This past Sunday I performed with a choral society I've been singing with for a few months. The show went really well, much much more successfully than I'd anticipated. This is one of the better groups I've sung with -- there's certainly more of a love for the art/craft of choral music, and the director is very capable of describing the sounds he hears and the ones he'd like to hear. But I was concerned that we weren't ready. John's directorial technique clashes with my own concepts of how to teach a piece of music to a group -- he goes through things bit by bit, neglecting whole sections and focusing on single lines until he gets the exact result he wants, while I'd like to make sure the chorus feels the mood of the entire piece and understands how A and everything in between connect to Z. I love details, but I also love feeling familiar and confident with the material, enough so to put my apprehension behind me so I can concentrate on what my voice needs to do. Even towards the end of rehearsals, there were sections we'd only gone over once or twice, where we were trying to focus on diction and phrasing while straining to sight-read the passage. It was a little humiliating being berated for our incompetence in front of the orchestra and world-class soloists during the eleventh hour of the second dress rehearsal.
We're a decent group, but any group is bound to have its strengths and flaws. If I were a choral director, I'd do my best to be aware of those quirks and lead the group accordingly. If a particular criticism, repeated ad nauseam, is not improving our performance, maybe we're not going to improve in that area. But what are we good at that we can be great at?
American singers tend to value prettiness over phrasing. We're brought up to think that classical singing (opera especially) is hammy and gay, and many of us just want to be like the pleasant, high-alto, dynamically monotonous pop stars we've heard on Top 40 radio all our lives. Also, Americans have a habit of Americanizing everything -- I learned this when I studied foreign languages in school, that the kids who rolled their Rs and put lilts in their vowel sounds were ridiculed for caring too much, so eventually all the students went back to mumbling the oral assignment in their native dialects. I see this happening with my choral society now; whenever John says "There is no 'ihn' in the Latin language, it's pronounced 'een'!" the singers retain it the first time and inevitably revert back to the Anglicized pronunciation. I wish vocalists would let go of this weird fear they have of what they perceive as pretense. Still, I don't see this changing; it's too ingrained in our subconscious.
We have another concert this Sunday, at a different church. The acoustics at Old First were fabulous -- high, arched ceilings, perfect for voices to bounce off of. The Grace is nice, but it may not save us from our imperfections; the sanctuary is small and rather boxy, and I'm not sure how well our sound will travel. I hope we don't get drowned out by the orchestra (seated right in front of us). I'm terrified, of course. I was terrified last week, too. I've forgotten how nerve-wracking live performance can be.