In Rehearsal Blog – The Fall 2018 Season
The Music Man
Let’s see… Over there are the Sopranos – those wonderfully talented women who serenade us with soaring notes. And here are the Altos, who form the sweetest harmonies as they sing what is undoubtedly the most difficult part. In the middle are the Tenors, whose glorious tones create melodic counterpart to the Sopranos. And don’t forget the Basses towards the back, who provide the resonant foundation upon which all the other parts depend. Yes, that’s all 151 of us!
And there is Allison on the podium at the front of the room. She leads us through our vocal warm-ups; teaches us tone, vowel sounds, and proper breathing; focuses us on capture the dynamics and expression of the pieces, and helps us create beautiful music. So that’s everyone – we are all here!
Wait a minute! There’s one more person – a most important and vital part of the Chorale. It’s Arthur, our accompanist at rehearsals and the piano/keyboard player at our concerts. At rehearsal, Arthur has to be very versatile. Allison will call on him to play our parts from a passage – sometimes just one section and sometimes multiple sections in different combinations. Or Allison will ask Arthur to play the accompaniment so we can understand the chords, rhythms and progressions of the piece as we integrate our own parts to the whole. There are times when Arthur is pretty much playing all the orchestral parts at once! When he does that, we simply have to applaud. How does he do that?
We rely on Arthur so much. And yet, although he is part of everything we do, we rarely see him – he is hidden from view behind the upright piano! Sometimes when we have done something very well, we see his hands come up from behind the piano, clapping for us. Or giving us a thumbs up.
I’d like to give him his due!
Arthur has played piano all of his life. He saw his first opera when he was 10 and soon began playing through opera scores for fun. He also sang in choruses throughout high school and college. Later he had the opportunity to sing with choral guru Robert Shaw in Saratoga and at workshops in Princeton. (Allison also worked with Robert Shaw – one of many things that she and Arthur have in common.)
Arthur McManus has been coming to Cape Cod since the 1970s, when his parents retired here. He moved here full-time in 2000 after a 24-year career as an editor at Reader’s Digest magazine. He moved to the Cape with the intention of continuing to edit (for several years Orleans was the home of the well-known column “It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power”) and pursuing his passion for surf fishing. All too soon, though, the seals ruined the fishing and he found himself making music more than editing words.
Arthur is currently the Music Director at St. Joan of Arc in Orleans. He has worked with Allison in other settings besides OCC. Arthur often played for Allison’s Nauset High School choruses at their concerts, including their performance of the Faure in Manhattan.
I asked Arthur about his experience playing for the Outer Cape Chorale over the last few years. He told me that he loves our challenging repertoire as well as Allison’s emphasis on good vocal technique. And from his place at the piano, he enjoys hearing the Chorale develop a fullness of sound, which reminds him of opera.
Of course, there is far more to know about Arthur than can be presented here. But I did want to share some perceptions from the Chorale members themselves – that Arthur is kind, modest, warm, funny, helpful, modest, talented, collaborative, amazing, and – did I say modest?
Although we don’t often see your face during rehearsals, Arthur, you are so integral to our experience each week. Your work at the piano is crucial to our learning. Whether you are feeding us our starting notes, helping us go over the tricky parts of a piece, or playing the full instrumentation as we sing – you help us to understand the totality of the music and its expression. We salute you!
– Jeff Tagen
Putting in the Effort
It’s football season, in case you haven’t noticed. Tom, Bill, Gronk. Sometimes the games happen on a Thursday night, but they start so late (thank you west coast!) that their OCC fan base can usually make it home to catch the first quarter.
I’m thinking we have a something in common with the Patriots. Thankfully, it’s not that Allison resembles Bill Belichick or that Tom Brady can sing an aria. It’s practice! They practice, we practice. Over and over. We practice together once a week, but we also practice at home. We bring home our CDs, download practice files, and vow each week to carve a little bit of time out of our busy week to tackle the bits we just don’t get or can’t seem to keep up with when we’re rehearsing on Thursday nights. And the practice is evident as we put together longer and longer lines and make beautiful sound.
When I was a kid my older sisters both played violin. They took lessons, they played in the high school orchestra and the Youth Symphony, and they practiced in the bathroom off of my bedroom, which was far from the babble of the TV or the quiet my parents tried to envelope themselves in at the end of the day. Lucky me! Over and over they’d run their arpeggios. And over, and over. These days I think of those arpeggios when Allison talks about “muscle memory.” It’s why we practice, to learn notes, and then to place them for recall as we rehearse and then perform. Much like an athlete!
I thought it would be fun to do an informal and entirely random survey of our members and find out their practice habits. Where and when do you practice? How do you practice? (Does anyone practice in the bathroom?) Well, it turns out we have a diligent and resourceful group. Most people make an effort to isolate themselves from annoying spouses—especially opinionated ones. Sitting at a computer and listening to files seems the common denominator, but others sat in their living room or at their kitchen table with their music. One bass even has a music room (he has other talents which involve brass instruments). A pair of enterprising altos practice together at a set time each week. A tenor who lives upstairs from a business and doesn’t care to serenade them says she sometime drives to a quiet parking area in the National Seashore and listens in her car while following along with her music. Many listen and sing along to files or CD and then use a piano app to review tricky passages. And those people you see driving down the highway channeling Renee Fleming? They are our OCC friends, learning their music. Do football players do that?
Reflections On My Birthday Rehearsal
This past rehearsal was interesting for me. It was my birthday and family suggested they’d love to spend part of it with me and the only way to do that would be to attend our rehearsal. My X, Lanny, still and always a dear friend promised he wouldn’t sing along and his wife Carole, also dear, said they’d be very quiet, as inconspicuous as they could be, given that there were 3 of them in this birthday retinue. Oh and “Susie too” – Susie for me because I’ve known her since she was 14 and although she’s now in the same ‘women of a certain age’ group as I am and is known now as Susan, she’d be there as well, my always and forever friend and sister in law (you divorce a spouse but not your sister in law). So I’d consulted with Shira as we were driving to Truro and she assured me it would be ok, her kids always attend an OCC rehearsal when they visit, she was sure Alison would be ‘fine’ with it. Having arrived I waited in line at the front where Alison was about to begin her rehearsal, told her it was my birthday and after “Happy Birthday” she assured me it was no problem having my family there. Then I worried about where they would sit and when they’d appear. In our family of Wellfleet lovers you drive 7 hours until nightfall and land at PJ’s for lobsters and clams, that’s the rule. I texted Lanny and Susie “Yes, Alison says it’s ok, so come, be quiet, welcome” in the hope that they’d notice them, in between the lobsters and the clams.
But they didn’t. So those guys never showed up but the fact that it was my birthday and that they could arrive at any minute added to my list of concerns, one of which was to find and hit the accidentals as they pop up in the Rutter “When Icicles Hang.” You know, “To-wit To Who! A mer–ry note…” For example. But, if you don’t have a piano and your car CD player hasn’t worked since Jon Arterton moved away, the options that could have facilitated making the best mental notes of the seeming mine field of ‘accidentals’ and of the dynamics of very slowly evolving crescendos and diminuendos of Faure’s requiem or the fast ones of Anon’s “Hay,Ay” well, they aren’t at your disposal. Of course, I do the best I can. I listen to the CD Alison made for us altos as often as I can, sometimes sitting down and practicing the music, sometimes listening as I wash the dishes.
Alison teaches us that the voice is the body is the muscle memory is the voice. So ‘pay attention’ to how you breathe, fill your belly with your breath and it will sustain you through those high notes or long notes and phrases of no breaths and if you run out of breath, well don’t kill yourself trying to hold on, give it up to someone who can – and hold on. One of Alison’s mantras is “Breathe.” The corollary is “Breathe more.”
As part of our warm-up we did the usual solfege. (The rationale had escaped me for 3 semesters until this one, when for some reason those hand gestures finally seemed to support and take hold of the voice where it needed to go, as in ‘embody the voice’ perhaps). Alison as usual teaches us as we move through our scales, chords, arpeggios. As I recall: If you go lighter on the lower note of an octave rather than landing heavy on it before launching the voice to the higher note of the octave, then you will get where you have to go without bruising the note, your vocal chords or Alison’s keening ear. “Not ‘ayee’ but ‘ah’ and not ‘hai’ but ‘heh’ will keep you in tune and save you from going flat. Sharp? Well that never seems to be a problem with any of us.
Alison had us use our arms and fisted hands to throw a high note way up and out there – and at Arthur’s suggestion Alison had us aiming for the basketball hoop at the far right wall. And oh boy did we throw those voices up and into the hoop. I do believe that Alison has converted even the most skeptical of us to the idea that using the body frees and shapes the voice. And I do know that my voice, our voices, have improved markedly with Alison’s instruction. And at this practice, as with all the others, I learn something remarkable about singing, the voice, the voiced body from Alison.
I sometimes scribble Alison’s colorful analogies and images into the margins of my sheet music. Most of Alison’s imagery seems to be inspired by food. A few examples, one from 9/20 and a few from the one I’m memorializing: as we were practicing Faure’s 5.Agnus Dei, Alison gestured “It’s like pulling taffy.” Or this one from 9/27, in Faure’s 6.Libera Me, where we crescendo from “pp” Tremens to ‘et ti me o… and “f” “dum discuscio” which Alison likened to “Oh, It’s like when you go to a big wedding and there’s a big chocolate fountain” and she gestures broadly and we laugh. I’ve never gone to one of those weddings with a chocolate fountain. But I do like chocolate. When I read the words to this particularly dynamic section, section B (“trembling trembling I stand before thee in fear and dread thy wrath shall descend on the earth”) I was persuaded that Alison’s analogy was uniquely Alison, another expression of a playful spirit who clearly gets more than a mouthful of inspiration from food, more specifically from sweets – candy and cake.
So my relations never showed up. They texted me, I met them after rehearsal and we had birthday ice cream cones at Savory. I emailed Jeff that it would be impossible to go home and write a few paragraphs for my blog entry given that my guests, including 2 medium sized well-behaved mutts, had to be bedded down. And then I was too tired to do anything more. So here it is, my blog entry for 9/27.
– Elaine Baskin
Learning in Pieces
One might expect that, to learn a piece of music at a rehearsal, you’d start at the beginning and progress measure-by-measure through to the end. But it turns out that there is another way – a most effective, interesting, and creative way – to learn.
In virtually every piece, you will find a theme or passage that is repeated throughout, with different variations. Sometimes the passage is repeated in different keys, or the harmonies are shifted among the parts, or the tempo and expression changes. But learning these passages can quickly familiarize you with the essence of the piece.
So, in rehearsal, we frequently jump from one page to another. But we usually are following the occurrences of the theme, to reinforce our learning by experiencing its uses and variations. That’s how, in the first couple of rehearsals, we wind up singing from the pieces – all parts, together in harmony. It’s a way to jump start our learning and it helps us see that the music is attainable.
Another part of the strategy is to use our time together on Thursdays to learn how the individual parts fit together. We learn our own notes as we practice at home (or in the car). But when you hear the other parts singing along with you, for the first time, it can really be hard to remember your own part! We need to train our brains to hear the other parts as they relate to our own, whether forming harmonious chords or creating an interplay of notes and phrases.
So when we are together, Allison will often have one part sing a passage, then another and another. Then we sing in combinations – maybe the Altos and Basses will sing their parts together, or the Sopranos and Tenors. And finally, all four parts are singing together. It sounds amazing!
At rehearsal, Allison shared with us that she has a complete “concert roadmap” – an actual graphic that breaks down each piece in the concert repertoire into its components. These are the building blocks that we will learn and assemble. She knows how well we have learned each of them and what we need to do to bring them together into a musical whole.
Soon we will be singing the music from end-to-end. But for now, we’re gradually mastering the incremental segments. Still so much to learn! But it’s starting to feel good!
– Jeff Tagen
We’re really underway
There were a couple of changes to the room this week: A long, mystery table with desserts sat between the S2 and T1/B1 seating, and there were town names posted on the wall. Desserts … cake?!
But let’s do this in chronological order. First there were people signing in, getting settled, and catching up. Discussions ran from the music to home renovations to anything imaginable in between. Then there was the excitement of seeing even more people at this rehearsal. I’m guessing we are now at full strength. More chairs!
We started with our normal warm-ups, and as usual, Allison worked out ways to add exercises to get us ready for the various things we would need to do in the music. One addition today was octave jumps. Right after warm-ups, we worked through sections of our music that had these intervals, later combining them with surrounding sections. It was a very productive first hour.
Let them eat cake … while they meet and greet with their neighbors.
The tables were set up to serve desserts for our meet-and-greet. While eating cake and standing near your town name, you could meet others that you might not have known were your neighbors. (Sadly, it wasn’t until everything was explained that I would have the horrifying realization that singing T2 meant I had an insurmountable logistical problem in getting to the cake quickly. It was a traumatic moment, but afterwards someone who was raised in a large family took me under her wing and explained table calculus to me, making sure I would be well prepared for next time. A kind lady.) The meet-and-greet was a lot of fun. I met five people that I had no idea live in town with me, and I think others had similar experiences. This was a great way to break the pattern of just talking to the people who sit around you.
Finally, it was back to singing, working the tricky rhythms and chords in “When Icicles Hang” and “Winter Wonderland of Snow.” It’s a great feeling when you hear complex measures click into place, because you can start to imagine what it will sound like once we truly know the pieces.
This week was step 3 of 14. It’s looking like another wonderful concert is on the way.
– Curtis Balom
The hardest part begins
I love Thursday nights during Chorale rehearsal seasons. When we’re starting out we have new music in front of us full of unexplored time signatures and rhythms. At first, it all looks impossible. What was the composer thinking? Does it have to be so complicated? How can a group of singers, some experienced, some beginners, many a little seasoned or looking at a long break between that high school chorus and the present, ever learn the music, let alone master the nuances that will make a performance an experience for audiences to remember? I know we will because we have done it before. We’ll explore the notes, learn to feel the rhythms and dynamics of sound, then hear those very notes and rhythms as we’re falling asleep at night or walking in the woods with the dog.
At first, it all seems like little bits and pieces. Then a rhythm takes form. Tonight, a section in John Rutter’s “When Icicles Hang” called “Good Ale” quickly took hold. Well, it is a drinking song, and we know how those repeat endlessly until the bottle is empty! A little analysis by Allison of the intervals and how one part relates to the other and a picture forms. Rutter has given us a drinking song with some subtle variations that make it more interesting than the song sung at the sticky bar during last call! I get it! Voices embrace the theme. We’re off! Just a little stuck on other parts, but little by little it all makes sense.
Tonight Allison worked with us on dynamic changes in The Faure Requiem, and proceeded to show us how beautiful the sound can be as we layered part on part while paying attention to volume changes. We made some gorgeous sounds!
So good to see people I’ve known for years singing with the Chorale or in groups that preceded it: The Provincetown Choral Society, even a few from the Wellfleet Cantores of the 1980s. And now we sing with a group of 150 people who look at those pages of music in September and by December will have made them their own. What kind of love is that?
– Martha Magane
Welcome, Friends of the Outer Cape Chorale! This season, we’re trying something new – a blog to share perspectives about our Fall 2018 season, from the start of rehearsals through the concerts themselves. We hope to have a few different authors contribute to the blog as we go along.
Soooooooo, here goes! Thursday, September 6th was our first rehearsal of the Fall 2018 season. It was exciting – as it always is – to see all the returning singers (and several new singers) come thru the doors. By 6:15, the line at the sign-in table was actually outside! People were smiling and laughing, giving each other hugs and chatting about their summers. Even though we haven’t seen many of our singing colleagues since May, it felt like we never left.
Carl, Curtis, Chris, Kat, Madir, and other members of the set-up crew had already assembled the chairs, moved the piano, and hooked up the microphone and speakers. Kathleen set up our Member Matters table. Barbara helped people sign-in and answered questions. Sue, Janice, and Fred took in the dues and handed out the music and practice CDs for the December concert. Rita welcomed new singers and helped them register, Mary Alice, Amy, Mary, and others guided them to their sections and introduced them to other singers.
It might have looked chaotic, but soon Allison was leading us in our first “oooooh” and into our vocal warm-ups. Suddenly, we were a group, an ensemble, a chorus – ready to join together making music and to delve into the new music in our hands.
One of the things that fascinates me at every first rehearsal is how quickly we actually begin singing phrases from the pieces. For many of us, the music is completely new! But Allison focuses us on a section of the music and Arthur plays our notes for us. And there we are, singing short passages in four (or more) parts. And we sounded good! It’s so encouraging to make immediate progress. We must have a very smart Artistic Director!
As it usually does, the rehearsal flew by. Soon everyone was stacking chairs, hugging goodbye, and heading home. For me, as it is pretty much every time, it was the best two hours of my week! Can’t wait until next Thursday!
– Jeff Tagen