Sometimes I try to explain what I’ve been up to. Last weekend was the final rehearsal and concert of the Brahms Requiem (and Schicksalslied). For the requirements of anonymity, let’s just say the group I’ve been singing with comprises a school choral society, local singers, some trebles and assorted parents who want to join in. Well, ‘want’ is quite a strong verb, but let’s not split hairs. I was there, and it’s not fair I keep the experience to myself.
I regret none of my similes, or the length of this post. Continue at your own risk.
Usually in rehearsals I sit next to my son, so we can have a companionable hour once a week. As concert day approached, the conductor’s administrative grip tightened. Seats were named. There was to be NO swapping except in extreme height circumstances. And so I was not next to my lovely son, but another boy about the same age (maybe the conductor thinks HE is my son?). Let us call him ‘Slim Whitman’.
Choirs are usually organised into their separate parts: the sopranos sitting with the sopranos, the altos with the altos and so on. I am a soprano (who can actually get Brahms’ top As, unlike some who are sopranos ‘because it’s easier to sing the tune’, but that’s another rant altogether). When I first heard Slim speak, with his fine manly broken voice, I assumed he was singing alto while on the way down to something deeper and I had been put on the soprano/alto cusp.
How wrong can a girl be? First of all, while the orchestra was tuning and there was general faff, he rummaged round in his ears with already dirty fingernails and wiped the resulting goo on his trousers. After several excavations, even I was reluctantly impressed with the volume he produced. All the better for hearing with, I thought, too brightly, trying to combat rising panic.
He sang soprano with the gusto of a chap confident of his pitching and wanting to let the rest of the section know we could rely on him for a lead. Oh Slim. The hubris of youth. And, frankly, you might want to reconsider your vibrato. During the afternoon rehearsal he sang alto when they had an entry before us, but when the time came to switch up he was so involved with alto twiddling it took him at least half a bar to join the rest of us again.
When the tenors had a particularly lovely line he felt compelled to bolster their gloriously operatic exuberance with a slightly flat bass drone A FULL OCTAVE BELOW THEM. Loudly. When our entry arrived, he had spent so long in the gravelly depths of his lower regions, it took him a few attempts to pole vault himself up to our pitch. If he ever put his mind to it, the lad will have an excellent career as a professional yodeller.
Oh well, I thought. It’s only the rehearsal, with a semi-professional orchestra. I won’t say anything, because I don’t know him and didn’t want to embarrass my son by being That Mother. He won’t do it in the concert, I thought. *insert hollow laugh*
The concert excited him even more. He was incapable of standing still: kept wandering into my personal space and flapping his copy over mine like an exuberant sapling in a Force 9. He conducted enthusiastically with one hand. Even after the metric tonnage of ear wax removed, he didn’t appear to be able to hear the beat, and since he never lifted his eyes out of his copy to glance at the conductor, his sense of timing inexorably drifted away from the rest of us like an abandoned rail carriage cut loose on a branch line. Sometimes he stamped his foot to chivvy himself along, but I’m sorry to report that his lower limbs had no better sense of rhythm than his upper. They were, however, considerably louder, and sent tremors along the platform we shared. If you’ve ever had to try to sing in time while being distracted by a demented cross-rhythm, you’ll understand what I was up against.
Have I mentioned he sang in falsetto, because his voice had broken? Countertenors are fine men, and all can attest to long years of study to achieve the breath control and production technique required to sustain a high melodic line. Slim is just starting out on his journey as a singer, probably not helped by his insistence on joining in with all the parts. He is a boy in a sweet shop and nobody has told him no. Ever. Perhaps they should. His young lungs and diaphragm are simply not up to the task of getting him through a phrase longer than two notes. It would probably help if he could restrict his volume, but he is of the rather binary opinion that singing should be either ON or OFF. Consequently, when the rest of us had a sustained pianissimo top G, young Slim heaved himself in and out of the note like a pair of bellows that smoked sixty a day, giving the whole ensemble a rather seasick, lurching sensation.
He missed the last few notes of the piece altogether because he was busily reading the background information at the back of his score. He did try to join in with our last chord, eventually parachuting in and settling on a note of his very own.
I needed a large glass of wine later that evening. I was cheered to learn this kind of fantastic character fishing wasn’t confined to the soprano section: chatting with a bass I found out there was an alto near him who had first confessed to her neighbour (in the FINAL REHEARSAL) that her problem was that she simply couldn’t read music, and then ten minutes later decided she had to turn up her hearing aid.
And that, friends, is how I spent most of last Saturday. We made it through. Praise be to Brahms.