When It's More than Just Singing

Choristers Share Their Most Memorable Experiences

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February 6th, 2010

We asked choral singers all over the continent to tell about their "mountaintop" experience as a choral singer. The responses were heartwarming, tear-jerking, hysterical, awe-inspiring, and... a great reminder of why we sing.

When Chorus America surveyed choral singers about their "mountaintop" experiences as choral singers, broad themes emerged. Some 65 people said their most memorable choral singing experience happened in high school or earlier. Another 35 related a memorable experience singing in a college chorus. Clearly, this says something about the importance of early music and arts education.

Lots of people remembered transcendent experiences while on a chorus tour. A goodly number recalled emotionally moving concerts performed in the aftermath of September 11. The joy of performing for the great Robert Shaw proved most memorable for more than a few singers; other well-known and lesser-known conductors also made a lasting impression on some singers.

Many of the responses were very personal—a connection made, a loved one remembered, a barrier overcome, or as one singer called it, "My own personal miracle."

Here's a sampling of the responses:

Early Experiences

"One of my most memorable experiences as a choral singer was in high school, when I sang in the Virginia Honors Choir with Dr. André Thomas as the conductor. We were rehearsing an arrangement of 'Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin'.' To get us into the right mindset, he had us close our eyes, and in his smooth, wonderful speaking voice painted a vivid picture of what a cotton plantation in the slavery period would have been like, visually and spiritually, for the slaves who worked there. After about 5 or ten minutes, he had us open our eyes and sing the song by memory. It was so trancelike, so moving, and we all felt the difference in how we sang the song!"

"My first choral group was my family—five children who sang in four-part harmony. We went into hospitals with our father, a physician, and sang Christmas carols for his patients and others during Christmas week. This was in the early fifties. Some of the patients were children with polio. Because of that experience choral music has always had an extra emotional component for me."

"Singing Va Pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) in concert. My father had been an opera singer before World War II and as I sang this piece, I started to weep and realized that I had a long, lost memory of him singing this piece around the house. While we had an extremely rocky relationship and he died over 20 years ago, music has connected us now and it is a healing and deeply emotional gift."

Historic Moments

"Singing with the Rolling Requiem on September 11, 2002, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We performed Mozart's Requiem beginning at 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center the year before. This was a combined group of singers and directors from the area. The church was packed but you could hear a pin drop before the concert started. Choirs all over the world participated as well, each beginning their performance at the same time in their own time zone. The effect of the Requiem heard around the world was very moving."

"Singing Chichester Psalms in the cathedral in the center of Krakow, Poland. The Hebrew text, just after visiting Auschwitz, made an ache in the heart. I remember the gorgeous altarpiece, which in three parts unfolded in gleaming gold, and the shared experience of singing and worshipping with fellow choristers from diverse backgrounds."

"Singing Verdi's Requiem in Walbuhne in Berlin soon after the Wall fell as part of a concert series that also featured a concert in Paris. It was a combined chorus made up of choirs from the United States, Russia, and Japan with an international orchestra. While we were singing the Lacrimosa, the birds started singing to join in and the audience on the lawn all began lighting candles. It was magical!"

"2001 Beijing, China, concert tour with University of Colorado Singers and the Boulder Chorale. Our tour guide at Tiananmen Square asked if we would sing the Chinese National Anthem. A large crowd gathered as we sang. Then our guide said, 'Now, you sing your national anthem!' We looked around at the armed Red Guards, thought about the history of the square, and decided to trust our guide. As we then sang our own national anthem, more people gathered, smiling. The Guards glanced over and went on with their duties. When we finished we were met with more applause and off-duty Red Guards and other citizens asking to have their pictures taken with the singing Americans. It was a cultural exchange of music and understanding that still gives me goose bumps."

"October-December 2005. Many members of the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans and most of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra were spread around the state and country after Hurricane Katrina. The LPO was performing in other cities and couldn't do Messiah in New Orleans. Our director's house had flooded, so he had gone to another city. With one of our own leading rehearsals until the final weeks, we pulled ourselves together to put on the concert. Some people commuted from as far as central Louisiana and our director managed to assemble a small orchestra. We did a darn good job."

Memorable Conductors

"The very first time we rehearsed with a full orchestra. It was the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Shaw, and the chorus was standing right behind/next to the orchestra players. I remember being completely overwhelmed with emotion, I could barely sing."

"Singing the Missa Solemnis with Robert Shaw at the Kennedy Center in one of the last concerts he conducted. He had been sick and missed the dress rehearsal. But when he came to the concert, we were completely connected as a group and the experience was totally transcendent."

"I remember seeing her hair silhouetted in the footlights and watching wisps of it float away as she conducted. It was tragic and magical at the same time."

"As a teenager, I sang some excerpts from Aaron Copland's The Tender Land with the University of Maryland Chorus, conducted by Copland with the National Symphony at Wolf Trap, outside of Washington, DC. Copland was a terrible conductor, but he was down-to-earth and surprisingly accessible. And the music was gorgeous."

"Singing in the chorus for a concert by Luciano Pavarotti was probably the most memorable. It was about 8 years or so ago, at the United Center in Chicago. We did a variety of opera choruses, in between his solo sets. Why memorable? I was on stage with Pavarotti in front of thousands of people! He could barely walk, but his voice was still amazing."

"My most memorable experience was singing at ACDA Nationals in San Antonio, Texas with my women's chorus. This particular experience was important because our director was dying of breast cancer and it was one of her last performances with us. We premiered Libby Larsen's "Psalm 121" in our director's honor. I remember seeing her hair silhouetted in the footlights and watching wisps of it float away as she conducted. It was tragic and magical at the same time. When we finished the song, there was deadly silence for a few moments followed by thunderous applause, whistling, hollering, and a massive standing ovation. She did not see this ovation because she remained facing us, thanking us and sharing in our spirit. She finally turned and took her bow."

Personal Miracles

"There are many. One is the moment in Vaughan Williams's setting of the 90th Psalm in which the chorus sings Vaughan Williams's melody in unison and then the trumpet enters on the traditional hymn tune. I caught my director's eye at that moment and we clearly shared its emotional impact. It was that sense of being in touch with the transcendent power of the music with another person who had the same understanding as me that made the moment powerful."

"My most memorable experience was singing at the centuries-old church in Assisi, Italy. I had been suffering from some serious vocal problems and had started to take medication, but it did not take effect for most of the tour. I sang most of the tour with a very limited range. Our director never knew that I could only sing a few notes. We were singing Randall Thompson's "Alleluia" (a piece that has always meant a lot to me) and I suddenly found that I had recovered my complete range. I started to cry and could barely get through the piece. It was my personal miracle."

"Our choir did a choral workshop for gospel music with a wonderful singer from Montreal, Carol Bernard. She taught us three pieces, wouldn't let us use our music, and gave us the gift of believing in ourselves. The performance we gave the next day blew the roof off the church as the audience members danced, clapped and sang with us, and yelled and applauded so much that I'm sure they could be heard a block away."

Tours and Special Causes

"Singing the Mozart Requiem and Handel's The King Shall Rejoice at the Madeleine Cathedral in Paris, France on June 22, 1997, with the Arizona State University Choral Union from Tempe, Arizona. The Cathedral was packed. The acoustics in the cathedral were outstanding. At the end, the audience enthusiastically applauded and stood. We were asked back by the people who booked us, which they said hardly ever happened. Everyone, including us choral members, was so thrilled and touched by the performance. I don't think any of us will ever forget that magical performance."

"The older members of the choir were complaining that 'it' hadn't happened yet. I didn't know what they meant until the third night out in the middle of the Vaughan Williams Mass in G."

"As a freshman in college I was on my first choir tour. The older members of the choir were complaining that 'it' hadn't happened yet. I didn't know what they meant until the third night out in the middle of the Vaughan Williams Mass in G. 'It' happened-my first 'mountain top' experience with music. There is no way to describe the gates of heaven opening and getting a glimpse of eternity, but that is what made it memorable. It was one reason my major changed to music education."

"In the late 1980s I sang with a chamber chorus that donated all of its proceeds to the San Francisco AIDS Food Bank. No one was paid, including the excellent conductor. We all contributed what we could from our individual incomes and the large audiences gave generously as well. We raised several thousand dollars singing beautiful classical music, accompanied by professional orchestras and soloists who also volunteered. The performance of choral music was a small but healing force in the overwhelming tide of lost lives, making every concert memorable."

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