Singing is a magical thing for me. It keeps me sane. It lets me release all sorts of emotions and thoughts. I offer it all to the universe so that I don’t have to bury my family and friends with the inner workings of my brain.
One of the things that I love about singing with the San Luis Obispo Vocal Arts Ensemble is that I get to sing AND travel. In the summer of 2015, we toured southern France and northern Italy. Our final destination was Florence, Italy for an international choral competition. That meant that we would be judged, graded and awarded on one performance in each category before a panel of three judges. Our competition came from all over the world and every choir had to audition by recording. Some of them were, shall we say, professional grade!
We rehearsed for this competition by singing in various French villages as part of a local music festival. In all, we did 10 concerts in 10 days. And just for the sake of heatstroke, it all occurred during one of the hottest summers on record in France and Italy (at that time)!
When we finally performed in the Sacred Music category in Florence we were tired, hot, grumpy and a bit put out by the management of the competition. Small items like not having enough seating for all of the choirs, no place for changing into uniforms, no water, things like that.
When our turn came we simply were not up to par. Our kind of par. Then the hall was not built for sound. The acoustics were off and we missed our first key. We had sung that song a million times. We knew it by heart in every sense of that word. We just didn’t sing it the way that we could.
That evening, each choir was to sing one song to the rest of the choirs. This was the sharing part of the competition. We were hot, tired, discouraged and thoroughly disgusted with ourselves. We didn’t feel like sharing. But we had to sing again.
We asked out director what he wanted us to sing and his answer stunned us. “O, Magnum Mysterium” was his answer. The very piece that we had blown in the earlier competition. We knew he just wanted to put us “back on the horse” but we were a bit skeptical.
When our turn came, we walked onto the dais of the Santa Trinita Cathedral. The church had become a hot box. We were dripping, our uniforms clinging to our arms and legs. The church was full of singers, directors, musicians who knew music. I, for one, was too hot and tired to care.
Our director stood in front of us, signaled for the pitch, and we started. He directed, as he always had. We were focused on him. The heat and fatigue seemed to diminished. Then, as he had for every concert through France, he clasped his hands together and nodded.
That was our signal to join hands, close our eyes, and sing from our souls.
We had done this a thousand times. Each time it was beautiful. Each time we loved the way we sang it.
But that night, that night, was different.
In the recording (which I can’t publish) you can tell when our director walks away. We slow down a bit. You can almost hear us listening to each other. We began to breathe together. The dynamics were exact. Our entrances and cutoffs were sharp.
And then, I began to feel that the music wasn’t coming from me. It was coming through me and meeting with the same force and feeling that came from everyone else. We sang with one voice. And it created another presence. A single sound.
It was music. It was love. It was life. It was joy.
When we finished and open our eyes, there were very few dry eyes in our choir or in the audience. I would like to think that it was a good as the version sung my the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
I am not a religious person. I do not belong to any church nor do I want to do so. But that night let me appreciate that there is something more than what I can perceive. As Holly Near so eloquently wrote:
I am open to the music that soothes my soul.