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Personally Speaking/Lifelong Learning for a Perfect Landing

Landing the plane. A skill not often called for from a choral director. And yet, for me, this analogy from another profession was one of the most significant takeaways from the three weeks I spent in France.

When a pilot departs for an assigned destination, he or she needs to rely on a sense of professional timing. Many factors can interfere with a perfect flight; minutes spent waiting in the runway queue, flight conditions, altitude, wind speed, weather patterns and airport traffic all have the potential to affect the timing of the journey – as well as the quality of the flight. Similarly, when preparing for a performance, the conductor of a choral ensemble must take into consideration all that is needed for a timely “musical flight.” How many pieces can be programmed in a concert that strives to balance the expectations of the audience with the time and talents of the ensemble? How long should a conductor spend on each piece before the ensemble loses the momentum that keeps them most productive? What parts of each piece will come naturally to the singers and which will need to be broken down to assist them in perfecting the music? Questions such as these are a constant part of a conductor’s daily work. They are also what inspired me to spend three weeks of this year’s summer vacation hard at work in Aix-en-Provence.

The Aix program was designed specifically for choral singers and conductors with the goal of challenging participants and assisting them to hone their artistic craft. Eight conducting scholars, including myself, were selected for the program by audition, and together we discussed and applied rehearsal strategies and conducting techniques that would help us land our assigned “musical planes.” The 50-voice choir was comprised of talented singers from around the world. Ensemble members, including the eight conducting scholars, had received the concert repertoire a few weeks prior to our arrival in France. This catalog included more than 30 pieces that would be performed in four public concerts. Each conducting scholar was allotted 10 minutes from seven of the practice periods to rehearse their two assigned musical selections. That gave us about 35 minutes of rehearsal per piece to move it from a first read to a polished performance.

It would be hard for me to articulate all the emotions experienced by the conductors throughout the three weeks. The choir rehearsed daily for three to seven hours and the conducting scholars met for an additional two-hour seminar each evening. We were often given specific rehearsal parameters, only to be stopped on the podium and asked to change the direction of the rehearsal. Our individual techniques were challenged, plans were pulled away, arms were raised or lowered. We all felt moments of fear, frustration and anger and often were left with no choice but to dig in our heels, spending hours outside of rehearsals designing the perfect 10-minute plan.

We also received several private lessons taught by the four nationally recognized choral masters who provided the professional leadership for the symposium. This was a highlight. We were given the chance to hear multiple perspectives on technique, interpretation and performance practice.

In the end, the eight of us successfully managed our landings. Much of the triumph was due to our own hard work, but the performance would not have been possible without the commitment and support of an intelligent and empathetic choir. It was a pleasure, too, to meet and work with the two guest composers and sing for them as part of our concert audience. Our concerts featured music by the Welsh composer and conductor Paul Mealor (best known for his “Ubi Caritas” performed at the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton) and the world premiere of “Vita nuova: A New Life,” by the young American composer John Frederick Hudson.

A few weeks before I left for the France symposium, I had been part of another wonderful musical memory. The St. Norbert choirs had been invited to perform at Carnegie Hall under the direction of composer and conductor John Rutter. The choirs had already performed the required repertoire at St. Norbert Abbey, so we were well prepared ahead of the limited rehearsal time we had with the maestro. Since my own “landing” in France, I have come to an even greater respect for artists like Rutter who must make astute and efficient decisions regarding programming, rehearsal strategies and time management in order to ensure a level of performance worthy of their own genius and worthy of the world’s most prestigious concert stages.

Oct. 31, 2019