Choir rehearsal on Sunday was an exercise in frustration. And I’m a girl who spent four years singing in Northwestern choirs, which were nothing if not excruciating. Observe:
1. Our director, Philippe, is eighty-seven years old, and while he’s a lovely man who knows a great deal about music, he can’t really see. And he can’t really hear much either. Which is problematic for a choir conductor.
2. We came to the conclusion on Sunday that not only do we have a tendency to go slightly flat (like most choirs, I may add), but also the piano in the rehearsal room at the Maison du Cambodge is solidly sharp.
3. The reason I like this choir (as opposed to another amateur choir I would have to pay for) is because it’s full of music professionals–not necessarily singers, but choir directors, music teachers, people who used to sing professionally or semi-professionally, but finally read the writing on the wall and found new careers. The reason a choir made up completely of music professionals is problematic is that everybody has an opinion and feels the need to make it known. I can’t help but think of an exchange between Lewis Morris and John Hancock in 1776, after New York has abstained from the vote (courteously) for about the tenth time.
HANCOCK: Mr. Morris…WHAT THE HELL GOES ON IN NEW YORK?
MORRIS: I’m sorry, Mr. President, but the simple fact is that our legislature has never sent us explicit instructions about anything.
HANCOCK: Never? That’s impossible.
MORRIS: Mr. President, have you ever been present at a meeting of the New York State Legislature? They speak very fast and very loud, and nobody listens to anybody else, with the result that nothing ever gets done. I beg the Congress’s pardon.
HANCOCK: My sympathies, Mr. Morris.
So yeah, it’s like that. Only in French, with a lot of “Oh la la”-ing and clucking and lip trills of disgust and frustration. My friend Blythe started in the choir on the same day as I did, and she was always the one to get up and ask everybody to can it, because for an American whose French, while more or less fluent, falls apart under duress, thirty French people all talking at the same time makes life incredibly difficult. I pretty much just zone out when it gets too loud and confusing, and wait for somebody–a single voice of reason–to clarify what everybody was arguing about. (Example: Philippe gave us Brahms’ Begräbnisgesang on Sunday, and it was rife with errors. Everybody kept pointing out the errors as soon as they noticed them, which was often while we were trying to sing…and eventually, one of the basses, a chef de choeur himself, stood up and catalogued all of the errors so that we could correct them methodically.)
Anne-Chantal, who was sitting next to me on Sunday, said, loosely translated, “I’ll bet choir rehearsals aren’t this chaotic in the States!” I shook my head, incredulously. Later on, while practically weeping with frustration into my score of Mendelssohn’s Psaume 42, I thought about it some more. No, I’ve never been involved with a high-level choir where that kind of insanity would have been tolerated; as I pointed out to Philippe, I’ve always either been graded or paid for choral singing. At school, that kind of behavior would probably get you kicked out of class; in the professional world, it would get you fired. Honestly, now that I consider it, the closest I can come in my own experience would be that time in high school when my friends and I thought it would be cool to start an a cappella group. I don’t think we ever managed to learn a whole song. (Doong chk doong-a doo doonga chk doo doo doo!–that’s the bass line for “Kiss the Girl,” obviously.)
As I wrote the last couple of sentences, one word made something in my brain go “ding!” That word was “friends.” Because despite the chaos and the frustration and sometimes just the sheer madness of these marathon rehearsals and concert days, at the end of the day this choir is a bunch of good friends getting together to make music, and the reason I still go to choir rehearsals is because I’ve always loved making friends through making music. Of course, they’re all quite a bit older than I am, but also immensely kind, supportive and curious about who I am, where I came from and where I’m going. They’re all determined that I should love France and French culture; one of the questions that I’m asked constantly is, “And are you enjoying your stay in France?” Have you tried this? Have you tried that? Have you heard about this organization that holds auditions? Anne, do you like noisettes (hazelnuts), because I brought three of the same cake for the picnic today and there’s no way we’re going to eat them all. (Yep, definitely inherited a cake on Sunday…one of the perks of being an ex-pat student!)
At said picnic, I talked to Philippe for a while. He told me that he doesn’t like Americans who try to be all international, but in general he loves Americans; he loves how intelligent and practical we are. And then he told me a marvelous joke…which I will post later, once I’ve remembered it.
He thinks I’m talented, he loves my voice, and apparently I’m just charmante as well, and they’re all going to miss me when I go home in August. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go to choir for an ego boost…
P.S. It’s funny, isn’t it, that my chosen pop culture comparison for this choir should be the New York State Legislature. Maybe we’re not so different after all.