So ends the busiest, most inspirational summer of my adult life! In the last three months, I’ve been privileged to walk through St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, to watch otters swimming in the St. Lawrence River, and to hear barihunk Nathan Gunn singing “Home on the Range” at the Glimmerglass Festival. I’ve tasted octopus, splashed in the Mediterranean Sea, and smelled the black soil of the Red River Valley in North Dakota. On top of it all, I went back to school.
You may not know that I lead a double life. Early weekday mornings, I play classical music on the radio. On Sunday mornings, I’m lucky to make music with a group of talented singers and instrumentalists at an Episcopal Church in a canal town west of Rochester. To focus on this aspect of my life, I spent a short week in July at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota attending the René Clausen Choral School.
What does one learn at choral school, you ask? First, you learn that dorm mattresses are MUCH harder than you remember, but campus food tastes better. You are also reminded that making music is about ninety-five percent hard work. The rest is love, spirit, magic, luck, whatever you want to call it.
Specifically, I learned ways to prepare musical scores before rehearsals, techniques for warming up choirs that engage the mind and body, and shapes of vowels inside the mouth that will enable a bunch of individuals to sound like One Amazing Thing. I met several composers and heard about copyright issues that make the creative life, um, less than profitable. (If you have a young person in your life, you might urge them to go into copyright law; this field is going to get more and more interesting!) I also learned that you can hear what a conductor values most by listening to recordings.
(Who’s René Clausen, you wonder? He’s a conductor and composer you might have seen on WXXI-TV leading the Concordia Choir in a lavish, national Christmas special. On September 11th, he’ll lead a choir and orchestra at Lincoln Center in MEMORIAL, a half hour work he wrote honoring the New York City victims of September 11, 2001. More on that in the weeks to come.)
We sang a lot in choral school. One night, we read through piece after piece after piece in many different styles. Frankly, it was, from my point of view, a thin sound with too few voices on too many parts and discouraging fits and starts during the difficult passages. Afterwards, I walked back to the dorm with a fellow student, a guy from the Midwest who lives on a lake in a remote area and conducts his small town church choir.
“That was amazing!” he said. “I’ve never sung in a group that good!”
I realized with some astonishment that he was close to tears. Then it dawned on me how lucky we are in Rochester, New York, to enjoy the company of so many skilled and passionate singers. There is, I thought, no place like home.