In days gone by, the no-audition choir met one night a week to tackle classical and modern pieces in a church basement. There were nose studs and walkers and, sadly, never enough tenors. Cookies and juice were served during the break. No one pushed in line.
Musically, some of us struggled more than others — my timing, for instance, is terrible, German pronunciation holds on for dear life, and R’s never, ever roll in the luxurious, celestial way lyricists meant them to. But in the choir, if the efforts are earnest, all is forgiven.
Singing together is a quest for some kind of resonant truth. Leading the search, with thousands of notes in his head, is our conductor. Between 7:45 and 10 p.m. each Monday night, we would fix on every gesture, upbeat, frown, and correction. Stubby pencils scratched wildly on scores, racing to record his directions. “Look up, tenors and altos!” he would say, “Tenors and altos, look up!” . . . . But we were always too busy looking down.
Dozens of details vied for his attention. That’s how it is with leaders. But he was never too busy to tell us about the emotional history of a piece, or to demonstrate the proper position of the rib cage. He would sit on the edge of his stool with excellent posture, and when he wanted us to rise and sing, he leapt onto the church stage behind him.
He happens to be witty by nature, but we were also a room full of adoring ears, because we understood that there was nothing he wanted more than for us to hear what he heard —and then, to sing so that others heard it too. He wanted us to have the music; bringing together tenors and sopranos, nose studs and walkers from worlds that might not mingle otherwise.
For a few weeks after the coronavirus quarantine started, we practiced on Zoom. It goes without saying this was not as satisfying. “How odd,” the conductor mused at one point, “to conduct people I can’t hear.” Between accidental unmutings and sudden individual disappearances — highjacked off the screen by software bandits — it was not the music we used to make.
In the end, each of us sang into a video camera (a most unresponsive audience) and the conductor stitched our no-audition parts together. It took him about 50 hours. He had planned a full-length concert. We recorded a single piece.
But this is still a search for resonant truth. Outside, we are caught in so many wars. Inside, how sustaining and right it is: uniting under the right leader to concentrate on timing and dynamics, to harmonize — as if, for a while, they were all that mattered.
Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.