THEN THERE’S PERFORMING IN PUBLIC
by Jnana Hodson
Can I really be coming up on my fifth year in the choir that’s evolved into the Revels Singers? Hard to believe, especially when I hear the astonishing, velvety sound around me in rehearsal — one that’s getting even crisper as we develop.
The only experience I’d had before joining was Mennonite a cappella hymns sung in experienced circles and then later some Quaker ad hoc four-part chorales. Working with the Boston Revels organization has been a much more intimidating and rewarding challenge, especially for an untrained singer who had only some background in violin.
One thing that has surprised me is how hard it is to hear myself. Leaving a new message on the telephone answering machine (remember those?) always came as a shock. Whose voice was that, anyway? It was lower and thicker than what I hear in my head. Add to that the reality that we don’t hear ourselves snore – how can that be? I’ve learned to recognize the vibration in my throat but never hear an actual sound. What a mystery!
As a singer, what I sense more is a vibration than hearing an actual voice. At least that’s the best I can describe. I hear the voices around me instead and adjust to them as needed. And, yes, I hear the times when we’re full and rich in all our glory.
I do recall an event a few months ago when we were in the sanctuary rather than the adjacent room of the church where we practice. We formed a big circle around the pews and were singing in mixed formation but, as it turned out, I was the only bass in my quarter of the room and so, when we had a line to ourselves, I heard my voice arching out to the center – like a fishing line being cast into water, as I recall. It was thinner and lighter than I expected. Hmm.
Another big surprise has come in the experience of performing, in contrast to rehearsals.
We practice in a room of fine acoustics and have a good time together as we move closer and closer to some higher standard. We gain a familiarity in that space and probably react to it. And rehearsing is always filled with interruptions as we reexamine a passage to tweak something, explore other possibilities, correct our pitch, or simply make it better or more convincing.
Each performance, though, is a unique experience. It feels quite different from what we normally do.
Since I’m not confident enough to give up my printed score – my memorization has always been faulty when it comes to words and music. I’m always rewriting them as I go, so on stage I need to have room to open my book. That, as I’ve learned, is not always a given. Nor is sufficient light. And even when both are adequate, there are times when I look down on the page with a sense that I’ve never, ever seen this piece of music before. How many times have we rehearsed it? Well, I am getting better at memorization, just in case.
You never really know quite what to expect, but each time you’ll discover something new. This really does put everything to the test. Outdoors, especially, can be difficult when it comes to hearing the others. You have to trust the director and, if you’re in a decent position, what you see of the others.
No matter what, though, the performance turns into an altered state of consciousness. I’m focused on our conductor, my colleagues, the music and lyrics, and to a degree on our audience and setting – and for a give span of time, we’re in a corded shell, as poet John Dryden once described it. (Somehow, I’d rather have that as chorded shell, but there I go revising.) We begin, we are, we finish. Leaving the stage, we grin at each other. That was … fun, yes, along with something quite different and inexplicable.
All that practice seems gone in such a short time. Well, it is like preparing a feast, especially if you consider raising your own ingredients. I love it when we have an audience that leaves feeling well fed, even euphoric.