Voices in Vulnerability
About a year and a half ago, I was commissioned by my now brother in law to orchestrate a romantic proposal for my sister. With our shared vision for a shared presence in our musical heritage through HALO as an organization, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to bring together the gentlemen I’d first had in mind for Hennessy- a “brother” quartet for HALO. Calling upon some of the finest singers and musicians I knew, who had performed with various orchestras and with the Washington Opera, I was so excited to hear what would come together. When we gathered, however, I was surprised to watch them struggle with this different style of music and singing. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to reflect on the very heavily-nurtured entrance I had into the world of barbershop music through Epic and remember that singing barbershop was actually quite challenging. What had become a second musical home to me, I realized, was the result of a LOT of practice.
I confess, then, that I did sort of forget having turned over in my head what a challenge it would be to bring together a whole chorus of people not experienced with barbershop, or perhaps any style of singing to a professional degree– which again, I learned doesn’t necessarily facilitate adaptation to its musical idioms. So this past Sunday, when we gathered with the plan to focus more of our session time on learning the last refrain we would sing together of “We Shall Overcome,” I was a little surprised again. But I re-settled, remembering the rationale that was actually inspired by my appreciation for the difficulty of this music— which, paradoxically, appeals to professionals and dilettantes, alike. I only hoped that we could make it to discovering this rationale together without anyone bolting from the room, overwhelmed with unanticipated struggle.
And struggle, we did. The lead line starts simply enough, with the traditional melody moving through, with gentle embellishments. The ending, however, extends through a more evocative harmonic progression that is challenging for all of the voices– even the lead. Jasmine and Niambi sang to support the leads and baritones while I hoped the tenors could hang on to what I sang through with them twice before so that I could play the bass part on the piano. (The arrangement is in a key for men’s voices, so singing down there was out of the question for us!) The challenge of learning all the parts was augmented in the challenge of attempting to sing them together- a room full of willing voices, new to barbershop. Landing on the tag we’d sung the first two sessions was quite a relief; the simple, hymn-like resolve was a welcome breath of fresh air of chords that finally lined up with some stable intonation.
We had our intentions for what this experience would reveal, but we also knew that it was the group dynamic upon which such a revelation would depend. The group gathered back into a circle, facing in. And we opened the floor for discussion and reflection. “So- let’s talk about what just happened there!” I prompted, nervously.
“That was hard.”
“I’m not used to not knowing how something goes.”
“I lost my psychic grip.”
“It was very hard to sing my part, surrounded by all of the other parts.”
“Then we kind of were forced to lean on one another to stick with it and listen to each other.”
“It required us to be vulnerable.”
You may think I’m making this up. The reflections progressed just so without my comment or preemptive influence. All of this was just what I could see in subjecting us to such a difficult goal. Singing barbershop is hard. It’s hard because to sing it reasonably well, not only do you need to learn your own part– you have to be able to hold onto it with other parts around you. And you can’t just sing it in your echo chamber—meaning is in the context of the other voices. Like anything, these necessary skills get better with practice. But in order to practice, that requires vulnerability. Knowing we will make mistakes. Showing up even when we don’t fully know how the conversation “goes” or what your part is/should be in that conversation. Staying present without buckling in the heat of the tension and frustration and shutting down/walking out– and instead, leaning in to the voices around you to keep trying until we get it right.
What I then offered to the discussion was a reflection of my own. I alluded in the first blog and in earlier sessions to my dissatisfaction with David Wright’s tag to this song. (Are you reading, David? Bear with me…) It seemed anticlimactic– maybe even saccharine. Too musically resolved to represent the real struggle that is ongoing and still very painful for many. But when we got to the tag after our own musical struggle, I changed my mind– and perhaps understood Wright’s musical intention. It was such a relief to arrive to this easy place after this spiraling journey through every key known to Western music, all in one verse. The sweet resolve of the chords is not the resolution of our collective struggle, but rather the resolution of the hope we maintain, despite it. So next week in our final session, we will arrive together again (after some practice at our homes) to work through that struggle and make some music– wherein at least in arriving at the tag, we can coherently declare our hope for some semblance of peace on the other side of this struggle and further into the journey of HALO’s vision.