From what I've gathered from talking to non-choir-singers, there's quite a lot of curiosity about what goes on with us behind the scenes. This Christmas, I took my camera along on two occasions and snapped some candid shots to show you a little of what it looks like. I wish I could share the "sounds like" too, but I'm afraid I can't! It was a beautiful musical Christmas, though, and from the looks on strangers' faces, I think some of the peace and mystery and joy that Christmas, at its best, is supposed to represent did come across through our music.
Here we are in the choir room in the cathedral undercroft, before the Lesson & Carols service on the afternoon of December 21st, the 4th Sunday in Advent. The undercroft basically reminds me of a grade school, except that it's completely underground: all the walls are painted in those lovely institutional colors, and the lighting is fluorescent. We spend a lot of time in this room, though, so I have a certain affection for it. There are risers on one long side, and filing cabinets and tables overflowing with sheet music. On another wall is a set of built-in cubbies, one slot assigned to each of the singers, where we keep our folders and current music. Each singer is assigned a number - I'm #35, for instance - and as Patrick Wedd, our director, decides on the repertoire, we'll find our copy of each particular piece in our cubby when we show up for Thursday rehearsals. The service bulletins, descant sheets, psalms for the day, and so forth, are laid out on the table you see in this picture, for us to pick up before the rehearsal before each service. On Sundays, we rehearse in regular clothes, and then put on our cassocks and surplices right before the service.
A rare sneak peek into the women's locker room! We've each got a locker where our gowns are stored and where we can keep personal items. Usually this room is very crowded as we all hurriedly get dressed. How much we wear under our gowns depends on how cold or hot the church is -- the gowns are pretty hot, especially these long surplices, new last Easter, that feel like you're wearing an entire bedsheet -- but they look really good.
Here's Michel, having a quick snack, making sure he doesn't spill anything on his surplice to incur the wrath of Mary, our wardrobe mistress! The choir has eight paid professional singers, who lead each section (Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto 1, etc). We do a lot of double-choir repertoire, and a lot of music that calls for five or six parts - divided soprano and tenor, for instance. Michel is the Bass 2 pro.
This is my friend Carole, our Soprano 1 soloist, with Phil, who is the Tenor 1 pro. They're both fantastic singers, and good friends with each other. When you sing together for a long time, especially in a group like this, you do form close relationships with people, and value them a lot. Of course the pros also see each other in other groups -- the Montreal Symphony chorus, Opera de Montreal, Les Violons du Roy, etc. When I joined, I thought there would be more of a separation between the pros and the unpaid singers, but it isn't the case: we're all friends, we're all in it together, and after you've sung with the group for a while and are seen to be doing your best, you are accepted as part of the team. At the same time, people come and go. Some of the young professionals are with us only for a year or two, before leaving for a solo career, to study in Europe, to find work in other cities. (Nearly all professional singers also have other jobs or freelance employment, whether that's teaching or translating or whatever.) We always have some university students who sing with us or who serve as organ scholars or assistants. We watch them grow into adults and much more mature musicians, and then they leave to pursue their careers: it's a special process that I feel privileged to be part of.
Here we are at the back of the cathedral just before 10:00 am, getting ready for the processional. (The main door, through which the congregation enters, is just to the right of the "Exit" sign here.) When the organ prelude starts, we all settle down and get into position; usually we sing an introit first in a semi-circular formation at the back, and then, singing the first hymn, we process in pairs up the center aisle behind the crucifer to our seats in the chancel; the clergy follow the choir. We're carrying our music folders, hymnal, and often a bell; if we've managed to think ahead, we've left our water bottles near our seats after the rehearsal.
If we're going to be singing accompanied music from the organ loft, the pairs split at the head of the pews and come back down the side aisles and then climb up the spiral staircases at the back into the loft (you can see one of those stairs in the center of this photo.) It's a little hard to sing when you reach the top - you need a few moments to catch your breath -- and often we sporanos have a descant to sing on the last verse of the hymn. And then there's only a short prayer between the hymn and the Gloria of the mass. It's a heads-up sort of job, which is part of what I like: I've always liked doing things that require full concentration and keep me fully in the moment.
In the loft, there are no seats, just a couple of chairs or stools for our older members or people who've got a bad back or knee that week. When we're at full numbers, we cram into the two sides like sardines, with the organ console in the middle, and sit on the floor during the readings. The sound is good from the loft but it's hard for the two sides to hear each other; we have to follow the conductor carefully. For Christmas, we had a big choir with several visitors - between 25 and 30 people. During the regular season, the full choir is between 20-25 singers, and for our half-choir Sundays (two per month) there are four professionals and half of the unpaid singers, which can be as few as 12 people in all - at those times, we fit easily on one side of the organ loft.
Here's Patrick, our music director and organist; he's looking out toward the nave of the church. Seated at the console is the assistant organist, Adrian, and Alex, our organ scholar, is standing. You can see a small video monitor near Adrian's head; that shows the altar and helps the organist know when to begin or end. The organists do a good deal of improvising to "stretch" hymns or to provide music during transition points in the service; most of this is done extemporaneously, often as a variation on one of the hymn tunes, and it's one of the most remarkably skilled aspects of high-level organ playing. I love having a ringside seat to watch and listen to the organists doing their work and assisting each other in the dance of pulling stops and turning pages.
Finally, here's the view from the loft, with the cathedral bedecked for Christmas Eve. On the far left center, below the white arrow, you can see a boom with microphones -- that's how the sound is transmitted to radio for the Sunday afternoon Evensong broadcasts. There's another set of microphones in front, hanging from the arch above the altar, because more often than not we are singing a capella music from the chancel instead.
Cathedral choral music comes to many people's minds at Christmas, and appropriately enough, the December issue of BBC Music Magazine had a feature about British cathedral choirs, their future, and the traditional of liturgical music they represent. Although we're in Canada, we and the choirs of large Episcopal cathedrals in the U.S. are part of this same tradition, and subject to the same financial pressures. However, recent statistics in Britain have shown that despite shrinking attendance at parish churches, cathedral attendance has actually grown over the past decade, and that the quality of music presented there is a major reason.
Matthew Owens, organist and music director at Wells Cathedral, could have been speaking for us as well in that article when he said:
It's true that people come into our cathedrals because they're beautiful buildings. But they are often seeking so much more than an architectural thrill. If we happen to catch them for evensong, those unfamiliar with the daily liturgical round are often transformed by the experience, even if they are not religious by habit or affiliation... We're all privileged custodians of this tradition. With that comes the responsibility of handing it on in a better state than we found it.
And one of the adult singers, tenor Ian MacLeod-Jones, expressed my own feelings when asked what singing in the Wells choir meant to him:
It means being part of an extraordinary choral tradition at Wells that stretches back more than 1,100 years. It means performing the sung daily worship to the best of our abilities, working closely as a team, always striving for excellence, it means being at the forefront of new music for the church, which [due to commissions] means we have the privilege of premiering additions to the living sacred choral repertoire; it means enriching others, whether regular congregation members or tourists from around the world who may have stumbled into evensong quite by accident, through the power of the universal language of music. And it means doing something that I love every day, and all, I hope for a greater good.
I hope you've enjoyed this little look behind the scenes; for us, Christmastide isn't yet over: we still have special music to sing next Sunday, January 6th, and the following week, on the 11th, when the season draws to a close with a service of readings and music for Epiphany. Happy Christmas and Happy New Year to all!