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February 19, 2013: Bach Mass in b minor

Each Thursday David Cherwien, Artistic Director of the National Lutheran Choir, distributes notes to the singers after the Tuesday rehearsal. Large works with multiple movements are especially challenging because the performance needs to represent a narrative arc that is both coherent and emotional. The NLC is preparing for the powerful and uplifting Mass in b minor by J.S. Bach which will be performed at 7 p.m. in the glorious Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis on the 328th anniversary of Bach’s birthday: March 21, 2013. Here are his notes from the February 19th rehearsal.

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What a wonderful process. I love every minute from studying the score to helping the music come to life – hearing the polish of your work – runs getting clearer, articulation getting adopted and fading as an “issue” – notes are sung so spot on, etc. Are we there yet? Not quite...

This is a dangerous spot in the learning curve. Many of us know the music well enough to sing it without feeling lost while some of us must feel like we're two blocks behind the bus trying to run to catch it. As a group, I can hear that we’re still not there, just yet. It's really easy to practice bad practices! It may seem OK because "we'll get it" is what we think will happen; it will get cleaner. Yes it will, but not without our brains telling us it needs that and getting specific about our focused attention! Three examples of this come to mind: when the basses sing the subject of Patrem omipotentem – I simply ask them to do better, and they do. Last week I asked (again the basses) to sing something as if it were being performed next weekend – they did. When we had bass 1's and 2's sing a section while the other listened - it cleaned up. All point to mental focus as the main thing. We need to focus hard on two things:

 

  1. Accuracy comes, not as much from familiarity as from mental focus. When we rehearse, we're not only rehearsing the music, we're learning how to maintain focus over a fairly lengthy and intense amount of time. Practicing both accuracy and focus are very important for a work of this magnitude. That was the purpose of the exercises with the sopranos with their melodic runs a week ago.
  2. Consistency with articulation. I've listened to the rehearsal recording. I give an instruction for articulation. You all do it. Two times later, it reverts to something else. I stop. I sense frustration. (We all are...) It's easy to lose focus. When you all do it right (or I should say "as I ask" – right or wrong) it comes out to the listener but you don't always stick with it.