Sunday, September 12, 2010


A long time ago (in a galaxy far-far away)...

…I had a more musical life. I sang in choirs, played in orchestras, played in multiple jazz bands, classical chamber ensembles, and occasionally appeared in marching bands, handbell choirs, and even the stray pit-orchestras (swearing never-again each time). I called myself a “musical slut” because, more or less, I would play anything anywhere any time (thank you Dereth Phillips, where-ever you are, for coining that delicate phrase). These days, mostly just because I have way too many other things keeping me busy, such devotion to music has faded from my life.

Now, as mentioned in this previous post, all spring I heard many details of Christiane’s woes planning her wedding. One of the many things she worried about was the music for the wedding ceremony – she wanted a full choir in the chapel. When I confessed that, yes, I do read music well, and yes, I did once sing in a real choir, I was quickly drafted for the chapel choir and handed a stack of music to learn. Only then did I realize that the last time I tried to sing seriously was during the Reagan administration. I was unsure if the equipment was still even remotely functional.

To begin with, my voice was never great – it had a weak tone and my singing range was poor. I could never even get close to the top of the tenor notes, and I was really really weak down by the bottom of the bass notes. And this was years ago when I actually worked on my voice to stretch my range. Furthermore, I had a bad tendency to miss pitches. Not that I didn’t realize when this had happened – my ear about these things was pretty good. But I’d land on the wrong pitch and struggle to fix things – ending up either spontaneously changing keys or sounding a bit like a trombone doing a wa-wa as I slid between pitches.

Nonetheless, wanting to contribute to this wedding, I accepted the challenge from Christiane. I was fairly confident that I remembered the main secret to learning music – practice, practice, practice. If you study a piece of music enough, until it was like you had written the whole piece yourself, you can’t go too far wrong. (So I hoped).

First of all, I needed a place to practice: preferably a place where no one else would be listening to me singing --- because I was pretty sure that, at least to start with, I would end up sounding like a walrus in heat. A place to practice was harder to find than I had expected. It would have been great if I could have also found a piano to help me out, but alas, random pianos are pretty hard to find when you are on the road. The best practice room I found as the wedding approached was in my office in the Hamilton Institute. I would show up to work very early in the morning (before all the commuting Hamiltonians showed up) and make a whole lot of gargling and warbling sounds trying to learn my music. Then I did it again late at night after all the Hamiltonians went home.

So I spent many hours singing full volume in my office. It would kind of go like this: I would sing two or three measures; then listen to the relevant measures in a recording of the piece; then say out loud “crap, that’s not right”; read the music again (wishing I remembered my solfege better); then try again; then listen again; then curse again; and so it went on. Unfortunately some of the pieces I was supposed to learn had some tricky harmonies – and it took quite a bit of trying and cursing before I made any progress. To make my life worse, the bass parts frequently went either too high or too low for my voice – and as predicted, walrus noises came out instead.

Unfortunately, during these exercises, I was never quite sure that the Hamilton building was empty. So I’d be mid-walrus-sound and I’d see a Hamiltonian looking into my office with either a curious, or sometimes a rather perturbed look --- a perturbed Hamiltonian, as it were (that’s another physics joke). At that point I would put away my music and start on my usual physics work as if I had no idea where the walrus sounds were coming from.

Anyway, after quite a few days of this (hoping that I would not get kicked out of the building for disturbing the peace) I actually started to feel like I had a pretty decent handle on most of the music, and my vocal range was getting just a bit better – now being almost able to convincingly hit most of the high and low notes. Nonetheless, I was also increasingly hoping that the other bass in the choir (there would be only two on a part) would be a strong singer.

The choir would only have one hour of rehearsal just prior to the wedding ceremony. So on the day of the wedding, dressed in my wedding gear, I showed up early and started warming up my voice before the rehearsal. The choir consisted of 5 genuine friends and relatives of the betrothed, and 5 hired guns to fill out the parts – along with a conductor and organist from Somerville college (the organist is a bit famous around Somerville for being the best organist ever to set foot in the place – so I knew we would be fine in that respect). Within about 30 seconds of singing, I knew that this whole adventure was going to be no problem. The voices in this choir were wonderful --- all I had to do was not completely screw up and everything would be fine. The other bass (a childhood friend of Christiane’s named Martin) was a very solid singer and all I had to do was follow him (Thank you Martin!). I was probably the weakest voice in the choir by a good margin. It was very fun to sing with such a talented group.

So here were the pieces that were part of the service:

The first song at the beginning of the service was a modern hymn or something of the sort. I was a nice tune, although it sounded to me a bit like the kind of song you might hear at a Christian youth-group convention or up-with-people concert. It is in German so I have no idea what it means, but I strongly suspect that the words are in similar spirit to the youth-group-esque “we should all love each other” blah blah blah. This is not the actual arrangement we sang, but it gives the right feel of the kind of harmonies that were used (although it was a piano rather than electric organ accompaniment). To my taste, the best version of this song on the web is this rather simple version from a plain girl with a nice but not particularly spectacular voice just singing and playing guitar. It sounds a lot less like “up with people” this way. Kudos to her whoever she is.

The next musical part of the service was this standard German hymn. I was told that the Germans in the audience would fully expect this one to be sung.

During the bulk of the religious part of the service there were a bunch of little Kyrie-s interjected between the Greek orthodox priest’s singing of various bible verses. This was only a problem because the priest would pick some random pitch out of the air and we were supposed to come in on four part harmony with respect to his random pitch (it worked only about 70% of the time).

The hardest of the pieces came near the end of the service: The Lord Bless You and Keep You -- a very beautiful but difficult tune by the well known (still living) choral composer John Rutter. The harmonies on this one tested even some of the good singers. I really suffered to learn this. The piece also gave the sopranos a nice chance to shine (and indeed some of the sopranos had wonderful voices).

Finally, the majestic conclusion of the service, and my favorite of the pieces by far: “Lord in Thee Have I Trusted”, by George Frideric Handel. This piece, the conclusion of his “Dettingen Te Deum,” is a magnificent work meant as a celebration of a military victory as much as in praise of God. Considering the level of organization that went into putting together the wedding ceremony, the spirit of military victory seemed appropriate.

The piece begins with an alto solo which was to be sung by our common friend Sabine Müller (lecturer in modern languages). I’ve known for a while that Sabine took singing lessons, but for some reason it never really occurred to me that she might actually have a great voice (oh me of little faith). During rehearsal when we launched into this work and I heard her sing this solo for the first time I admit I was rather shocked by how good she sounded. Then when the rest of the choir came in with the strong sopranos, 5 part harmony, and organ accompaniment, the whole thing knocked my socks off.

So in the end my experience singing for this wedding went really well (meaning, it didn't sound like a walrus). It was fun contributing to the event and I realize I have missed the feeling of being part of a musical ensemble. Maybe I’m even so inspired that I’ll join a choir. Then again, joining choirs in Oxford can be bad for your health, as the famous Inspector Morse once discovered.

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