It’s Monday November 16, 2015. It’s the day after the second NJ All-State Mixed Chorus concert. I am about to wax nostalgic.
This year, the NJ All-State Mixed Chorus was conducted by Dr. Anthony Leach from Penn State. I have known Tony for a number of years as we have adjudicated together and he served as a clinician for our Choralpalooza. I had recommended him to the Choral Procedures Committee and when he was chosen, I agreed to serve as his rehearsal and concert assistant – start to finish.
In New Jersey, students audition for the All-State Chorus in April. There are two weekends of auditions (North and South). Students audition with high, low and chromatic scales, a Solo and their voice part in a music-minus-one recording of Gibbons The Silver Swan (V1). They also have a 4-measure tonal memory exercise to sing for pitch and rhythmic accuracy. Approximately 325 singers are chosen for the Mixed Choir and approximately 160 add’l women are chosen to create the All-State Women’s Choir. The first rehearsal for both choirs is held in June and add’l rehearsals are held in September and October for the Mixed Choir and in January and February for the Women’s Choir. The Mixed Choir performs in November at the close of the NJEA Teacher’s Convention in Atlantic City and then again at NJPAC in Newark. The Women’s Choir performs as a part of the NJMEA Convention in East Brunswick in February and their concert hall is also NJPAC in Newark.
The All-State organization is near and dear to my choral heart. Walking into what is now known as Boardwalk Hall (previously the Atlantic City Convention Center), was surprisingly emotional for me. When I saw the empty bleachers where the choir would soon assemble to sing, I was catapulted back to my high school days because I sang in the NJ All-State Choir. I stood on the platform upon which Tony would stand when I conducted the NJ All-State Mixed Choir in 1991. And now I was back in the same space, many years later, serving as an assistant and reveling in all of the memories that were swirling through my head. What a ride it’s been!
The All-State Chorus and Orchestra arrive and check-in on Wednesday afternoon, have dinner and settle into a lengthy evening rehearsal. There are three time blocks of rehearsals on Thursday and two on Friday prior to the downbeat at 8:30p. These are long days with a lot of hours in them! Any of you who work with high school singers can easily imagine the challenges that are associated with the organization of a production of this magnitude which spans over two and a half days of intense rehearsal. You can also easily imagine the challenge and frustration in the age of the cell phone which seems to be attached to the palm of every young musician during rehearsal! (No need to expand on that thought…)
But, when we get to the Friday morning rehearsal, I find myself all verklempt. I could blame the emotions on fatigue combined with the 4-6 long walks we faced each day in moving from Boardwalk Hall back to the Claridge Hotel where we were staying. But the truth is, the emotions were coming from the nostalgia of being in the same performance space that profoundly impacted me at the very same age of these young singers. As I watched their faces, I knew that indelible memories were being made with every note they sang. Musical phrases were changing lives. Precious and innocent young minds were being swept into the fast flowing abyss of rhythms and harmonies. The universal language of music was speaking to each and every one of them.
I thought about the fact that when we create choral music in any way, it feels as though we manipulate time. We create a suspended feeling where everything seems right in the world. There are no worries and no cares; the focus is absolute on the moment-to-moment creation of brilliant sound. It is powerful. It is indescribable. It overwhelms me and moves me to tears.
I then thought about these young people who now, God willing, have their whole lives in front of them. Hopes and dreams like I had, like you had. They have no idea what life will bring to them. They’ll think themselves immortal and invincible as I did; maybe you did as well. They’ll have all the answers. They’ll know it all. And then, when they least expect it, life will present itself in ways which will challenge all they thought they knew. And if they are lucky, they’ll come out the other end with a real, clear understanding of the important things in life. They’ll understand that most of it is really all small stuff. They’ll land at the part of the journey where, like me, sitting and taking in their final pre-concert rehearsal, they’ll look back from this vantage point and realize just how very precious every moment was. (The tears gently rolled down my cheek.)
The NJPAC concert was very different than the Atlantic City concert. The acoustic in NJPAC is world class. The choir is surrounded by beautiful wood panels which permit their sound to take on a depth that the cavern in Atlantic City cannot provide. They are seated directly behind the orchestra, not off to the side, and they witnessed the mastery of their orchestral peers as they beautifully performed the Symphonic Dances of West Side Story. They take pride in their achievements as they share their accomplishments with family and friends. It is a classy way to end the entire experience.
Maybe you have memories of a similar musical experience? One which may have had the same profound impact on you?
I took this video during the Mixed Choir rehearsal on Sunday. This is their set closer called CLAP PRAISE by Diane White-Clayton. The video goes black shortly after it begins. Hang in there, it’s worth the wait!
Here’s to all the folks who made the 87th NJ All-State Chorus and Orchestra concert a success. May we continue the commitment to present 87 more.
Thanks for reading.