The Sound Of Music

You may be surprised to learn that in addition to writing for the musical theater, I have had a bit of success as a choral music composer, too. For me, ensemble singing (and writing and conducting) taps into the part of me that really does prefer to be making music with other people as opposed to sitting alone in a room with a piano, a notepad, and a computer loaded with Finale.  I love using music to tell stories, as musical theater folks do, but I also really like using music just to make music, and I start to feel atrophy when I get too far away from it.  I was a classical musician before I was a part of the Broadway community, and sometimes I forget how much I depend on the fuel that classical music provides.  Little me was the girl at the piano after school, practicing Bach and Rachmaninoff and Tcherepnin over and over again until her fingers were vibrating with the kind of energy and exhaustion you feel after a hard workout.  The changing of the seasons was marked by marching band, holiday concerts, wind ensemble, Easter music, spring piano recitals and summer music camp.

Choral musicRecently, I was invited to watch part of the rehearsal of the fantastic NYC Master Chorale (Thea Kano, Artistic Director and Conductor) as they prepare a New York premiere of a brand new choral piece, Magnificat, by Washington, DC composer Paul Leavitt.  (Dec. 13th, info here – free plug for them even though I have nothing to do with it!)  I sat in the back, following along the score, singing the crunchy alto part with crazy dissonances and complicated meters, and I reveled in the skill of that all-volunteer group of singers.  They were sight-reading this stuff, you guys, and it was not easy.  But when they got it right, the room vibrated with the rich harmonies and resonance of seventy people all focusing their voices in the same direction.  Well, it was seventy-one if you count the composer in the back.

Also this month I’ve been working with the company of the upcoming production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which will air December 5th on NBC.  My title on that show is “nun captain.” (I can’t wait to add that one to my resume!)  I’m in charge of maintaining the music the nuns sing in the show – mostly in Latin and mostly a cappella – but I’m also IN the show.  As a nun, I sing alto, and I’m standing right there next to some of the most amazing Broadway singers in the biz. Even with that caliber of singer, though, you’d be amazed how challenging it is to find a true unison, to match vowels, to sing perfect fifths that make the room ring.  We are focusing our voices in the same direction, and it’s so incredibly satisfying when we make something that sounds beautiful.  (It doesn’t hurt that we’re singing backup for Audra McDonald, either.)

There was a piece on NPR earlier this year that cited the results of a study that revealed when choirs sing together, their hearts start to beat at the same rate.  In theater, we spend a lot of time looking for opposition.  Actors have obstacles, scenes have conflict, stakes get raised and wants get intensified. But lately I’ve been enjoying what it feels like to experience true synchronicity.

I was lucky enough this fall to have director John Doyle as my guest in the class I teach at Pace University.  He spoke about the Sondheim musical PASSION, and given the fact that he directed and designed its wildly successful revival at Classic Stage Company earlier this year, he knew it inside out.  At one point he asked me to sit at the piano and play from the score, the accompaniment only.  The entire class listened – just to the music. No words, no scenes, no context– just music.  How does it make you feel? he asked.  What happens, we examined, if you play a major chord here instead of a minor chord?  What happens if we don’t make this key change? Make note of these dynamic markings, this repetition, these accents.  Do the lines ascend or descend? Slow down or speed up? What is the story being told just through the music?  It was astounding – a master class in musical dramaturgy.

As you’re digging into your pieces, whether you’re writing them or interpreting them, I encourage you to add this kind of deep musical exploration to your bag of tricks.  Think of the accompaniment not as accompaniment, but as a duet voice, a scene partner, a little personal note from the composer.  Are you listening to it?  What does it have to say?

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