Light sounds settle into silence: rustling paper sheaves, quiet coughs, the random hum. A commanding, confident person at the front of the group raises their arms in this space. They smile and, with a slight nod to the pianist, signal that it is time to begin. The subdued strains of the song’s introduction bring us together for another turn, a journey once again through a song we’ve already practiced many times. Sounds that were random in earlier moments of the rehearsal unite into dozens of voices dancing with notes, finding pitches and harmonies, and making mistakes. The director calls for us to stop, comments are communicated and pencils mark away, and we try it again.
At the end of the evening, we are happy and exhausted from a process that we find to be both familiar and fresh, each time over the years that we experience it. These moments that I find I’m most content are when rehearsing with a group of singers whose passion for performing and enjoying music are equal to my own. The experience itself is most worth the time spent, regardless of whether a set performance is looming in the near future.
Some of my earliest, happiest childhood memories are from times that I can remember rehearsing music with a school or church group. The unique combination of creative expression and human camaraderie is one that I’ve seldom experienced on the same level with other activities and pursuits. This joy can be transcendent in a way that is difficult to describe in words. That perhaps is why there are common sayings about how a person can’t “dance about architecture,” or in this case, really write about a shared musical experience that really goes beyond words – and needs more than just written or spoken verbal language to find its expression.
The contented energy of these moments is shared with people who may be listening to the rehearsal or performance as well. There are so many clichéd ideas about the magic of music, or the universal language it possesses that can reach across so many different kinds of perceived barriers. This is one case in which I think the clichés are so broad and numerous for some very good reasons. When you’re rehearsing and performing vocal music, you’re carrying on traditions that reach back centuries and cross national boundaries around the world. That’s quite an inheritance to share, and it feeds into the sense of shared experience and accomplishment that comes to groups who approach the task with open hearts and a willingness to work hard.
These are rather heady and serious ideas to glean from the simple rustling of papers, the memory of directors past, and singing mates known. But the impressions are so pleasurable, so satisfying and sustaining over the years that they keep me coming back, again and again. Those small or large spaces we call rehearsal or performance will always be for me some of the places in which I am most content.