Carnegie Mellon’s School of Music turned 100 this year, and to celebrate the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic and the choirs did two big concerts: one in Pittsburgh, one at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Singing is one of the many things I do when I’m not thinking about anything else. I sing to keep myself company; I sing to time my walks; I sing in choirs because when I don’t, I sing on the bus, and not everyone wants to hear me belting folk music on the 10:05pm bus.
I have a big enough voice that I can sing opera and be heard over an orchestra so for around the last 10 years I’ve been training classically. Don’t get me wrong: I love to sing opera, I love the melodrama, I love the pageantry. But when I think of living my life as a musician by vocation rather than avocation, all I can see are decades of barely making rent, rehearsing the same notes over and over for a pushy director, and not have the choices I want to have.
I also have this sneaking suspicion that I can change the world for the better if I focus on my other talents–writing, public speaking, research, being a pain in the butt until it’s easier for authority figures to do what I want than continue to fight me. Pushing for human rights, women’s rights, a world where our plumbing doesn’t determine how safe or free or happy we’ll be.
But sitting in Carnegie Hall, rehearsing for last Monday’s concert, I finally realized why my choir-mates do music professionally: sometimes, there is something more important than rights. There is something effulgent about that space, about standing up with 100 other people to sing, about passing on a message from a dead Russian composer to an audience of 500. There’s a commitment to communication, a lightness of spirit, a sad joy in speaking with my entire body.
Even the repetitive rehearsals served a profound purpose in preparing me for that final concert: when I stood to sing the Gershwin and the Borodin, I had nothing to think about but my message. I knew where to put my feet, where to point my breath, when to focus my eyes on the conductor and when to find my audience’s eyes. I knew everything but how the music would affect me in those moments.
I find classical music hard to listen to for fun: it feels useless. Pop makes me feel something; folk tells a story that needs telling; blues gives a tone for mourning and gospel a place for joy. There’s something that feels unnecessarily finicky about any music which doesn’t have a melody. It feels like the composers have abdicated their responsibility to reach into the bodies of their audiences and pulling out rarely deep feelings and are instead fiddling with themselves. It doesn’t have to be that way. here a version of the song I linked to in the last post done entirely on the cello, and tell me it doesn’t dig into your sinuses:
The exception for me is when I’m singing the classical music: then I get the emotions, then I hear the soul of composers trying to reach audiences they would never meet. I’m surrounded by the intent of the creator, the efforts of other singers, the hope of the audience that this performance will transport them. When I’m not singing, it all feels a little contrived.
5 years ago, after attending my first choir practice with the impressive and inspiring and imposing Dr Robert Page, I wrote a post wondering whether studying the anatomy of my art would stop me from being able to enjoy it. Dr Page had read us a passage from Mark Twain about the dangers of learning too much:
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?
–Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
I still find joy in singing, though after college I plan to dig more into folk again since that’s where I find my center. But after that concert, I think I understand better why my classmates have chosen to dedicate their lives to music.
“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”–Berthold Auerbach