When I was 7 years old I joined the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and there I learned what has served as my musical foundation throughout my life.Thinking about Melody made me remember those early days singing, as a complete beginner, and those first few weeks and months of rehearsals every Monday and Wednesday afternoon in the SFGG Training Group…
I don’t remember my first conductor, but I do remember feeling very special, for some reason, after I was assigned to the 1st soprano section. I don’t know what it is about some of us soprano’s, but even at that early age, I had the distinct impression that we were the special ones…
Mostly because we can sing really really really high, much higher than anyone ELSE can, plus we get to sing the melody, which, I mean, it just so happens to be THE MAIN PART OF THE SONG! is all, So, you know, we must be pretty special…
(…such was my seven-year-old reasoning.)
I remember I was handed some sheet music I was expected to look at which immediately made me frustrated. I could read, of course, but I didn’t know what most of the notes meant. I didn’t know how I was supposed to follow along…but mostly I HATED that I couldn’t just automatically read the music.
How I was ever going to learn these songs is impossible if I am forced to look at music all the time that I can’t EVEN READ, already!!!
Hmph! This is very disappointing. (At this point, I’m sure some serious pouting was going on).
Also, how I would ever possibly learn to read these notes just by LOOKING at them? I’m pretty sure I can’t just FIGURE IT OUT, after all!! Someone is going to have to TEACH it to me, and when is THAT ever going to happen, because, it’s been 15 whole minutes already AND NO ONE’S EVEN EXPLAINED ANYTHING TO ME, and STILL!!
Hmph!This is very so annoying… (Definitely some more pouting).
After a few rehearsals, I did finally have music theory, which we then devoted a half an hour to, I think, every Monday and Wednesday, and eventually Friday.
I LOVE my two teachers who didn’t even make me look at my music sheet and instead taught mostly on a chalkboard..and I learned sign language called solfege which is very neat and also hard and besides I like it a lot, so there!
After this initial solfege memory, I think I had a similar experience learning to read music as I did learning to read. My Grandmother taught me how one summer when I was 5, before kindergarten, and I remember being very motivated because I hated having to ask what each word said and how to spell everything. I wanted to be able to read my mom’s letters and I wanted to write letters back and I hated not being able to do that, so I buckled down and made like a sponge, absorbing it all as quickly as I could. Consequently, I don’t remember when I suddenly knew enough words that I could actually read something besides See Jane run. T
The same is true for music. I have no real recollection of learning. I only know that somewhere along the way I could and by the following summer I had the basics down. I’d memorized all the time signatures, I knew the Circle of Fifths and note values, basic music dynamics and could transpose basic melodies on the piano and on the staff. I knew my clefs, much better than I do now, and was learning how to invert triads, which I thought was very cool…
But I was suffering from what many young singers suffer from, especially us sopranos, or those of us for whom music and singing come somewhat naturally. I was already lazy and undisciplined and I was only seven! I relied entirely on being able to hear the melody for figuring out where I was musical. I rarely counted and I started getting into trouble for not paying attention and talking too much during rehearsal. I didn’t like standing by the altos or 2nds because sometimes they threw me off and made me lose my place, which was embarrassing and made me impatient. Basically, I was skating.
Then Arden came to teach our class. She’s one of the only conductors I still remember. This might be because I studied voice with her later as a teenager, but I like to think it’s because when she was my conductor when I was still so very new, and what happened because of her in those early days of my musical experience, has shaped so much for me and started right at the beginning.
Now, The San Francisco Girls Chorus was pretty sedated, and there were definitely rules that I didn’t always remember to follow, and as I said, I got in trouble a lot for talking too much, and sometimes for being too loud. I got other girls in trouble too, for talking to them when I shouldn’t, and this definitely didn’t win me any points either. Consequently, I never established any close friends. They were mostly from a different world than I was, definitely more privileged, for the most part. Nearly all were from wealthy families. Often I was the only kid that went to public school and didn’t wear a school uniform, and I was such a tomboy that my rough-and-tumble t-shirt and jeans, always with rips in both knees, tennis shoes I was forever outgrowing and an adamant defiance against any skirts or dresses of any kind, if I could help it, certainly didn’t help.
I remember once going to the symphony with a couple of girls and their mother and showing up in my one dress from the summer before that no longer really fit, two big red newly scabbed knees and no band-aids, my Nike tennis shoes because they were the only shoe’s that somewhat fit. No jacket, no sweater, and no sleeves on my ill-fitting summer dress, at Davies Symphony Hall on Van Ness in my windy San Fransico city, just as the habitual late afternoon fog rolled its lumbering way in… Needless to say, I did not receive another invite to the Symphony again..I seem to remember the mother being somewhat embarrassed for me, or maybe herself, and withstanding some, not all that unfamiliar teasing for wearing tennis shoes with a dress.
Also, because I started out so young and at the time there were only three levels in the girl’s chorus, eventually I was in the concert group with the teenagers and I was only 10, so THAT didn’t help my popularity any. There were two of us, by then. There was a girl who was 9 and I was 10, and everyone else was at least 13,
But at least we get to sing all the best Descants that soar out over everything and for some reason are so very fun, even if mostly everything is in french or latin and very annoying… and also hard to remember. Mostly I just sing WATERMELON when I can’t remember my words, and we get to sing my favorite 2 songs ever: Kyrie and This Little Babe from a ceremony of carols. I love that one so much I could sing it all day long it’s so exciting!!.
(I definitely wasn’t ready for the Concert Group! However, I still love This Little babe!)
…But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Back to ArdenL
After a few weeks, she reassigned me…to the 2nd Alto Part!
This is so mortifying! Why did I get punished? What did I do that was so bad I have to sing in the basement with the low people? Why has she taken me off melody, and, you know, the LEAD part, and buried me deep in the basement where I couldn’t possibly sing because it is WAY TOO LOW FOR ME!!! anyway!
(this is something I made sure to announce loudly, and as often as possible, so she’d remember and move me back, which of course didn’t work at all.)
And suddenly, things weren’t so easy. If I couldn’t hear the girls next to me I couldn’t find my part, and sometimes I wasn’t sure which note to sing because I was used to looking at the top note, not having to dig into the middle and lower notes,
NOW sometimes I am actually having to read THE BASS CLEF WHEN I am SINGING! Oh, when will this horror ever end I hate this!!!? Why is my teacher torturing me?!!
After a few weeks Arden finally told me why she’d moved me, and of course, I now realize the colossal favor she did for me musically. She recognized the “Lazy Skate”, my skimming by with the least possible effort. She was familiar with the well-known curse of natural ability. I was coasting by on raw talent and nearly no skill, and in the soprano section, that’s a very easy thing to do. I could hide behind the identifiable melody without being required to actually use any real musical skill. I was surfacing the music. I had no innate understanding harmonically, couldn’t pick out the inner harmony to save my life. If it wasn’t the cursed melody, I had no idea where I was! Suddenly I had to start counting, too, because it wasn’t always that easy when I couldn’t rely on just instinctually knowing where and when to come in because I WAS SINGING THE MELODY! Now, what I was singing was sometimes even percussive, or rhythmically very different. Starting notes weren’t always discernable, I kept wanting to float back up to the comfortable territory on top, and always heard the melodic part first.
I had to sort of find myself off of that criterion initially, which meant doing something like retranslating my part in relation to its relation to the melody. If a piece was in A Major and the melody started on an A, but my note was a D#, I’d have to sing the notes down by step to find my note initially with any kind of confidence, which of course I couldn’t do in rehearsal, but I could do when I was practicing by myself. Then I started to recognize some intervals and chords. I could find the root of the fifth or the fourth, and ultimately started hearing the individual notes within a chord and could pick out or find the 6th or the minor 3rd, or whatever without needing to backtrack to the melody to find it. I could keep my key center. That was extremely helpful, and after I had my little meeting of the minds with Arden, I started enjoying this new challenge a little. Also, she said she wouldn’t move me back to the soprano section until my musicianship improved, so, again there was an incentive. As it turned out my hiatus buried in the basement (with the bass’s and the bass clef- that’s why I thought of it as the basement, for some reason!), which opened up a whole new world of harmony to my little ears, was short-lived, and I was back in happy melodic soprano land long before our next concert. Still, my love for harmony has stayed with me ever since.
That early foray into harmony helped shape my musical experience. Once I caught on to some of the elements of music that lay beyond just the Melody, I would spend countless hours in my dad’s studio, writing songs, transposing pieces, attempting to write down music I’d only learned by ear, and spent many hours at the piano figuring things out, which definitely helped my singing. Those countless hours engulfed in my own musical solitude is something I still miss.
…and I really wish I’d kept up the piano!!
I wanted to mention one other thing, While choral singing is all about harmony and the presence of each note in a chord makes or breaks the color of the piece and the interplay is more instrumental than vocal, in my opinion, each note key and vital, when singing a role or playing a part where I don’t have the “melody” a different set of skills is applied. In those instances, I often find I need to think of my part AS THE MELODY, not just a part interplaying with and off of the melodic line. With solo singing this is often the case, especially when on stage and telling a story.
…although, in classical music, sometimes the harmonies found in duets, trios, and ensembles are the best part and most fun to sing.
…At least in my opinion.