wandering singers
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 45
    Heard some polyphony at a church, 1 singer to a part. One of the voices, perhaps about 25-30 percent of the time - it certainly felt like more - would lose the thread of the part, both rhythmically and melodically, but still kept on singing, sort of wandering off in a faltering voice. This interposed all sorts of odd dissonances into the otherwise lovely 16th century pieces. At times they felt like they were written in the 21st century...

    As a pewsitter at this Mass I was dreading each time they would sing again.

    It boggled my mind. I didn't know the DM, but if your choir cannot sing polyphony, program something easier. If it's an issue with a single person, then someone who can only sing the right notes 70 percent of the time should not be asked to carry his own part in complex polyphony. I'm trying to understand how this still got programmed even after the difficulties presumably heard in rehearsal. If it's about not offending the offending chorister, then I hope the DM understands this comes with the price of making everyone else at Mass listen to unlistenable music. If the DM thinks this was an acceptable level of music making, then...I'm not sure what to say.

    In any case, I genuinely worry about this Mass. Clearly polyphony is being tried, so there's an attempt to make things beautiful. But doing it like this is far worse than not doing it at all.

    Anyways, rant over. Just felt like I had to get that off my chest.
    Thanked by 1Jim_Goeddel58
  • It is possible that the offending singer was a late substitution and simply tried his best to "hang" with the other singers. Or the singer didn't know to stop when he "lost the plot". Or, the DM perhaps was too committed to singing the piece despite the deficiency. That's always a tough call, imho, for a DM. 3/4 of a choir may be ready and excited about a piece, and the remaining 1/4 may be unready and apprehensive.

    I am almost always in favor of giving a difficult piece a try, even though it may not come off well. But I take your point about the dangers of insufficiently rehearsed and indifferently performed polyphony.
    Thanked by 1m_r_taylor
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,101
    I NEVER take musical 'risks' at a liturgy. If you can't do it, do something you know. Pushing the limits of a choir into risky territory during a liturgy is simply abuse. Nuff said.
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 6,616
    ...is far worse..
    While I agree with the tenor of your comment, the bass line is that I will disagree on this one point. I would rather hear poorly done good music any day than 'well done' junk - sacro-pop. I will give this valiant little choir an A for effort. (Who knows? The piece may have gone well in rehearsal. This happens.)

    About this particular wandering singer, would you not think that he or she was wondering as he was wandering?

    Too, they may have been using a Stravinsky edition.
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 45
    While I agree with the tenor of you comment, I will, oddly, disagree on this point. I would rather hear poorly done good music any day than 'well done' junk - sacro-pop.


    Well, the alternatives I would have had in mind, besides having a frank conversation with the offending singer, would be to program three-part polyphony and having him double the other male part, if he absolutely has to participate.

    Or stick to Gregorian chant. Or fauxbourdon. Or some of the simpler but appropriate and reverent CMAA efforts of recent years.

    At the very least have something tried, tested, beautiful, and doable in your back pocket - chant for example - so that you can pull it out on the day if your noble efforts at more complex stuff aren't quite realised yet.

    About this particular wandering singer, would you not think that he or she was wondering as he was wandering?


    I was certainly wondering where he was wandering.

    Too, they may have been using a Stravinsky edition.


    Stravinsky! Yes! That's the sound it was reminding me of! Him or perhaps Charles Ives.
  • cesarfranck
    Posts: 78
    Sometimes it is simply better to drop back and punt. This is particularly true with volunteer choirs. Always have not just a plan B, but plans C and D at rehearsal. There are so many scenarios when this is the best option -- a necessary voice is missing, it is a snow day, choir seems to have a memory lapse... I drop back and punt on Sundays at least two or three times a year. Go back to the music you eliminated and use it at another liturgy.
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 6,616
    ...it is a snow day...
    Where, oh where, blessed one, do you live!
    Tell me that I might go there.
    Could you just throw a snowball in the direction of Houston.
    Thanked by 1cesarfranck
  • cesarfranck
    Posts: 78
    I live in a small city in the coastal Carolinas. I suppose "snow day" was meant to include extremely bad weather or storms. Due to our lack of infrastructure, bad weather brings us to a grinding halt a few times a year. Wish I could throw that far! Next time I visit my uncle in Dallas, I will throw a snow cone in your direction! Our heat and humidity have on occasion sent us at last minute to the parish Hall for mass due to failure of the air conditioning in our church. That is definitely punting time.
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,860
    We do have some snow in East TN, but not enough that the cities make huge investments in clearing it away. They get the main roads, but things pretty much come to a halt for a day or two when it snows, because we all know it will melt soon.

    I would like to find the source of the mystery illness that strikes choir members between Wednesday rehearsal and Sunday morning. Maybe I am gifted with good health, but have difficulty understanding how anyone's health can deteriorate that fast. Some of our Sunday music suffers from the members who don't show up because of the mystery illness. But they are are volunteers and I suppose I should be grateful most of them come at all. It's not like I have replacements for them.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,347
    Of course, too, sometimes life (or another four-letter word) happens. I have been involved in many performances over the years (in church and in concerts), where something went flawlessly at the last rehearsal (which could include the warm-up before said performance) but when the time came, someone got nervous (especially if its the first-time out for a new piece--there has to be a first-time at some point), skipped a page too far ahead, got distracted by a kid getting too close to the loft railing, or just had a brain-fart, with the consequences that the OP describes. Sometimes it's not bad singers, bad directors, bad planning, or bad weather : Sometimes it's just life.
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 6,616
    ...illness that strikes..
    And, yes, Charles, this illness, call it chorophobia or some such, seems only to affect their participation in choir. It doesn't seem to keep them from other activities.
  • CatherineS
    Posts: 127
    I will admit to wandering off the melody in a solo verse of gregorian chant on Pentecost Sunday. I practiced it all week, it went flawlessly at rehearsal and at the morning Mass, but when I repeated it at noon I was tired, got distracted, lost my place, lost an interval, landed on some other note, and it took me a few moments of 'fake it til you make it' until I managed to find myself again. Given the melody was very unfamiliar in the first place I don't think anyone in the congregation noticed. Had I been singing with other people at that moment I would have 'faded out' until I'd found my place and then 'faded in' again, or waited for the next phrase and joined back in. Sometimes choir members might need to learn "emergency" techniques, perhaps not really knowing what to do if they get lost except 'try to keep going'?
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,347
    I will admit to wandering off the melody in a solo verse of gregorian chant.

    It happens. I'm in a really odd RotR parish, I sing the antiphons in English every day (except on my day off, Monday, and the Saturday night anticipated "vigil" Mass), usually from Fr. Weber or Adam Bartlett, and have been doing it for years (since 2012--my goodness, has it been that long?!), and I will have "a moment" here and there, even though I've been singing these things for years. In fact, there was a week at the beginning of Lent this year where I just could not seem to be able to sing anything in mode 8! Why? I don't know! Third base!
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 45
    I haven't been to this particular Mass in a long while so I don't know whether it's a regular feature of Sunday Mass or not. I'll hopefully be able to return and learn if that was a one-off or if every Sunday is an off day. :P
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,772
    One of the first things a choir director learns is that an awful lot depends on the strength of plan D. That said, I can't sympathize with the view that in order to avoid ugly scaffolding we're better off without cathedrals: every choir is a work in progress.
  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 1,252
    Solo singing enables one to take liberties; or make errors which very few in the pews are likely to notice. OTOH I am just trying to recover from a rehearsal of our (unauditioned) community choir in which I think the eight basses were at times singing eight different notes for the one on the score.
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 45
    I do wonder if it counts as a skill to know when you are lost and to know then to simply stop until you are confident of coming back in again correctly. Byrd with a voice missing is perfectly acceptable in comparison to improvised approximations. In choirs I have been in in the past this was never specifically mentioned, but I have found it necessary in some moments as a singer to do that when lost.
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,664
    Yes. Having been a hornist for years in my "yout", as it were, legendarily the most mistake-prone instrument in the orchestra (courtesy of a combination of humiliations of the instrument's design), musicianship very much requires humiliations to be borne with professional humility.

    From a thread from 5 years ago about deacons blowing the Exultet/Exsultet:

    https://forum.musicasacra.com/forum/discussion/comment/120771#Comment_120771
  • Richard R.
    Posts: 656
    I can state with some authority that the piece in question was what I would consider to be a standard piece of Renaissance polyphony, one which a skilled amateur choir should be able to render in a couple rehearsals, and one which a group of paid professionals should be able to execute, at the very least, adequately at sight. I am prepared to give singers some benefit of some doubt for lapses, but this was well beyond any acceptable number of lapses, veering into the territory of blatant incompetence. No one should expect to be paid for that level of singing. No director should even consider asking such a singer back. If we are so desperate that we throw money around, just to cover parts, then we really should give up and settle for Low Mass. Or let the very competent (almost exclusively volunteer) chant schola cover everything.
    Thanked by 2m_r_taylor CHGiffen
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,772
    Ah, this was a paid quartet? Rookie mistakes should happen a single time. I'm reminded of my second job where the pastor asked for something really big on 2 weeks notice and I settled on a player who was the student of the friend of the second recommendation of a horn player I knew and trusted :-0
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 45
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  • Carol
    Posts: 440
    On a similar topic, sometimes I hear that the person singing next to me and I are not really in tune but I cannot be totally certain which of us is off. I have very good relative pitch, but not perfect pitch so it could be me. I usually drop out until I can hear the accompaniment and get my pitch that way. Is there some other way to handle it? Singing louder to drown the other person out does not seem like a smart option.
    Thanked by 1Elmar
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 1,482
    The groups who record so beautifully 1-on-a-part generally sing together regularly. Even London pick-up groups tend to draw from the same people. I've got some "wander" from professionals, but it was a situation where I couldn't afford a separate rehearsal, and we all think we know the music better than we do. Carlo Rossini used to insist on a minimum average of 5-to-a-part. I laughed at him until I started working with amateurs.