Monday, August 4, 2014

Of Course I Miss It, Part 2

Music is a vital part of my life.  It always has been.  I can't imagine life without it.  Almost daily I type some of my old arrangements into my PrintMusic program or change an SATB arrangement into a TTBB piece.  While the playback on my computer sounds like various forms of flying bugs, I like having the opportunity to listen to what I've done.  Sometimes, despite the sound, I feel the music deep within.  I need to move; as stupid as it may sound, I need to conduct it.

I listen to CDs incessantly.  Sometimes it's the rock and roll from the '50s and '60s, sometimes the more solid rock of the late '60s and '70s, or maybe disco, or maybe folk, or maybe light symphonic or overtures or full symphonies or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or some favorite country songs or big choral groups or a Wurlitzer band organ or show tunes or big bands or certain jazz or Sacred Harp hymns or ragtime piano, and sometimes I feel the music deep within.  I need to move; as stupid as it may sound, I need to conduct it.

Some people feel the music in their bodies and they dance.  I feel the music in my hands and I conduct.

My parents didn't particularly encourage my affinity for music, but they didn't discourage it.  I was the youngest of three kids and was largely left to my own devices.  I am old enough that I was able to watch Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.  I remember the concert that put it all together for me.  He directed Copland's Rodeo Concert Suite.  I'd heard them perform other music, but there was something different about this.  The epiphany happened toward the end of the first movement, "Buckaroo Holiday."  The orchestra was kind of quiet and then started to build.  The rhythms seemed to be all over the place, the harmonies, too.  And it built and built and the expression on Bernstein's face was a happiness I still can't describe.  That section ends with a restatement of the theme, and then I knew.  I loved this.  The absolute, unalloyed joy on Bernstein's face made me wonder what it must feel like to be in front of so many musicians playing exciting music...conducting it and being the first to hear it.

I went through several decades conducting the finest musicians and orchestras and Broadway musicals, thanks to my stereo.  Then, in 1987, I was offered a church choir.  I didn't know squat about conducting, but I figured I shouldn't turn down the opportunity.  Besides, it was a 6 member choir.  10 people showed up for the first rehearsal.  The choir grew to 20, 28, at one time 42 singers.  I had no training in any of this, so I made it up as I went along, read everything I could get my hands on, watched concerts on TV to observe the conductors.  Fortunately, my accompanist mentored me well.  She was a good pianist and excellent teacher.

The church paid my way to music clinics where I could talk to other music directors and meet choral composers and arrangers.  I tried to absorb everything I could.  Aside from a week's crash course for church choir directors with no training in directing a church choir at Westminster College, Ryder University, I remained a seat-of-my-pants director.  Because the church was Unitarian Universalist, the music palette was pretty much open to both religious and secular; the Unisingers, as they were known, sang Sundays plus originated churchy programs sung at other, not necessarily UU churches plus music program fundraising concerts.  I wrote arrangements for the Unisingers.  Convinced that every community should have a chorus, I also started a community chorus in my town.

Years later, I became Artistic Director of the Harrisburg Gay Men's Chorus.  I discovered quickly that while there is a treasure trove of music for choruses with women and men, there is precious little for men's chorus.  That was about the time I bought my first PrintMusic program and arranged/re-voiced SATB (mixed) to TTBB (men).  It became as much fun as conducting.  I was careful to interfere with the arrangement as little as possible.  I tried not to change the integrity of the piece...the accompaniment always stayed the same, and voice phrases were adapted...the whole thing might have to be transposed (four keystrokes and done), but it was always my hope that the composer would never be offended by what I did.

Then I realized that I had gone as far as I could go.  Self-taught, at least for me, goes only so far.  With the Unisingers, I'd developed a "community" chorus with a wide reputation; with the men's chorus, we achieved a sound that one audience member described as "a group of cellos."  I'd taken the men's chorus as far as I could, but they could go much further.

My favorite part of choral directing was rehearsal.  I don't think I'd be happy about it, but I think I could rehearse a chorus and let someone else direct the concert and be OK with it.  The performance was the payoff, of course, but the explorations and discoveries in rehearsal were exciting.

The choruses' favorite part of my directing was an involuntary smile when everything came together, when we got through a particularly rough section well, when a piece was utterly musical, when there was nothing to be said.  One time I realized it...that something Bernstein taught all those many years earlier.  A smile conveys satisfaction and joy from music denied to words.

I listen to music.  It's recorded.  I once led music live.  I miss it.  I miss the rehearsal process.  I miss the energy that a live performance puts into you.  But I hear music.  It gets inside me, inside my hands, and I must conduct it.