One breath together – a choral singer's wish for 2020
by Julie MacLellan, member of the Amabilis Singers, Vancouver, B. C., Ramona Luengen, Conductor
(First published in Burnaby Now, January 2, 2020)
One moment. One breath.
This is the moment just before the concert begins. Here we stand, shoulder to shoulder, eyes on the director, awaiting the raised arm that will tell us to prepare for the journey ahead. For just an instant time is suspended, and there’s nothing in the world but a single unified expression of hope.
Here we stand to make music together. Here we resolve that all the work we have done leading up to this moment will carry us forward. In this breath we leave behind the mistakes – all the sour notes we have struck in rehearsal, all the entries we have missed, all the moments we’ve lagged behind the beat or missed the crucial accidental that ruined what should have been a perfect chord – and we focus only on this moment.
This is the moment when sixty choral singers of all ages, backgrounds and musical skill levels cease to be individuals and become, instead, one collective voice capable of producing extraordinary music.
Together we stand on the edge of possibility.
Together we breathe. And we sing.
This is the moment I think of at the beginning of every new year. It strikes me as an apt metaphor for human existence, especially now, as we stand on the precipice of a new decade – a decade full of potential turning points for the fate of humanity.
How will we address the climate crisis? How will we stem the rising tide of hate? How will we conquer misogyny, racism, homophobia and all the other isms and phobias that threaten the very foundations of what it means to be a civilized society? How will we bridge the growing divide between disconnected groups of people in an increasingly polarized world? How will we successfully dismantle the systems that have privileged some and oppressed others? How will we create the world we want our children to grow up in?
It’s too much. It’s too tempting to say “We can’t” and retreat into our own shells, protecting ourselves and our families and our lives in whatever way we can and shutting out the rest of the world.
This is where we need to take a page from choral singing.
Because, yes, it’s too much. It’s all too much. It’s too much in the same way that the folder full of new music every chorister receives at the beginning of a new term is too much. You can’t pick it up on that first night back after winter break and expect that every moment of it will work. You can’t count on anything being concert-ready after those first three hours of rehearsal.
So you break it down. You work on one piece at a time. One page at a time. One bar at a time. One note at a time. You bash those notes and bars and pages over and over and over again, on your own and with your colleagues, until they’re so ingrained in your memory that they become a part of your physical being.
And every week, you come together with your colleagues to make it all just a little bit better than the week before.
Some weeks, you’ll be the leader in your little section of the choir. You’ll be the confident one who made time to practise and who got a handle on that tricky section at the bottom of page seven where all the other altos are struggling. Other days, you’ll struggle. You’ll come to choir underslept and underprepared and realize that today you need to rely on someone else to help you move forward. Someone else will step up. And together you will all figure it out, one note at a time.
Through it all, you’ll keep your eyes on your director and keep the faith; if she believes you are capable of the music she has given you, then you are. You will hold fast to the knowledge that what feels like a mess right now will turn into something beautiful in less time than you could ever believe.
Which isn’t to say it will be a smooth ride along the way.
There will be moments when it all unravels. When those eight disparate parts manage to create discord so jarring that you can’t decide whether to laugh or cry, or when it feels that no one will ever be able to stay on top of the pitch. There will be moments when you think, This is too hard for us. We can’t do this.
Suddenly those eight notes fighting for their right to exist will resolve into the shimmering perfection of an Eric Whitacre cluster chord. Suddenly those sagging harmonies will lift into the soaring phrases of Morten Lauridsen. Suddenly the delicate, compassionate warmth of a Kim André Arnesen melody will pull at your heart and you’ll realize you are no longer just singing notes but making music.
There will always be more you can do. It can always be better. But you will find those moments of beauty and they will fill your soul and you will resolve anew to work even harder, to pay attention to all the detail and nuance contained in that page of notes and to do every single thing you can as one individual to contribute to the journey of the collective choral whole.
When concert time comes you will stand with conviction, shoulder to shoulder with all the other altos – Joanne and Joyce and Gill and Michelle and Shawna and Jenny and Frances and Tanya and Isobel and Daphne and Dorothy and Alison and Lisa and Val and Karen and Ann and Dale and Mary Ann and Manako and Janice and Linda – and all the other singers in all the other sections, and you will train your eyes on Ramona and await that moment when, together, you will take a breath and prepare to sing.
This is my wish for 2020: that as a community, as a city, as a country, indeed as a human race, we can take that breath together right here, right now.
Let us make this our collective moment of possibility. Let us set our eyes on our goals – eradicating hate, building a world of respect and love and peace, nurturing an Earth that we are happy to bequeath to our children and grandchildren – and let us stand, shoulder to shoulder, to greet the new year.
Let us prepare for a journey that may bring us mixed success, knowing that sometimes all our hard work will pay off and other times we’ll remain mired in mistakes and imperfections. Let us prepare for hard work and repetition and the knowing that sometimes it will feel we’re doing the same thing over and over and over again and getting nowhere.
Above all, let us not forget we are not alone. We are surrounded by companions on our journey, and those companions will stand with us as we work to make the life we want to live in the world we want to inhabit.
Just as a choir can call forth extraordinary music from a group of “ordinary” singers, so can the collective efforts of a group of ordinary citizens call forth the kind of change we need in the world.
So find your people. Stand with them on the edge of possibility.
Take a breath together.