Over the weekend, I was feeling wistful about not being in Toronto for the start of a new music and opera season for the first time in 26 years. But then Monday came along, and with it my first rehearsal as accompanist with the Bennington County Choral Society, based here in my quiet, hilly little corner of southwestern Vermont.
I have written many times over the years of the beneficial power of choral singing – not just as a listening activity, but as something to engage in actively. And being in the same room with 70 enthusiastic voices belting out George Frideric Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” (the first of the incomparable Coronation Anthems), was the best and strongest possible lesson in how not just laughter but choral singing is the best medicine – for almost anything that ails you.
As a new season picks up among community, school and worship choirs across the continent, I want to put in a plug for the therapeutic benefits of physically engaging one’s whole body in the act of singing, of being in the bosom of a community of people who share a love of making music, and of being able to express and explore a wide range of emotions within in a safe, nurturing environment – all accomplished without needing to resort to mind-altering substances.
We are so used to being consumers of food and goods to entertainment that to become a producer – of sound, in this case – is a major shock to the system. Singing demands total engagement of mind, body and soul. If you’re missing any of those three components, the result will not sound or feel right.
That’s completely unlike a video game, for instance, where no matter how mesmerized the participant is, the outcome has been pre-programmed. You see, when you’re making live music in a choir, you don’t know the outcome until it has left your larynx, and those of all the people around you. Also, as in any live performance, no two results will ever be alike.
So much depends on the music director. Does he or she know how to use all the right tools to get the best out of the singers in the room? But, when all is said and done, the conductor is really more of a kickstarter or catalyst. As I witnessed again on Monday night, there is a group energy that can take over when the collective will is sparked by a great conductor. And, unlike burning oil, all this spent energy is recycled back into the psyches of everyone present.
I sat in wonder on Monday night at the power and beauty of what was going on around me. I saw the smiles on people’s faces after the rehearsal. And I walked home under a Norma-like full moon hovering a clear, starlit sky, thinking of all of the great choirs in and around Toronto that add a wonderful extra layer of richness to singer’s life.
I was no longer wistful for something faraway, but thankful that there are people here and now who can carry themselves away with music – and that these communities exist within the reach of anyone who might read this post.
It doesn’t matter if you’re 5 or 65, or if you can read music, or even if you have an awesome voice. As long as you can hear a pitch and match it, there is a choir with a spot waiting for you somewhere.
And you may be very impressed how wonderful it feels.