Mathematics and music are inextricably linked, but really, a lot of the time, you just need to be able to count to 3. Or 4. Or if you’re doing something from the mid-twentieth century onwards possibly an odd number of your choosing, but generally the smaller numbers will cover it.
So why is it sometimes so difficult?
During last week’s rehearsal we watched as our normally mild-mannered conductor descended into a figure of despair as the tenors (sorry tenors) sang in a rest something like 5 times in a row. “Noooooooo”, he cried. “It’s 1, 2, then sing!”. The piece in question was Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and any tenors reading probably know the bars I mean. But rhythmic errors aren’t just limited to the oft lambasted tenor section (I, for example, came a cropper during a performance of Britten’s Spring Symphony last year, but fortunately sang into a space where there was other music going on, not total silence).
There are tricky bars in many pieces – choral conductors will be able to give you a list of odd corners of music that trip choirs up, and I’m not just talking amateur choirs here. There are plenty of recordings where, if you listen closely, you can hear incorrect rhythms being perpetuated as new generations of choral singers listen. Our conductor has often been heard to say, “Everyone gets that bit wrong – can we please get it right!”
There are a couple of issues that I feel contribute to this effect. For anyone who has surrounded themselves with classical choral music, you become accustomed to its norms and values. You get a sense of what a piece in a certain style, from a certain period ‘should’ sound like. It’s not that we can’t count to 2, or 3, or 4, but that the music is not doing what we expect. And if you think that surely every piece is doing something we might not expect, then you’d be wrong. The combination of years of rules and tradition, plus listening and practising choral music’s finest works tends to mean that certain assumptions are made.
There is also the ‘hive mind’ of choral singing. I’ve talked before about the magic of the collective consciousness when it’s working well, but what about when it isn’t? Recently we’ve rehearsed (and performed) some pieces in quartets (roughly speaking) which quite often has the effect that as an individual, you can no longer hear anyone else singing the same part. And that was most definitely revealing of some of my flaws, as with nothing to hide behind I made a multitude of errors. But perhaps that’s what we need occasionally. It really forced me to refocus on what I was doing, as well as what the choir were doing and made me considerably more conscious of taking personal responsibility, even when in the midst of a large choir.
I suppose it’s never assume you know what’s coming. Take responsibility for what you are doing, don’t just rely on the person next to you, even if they are always right. They might not always be next to you.
Oh, and count like blazes…