Sometimes I think I was overly ambitious by choosing a career in music. By choosing to study performing arts, I think I have sentenced myself to years of great joy while also enduring extreme frustration.
Sometimes, for me, music is just too subjective. I can drive myself crazy when I don’t achieve that perfect sound that I’m looking for. There are some moments when I am looking at my students, envisioning the sound I want, pulling out every rehearsal technique in my arsenal, but I am just not connecting with them.
Thankfully, there are plenty of “AHA!” moments in which students do get it, and so we make forward progress. Those are the moments that I remind myself I’m supposed to be in the classroom. Those are the moments I can’t wait to write about here on the blog.
But sometimes, those moments seem distant, and I am left listening to recordings of my rehearsals trying to figure out what I am doing wrong. Maybe I’ve tried to use an analogy about voice placement that was always helpful to me in my own voice study, but it doesn’t work with my students. Or maybe no matter how many different ways I try to have my students correct my vowels, it isn’t sticking from day to day. The feeling of defeat can weigh on my like a ton of bricks.
With Large Group Performance Evaluations around the corner, this stresses me out more than any other time of the year. It seems that every February, I start wondering what other line of work my degree in music qualifies me for. Still, in the midst of my frustration with my own imperfections, I continue to love what I do. I love the students, I love the music, I love the singing.
With music, I suppose it will always be a bit of a complicated relationship.
When your parent is a musician, life can be a little different for you. There are quirks, really. I didn’t realize this until I had children of my own. Like when you are too sick to be at daycare, but your mom has rehearsal, so she sets up a pack and play next to the piano and manages to keep you somewhat entertained while also playing and scribbling down notes for the singers. Or even if you’re not sick, you find that much of your time is spent with Mom or Dad in the theatre or rehearsal venues. Homework is done in the sound booth and naps are taken on the corner of a stage.
When your Mom is a musician, you listen to lots of Gershwin, Chopin, and some Beethoven mixed in for good measure. When you watch “Little Einsteins” and a composers’ name isn’t pronounced to her liking, she is sure to let you know.
When your Mom is a Choral director, your bedtime lullabies can be really strange. If it’s getting close to a big performance, you will probably be listening to her sing the alto line to one of the concert pieces. Or maybe if the tenors were particularly squirrely that day, you’ll be hearing their part an octave higher.
When your Mom is a Choral director and she goes to conferences, she comes back with gifts, which is why you have your own set of Boomwhackers in the play room.
I’ve seen children tagging along with their band director daddies to our professional association’s planning meetings. I’ve sat in a corner of a convention center with choral director friends as our babies played and crawled all over us while we waited on our students to get out of All-State Chorus rehearsals. I’ve seen our dance teacher make pallets in the floor for her children to sleep while she stayed at school late to finish building a set. I’ve listened to our theatre director’s son recite lines from a play that he knows better than the actors because he has sat in on so many rehearsals.
Yes, life can be different for our children. But there are also great memories to be made along the way as we include them in our crazy schedules and routines. They are introduced to what we do at an early age, and they are given a model of hard work and dedication that they will always remember. Hopefully, they will follow in our footsteps with a love for music, dance, and theatre, and we will have a special bond that spans from dragging them with us to rehearsals to one day sitting in the audience as they take their turn on the stage.
Large Group Performance Evaluations are coming up for my choirs, and the first item on the judge’s sheet will be “tone”. I talk about tone almost every day in rehearsal, and I have realized that I continue to use the same words over and over again, year after year.
“Sopranos, sing lightly!” “Altos, darken your tone!” “Support your sound.”
These are just a few of my go-to phrases. I use them daily, along with words like “covered” and “mature”. I have a list of descriptive words that I have heard from other professionals over the years when talking about tone, and so they are ingrained in my mind. I think all choral directors have them. Naturally, I regurgitate these words when working with my own choir.
Just like students have different methods in which they learn new material in our classrooms, they have different ways of grasping how to create just the right tone in their singing. This point was made clear to me yesterday in class. I found some recordings of fantastic choirs whose sound is one I would like my students to achieve. I told the students to listen specifically to the sound of the choir and come up with words they would use to describe the tone. They came up with an incredibly long list and had some really interesting ideas. Some of my favorites were:
Graceful. Free. Floating. Moving. Flowing. Celestial. Ringing. Rich. Like the whistle of the wind through the hills. If calligraphy had a sound. Elevating. Oceanic.
All together, each class came up with about thirty-eight words. We put the words on the board and will be leaving them up as we continue to rehearse our music in the coming days.
The students now have words of their own to connect to when striving for a beautiful tone. Perhaps these words translate my ideas to the singers better than others. The words will remain at the front of my classroom as a visual reminder of sounds we are striving for in our ensemble.
What are other words that you use in describing a quality tone? I would love to hear some tips and tricks for improving tone in the choral rehearsal!