One of the last activities my mother completed during her years in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was to record Handel's Messiah. My sister Bonnie and I have had the unique privilege of just completing the recording of Messiah with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Because my time in the choir is running out, I feel like this is such a sweet bookend experience to our mother's experience. Many memories come flooding back of the Sunday mornings when our house would be filled with the sounds of the glorious choruses of Messiah as we woke up and got ready for church. Mom played this recording at full volume so that all parts of our house (and half the neighborhood) would benefit from hearing it. I can even smell the roast beef on the stove being browned to be left in the oven for the hours we would be away at church. I even remember having my hair brushed in time to "For Unto Us a Child Is Born." That chorus has always been one of my favorites!
We took such joy in the fact that our mother, Carolyn Thompson Lee and her mother, Lora Harmon Thompson, our grandmother, both sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Our Mom sang in brief stints between pregnancies between 1955 and 1965 when we moved to Texas. Our mother's three brothers also sang in the choir during the 1950's and 1960's. Everywhere we moved, all 36 moves, our mother was a celebrity. She had sung on radio broadcasts and made recordings, gone on tours, and even garnered a Gold Record with the MoTab recording of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." This was her particular claim to fame because she sang the high cadre notes at the end of this incredible piece. Every time I sing "Battle Hymn," I think of her as now I get to sing the high notes! Sometimes I can feel her presence as I sing! Can't wait to sing that song again tomorrow on the Memorial Day Special!
How fitting that the last song we recorded of the Messiah was "For Unto Us a Child Is Born." We worked for hours to get enough perfect takes of the individual sections so that this project can go out to the world as a labor of love to last another 50 years. The final words were a stirring testimony of Jesus Christ, Messiah, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, "Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace!" I can truly say, as Ryan Murphy did at the close of the last take, "Hallelujah!"
Tonight is our last night of recording Handel's Messiah. This has been a wonderful experience and a very long and tiring experience. Sustaining energy and excitement over the long haul has been challenging. Here we are at the end of our portion of the work and I for one am feeling the exhaustion. One of the unexpected tolls has been the sleepless nights filled with melismas playing over and over in my brain. As much as I love the music of Messiah, I simply cannot get the sleep I need with passages of music punctuating my dreams. I am not even sure I get into the dream state. The intricate 16th note runs have wormed their way into my psyche and keep making me practice all through the night! Instead of waking up refreshed, I tumble out of bed exhausted from working through the night!
Our conductor has had quite the job of trying to keep us enthused throughout these last few sessions. We know he is exhausted, and still he has the added burden of trying to keep us on task and up to speed. And, even after we are done with our portion, he still has all of the editing left to do! Whew! He said something to us the other night that really struck hard. He hoped we could keep from SOCIAL LOAFING or relying on the other people in choir to provide the energy asked for by the conductor. We simply cannot ride on other people's energy. We must get in there and continue to give our 100%. Wish us success!
I have been thinking about the idea of SOCIAL LOAFING. How many times have I been guilty of that in other areas of my life? How many times have I relaxed (loafed) and allowed, or rather assumed that other people would provide the energy to move some activity along? How many times has my attitude of "go ahead and impress me" ruled the day? And how many times have I remained unimpressed and not brought any enthusiasm to the event when my energy could have made a positive difference?
I have done my share of conducting and directing. I know how hard it is to pull a performance out of my performers. I understand how wonderful it can be to feed off the group's collective energy and ride the crest of their "high" wave. Most of that energy comes from the simple decision to make it happen. So tonight, I will go into the recording session with that decision made. No SOCIAL LOAFING for me. Tonight I bring my attitude and energy positively charged -- 100%.
Then maybe, after tonight, I will be able to get some sleep!
Singing in Choral Heaven
A couple of weeks ago, we got to sing in Choir Heaven under the baton of two guest conductors - Anton Armstrong and Bob Chilcott. These men are giants in the world of choral conducting today. They each conduct their own choirs and are active in the adjudicating circuit. This means that they travel around giving seminars and master classes with college, high school and even children's choirs around the world and judge performances at festivals. They were in Utah for this purpose, but also agreed at Mack Wilberg's invitation to guest conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on a Broadcast. They both happened to be in Utah the same weekend.
Bob Chilcott, a former member of the King's Singers, is a great composer and arranger as well as choral conductor from England. Anton Armstrong, considered a pioneer in American acappella music today, conducts choirs at St. Olaf's College in Minnesota and is one of the most sought after adjudicators and clinicians in the country. My colleagues in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir who are choral teachers themselves were delighted and awed to sing under the batons of both of these wonderful conductors. One friend had spent the day before in masterclass sessions with her children's choir under the baton of Bob Chilcott. She was happy to have a second dose of inspiration from these wonderful choral masters.
Wilberg is also considered a giant among choral conductors in the world today. These men are friends and colleagues. He told us that he had thrown out the invitation to come guest conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to each of them separately in casual conversations years before. He never imagined that they would both be in Utah and available to guest conduct on the very same weekend. It posed a challenge for us because that weekend was just after our mammoth Messiah concert and just before our massive week of recording it, oh yes and the Mother's Day Broadcast was in there, too.
Each conductor chose two pieces for the Broadcast from their own repertoire. These pieces were not our normal fare. Mack tried his best to squeeze in some preparation time into our overloaded schedule. Anton Armstrong had us sing a gorgeous a cappella piece that really tested our mettle. It was written with no time signatures. Nearly every measure was in a different meter. Once we got the hang of it, we enjoyed singing it very much. Bob Chilcot had us sing two of his original pieces that were just beautiful. We had the unique experience of learning different perspectives of performance from two very different conductors and had a marvelous time. Although, we regularly enjoy singing in Choral Heaven under the baton of our own conductor, we were triply blessed to sing under two more masterful conductors, as well.
Singing for the Cameras
People are always asking me why they can't find me on the Broadcast. "Why don't you bribe the cameramen to do a long close up on you or something?" Well, of course, I would never do anything like that! Since there are so many people in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I am sure they try their best every week to pan as many singers as possible with the cameras. But they cannot linger for more than a few seconds on a single person. Yet, I am told that occasionally, the cameras do give me some face time.
In choir school, new members of the choir are given lessons in proper broadcast deportment. We were taught never to look directly into the camera or even act aware of the camera. We must hold our folders at a certain height so that we don't block the camera views of any faces. We should not sway our bodies or jolt our heads around. (That looks unnatural and unprofessional!) And we must look alive with smiling, open eyes, but not smiling lips -- that would not allow formation of proper vowels. And we must always maintain focus on the conductor!
All this being said, there are times when the roving camera man comes close enough to make us really nervous. Case in point -- Yesterday, during the run-through, the roaming camera man was coming up the aisle shooting close-up shots of the ladies along the lowest rows. I thought this was normal and appropriate for Mother's Day. (Besides, those ladies are used to that treatment. It happens every week.) Then for the next song, he walked up a few more steps and then pointed his camera right at my nose. He spent a lot of time adjusting the lens during the opening measures of the song.
I wanted to tell him that the first verse of the song was sung by the men followed by a long orchestral interlude, but he just stayed there, stuck, focusing on my nose for a full minute and a half -- that is an eternity in broadcast moments! Talk about awkward! I couldn't help looking in the camera! I had no other options!
When we ladies finally started singing, he took his shot and moved on. I wondered if he would actually do that same thing in the broadcast. When the time came for that song in the broadcast, the camera guy started the same route, but fortunately sat down on the step and rested during the first two verses of "I Often Go Walking." But, right on schedule, he got up and pointed his camera NOT at me but the row behind me, only not directly up someone's nose. He then swung down and panned my row briefly. So I may have gotten some face time. I don't actually know since I haven't watched the broadcast yet. So, there, it is possible that I got some camera time after all.
But, let it be known -- I DID NOT BRIBE THE CAMERA GUY!!!!!
My name is Betsy Lee Bailey. I enjoy singing and writing all kinds of music. I have performed and directed or taught music all of my life. This blog is dedicated to all of the people who have been encouraging me to write about my experiences.