Sacred Service

I’ve spent a lot of time recently learning Hebrew. Well, not really learning it, but learning how to pronounce it. The clunky consonants, unusual vowel pronunciations and that “ch” sound that feels like scraping a piece of paper across the roof of your mouth have caused me to develop a whole new respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters who speak Hebrew fluently for their bar- and bat-mitzvahs. Even the word amen is pronounced differently. “Ah-Main” instead of “Ah-Men.”

The chorale that I sing with is preparing a performance of Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service,” written in the early 1930’s and described on the title page as “A Sabbath Morning Service according to the Union Prayer Book.” I think all of us were intimidated by a score of 90-plus pages of Hebrew, very little of which is repetitive, not to mention the fact that the music is rhythmically complex and just plain difficult. I sit with my laptop listening to a downloaded file that goes through the music phrase-by-phrase, first pronouncing the words slowly and distinctly, followed by a sung rendition from a somewhat wobbly-voiced quartet. Kind of like Rosetta Stone for Hebrew.

hebrew-105435_1280

I’ve sung a lot of sacred works – masses and requiems and glorias, the great Bach “B Minor Mass” and “Christmas Oratorio” and of course, the “Messiah,” all of which have biblical texts but heavily slanted toward the New Testament. This is the first time I have ever sung music intended for, in the composer’s own words, “the congregation of the Children of Israel.”

It is heart-wrenchingly beautiful, holy music. A solo baritone cantor, requiring a truly virtuosic singer, soars above the orchestra and is interwoven with the choral parts throughout the entire work. The texts are powerful hymns of praise to God and interestingly, the translations not unfamiliar words— “We adore Thee and worship Thee, and we bow the head before Thee.” “He the King of the Kings of Kings.” “For all things in heav’n and earth are Thine.”

Ernst Bloch

Bloch, like us, knew no Hebrew when he was commissioned to compose the piece but according to program notes, “embarked upon intense study of the text” and intended to express “not only the literal meanings of the Hebrew words but their widest possible connotations.” He even insisted that one movement always be sung in the native language of the country where it was being performed to make sure the audience understood the message. He chose not to just skim the surface of the text, but present it in all its depth and complexity, and it is our job as choral musicians to do the same thing. We have our work cut out for us.

We spend hours of rehearsal time, grinding through the music, sometimes note-by-note, singing sections at painfully slow tempos just to get some grasp of the rhythm. We gather in small groups to sing excerpts as our director circulates through the room listening for wrong notes and hesitant Hebrew. We stand in circles so that we can watch and listen to each other, gleaning help from another singer when we falter and smiling with our eyes when we make it through a difficult passage without a mistake.

In mid-April, a combined choir of 120 voices will sing the “Sacred Service” accompanied by a world-class regional orchestra. Many of the choir members are local college students for whom this may be their first exposure to music, or anything else, representing the Jewish faith. That’s probably true for most of us adult singers as well. The orchestra conductor himself is Jewish, and I suspect the opportunity for him to present this magnificent work goes way beyond artistic interpretation of notes on the page.

We frequently hear about the power of music and its ability heal a troubled world, to help us figure out a way to talk to each other and more importantly, how to listen to each other. One of the articles I read about Bloch mentioned that he announced at the tender age of nine, “I would compose music that would bring peace and happiness to mankind!” If only it were that simple.

I must get back to practicing since I am still struggling with the fifth movement. I want to learn this to the best of my abilities. I owe that to the chorale, the music directors, the audience. I owe that to the faithful people for whom this work is their “Messiah,” their Vivaldi “Gloria.”  And, to be honest, it’s kind of cool to learn a foreign language and a different way of praising God from a piece of music.

There is something to be said for immersing oneself in new learning, not only to preserve artistic integrity but to respect another culture or religious tradition. It would be a travesty for the “Sacred Service” to be performed in English, and yes, it’s hard work to learn the Hebrew, but that effort places us in the temple, shoulder to shoulder and voice to voice with our Jewish brethren, all worshipping God together. We develop the skills we need to sing with those who may be different from us rather than standing in the corner with crossed arms and an angry face, steadfastly refusing to learn a new song.

 Jewish worship

 

 

 

Learning Again

I find it both exhilarating and scary to be a student at my age. I don’t mean just learning from travel and nice little lectures offered at the local college. I mean going for it full-force. Cranking out a product for someone else to evaluate when it’s not required for a degree or a job promotion. When there’s no “have to” involved. To risk criticism and even failure simply because you want to learn to do something you’ve never done before, or you want to get better at something you’ve done forever. 

Two years ago, I started taking on-line writing classes at an exploratory level and discovered I really enjoyed the genre known as creative non-fiction, which applies techniques of fictional story-telling to actual events and can encompass everything from full-length memoirs to personal essays. I’ve worked with a local writing coach and attended my first writers’ conference where I sucked up seminars like the proverbial sponge and had an opportunity to meet a favorite author in person. (I also found writers to be a much less cranky group than the typical crowd at music educator conferences.)  

Currently I’m taking an on-line class with students who are far better writers than I am. The instructor is very supportive and although I have yet to submit my work for peer review because I’m too intimidated, I know this class is taking my skills to another level. As I read the work of experienced writers, the more critical I become of my own work and the more I strive to improve. I am so grateful that there is still time and still room in my head for this to happen at age 60.

The other place where I find myself pushing the learning envelope is with choral singing. Unlike writing, I have been a choral singer and professional music educator for my entire adult life. So, we’re talking about stuff firmly established in my wheelhouse. 

A little over a year ago, my husband and I made the difficult choice to leave our current choral group and audition for what might be considered the premier vocal ensemble in our region, if not the state. It was a gamble for people like us on the far side of 50.

We were accepted and welcomed into the orbit of a conductor who would pick up our voices like old rugs, take them outside and give them a good shake. Who would transform our been-there-done-that piece-three-times-wake-me-when-it’s-over mentality to “My God, this song is gorgeous. Where has this music been all my life?”

To say this conductor has revitalized and re-energized our passion for choral singing is an understatement. I find myself hearing her voice in my head, every time I sing, especially when I’m with my church choir and have to sing soprano. We have rediscovered what it means to practice and what it feels like to once again be inspired by a teacher. We are surrounded by singers who are younger and better than us. We must bring our A game to every rehearsal and performance.

Susquehanna Chorale 2017

I guess that’s my point. Where in the aging instruction book does it say, stop giving your best? Where does it say, just keeping on keeping on is good enough? While our bodies are still functional, why should we drop down to our B or C game? Yes, it’s scary to step out into uncharted territory. I cringe every time I hit the submit button on a piece I’ve written, knowing that it will probably get rejected but that means I must write it better the next time. I worry that I’m going to forget part of the memorized piece in the concert especially when there’s syncopated clapping involved, (Rhythm was never my strong suit.) but that means I must practice it yet again. I find I have to push back hard against the forces of complacency that say, “Stay safe. Stay comfortable. Just keep doing what you know you can do. Why work so hard when you don’t have to?”

Because the process feels good. It means I’m not stagnant, that there’s movement beneath the surface, even if that movement is mostly flailing. And sometimes there are rewards. The reward of singing with a group in which our voices are worked like dough in the master baker’s hands—mixed and kneaded and given time to rise and rest until the most delicate and sumptuous creation comes out of the oven. The reward of a writing mentor reading one of my pieces and saying, “This makes me just want to slam my head on the table and say, why I couldn’t I have written that?” The reward of a letter written in a shaky hand sent to my church after a piece I wrote was published on a denominational website, asking for more of my essays. Umm—I’m a beginner. I don’t really have a collection yet. But I’m working on it.