Yesterday, bright and early – brutally early, in fact – the Carthage Choir had the privilege and honor of performing for the Wisconsin State Music Teacher’s Convention in Madison. It’s an honor which does not come along every day, and what made it an even more exciting experience for the school is that both the choir and the band were invited to perform. It’s a rather scary and intimidating situation because you are performing for an audience comprised largely of music educators who can certainly discern the difference between good and great music-making. . . and doing so in a room which is not even close to being a proper concert hall. Throw in the matter of singing practically at the crack of dawn and you end up with all kinds of reasons to be nervous.
The conductor of the choir, Eduardo Garcia-Novelli, has known about this opportunity for quite some time, so from the very first day of rehearsal this fall every bit of effort has been focised on being properly prepared for Madison and to demonstrating to everybody there that the Carthage Choir is singing on an altogether higher plane than at any time in its recent history. And to achieve that goal, it was impossible to play safe with relatively easy music that could be easily polished and perfected in two months time. No, he went for the triple axel with some incredibly challenging pieces – and lo and behold, they have risen to the challenge splendidly – mastering not only some tremendously difficult music, but singing it with the kind of musicality and expressiveness that takes your breath away. And the group has become so much more mature in all matters, including attendance and punctuality – attentiveness – and something as basic as Watching The Conductor.
If there was any hiccup along the way, it apparently occurred this past Tuesday evening, when the group sang a concert which amounted to a dress rehearsal of its Madison program. They had also sung the program one week earlier and done spectacularly well – but this time around they were singing without an acoustical shell behind the risers to help gather the sound and allow the members of the choir to really hear one another. And without that shell behind them, everything suddenly felt much more tentative and the result was a performance that felt at least to many of the choir members like a giant step backward rather than forward. (I had to miss the concert, but the first hint I had of how the concert had gone was when a choir member posted on her facebook page about “tonight’s train wreck.” For a second or two, I allowed myself the conceit of thinking that their troubles might have had something to do with my absence on the piano bench, but no- my subsititute did a superb job – probably playing some of the pieces better than I do; this was about something else entirely. And by the way, I have it on very good authority that in no way shape or form was this concert a “train wreck” but I can understand how it might have felt like one to some of the singers.)
As I came to rehearsal the next day, I wondered if the choir members would be shuffling through the door, tail between their legs, their confidence deeply shaken. . . and I wondered if Eduardo would be cross and anxious. But in what I am tempted to describe as a miracle of sorts, the Carthage Choir had perhaps their best rehearsal of the year so far. Eduardo had them rehearse up in the chapel – the “Scene of the crime,” so to speak – as if he wanted them to get right back up on the horse which the night before had thrown them to the ground rather unceremoniously. And for 65 minutes, the choir and their conductor made exquisite music together. . . and there were more than a few moments when I found myself thinking to myself, “what they are doing here approaches sheer perfection.” It was profoundly moving – and incredibly impressive.
The next day (thursday) the choir was in Madison for a dress rehearsal in the space- a room at Monona Terrace- and again they sang with astonishing polish and beauty. And all the way back to Racine that evening (I had to return for chuch choir rehearsal, and then drive back to Madison later that night – I know, I’m crazy) I found myself reliving what I had heard in that rehearsal and the one the day before…. realizing anew that when you have 55 singers singing as one, there is nothing more powerful or impressive.
I wish I could say that the actual performance went as splendidly as those last two rehearsals did. Not quite. The room in which the choir sang was a deader room when there were lots of people sitting in it (we drew a pretty good sized audience) and that made it feel almost like an entirely different room – and not nearly as fun to sing in as it had been the day before. And although the students all got there by 7:30, as ordered, for a full warm-up, the fact remains that a choir cannot possibly sing at its best at 8:30 in the morning. (The band had it worse- playing their concert the day before at 8 in the morning.) Scheduling a choir to sing this early in the day is absolutely barbaric, in my opinion- and it makes about as much sense as scheduling an olympic swimming event to be swum in a log- laden swamp. And if I ever meet the person or persons responsible for the convention’s scheduling – most likely music teachers who certainly should know better- they will hear about it from me. And to drive home the point, I may even thrown in a couple of DARN IT ‘s just so they know I mean it.
But the main point I want to make is that the choir in fact came through with flying colors- and much of the audience (including my dad, who is not prone to giving standing ovations) was on its feet at the end, deeply appreciative of what the choir had managed to achieve. And though perfection evaded their grasp yesterday morning, they evoked for me memories of the great Vince Lombardi. I recently interviewed John Eisenberg, author of “That First Season,” which carefully chronicles Lombardi’s first season with the Packers – which began fifty years ago this fall. Lombardi did for the Packers what Eduardo has done for the choir – by creating an entirely new culture in which you expect and demand the best that people can give rather than just whatever they feel like giving you. And one of the things which Lombardi did which set the Packers organization on its collective ear was when he began using terms like Perfection and Perfectionism to describe his goals for the organization. And when challenged about the wisdom of that, Lombardi essentially said: Strive For Perfection, though it be Unattainable, for in the attempt, you will achieve True Excellence. The Carthage Choir is achieving an entirely new level of excellence this fall – and I think for the vast majority of choir members, that very Excellence has been almost intoxicating – much more so than the more transient pleasure of merely Having Fun or Getting The Job Done. They are learning that Being Excellent is an incredibly exciting thing, and makes all of the hard work it takes to get there more than worth it.
pictured above: the choir at the beginning of their concert in Madison. That’s my esteemed colleague Dimitri Shapovalov playing piano for Michael Haydn’s “Alleluia.” I took over from there and played the remainder of the concert.