The magic of performance
Adey Grummet reflects on what makes choral singing so special, for performers and listeners alike. Every now and then, there’s something that happens, a magic that rises, glowing, through a choir as it sings. It is indefinable, untouchable, ineffable and it is the thing that brings tears to our eyes even when we don’t know what the words being sung actually mean. It brings to us lost memories, past dreams, longings and joys and an almost unquenchable desire to be singing as well. What on earth is going on?
Music making as old as humankind
Choral singing is music-making that is as old as humankind and everyone has their own list of great examples. Hildegard of Bingen’s plainsong, Tallis’s Spem in alium, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst, Quincy Jones’s Hallelujah! arrangement of the chorus from Handel’s Messiah, the canto a tenore singers of Sardinia, William Harris’s Bring us, O Lord God and Jonathan Dove’s Seek him that maketh the seven stars are my own personal favourites. We can all identify the pieces that make our hearts and souls stir and rise and sing along but what is the thing, the magic that makes that happen? The technicalities of fine choral singing are numerous. We know they start with a detailed familiarity with the score, a sense of how each of us fits in to the greater whole and a trust in the conductor or leader. But the mere dots held in our hands are only a road map. The intricate listening challenges of regulating vibrato speeds and agreeing vowel shapes are also stages on the way. Then there is balancing chords, spacing harmonies and colouring text. But essential though these technicalities are, there is a further element which is less easy to describe and to access.
Finding the magic
I have come across this indefinable thing in hugely differing circumstances. Visiting a choir of women’s voices in North Wales, I found a group that had started only a year or so ago. Some friends who had all sung together in the local school choir found themselves living in the area once more after leaving home for various reasons - study, marriage and work. They made contact again through social media and they all remembered how much they loved their choir experience, so decided to start a new choir. Rounding up friends and workmates, they began singing together. The new group was so popular that rehearsing once a week was not enough and they now meet one evening for singing and one for socialising. And the sound they make is truly extraordinary. These women sing to break your heart. During a pause in the singing my pianist colleague was looking a bit shocked. I asked if he was okay. He replied, ‘I have never been in a rehearsal with so much... love in the room. This is weird!’ As the evening went on, we were dabbing away our tears more than once. But does it mean we all have to be from the same town or have been educated together to create the magic? I think not. I have also found it in a group of hardened professional singers from very different disciplines. I am a founder member of the radical choir The Shout. Singers from wildly different styles formed a group that should never have worked out as well as it did. From a certain chaos that was ever-present in rehearsal, whenever we stepped on stage together there was a sparkle, a fizz and a sold trust in our sound. About six years ago, we finished ten years of touring and returned to London for our final gig. But last year we missed each other enough to want to revisit the repertoire and see if we could make it work again. We started work and enjoyed ourselves enormously but still didn’t know what would happen on stage. However, within a few bars of the first piece at our reunion concert, we all knew the magic was still there, never lost – a joyful discovery that imbued the whole gig.
Something timeless and universal
So what is this magic? Is it simply standing shoulder to shoulder, united in a common intention? We can do that in a crowded lift or on a train platform any day. Is it just the biological chemistry of the endorphin release that choral singing has been proven to create? Jogging does it too or a brisk exercise class. There must also be a joy and an open-hearted expectation that the few moments of a piece of music will connect with something far beyond the practicality of getting notes right and remembering score markings. Somehow we will access something timeless and universal, a shared and united consciousness and, by doing so, will carry those listening along with us. And then maybe it is just love – a love of what we are doing, of what is possible with this group of people, of fellow humans, and of what it means to each of us when our hearts are open in this way.
This article was originally featured in the September 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.
Adey Grummet is a soprano who works in opera, contemporary music, writing, education and conducting.