Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Last concert in Amsterdam – Choir Tour Day 13


Sometimes, when everyone gives everything they have to give, when everyone relaxes just enough, when the energy and focus is in the right place at the right time, and maybe even when the stars are aligned just right, perfection is possible.
Our last concert at the Westerkerk.  This church was built in the early 1600’s and is mentioned frequently in Anne Frank’s diary, as it’s clock tower could be seen from the house she hid in from the Nazi’s nearby.  Today the church is used for a variety of musical performances and we were part of their lunchtime concert series.

Often when preparing music for a concert, you only get to perform it once or maybe twice.  It has been such a joy to get to know all this music so intimately, to have come to know so much of it by heart without  even trying, and to constantly strive for the best performance each time.  There have been a lot of perfect moments in all of our pieces this tour, but today I think the entire concert was near-perfect.

Sign advertising our concert
The house was full.  We were all excited but so focused.   I love the high of performing like that.  When I try to describe it to people, sometimes I use the metaphor of being on a moving train.  If any one voice or part of the “train” falters, things can get derailed.  But that’s why trains/choirs have conductors... for this last concert, I felt like we were all so tuned in to each other and the conductor that even in the few places it felt like we might be inching towards falling off the tracks even for a second, we all watched and listened so intently that we remained together through the entire concert.  We were really one.  Through every piece.  Every moment.  Every place we had been not-quite-so-perfect in previous performances or rehearsals, we mastered them during this concert.  It was beautiful.  It’s still surreal to think about.  Here we were, at the end of a European tour, singing in the Westerkerk.  In Amsterdam. To a full house.  Moving people.  Moving ourselves. Performing choral music at a level that I sometimes still can’t believe I get to be a part of.  It’s a good thing I have mastered the art of holding back tears while performing... 

A very grateful woman came up to a few of us after the concert and said that she had come in while we were rehearsing and was completely stunned by the sound we were producing.  She stayed for the concert and seemed to have just been blown away by the entire thing.  She said she also sings in a choir, but nothing like this.  She also found it fascinating how professional we all looked.  It’s funny how the little things – everyone having the folder in the same hand, switching places and walking on and offstage so fluently, really make such a difference and add to the entire experience for the audience.


After the concert, some of us went to the music store where they sell music scores and CDs and we spent a couple of hours in there like kids in a candy store, spending way too much money on hard to find and  music to take home and learn.  We didn’t get to go to any of the museums as everything closes pretty early there.  I will have to come back to Amsterdam one day with some more time.  This trip it was all about the music.
Later that evening after a lovely dinner by the water, we again took over the hotel lobby with a rowdy after party, celebrating the end of a wonderful, exhausting, challenging, and moving tour.  The next day we would be on a 7am bus to the airport, but that didn’t stop some of us from partying until well past 3 or 4am... 

The next day also happened to by my birthday, and the choir waited until midnight to sing me a beautiful ~15 part harmony rendition of "Happy Birthday".  


And so ends one of the most intense but rewarding two weeks I've ever experienced.  I didn't set out to blog like this, it just sort of happened, and it surprised me that so many people were reading along, both in the choir as we were going through it together and people back home, so they could live a little bit of it with us.  I'm glad my words were able to capture the experiences, both for myself and for others.  I'm sure I will look back on this trip soon and it will all seem like a far away dream (it is starting to seem that way already).

It was just such an incredible tour.  Thank you to the Ottawa Bach Choir, to Lisette Canton our conductor, and to everyone else who worked behind the scenes to make this tour possible and deal with all the administrative things so we could put all our energy into the music.  These were a special two weeks that we shared together, and I will carry these moments with me always, and my future music-making will be all the more inspired for it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Performing in Martinikerk in Groningen, Netherlands - Choir Tour Day 12

Lübeck was a beautiful town.  There were so many old buildings and walking the streets was a little like stepping back in time.  Even though many things were destroyed during the war, I love that they rebuilt everything by using old pieces they could find and restoring it to look as similar as possible. 

I also love towns are on the water, and it was a nice reprieve for me to be able to go and be in the little woodlot at the shore of the canal and just relax and watch ducks when I needed a break from being social.  

One of the most profound things I saw in Lübeck was inside the Marienkirche.  There was a corner of the church where they had left two enormous bells that had fallen during World War II.  They were not touched and allowed to remain where they’d fallen.  The smashed bells and damaged stone floor was the most powerful war memorial I’ve ever seen. It was so stark and honest.

I think leaving Germany was a little hard for all of us.  Having sung so much music in German and studied the language and the music of all the composers that lived there, it felt a little like a second home.  Italy also felt a little like home for me because the culture is so similar to Portuguese.  

But after both those countries, arriving in the Netherlands, where many of us had never been, was a little bit of a culture shock.  We happened to arrive on the evening of a world cup soccer match when the Netherlands was playing, so the entire city was shutting down all the shops and restaurants so everyone could watch the game.  The streets were full of excited fans wearing orange and everywhere was decorated with orange banners and flags.

While Italian and German are both languages that I’ve studied and can sort of figure out, I could not make heads nor tails of Dutch, either in written or spoken form, and had to rely entirely on English, a first for me in a foreign country.  (I did, however, try out my “Dank u” a few times which seemed to make the Dutch very happy).

And the bicycles...  they are everywhere.  They ride way too fast, they don’t slow down in the slightest for pedestrians, they appear out of nowhere when you least expect it, and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the rules of the road.  (Even a hotel guidebook says that while there is a complex system of lights and paths and pavement markings to control bicycles, pedestrians, and other traffic, most locals don’t actually follow any of these rules.)  I ended up saving our conductor from near-death-by-bicycle on at least half a dozen occasions while we were in this country...

But the people are friendly, they speak English very well, and they have good food, as we discovered during a nice group dinner yesterday evening.

Martinikerk, Groningen, Netherlands
The Martinikerk (Martin’s Church) was a beautiful church that backed on to a large park.  It’s origins date back to the 13th century, and some of the original artwork has been preserved.   The organ in this church is thought to be one of the finest in the world, not only because of it’s sound but because it is the only instrument in the world that still has the original prestant pipes manufactured in 1690. 

The church also had a wonderful acoustic (like so many of the churches on this continent).  We sang an afternoon concert to a small but very appreciative audience.  Even though most of us are getting very tired by this point in the tour, we still always manage to find the emotional, mental, and spiritual strength and energy to make it through another concert.  The church volunteer was very moved by our performance and told us that no choir like us had ever sung in that church.  It’s hard not to feel humbled when people say things like that to you.  Sometimes I feel so in awe by the fact that a group of human beings can come together and somehow put aside all their differences, their personal lives and their day-to-day problems and somehow become one just long enough to create something beautiful like a musical performance, or anything else that requires a complex fusion of skill and intuition, like dance performances or certain sports.  It’s a pretty incredible thing to be part of.

About an hour after the concert, we were back on the tour bus, ready to be taken to Amsterdam, where we would finish off the tour with one last concert.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Striving for perfection - Choir Tour Day 11

Today was another travel day, as we left Germany and made our way to the Netherlands.

Being on a tour like this can be challenging.  Rehearsals often happen on very little sleep (we had one right after our red-eye flight from Canada to Venice), after long days of travel (more than once we’ve had to come off a 6 hour bus ride and go straight into a rehearsal), or when you’d rather be eating, resting, or exploring the new country or city you’ve just arrived in.

Not only that, but you have to be alert and focused and ready for every detail, every subtle or not-so-subtle change that needs to be made in order to adapt to a new church, a new acoustic.

And yet the reason we’re on this tour in the first place is the music, and the music must always come first.  There’s a reason we all decided to do this in the first place, and that’s for the love of this music.  So day after day, sometimes minute by minute, we have to remind ourselves of that, renew that passion and energy and jump into a concert with the same love and commitment each time.

It can be very hard. 

When I first started training in classical singing, I was a bit all over the place.  I never seemed to be able to be on time to lessons, to learn my music quick enough, to have the right photocopies of the right pieces at the right times.  I would misread things, misplace music, and just generally be in a state of confusion and unpreparedness.... and then there was the time I sang a concert without any shoes at all as I’d forgotten them at home...

There were of course many “reasons” this – I was struggling to figure out how to live on my own with little financial or emotional help or support; I was dealing with various illnesses and disabilities that I was in various states of recovery from, trying to balance several jobs and always taking way more than a full course load, and a lot of other “invisible” factors that meant my life was in a constant state of chaos.  But reasons are not excuses, as I was soon to learn.

Choir was my haven.  Choir rehearsals in university were where I learned to force myself to focus intently, to clear my mind of all distractions, to take responsibility for my own music making.  Mistakes were not acceptable, being distracted was not acceptable, and not being organized or prepared was not acceptable.  I learned that when I was making music, the music was the only thing that mattered. 

Rehearsals quickly became my meditation, my exercise, my grounding place, and the place I grew out of my scattered tendencies.

I’ve developed a lot of very fine tuned focusing and listening skills over the years, and more often than not I can come to a rehearsal regardless of my physical or emotional state, put everything aside, and just go.  But occasionally, the challenges of life, especially on a tour like this, somehow all combine at once and I go through a rehearsal unfocused, distracted, make stupid mistakes, and struggle to adapt to the changes that are needed.

When that happens, I get very frustrated with myself. But frustration is unproductive and only feeds on itself, un-focusing me even more.


A couple of years ago, I made a very big mistake during an actual performance.  To this day I don’t really have an explanation for it – my mind just stopped working for a spit second and I forgot to come in.  During a solo.  It was part of a larger piece with a quartet of soloists and choir, and of course my mistake not only affected me, but had a domino effect, and everyone else derailed in panic as well, not knowing how to get back out of the disaster. Eventually we did, but we were all frazzled and it wasn’t an enjoyable performance.  I don’t really like remembering this at all, and the only reason I write about it now is because I learned something very important from that mistake.

Reherasing in Marienkirche,
Lübeck, Germany
The next day, even though we were in Europe and everyone else was out exploring yet another new city, I stayed in my hotel room and I sang.  It was the only thing that calmed my anxiety and the awful feeling I had at making such a huge mistake.  I sang all of my music, going over and over everything, every detail, every entrance, every note.  If I stopped singing the anxiety came back, so I didn’t stop.  I sang, and I talked myself through it, because I still had to do this solo again for not only one but two more major concerts.  I knew fear would be the end of my ability to do it properly, so I sang and meditated and immersed myself in the joy of the music.  I immersed myself in the details, in the breathing, in the rhythm.  I knew that was the only thing that would save me from my anxiety.

By the end of the evening I felt ready.  I had come out the other side, and my next two concerts went flawlessly – I didn’t hesitate, I wasn’t afraid, and I gave myself into pure focus and joy.


It was a very hard thing I had to do, but it was good that I learned how to do it...  so now when I get frustrated with myself after a rehearsal where I was all over the place, I go back to my music, I sing and I lose myself in intense focus and I ground myself again this way.

Mistakes are always going to happen.  But for me, it’s the ability to trust myself and keep going that makes the difference between a complete derailment or just a tiny little moment.

I’m not perfect, and not everything we sing is always perfect.  But I do know what perfection in music can do, and that’s the only standard I ever want to try and meet.