bit of the chorus master’s job is to second guess how the conductor is going to conduct the music in the concert. Normally there is a rehearsal or two with the conductor before the concert and it can be exquisitely embarrassing for all concerned when the chorus launches fortissimo into some passage only to have the conductor ask the chorus master if that is what he has really drilled the singers to do, when any fool can see it’s marked pianissimo.
Of course, if the chorus master is really canny, he will ask the conductor, but that presupposes the that the conductor has had time to look at the score, and/or that the chorus master is brave enough. Whilst the choir may be rehearsing for several months, the conductor probably has twenty three other concerts between now and the C burana one and is more preoccupied with the interpretational nuances of Dallavinci’s Ectoplasm IX for ukelele and three brass bands, which he has rashly agreed to give next Tuesday in Sienna and for which he has yet to receive the score.
Powers of explanation and persuasion
The third thing the chorus master has to do in rehearsals is to persuade the singers that they don’t know the work, thereby enabling a refreshing, new approach to an old warhorse to be essayed. This might seem perverse—and in many cases is entirely unnecessary since many singers are still having difficulty sorting out the notes with those pretty tails on compared with the others. However, which of us hasn’t let forth in the comfort of our own home in front of the telly when that bloke gets on his surf board?
And some singers (particularly tenors) will have sung the piece before. Bad habits and laziness produce a second rate performance, since the remembrance of the music is always simpler than what is on the page.
The fourth thing the chorus master has to do is to explain to the less equipped members of the choir what some of the notation means. Carmina burana has funny time signatures—unlike your average four beats in the bar, represented by 4/4, Orff represents this by a crotchet sign and a four underneath. All scores abound with funny markings—and I will return to this subject when (or if) we get to the lecture entitled ‘How to produce a completely unreadable music score’.
A lot of waving of arms
The fifth thing the chorus master does is to wave his arms around a lot. This is something the conductor does, too, and the reasons for it are lost in the mists of time. Suffice it to say that it is absolutely imperative that the singers do not look at the conductor whilst he is doing this—it is as if he has some morbid affliction and your mother told you must never stare at people like that. And, in any case if you’re looking at the chorus master, how can you see the words and the notes you’re supposed to be singing?
The sixth thing he has to do is to tell the altos to stop chattering. This is usually achieved with the aid of a witty remark, lightly but pointedly floated over from the rostrum. The reason for this is, in order to train the merry songsters, the chorus master will often have just one section (ie just the sopranos, altos, tenors or basses) sing their bit while the rest are supposed to listen in. Altos, perhaps in revenge for their bit being written last by the composer and hence being either perversely difficult or unnecessarily boring (and even the great god Monteverdi has been known to sin in this respect)—altos feel that they are entitled to discuss the price of socks while the basses are suffering under the lash of the chorus master’s heavy sarcasm (note previous remark about cows and abattoirs).
Raconteur par excellence
The seventh thing the chorus master has to do is to recount his many musical experiences thereby adding credibility and roundness to the depth of his musical interpretation. Remarks such as ‘when I worked with Barbirolli…’ must be treated with caution since they will usually mean ‘When I sang second tenor in a concert which Barbirolli was conducting…’ and not ‘When I was discussing the finer interpretative points of singing Gerontius with Sir John…’ which is what he hopes you’ll infer.
The eighth thing the CM has to do is to recount bad jokes. This is something much appreciated by the singers since it means for the precious few seconds that this is going on they are not actually having to fight their way around those fearsome triplets. It is a surprisingly subtle interchange worthy of further analysis. For the CM, it (a) reveals his humanity and wit whilst (b) being a ploy for the ‘hey I’m really a nice guy and I only make you sing that passage 27 times because I really know you can do it properly if you only put your mind to it’ position. Depending on his/her sexual orientation and marital status it may/may not also be a ploy to ingratiate him/herself with one or more sopranos/tenors to whom he/she has taken a fancy.
For the chorus, it is a means by which they can (a) signal that they really appreciate the chorus master’s musicianship and (b) yes, they really are going to pull together as a team and get it right on the 28th time.
Illustration is a cartoon by Gustave Doré of Hector Berlioz conducting a choir, published in Journal pour rire, 27 June 1850.
copyright © 2014 Jeremy Marchant