Singing Lessons

What I learned from a great choral conductor


I’m a choral singer.

I’m passably good at it — not the best, but I hold my own. For me, it’s recreation; stress removal; joy. For many years I sang with a storied New York-based chorus that presented its concerts in Carnegie Hall, and I swore I would never leave the New York area because I thought there was no other experience in the world like singing a great concert to a sold-out house in Carnegie Hall.

Turns out I was wrong.

A new job took me to Washington, D.C., in September of 2002. In January of 2003, after I had sort of settled into a routine, I emailed each of the three large symphonic choruses in the city to inquire about auditioning. I included none of my singing history in the email; I was merely trying to find out if they were conducting mid-year auditions, as choruses sometimes do.

Twelve years later I’m still waiting to hear from one. A second one responded with a very terse note reminding me that auditions were conducted in August, as their website clearly stated. The third chorus sent me a very gracious note from someone with the title chorus manager (an entity I had never before encountered) asking me to respond when I had a chance and provide a little of my singing history. Within 24 hours of my reply to that request, I had received another email asking me to call to schedule an audition. Long story short, I was in.

Norman Scribner. Photo via Choral Arts Society of Washington

At the start of our first rehearsal in February of that year, our music director asked the six new members to stand and be welcomed, and stressed that we all had “world-class” experience and had been accepted from a large pool into very few available spots. We were acknowledged appreciatively, and we got to work. I was officially a member of Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington.

It was an unparalleled experience. I was sure I was the singer they had let in by mistake — this group was so good! — but Norman had a way of making each singer feel as though his or her contribution was singular and irreplaceable, without which the group would be less. And he was obsessed with excellence. He would work the smallest section of a piece until it was perfect. He would do a seating chart for a concert — an inviolable document — and then tweak it by moving someone one seat to the left, or in front, to fine-tune the sound. Standards were higher than I had ever experienced.

And we presented some truly memorable concerts, sometimes including music I never thought we could master. I was introduced to the heartbreakingly beautiful works of Morten Lauridsen. We presented the North American premiere of Roberto Sierra’s wonderful Missa Latina, to substantial critical acclaim. We sang regularly with the National Symphony in the Kennedy Center and at Wolf Trap during the summer. We are the chorus you see when you watch A Capitol Fourth every Fourth of July, and often we were the chorus that helped present Kennedy Center Honors. A collaboration of choruses including ours presented Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 — the Symphony of a Thousand — in the Kennedy Center in Washington. We then joined with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus to present it in St. Paul’s Cathedral at the City of London Festival, a concert broadcast live via the BBC and from which a commercial recording was released.

Norman Scribner made us feel as though there was nothing we couldn’t master.

He also built the Choral Arts Society of Washington into a powerhouse organization during his 47 years there. The Kennedy Center hung a banner outside its concert hall entrance for the organization’s 40th anniversary, something it apparently never did for amateur organizations that used its space. Our holiday gala is a must-attend, at $450 a ticket, if you want to see and be seen in the Washington social scene. Unlike most amateur music organizations, Choral Arts has a multi-person full-time staff, and does not charge its singers any dues. (My current chorus charges each singer $125 a year, and some area choruses charge twice that. Most choruses charge their singers something.) His work behind the scenes to ensure the financial health of the organization was as significant as his skill on the podium.

Norman passed away last Sunday, March 22. (I can’t help thinking it’s not coincidence that I was singing a concert — Bach’s Mass in B Minor — at the time.) Here is The Washington Post‘s lovely obituary for him.

Norman’s greatest gifts to me as a singer were his obsession with excellence and his absolute conviction that we were capable of anything.

I didn’t realize it until later, but in a town full of choral singers and groups,
he made us exceptional.

As my former fellow chorister Glen Howard is quoted in Norman’s obituary as saying, “He’s like most great conductors: They make you give more than you think you have.”

I was never prouder of membership in any organization than I was of being in Choral Arts. My only regret is that I never took the opportunity to tell him how much that meant to me. Rest in peace, Maestro, and thank you.

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Originally published at eclisham.wordpress.com on March 25, 2015.

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