Connecting for Music
“We’re going to have to cut some programs…perhaps it should be music?”
“Oh, no, we can’t do that! Did you hear the choir sing Handel’s Messiah? It was breath-taking!”
“You’re right, we couldn’t possibly do away with that! I don’t know what I was thinking!”
It almost sounds too easy, right? But what if music was taught that way? What if more emphasis was put on expression and interpretation? It would certainly invite other subject areas to the party too, pulling knowledge from literature classes to study the text, and history lessons to explore the historical elements from the time period of the text or music, etc. Who said music wasn’t an academic subject?
Really, though. What if students were taught the importance of reaching an audience? They already know how to be reached; they know what they like to hear and see, they know what entertains them, they know what moves them. Why not approach things from the other side? It can’t hurt!
Encouraging students to connect to the music they learn and perform is an invaluable skill in both performance and in life. Musical concepts can absolutely coincide with life skills, such as musical interpretation and expression coupled with human emotion, relation, and sympathy. “…the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person. One of the best ways to cultivate sympathy is through instruction in literature, music, theatre, fine arts, and dance” (Nussbaum, 2006). By teaching these skills of sympathy and relation, students are not only gaining a connection to the music and their ensemble peers, but they are creating a path for audience members to walk alongside them. Any musician can tell you how music moves them and effects their lives, but reaching those listeners who are moved by other forces and whose lives are impacted by mediums foreign to us musicians are prime audiences to capture. I have experienced the art of reaching an audience through rehearsed connection exercises, and they are memories that will remain vivid in my mind for the rest of my life. I aim to share some of those rehearsal techniques through those memories with you.
One of the greatest challenges a choral ensemble can encounter is connecting to an audience while performing repertoire in a foreign language. Yes, program translations do sometimes aid in understanding, but how many audience members read those? I’ll be honest; I usually don’t until after the concert when it is too late! An average audience member is of the mindset that they are there to listen to music. They haven’t been trained to know to read the program notes before a performance. With every concert I perform in, the more I question program notes. When you take a carriage ride tour of historic downtown Charleston, they don’t provide you with a pamphlet of text to read as the horse takes you around…the tour guide sets you up for your experience and narrates along the way. When you go to the dentist for a cavity filling (unless you have never had to do that, in which case I applaud you!), the dentist will (and should!) tell you the procedure before he begins.I’m wondering, if we better set the audience up for their experience will there be more connections made?
I remember a particular performance with my college choir where we sang Morten Lauridsen’s “Soneto de la noche” — such a fantastic piece of music. Elegant melodies with beautiful, clustered harmonies…
Without paying attention to the Spanish text, one could still enjoy the music solely through experiencing the musical elements. During the performance, I noticed a girl in the front row begin to cry. Not just a low-key tears-in-eyes moment, but a true, long sob. My initial thought was, “Oh no, what did we do?” followed by, “Maybe we should stop…have we upset her?” Then it occurred to me. “Maybe she knows what we are saying.” (I’ll admit, I couldn’t tell you the text translation at the time.) After the concert I tried to linger around to see if she would say anything to anyone about her sob session. When I got close enough to eavesdrop (I’m beginning to sound creepy; I promise it wasn’t!), my questions were answered. She spoke Spanish! We didn’t make her cry, she was moved by the text and the music! Thoughts started flooding my mind: “What if we had more audience members fluent in Spanish in attendance?” “We should sing more English pieces to get more reactions like that!” “What were we singing about anyway?”
The poem of Soneto de la Noche by Pablo Neruda translates as follows:
When I die, I want your hands upon my eyes:
I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands to pass their freshness over me one more time I want to feel the gentleness that changed my destiny.
I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep, I want your ears to still hear the wind, I want you to smell the scent of the sea we both loved, and to continue walking on the sand we walked on.
I want all that I love to keep on living, and you whom I loved and sang above all things
To keep flowering into full bloom.
so that you can touch all that my love provides you,
so that my shadow may pass over your hair,
so that all may know the reason for my song.
What beautiful words! I know if I had realized the meaning of the poem prior to our concert, it definitely would have changed my performance. One of my professors used to say, “Singers are the best actors.” This was a prime example of when those skills should come into play.
My chamber choir in college was introduced to another Morten Lauridsen piece, Contre Qui, Rose.
I absolutely fell in love with everything about it it throughout the entire rehearsal process. As a choir, though, we struggled with interpreting the text and conveying the message to the audience as we performed. The text translates to:
“Against whom, rose. Have you assumed these thorns? Is it your too fragile joy that forced you to become this armed thing? But from whom does it protect you, this exaggerated defense. How many enemies have I lifted from you who did not fear it at all? On the contrary, from summer to autumn you wound the affection that is given you.”
One choir member posed the question, “Do you guys know anyone like this, who constantly has a protective wall up?” Everyone paused and nodded. We all did. For some of us, we were the roses with thorns. We decided to rehearse the piece out of our standard semi circle formation, scattering around the room to reflect and envision singing these words to that person or to themselves. From the very first chord it was incredible. Dynamics appeared that had never surfaced. There was obvious emotion in each melodic line. Shaping and phrasing happened so organically and truthfully. It was a beautiful moment. Those are the kinds of rehearsals I love, when everyone is suddenly on the same page and writing it collectively. Connecting to the music establishes a connection between the ensemble members which, come performance time, connects to the audience.
To me, it’s a flawless practice. Taking the time in rehearsals to discuss the text and create imagery or stories within the ensemble goes a long way in the performance. By connecting to our audiences, we are advocating music, our programs, and our passion. I think it is worth a try! If it fails, you have still made music, which is always our greatest success.
Lindsay Morelli is a graduate student at The College of Charleston pursuing a Masters of Arts in Teaching in Choral Conducting. For more information about Lindsay and her projects, please visit http://www.LindsayMorelli.com or follow Lindsay on Twitter: @LindsayMorelli.
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