A Funny Thing About Choirs

July 21, 2007

Community Choirs – you gotta love them. The people you see every day on the street, in the grocery, cutting your hair, cleaning your teeth, hauling your trash and fixing your car. They’re your neighbors, friends, enemies, distant cousins and the good and bad drivers on the highway during your morning commute. Folks from all walks of life getting together to share their love for music. I love community choirs and I play for them regularly. Usually it’s in a small orchestra performing some classical work for choir and orchestra. But last night it was in a trio – piano, bass, drums – performing gospel and jazz. Summer choir – tends to be more on the pop side. Lighter works.

It was certainly fun and the audience very enthusiastic. But I think I’ve finally figured out a behavioral pattern that seems to apply to every community chorus I’ve worked with. Have you ever noticed how a choir makes their entrance into the performance hall? It seems to work one of two ways with occasional variations. They usually either come down the center aisle in side-by-side pairs, splitting at the stage to come on stage from opposite sides. Or they come down the outer aisles in single files filling the stage from opposite sides. In some halls they’ll enter from the wings of the stage. But the important thing to watch is the spacing. I think choirs pride themselves on keeping equal spacing between bodies and moving at the same speed. Somehow I suspect they spend quite a bit of time practicing this so that you never see bunched up bodies anywhere along the way. It’s always a solemn, dignified, well organized entrance. This seems to bear no relationship to the quality of the musical performance but is an art in and of itself. The unfortunate thing I have discovered is that this march formation appears to be hard wired into every chorister and nothing – NOTHING – may interfere with it. Last night I needed to make an instrument change from acoustic bass to electric bass at the conclusion of the jazz portion of the program which was performed by a solo singer. The choir was joining us again on stage during this transition. Because of the small stage size I needed to move the acoustic bass off stage, walk back on, retrieve the electric bass from a different place and return to my spot on stage, retrieve a chair, plug in and tune the electric bass. All of this could easily have been accomplished before the chorus completed it’s long procession onto the stage (two single files from the back of the hall coming up the outer aisles) had I been able to actually get off and on stage. That was not to be the case. Sit at any unmarked traffic intersection and eventually some friendly motorist will slow his or her pace and allow you to join the flow. But not a chorister bent on keeping his/her proper spacing. You would think that a person with a very large instrument standing by the marching line of singers only wanting to cross to the other side of the line would eventually elicit some sympathy and someone would slow their pace enough to allow him to cross in front. I finally had to practically leap in front of a singer which the frown on her face told me instantly that I had made a bad move. I still had 3 more crossings of the line to make and after one more brush with soprano wrath I decided to just wait until they were fully on the stage. At that point the conductor raised her arms to begin the piece and I hadn’t even reached my chair yet, no less plug in and tune my instrument so I had to whisper loudly “WAIT!!!” and hastily tuned my instrument.

Everything went fine after that but I’ve finally learned my lesson and in the future will negotiate all necessary moves about the stage area ahead of time with the conductor which I’m sure will necessitate a complete reprogramming of the choir members and possibly extra rehearsal time.

Oh, by the way – the Chapel Hill Community Chorus gave a wonderful performance, as did the outstanding jazz vocalist Susan Reeves.


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