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February 29, 2016

My Canterbury Tale

by Peter Robb, NW ACDA R & S Chair for Boychoirs

I began singing in a boychoir at age six. And while my fifty-four year odyssey in the choral world as singer, conductor, composer, administrator and festival presenter has included all ages, voicings and types of choirs, the intersection with boychoir culture and music has often been a high point along that path. The past seven weeks have provided a kind of cosmic symmetry to my journey so far.

In July, 2014, my wife Genevieve and I visited a choral festival at Canterbury Cathedral, conducted by Henry Leck and David Flood, the cathedral’s Director of Music. At that point it had been two years since the final season of Oregon Festival Choirs, which put an end to my daily conducting, teaching, vocal modeling/coaching and the myriad less visible duties folded into the job title of Artistic Director. I didn’t question the decision to turn my focus more fully to picfest and composing. Neither could I deny the hole it had left in my vocational identity; something still unsettled two years later as we attended the final concert of the Canterbury festival.

The singing in that space was glorious. As we left the concert, I knew I had to find a way to immerse myself in the repertoire and music-making there in the cathedral. The following day we posed the idea to David. He immediately invited us to return for a seven-week residency to observe rehearsals, sing in the choir, explore repertoire and compose. And we immediately said yes.

With the encouragement and blessing of family, friends, colleagues and our board of directors, Gen and I circled January and February of 2016 – eighteen months out – for my sabbatical/residency with the Canterbury Cathedral choir program.

In the Fall of 2015, once all the logistical arrangements for the residency were in place, Gen posed a timely question - “Don’t you think you should start singing now to prepare for singing at the cathedral?”

I had noticed a change in my voice over the past five years. Sometimes, it felt as strong and agile as it ever had. But increasingly, it was unpredictable – both when providing vocal modeling in rehearsal or simply singing hymns from the pew. I had not sung in a parish choir for twenty-two years and the occasional performance in a symphony chorus was happening very rarely anymore. I began wondering if my singing days were over.

I visited a laryngologist for some tests a year ago, fearing the worst. But the unpredictable nature of my complaint and the absence of any visible problem led the doctor to assure me that there was no problem with the instrument.

In the months that followed I began exploring strategies for rebuilding vocal vitality and endurance. I asked to join the chancel choir at our parish, which meant changing services and the community I am most connected to. But the director graciously accommodated my request to sing with the choir until our departure.

We arrived in Canterbury on the evening of January 7. The next morning, I was up early to observe the Choristers’ rehearsal at 7:45 am. The sixteen boy trebles meet for a fifty-minute rehearsal every day before hopping on the Cathedral Choir mini-bus to St. Edmund’s School, two miles away. After school, they return to their home, the Choir House, about thirty meters from the northeastern tip of the cathedral. At 4:45 pm, they’re back in the rehearsal room.

Their voices are balanced against the Lay Clerks; twelve professional male singers in the traditional Anglican configuration of counter-tenors, tenors and basses. These men join rehearsal at 5:15 for quick touches on the Evensong rep before everyone descends 32 steps into the chapel below where the dean and other clergy gather with the choir. A prayer is offered and the procession moves into the quire for the 5:30 pm service.

David instructed me to sing what I could, but to not stress about keeping up with the Lay Clerks right away. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant until I attended that first service. I was in awe. Beyond the glorious sound of these fine musicians singing wonderful music in that amazing space, I was unsure what had just happened. They rehearsed together for twelve minutes. How does that work?

Over the course of the first week, the routine became clear. Each Evensong includes a set of Responses, a Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, 1-3 psalms and an anthem. The Responses are changed every 3-4 days, but the rest of the music changes daily. After Monday Evensong, there is an hour rehearsal of upcoming repertoire. In addition to daily Evensong, the choir sings the Sunday morning Choral Eucharist, which includes the Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei from a different mass setting each week, along with psalms, an anthem and a recessional psalm.

After ten days of attending morning and afternoon rehearsals, I decided I was ready to robe up. I took David at his word and simply mouthed the words when necessary, adopting the first rule of a visiting singer: Do No Harm.

I felt more like a middle-aged attendee at Fantasy Baseball camp than a contributing member of the choir. The pace of the rehearsals, the visceral confidence and breathtaking accuracy of the choir intimidated me all the more. The Choristers were such quick studies. Were the Lay Clerks sight-singing every service? How did they do it?

I asked one of the men to coach me on psalm singing, which requires deft handling of tiny four-part chant notation at the top of the page, with all the verses below that, scanning back and forth to pair music and pointed text signs while keeping at least one eye on the conductor. After receiving some valuable tips, I realized this was a complex skill that I couldn’t expect to master on the fly.

I had never participated in a rehearsal process of this intensity. It took me another week to realize why I was a bit out of sync. The skill set I had relied on for so long was forged in the comparably luxurious pace of learning repertoire over the course of weeks during which everyone is expected to practice outside of rehearsal in preparation for one or more performances - often from memory. A very different approach.

So I resorted to the methods I knew – personal practice, slowing it down with lots of repetition when necessary. I took the music back to our apartment and really pushed myself toward quick acquisition of the part, paying closer attention to how it fit rhythmically and harmonically with the other parts, trying to hear it in my head rather than picking it out on a keyboard.

I won’t give a rosy report. Some days I felt like “Big breakthrough! I’m finally carrying my weight,” and the next day I’d stumble through the eye-hand-brain-voice coordination I still hadn’t mastered for the appointed psalms. Sometimes it beat me up and my voice receded from the ensemble because I lost my nerve.

But – there were glorious moments. Many of them. I began to feel a full, free and flexible quality in my voice that had been missing for several years. I started being present in my singing as part of this company of cathedral Lay Clerks.

And so much incredible music. Day in and day out, the sheer volume of repertoire the choir offers, sung well, with such confidence and nuance is staggering.

Of course, I also came to realize that these incredible, quick, agile, expressive singers have sung much of this repertoire several times before. Not only is it not new to their ears, it’s in their bones. Many of the Lay Clerks were Choristers as boys. Confidence begets confidence. They trust themselves because, well, it’s their music. Even when it’s something new, the dailyness of the rigor and skill building takes over.

Yesterday, before we left Canterbury, I returned to the rehearsal room for one last moment of reflection – up the curving, vertical tunnel of 32 steep steps to a room that has been used for 600 years. In this space where the voices from centuries of Choristers and Lay Clerks have penetrated the stone walls, leaving a faint residue of the sublime, I attended early morning rehearsals of the boychoir and afternoon pre-Evensong rehearsals with the full choir. This room with open-beamed, modestly vaulted ceiling; walls lined floor to top with countless boxes of carefully catalogued and maintained scores from ancient chant to recent compositions; the many signs of daily utility; and a simple, open-tread staircase leading upward even higher to the vesting rooms above. I easily could have treated the space as a shrine: a seeker’s naïve attempt to capture the ephemeral visitation of Beauty that occurs here on a daily basis.

But it is not a shrine. It is workshop for a choral masons’ guild. The master craftsmen and their young apprentices going about their daily duty of building a sonic entity. The Choristers are not given a pass for being younger. All the singers hold high expectations of themselves and each other.

As a conductor, a composer, a festival presenter and a singer, I have been changed by the experience. I have been challenged to acquire new skills, comprehend more complexity, hear music more deeply, demand more rigor of myself. I leave with the sweet realization that I, too, started as a choirboy.

I also leave with a copy of the cathedral choir psalm book so that when I go back for another residency with the choir – the music isn’t just in my voice; it’s also in my bones.

Peter Robb is co-founder and artistic director of Pacific International Choral Festivals (picfest) in Eugene, Oregon.