It’s hard to believe it’s been 3 weeks since we wrapped up Say it Ain’t So Joe. I still walk around singing snippets, and the experience definitely topped my list for the most gratifying project this season, and will likely be part of the all-time best. The composer set up an experience that pretty much guaranteed we’d be making the best music we could.
Curtis, said composer, brought us up to the beautiful lakes region in New Hampshire, where we stayed right on the shore of Newfound Lake, enjoying some canoeing, swimming, and mosquito swatting. Our fridges were stocked for breakfast, and a local chef made us delicious meals that were heavy on the vegetables. It might seem like an extravagance for a self-produced project, but happy musicians make for good performances, and I think Curtis was happy with the result. Instead of staying on our own in Boston, making our way to recordings and rehearsals, and barely seeing each other elsewhere, we socialized and made music as a group, without cliques, gripes about the commute, or scorching summer heat.
Each day meant a leisurely breakfast in our cabins, a productive morning of rehearsing or recording with our incredibly kind conductor Jeffrey Means, lunch time spent playing with Jen Ashe’s baby and maybe practicing for the next session, then on to more of the same in the evening, finishing with beers and laughs by the lake.
And the actual music making? Most of us had premiered the piece in 2009, put together as a fully staged production without a conductor and with what felt like too few rehearsals. It was revelatory to sing with the score in front of us, and be able to rely on Jeff for the real tempos. It was my first time recording as a group, and I was a bit skittish coming in to it. Would I be the one responsible for take after take? Could I sing this the way I’d like to, having learned it two years earlier?
In the friendly atmosphere I soon realized that the recordings weren’t an extended audition, but an exercise in team work worthy of a corporate training retreat. (If businessmen could be quickly taught to sing, play, and conduct some pretty thorny music.) I was at my best when I focused entirely breathing with the others from across the room, internalizing their parts, focusing on each musical moment as it came, and allowing my part to join the flow. I felt people doing same, especially the instrumentalists who had the thankless task of jumping in for three notes in the middle of a quintuplet. Solo singing gives the illusion that it’s every man for himself, when really we’re all in this together.
I noticed how the physical sensations in a recording session are different than performance. I had to keep track of my distance to the microphone, singing toward it while still keeping an eye on Jeff, and staying very conscious of any extra noise I might be making with my body: loud breaths, hands in pockets, foot shuffling, or snickering when Aliana hammed it up as an emotive Sarah Palin.
Singers with perfect pitch, I imagine, must feel like a decorated war hero, leading the rest of us into battle without a flinch. Jen, who sang the role of Sarah Palin II (more ‘reality-based’ than Aliana’s part, you could say) has the gift, and performed with the consistency of a celebrity chef. Those of us without perfect pitch, i.e., me, have two choices: follow others with desperation, or figure out another way to be super confident of the notes.
My relative sense of pitch generally works when I’m in the middle of negotiating a phrase, but to jump in on the right note – especially in some of my tiny entrances as the debate moderator – I find that muscle memory does most of the work. Seeing a note, knowing – relatively – what it sounds like, and being able to feel it before I sang it got me through the piece. Otherwise, all it took was a ‘click your heels together’ faith that it really was coming together, and tuning into the happy sensation that everyone in the room is on your side too.