Afraid to Bach it up
I’m singing alto in a choir for the first time ever. Until this September when these rehearsals started, I had always sung soprano. It is a very different game – wonderful, rich, rewarding but also anxiety provoking and demanding. A group of local musicians, some amateur and brilliant, others semi-professional and experienced have come together to prepare and perform Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This experience has allowed me a great deal of growth and reflection, not to mention gratitude for this exquisite music.
Bach wrote his Christmas Oratorio in 1734. It is in six parts which relay the biblical story of the nativity from the birth of Jesus, to the adoration of the shepherds, to the journey of the Magi. Originally each part was performed on one of the major feast days of the Christmas period, between December 25 and January 6 (in 1734-35). Bach composed this like an opera requiring an orchestra, four soloists and a choir all working together to communicate the text and articulate the harmonies. In its entirety it takes almost three hours to perform. We will be singing it in English with two short intermissions.
This was a brand new work to me. I had heard several of the cantatas, and had sung two of the chorales (as a soprano), but I had never seen or heard a performance of the full work. Holy sight reading, Batman (or should I say Bach-man)! Growth factor number one: I have always struggled with sight reading. When I sang my grade ten RCM exam, I failed the musicianship section twice because I couldn’t make it through the sight reading test. I understand now that for me this has more to do with brain fog and anxiety than skill, and I am actively confronting my limiting beliefs about sight reading. But I have certainly been called to develop my skills in a new way. I have learned that altos need to listen to the other parts to find our note within the chord – I didn’t really do that as a soprano, I just floated on top of the other parts and followed the shape of the melody line. Now, I understand what is happening musically, holistically, harmonically and how I fit in to Bach’s brilliance. I feel more connected to the music and to the team of singers. I imagine myself as a plumy velvet curtain of sound within a dancing rainbow of baroque joy – that’s just how it is when you think in pictures!
Growth factor number two: there was also the nagging voice of perfectionism to deal with. She came with me to the first few rehearsals and sat beside me in that alto section. My poor fellow bench mates; it must have felt so crowded with both of us there, fighting and distracted. Self-doubt, unreasonable expectations, excuses and ‘shoulda-coulda-wouldas’ were lady perfectionism’s way of protecting me from exposure as a real life human being learning something new. Until we had it out in the car one Saturday on the way to rehearsal… I cried, I tapped, I cursed and swore and I was late for rehearsal. But I also made peace with my journey of learning this work, and I confessed it. I told the group that I had never seen this before, that I had never sung alto before, that I was struggling even though I was practicing at home, and that I was so glad to be there to learn. I thought that because I am some sort of university music person I should be able to handle anything musical with no practice – I’m sure Bach would be rolling his eyes if he heard me say that. And things just kind of changed after that. Practice at home was easier, I was able to actually listen and absorb things during rehearsal, and the other altos were super helpful and gracious. I’m not afraid of messing it up anymore.
What a beautiful journey. Thank you Herr Bach. Thank you patient, nurturing fellow altos. Thank you Christmas season. This glorious work will be performed on Sunday November 26 at 7:00pm at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Uxbridge.