Sometimes you have to go through hard times in order to grow. I started to notice that in all of my church employments after college, I had incurred a measure of difficulty. You never want to believe that you are the root cause of the problem, but I finally opened myself up to the question, Am I the issue? Am I having trouble because I cause the problems? When I discovered that I was indeed the troublemaker, it made me realize that I had made myself the center point of attention, and not the music or the people singing it.
There is a recent example, in my current post, where I’m glad the old version of myself didn’t rear its ugly head. The interaction took place during a rehearsal of Sure on This Shining Night by Morten Lauridsen. In fairness, this piece is technically challenging and harmonically nuanced. We had spent several weeks acclimating our ears to the new tonalities found in Lauridsen’s music and were literally rehearsing the music line by line and part by part.. After several weeks, we were able to sing the piece from the beginning to end without a major train wreck. In many ways, this is where the fun truly begins.
It was a humid evening and the windows were open to allow for better air circulation. The humidity was so intense that the paper on my score actually became heavy and slightly sticky. Rehearsals like this one are difficult because holding the attention of the choir requires more energy, which is typically in short supply due to the aforementioned heat and humidity. Needless to say, the chance that some kind of negative interaction will occur in this environment is high on the probability scale. After going on for half an hour with Sure on this Shining Night, we arrived at a passage where the sopranos kept missing their starting note, and thus fumbled their entrance. It was in this setting that one of my sopranos said, “Can you just add the soprano line in the piano part? We’re never going to get this entrance?”
This time, I thought through my response because I didn’t want to be an offensive jerk like I had been in the past. One of the best ways to deal with an entrance or a passage that is giving you trouble is to change up the narrative and do it ridiculously; this is a little trick that my college organ teacher, David Friberg, taught me. I finally formulated my response and said, “No. I don’t want to ruin the piano line by cramming the soprano line into it. But here’s what we are going to do, because you’re going to get this entrance. I’m going to sing along with you at pitch until we get it. How does that sound?” Laughter and confusion simultaneously broke out amongst the ranks. For some reason, they must not have understood that I was serious. I do not have a high speaking voice and I’m a bass/baritone when I sing, but thankfully I have a kickass falsetto.
I played the line first, and then in complete unashamed majesty, sang the soprano line right along with them up to a high F. They laughed their way through the line at first but when we did it a second time, the line started to take shape. Three times into it, the absurdity of my singing had finally made a difference because they were owning that line. When I played the line the fourth time, I dropped out completely and they soared high above the piano in a perfect, crystal clear tone. This time, their laughter came in the form of surprise. They had done it and all because some idiot choir director sang like a castrato for a few minutes. We went on to finish rehearsal and they stuck that entrance with textbook execution every time we landed there. I’ve never been more proud of a rehearsal moment before, but that one stuck out to me and started me on a journey of care-free leadership with the group. It wasn’t that I cared less about the music; no, I cared less about how I was perceived.
This moment allowed me to get out of myself and shifted the focus from me, to the choir members. I still use this technique today and it still works very well. There’s something magical about letting go and making a fool of yourself that can be completely liberating and transformational. The more I’ve let go of my ego and opened up to helping others enjoy music the way I do, the bigger the payoff for both parties. I love this story because it brought me back to who I am at my core: a nerdy organist with a warped sense of humor who genuinely wants other people to develop a passion for music.