Working with an amateur ensemble is all about the relationship. Walking into rehearsal with the Strathaven Choral Society for the first time, I had realised that I personified all the questions and risks that it was possible to associate with a year-long commitment to a collaboration.
What was I going to do with their time? Was I going to steer them away from the musical enjoyment they were accustomed to enjoying every Monday night? Was I capable of communicating my musical intentions in a way which they could apply in their singing, or was I going to force them through a year of difficult, broken communication? At worst: would this be a year of something unwelcome and un-enjoyable invading these 45-or-so people’s much-loved musical activity? The risk was great. For most members of an amateur ensemble, this is probably a major – if not the major – investment of their spare time and musical endeavour. How many of us have time to commit seriously to two amateur ensembles..?
I’ve already mentioned biscuits elsewhere. Choose them well! Tea break is the time for all the members to catch up with each other and, if you facilitate it, get to know you. I remember during my first visit to the SCS making a concerted effort to introduce myself individually to every single person there, even if only briefly.
One lady remarked on the All Butter Scottish Shortbread I had brought, and with a spray of crumbs I babbled something about how once I’ve opened a packet I can’t leave it, so 'I never have them in the house'. Clearly the mouthful of delicious shortbread I was talking through had obscured the first half of my message, as she replied: 'Ah, so you can’t buy them in England?' Misunderstanding aside, I’ve been involved in enough amateur orchestra tea breaks to know that the biscuits were appreciated (and of course it’s not really about the biscuits). It was apparent that these small gestures showing that you know why members are there translate into a trust in your intention to protect the arena into which you’ve been invited. And remember that even though you’re getting paid, you are an invitee.
Names. It’s easy to stand up in front of a group with which you - as an individual - will be working, and see them as a single unit. A group of musicians. A choir. At times, you need to do this; however, you as a person also represent the question of a personal relationship, for every individual in the group. 45 individuals turn up on a Monday night, and for 3 hours they pull together as an identified unit. 'I sing in a choir on a Monday', 'I practise the parts in-between'... it’s easy to forget that your relationship with the choir is actually just an umbrella over your 45 relationships, one with each member.
Remember names. Talk to every person, even if there’s only time for a ‘Hello’ and a ‘How are you’. The strength of the relationship between you and the ensemble is seen at least partly in the context of the relationship between you and whichever ensemble member is looking at it.
Now, I won’t beat around the bush: the piece I wrote for the SCS was hard. I asked them to do something they had never done before, namely for singers to sing at their own individual pace, i.e. deliberately not singing in time with those around them. I asked them to perform without a piano, in a piece which often didn’t use ‘Classical’ harmony. I crossed my fingers while writing it and hoped that I’d pitched it at the right level that, while hard, they would rise to the challenge and it would be achievable and enjoyable, while stretching them. While I sit here pleased with the piece I wrote, and feeling that I more-or-less got that balance right, if I’m proud of one specific thing from the whole of Adopt A Composer it’s actually something else...
On the day of the performance, between rehearsal and concert, I joined approximately half the choir for a meal in Glasgow. The final rehearsal had gone really well, the choir had clearly been practising hard between rehearsals as well as at them, the acoustic in St. Mary’s Cathedral was wonderful, and the choir’s beautiful voices were milking it tremendously. I was feeling slightly elated that they had indeed risen to the challenge, had stretched themselves, and were doing the piece justice.
But what really made me feel good was what three members of the choir said to me in the restaurant. Clearly there was an element of some tension having been lifted, as the rehearsal had gone so well. In the midst of discussing how the rehearsal had just gone, feelings about how the concert would go, and talking our way back over the year to date, three members of the choir revealed to me that at some point in the last few weeks they had hated my piece, and that this feeling had been fairly widespread in the choir! (bit of background here: at the time referred to, rehearsals weren’t going well and there was a lot of worry about getting the piece polished in time).
You may expect that hearing this made me feel terrible, but it actually made me feel great! I was so pleased that our relationship had grown strong enough that these people felt able to tell me that they had actually hated my piece for a while (I’d like to add: this was before it all clicked and they gave a tremendous run-through in the final rehearsal). We all know that a great friend is one who can tell us when they’re angry or upset, that a great relationship is one which allows strong feelings to be aired without fear of it breaking. When these choir members told me that there had been a moment (albeit brief) of such strongly negative feeling towards my piece, I knew that all the important hard work over the year had paid off, and that we had formed a strong relationship together.
I had shared with them that the relatively recent death of my mother had had a strong influence on my piece: perhaps me sharing my feelings with them had brought us closer together... Perhaps it was writing the piece about their local history; perhaps it was trying to make friends with as many of them as possible; perhaps it was the biscuits...
Strange as it may seem, I went into the concert that evening with the words '...we hated your piece' ringing in my ears and the biggest imaginable smile on my face. The choir gave my piece every ounce of their energy and musicality. They gave it a year of commitment in their spare time. They gave me feelings of friendship, understanding, and approval which I cherish and feel vividly as I write this, along with the memories of a great relationship.