The Spirit of "Messiah"
This past weekend I conducted selections from Handel's Messiah at my parents' church in my hometown. This was the church that I grew up in, was confirmed in, where I got my start as an accompanist, learned to play handbells in, and sang in the choirs. My mom and step-dad are still members there, as is my grandma. In the late '70s my dad was the choir director there.
It was a quick encounter for me: rehearse with the orchestra and soloists for 2 hours on Saturday, rehearse with everyone for 30 minutes on Sunday, then give the downbeat. Needless to say, I was a little stressed. I was worried about tempi and cues, and the pressure of keeping the masses together on the same page, on the same beat.
This was not a professional performance. It was the church choir, as well as those who wanted to sing along. The soloists, for the most part, were not professional or even semi-professional singers. The orchestra was made-up of capable musicians, but no professionals: it ranged from 9th grade trumpeters to a bassist who plays once or twice a year to a middle school band director.
But none of that mattered. What mattered was the music-making, the community spirit. There are things I would go back to do if I had more time to rehearse with the ensemble, choir or soloists, but I'm trying not to think about that. What I do remember and found most exciting were:
- The excitement, energy and spirit of the afternoon. People I haven't seen in 10 years came up to me like we were old friends. There were smiles on faces, and you could hear the energy in the choir.
- Coming full-circle, so to speak, conducting the same choir (and some of the same people) as my dad did 30 years prior.
- The overwhelming emotion of being surrounded - literally - by incredible music. I was moved to tears after it was all said and done.
It was a great experience, one I'll remember for a long time coming.
But I can't get away without wondering: What can we learn from this?
What can we do to increase this sense of enthusiasm and participation? Why do we typically limit events of this nature to the holiday season, with the plethora of sing-along Messiah performances and sing-along carol programs? Movie studios are coming out with more sing-along musicals, which audiences love (Grease and The Sound of Music are popular right now, and Mamma Mia was a hit after its initial theatrical release). It's an easy way to encourage participation with the community, to involve the audience.
For many people music is a one-sided activity: listening. There's an attitude of "I can't sing/play/read music, so I won't even try." We need to encourage audience members to break that barrier and realize their potential to make music. (We also need to realize that listening is a musical activity, but I'll save that for a later post.)
Performers, can you involve the audience in some music-making at your next performance? Can you take your friends and family to a Messiah or carol sing along in the next few weeks, or perhaps see Grease? How about watching one of The Onion's 18 movie musicals you can "actually sing along with"?
What are some other ideas that you have?
This past weekend demonstrated to me how easy and exciting it can be to unite a community around song and music. It's a challenge that I feel we as musicians should take up and spread beyond the holiday season.