On Singing Softly
Six hours of painstaking rehearsal notes with our Mexican Coro de Mineria friends on the Verdi Requiem: we are exhausted, but happy.
As all 80+ singers crammed together, we sat literally shoulder to shoulder. “I hope you enjoy being close,” Philip said after we greeted one another warmly. “Because that’s how we have to sit!”
Samuel Pascoe, the director of the Mexican Coro de Mineria, began with a simple warm-up. Each voice part took a note in a major triad and sustained. We listened to the voices around us; we heard ourselves as a combined choir for the first time. “Up a half step!” he said, and we all shifted, each of us on our notes, taking the whole triad structure from E flat to E. To keep the chord intact, we had to listen to one another, all of us tuning to the basses.
We continued to sustain. Samuel said, “now half that volume.” We got softer. And then he said, “ Now half of that.” We struggled to keep our pitches true while singing softly, keeping the air flowing, listening. You sing that quietly and you’re listening to your neighbor’s voice more than your own.
This is the challenge of many of the most intense sections in Verdi’s Requiem. Philip began with the first movement, giving us comments from Maestro Prieto whom we will sing for on Wednesday. The first movement boasts dynamics such as p (piano—soft), pp (pianissimo—very soft), ppp (pianississimo—there’s a baby in the room and if you wake it, you will pay), and even pppp and ppppp (your shoelaces are too loud, your pulse is making too much noise, your eyelashes are making a horrible racket). Philip told us that Maestro Prieto gave this direction: “sing if the light is going away.”
How do you sing ppppp?
I asked many singers this question, both American and Mexican. Some said it’s breath. Some said it’s the difference between phonating and not, maybe even dropping out and letting your seatmate carry the note. Others said it’s a state of mind, understanding the sound not as traveling outward but rather as internal.
The warm-up exercise that Samuel had given us led us to this state of mind. Pppp isn’t just a dynamic; it’s a different kind of consciousness. And in long sustained passages, we are doing staggered breathing, a technique of listening for when your neighbors need to breathe and holding the note for them, then breathing while your neighbors in turn hold the note for you. Listening to other voices more than your own, you become aware of others’ needs and sounds, while feeling a softness inside your own heart. This was our day: listening to others’ voices, holding one another up.
“Singing makes us all vulnerable,” Philip said. “The instrument is invisible, inside us, and you’re never sure what’s going to come out.” It’s true that singing means sharing something unpredictable and inside you with other people, often strangers. There’s something spectral about the voice, the soul coming out of the body. And when the sound is that soft, you are even more vulnerable. We eighty stood vulnerable together and sang softer than our shoelaces.
Painstakingly, Philip led us movement by movement, giving us Maestro Prieto’s notes while Samuel translated some things into Spanish for the Coro. These detailed rehearsals are grueling, but not without levity. “Don’t make the Lacrymosa too gooey,” Maestro had had asked Philip to tell us. How do you say “gooey” in Spanish? We delighted ourselves in trying to pantomime “gooey.”
Another time, Philip said, “In this measure, basses, Prieto wants you to sound like terrified sinners.” Samuel quipped to the basses, “You know. Normal.”
And the more tired Philip gets, the more apt he is to attempt singing the soprano solo part. Or better yet, the first violin parts. My friends, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard this gloriousness.
We sat American, Mexican, American, Mexican. My seatmate and I discovered that language we really have in common is French, so we gabbed at break en francais. Two of the sopranos, one Mexican, one American, and never having met before, realized they had a mutual friend. We all embraced the friends we sang with last year, talked about other singing projects, our cats.
At the end of the day, the Ensemble Singers sang a little for the Coro: “The Day Is Done” by Stephen Paulus and “La Cucaracha” arranged by Robert Sund. Philip told them, “We are here because we want to build community, and there is no better way than music to do that.” The Coro stamped and cheered.
Tomorrow, we see a bit of the city before an afternoon Ensemble Singers rehearsal and evening concert.
Until then, may your community be rich, and may you hear one another’s voices in your own soft heart as you hold one another up.
In case you missed it, check out Postcards from Mexico-Day 1 HERE.