Sunday, May 20, 2007

My Ensemble Experience

At my wife’s urging, I joined a choral ensemble this year at AMBS. I did not join because I have any singing talent - quite the opposite - I joined because I thought I might be able to improve myself without being too big of an anchor tied around the necks of the other choir members. Or at least my wife thought so. I was not convinced.

Throughout my life, I have been an atrocious singer and an even worse musician. After 18 years of living with my music-major wife, she has only been able to patch over some of my most glaring deficiencies. I no longer mistake the rhythm of the melody for the beat, and am now aware that picking any handy, semi-matching note is not how to sing a 4-part harmony. In exchange for these wondrous gifts, my wife is now able (after 18 long years) to hit, catch and throw a softball.

My two doomed attempts at playing instruments (piano and cello) have left me a kindergarten-like ability to “read” music. While others around me translate in real-time the circles and squigglies on a page into actual music, it is mostly accidental when any sounds coming from my mouth resemble the pitch, tempo, or volume of what is written.

In the midst of this functional musical illiteracy, choir also requires me to look up every so often at the director to receive arm movement instructions. I can roughly understand the intent, even though I am mostly unable to comply, as I struggle not to lose my place while also still desperately trying to match pitch. There are also a lot verbal instructions in foreign languages, like “mezzo-forte” and “adagio”, plus secret-coded English phrases, like “articulation of rhythms.” Everyone else nods in agreement and makes appropriate notes in their music. I also nod intently, and use the time to mark little arrows next to what I hope is the tenor line, so I don’t lose my place from page to page.

But there is still more. I am asked to sing louder here or softer there or lightly or with enunciation or crescendo-y. Breathe here, but not with your chest and root yourself to the ground and round your Os and pronounce that hard G. There are apparently notations for each of these as well, as everyone continues to scribble in their music. I’ve already finished marking the tenor line, which is the only marking I’ve found to be useful.

My job in the choir, as I have defined it, is to surround myself with as many tenors as I can and attempt to amplify whatever it is they are doing. So, my singing often resembles an annoying person trying to mimic a storyteller in real-time. This role became evident in our spring performance. We apparently started one of the movements out of sync with each other, so much so that the organist simply stopped playing for a page or two until we got back in sync, which we eventually did. I say apparently, because I didn’t notice. I was standing between two outstanding tenors, and they were in agreement as to which notes we were supposed to be singing, so I just followed happily along. Ignorance is bliss, indeed.

I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor that describes my contribution to the ensemble. My standard image for failing at something is that of the slow gazelle being eyed by a hungry lion as the herd passes. But that doesn’t quite work here, since it isn’t clear who the lion is. It would need to be the Slow Gazelle of Skill being run down by the Hungry Lion of Humiliation.

I’m the weak link in the chain. The faint black line drawn across a fine painting. The trivia partner who knows only what all his team members already know, but is slower to answer.

But it’s all OK. Too much of my life is spent avoiding situations that might reveal my weaknesses. My self-identity requires that I always be the one who is competent and talented. I want to be one who provides grace and mercy to others when they mess up instead of needing it myself. Choir is the exact opposite of this, and an opportunity to provide some perspective from the other side. I know I need help and must trust others to provide it.

And provide it they do. These are Mennonites, after all. You can randomly yank 20 Mennonites out of any potluck and you’ll have enough vocal talent to match the choir of any Catholic church I’ve attended. Plus, they love nothing more than to provide grace and mercy to others. Especially those slow gazelles.

This ensemble (and its infinitely patient director) was particularly strong, and easily able to accommodate an outlier like myself. But if it was all just confusion and compassion, I’m not sure I would have survived.

What kept me coming back were those transcendent moments at the end of a movement where everyone sings at their peak capacity – full throated and without inhibition. When they do, the sound is so strong and so powerful that my music sheet literally vibrates in my hand, and I feel it deeply within my chest and body and soul. It is here, and only here, that I am finally able to let go. The note is mercifully long enough that I am able to confidently find the right pitch. After withholding my voice for so long for fear of messing up, I can just let it rip, and sing as long and as strong as my voice will allow, joining with the rushing tide.

We’ve reached a destination that I can take no credit in achieving, and yet it gives me a profound appreciation for the gifts and talents of others in taking me there. There is a surrender of self in simply putting my elbows out and being carried away by a rushing crowd of those who are stronger, faster, and greater.

Finally, in these moments, I am fully a part of something greater, not only than me, but greater even than the sum of all of us in the ensemble. Our voices resonate together and fill the space between us all. For just a moment, we seem connected, somehow the collective embodiment of God that our spirits yearn for. And it is good.

Unless I forget and move before the sound dissipates.


Anonymous said...

Send this to The Mennonite, Dan. I'll give you Gordon Houser's address. It's wonderful.


brownie said...

Now that you've experienced that unique moment, that coming together as one, that transcendence of untiy through should understand how Kfingtree and I have felt about music after all these years of playing together.

Making music is one of the purest, truest and most awe-inspiring things anyone can ever be a part of. It's a shame that not everyone gets to feel this joy at least once in their lives.

And like golf or wrestling, you'll get better with practice. You may never be Dan Gable or Tiger Woods or Pavoratti, but you can still enjoy it to the fullest extent that YOU are capable of.

And for most of us un-exceptional folk, that should be enough.