Singing Our Hearts Out

Cast members in 2007.

A version of this post originally appeared at Last Word on Nothing.

Recently I was rehearsing a glorious 16th-century motet with a small chorus, for the Washington Revels 30th Anniversary CD. Haec dies quam fecit Dominus, the song begins. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it. It’s an Easter text and a lovely thought. This is a day; let’s enjoy it.

The piece is by William Byrd, an English composer of Shakespeare’s time—yes, he’s wearing a ruff in his portrait—who wrote a lot of sacred music like this. The idea that different people could sing different things at the same time was fairly new in the Renaissance, and composers like Byrd went to town with it. We sang it in the 2007 Christmas Revels, which had an Elizabethan theme.

In Byrd’s six-part Haec Dies, the words and melody are split up and tossed back and forth between the vocal parts. I sing second soprano, the second highest. The first sopranos start the piece, then the altos join, then us. Sometimes we have the most prominent line; sometimes it’s another part. Women and tenors start the second section together: exultemus! Let’s exult! We settle into the alleluias, then sing a short duet with the basses, their low voices anchoring our rising line. Other parts pop out in turn. The lines come together and we converge and land, triumphant, on the final syllable of the final word. A perfectly tuned D-major chord fills the room. It feels as if everyone’s unified voice is flowing through my torso.

Last month, Swedish researchers published a study about heart rate in choirs. Fifteen 18-year-olds sat in a semicircle with heart-rate monitors clipped to their ears. The kids sang together, three different ways, each for five minutes. First they hummed a single tone, each breathing when needed. Then they sang a hymn. Last they sang a simple, slow tune that forced a breath after every 10-second phrase.

The singers’ heart rates went up and down as they breathed and sang. When they were just humming, their heart rates cycled at all different speeds. But when they were all breathing together in strict rhythm, the up-and-down lined up. In the hymn, breaths were less evenly spaced, so the picture was more complex, but the same thing happened; heart rates varied at the frequency of the breaths.

The researchers tie this to a known phenomenon: heart rate and breathing are linked. Your heartbeats vary all the time, depending on a lot of things, like loud sounds, exercise, and whether or not you’re being stalked by a lion. Breathe in and the heart speeds up; breathe out and it slows down.

When we’re singing the lively, complicated Byrd motet, things are surely even more complex than in the study’s sweet, unison hymn. Across the rehearsal room, in each section, hearts speed and slow together. The second sopranos breathe in and hearts beat faster; we breathe out on an alleluia and our hearts slow. We breathe in to end the phrase and our hearts speed up again, then slow while we wait for our next entrance. Last week we recorded the piece with the Washington Revels Brass breathing right along with us.

Singing together is deeply satisfying. Whether it’s Byrd’s polyphony or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” you’re joining in common purpose with the people around you. Now we know part of why it feels so right: when we sing together, we’re lining up our hearts, too.

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Photo: Erin Sutherland

Winter Concert at the Birchmere

Singers from the Revels (left) and the Ocean Orchestra (right) practice in the rehearsal room, which has a lot of Andalusian props in it right now. Photo: Helen Fields

Back in the early 90’s, Washington Revels did a few post-Christmas shows at the Birchmere with the local folk-rock band The New St. George. Now the New St. George’s leader, Jennifer Cutting, has a fabulous new band, and we’re reuniting with her to do a show tonight at the Birchmere!

Monday night was our last rehearsal–the show is tonight at 7:30. We ran through a few songs from this year’s Christmas Revels and also practiced with Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra.

The biggest thing we do at Washington Revels is The Christmas Revels, but we have lots of events through the year, too. I love this kind of gig, where we don’t have much rehearsal and the directors are figuring things out on the fly. Some of the arrangements changed over the weekend. The mummers rehearsed their play tonight for the first time. It feels very seat-of-the-pants, but it’s great to know that we can put together a great show quickly, after the massive, months-long project of The Christmas Revels.

The mummers rehearse. With Betsy Miller as the doctor, Glyn Collinson as St. George, and Guen Spilsbury as the dragon. Photo: Helen Fields

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The Terrible, Adorable Tarasque

Usually our Mummers play–the play-within-a-play in the second part of The Christmas Revels–features a hero fighting some kind of terrible monster. St. George and the dragon, for example.

This year instead of a dragon we have a tarasque. The tarasque is a fearsome beast that ravaged, so the story goes, a town in Provence and was tamed by a young girl. You may recall seeing it carved on a pumpkin.

On Sunday we got our first look at our tarasque’s body–including all six legs. Take a look at this:

Two chorus members put the tarasque through its paces. Photo: Helen Fields

That is one exciting puppet.

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Widening the Circle

A chorus-sized circle lines the rehearsal room at the Revels office. Photo: Helen Fields

At the beginning of most rehearsals, and before every performance, we all stand in a circle for something we call – wait, the clever name will amaze you – “circle.” Some people find this a bit off-putting. Yeah, there’s a certain amount of hand-holding. But it’s part of what brings us together, and coming together is what makes The Christmas Revels.

Circle is a time for announcements about logistics and schedule, and for standing with your stage family, hand in hand, getting your body ready for singing. It’s for people who aren’t on stage and aren’t singing, too. The circle keeps getting bigger, reaching out to hold more and more of the Revels community and beyond.

The circle was pretty big at Saturday's all-day rehearsal. Photo: Helen Fields

Artistic Director Roberta Gasbarre explains it to us like this. At the first circle of the year, in May or June, the circle is just the adults in the chorus and a few other people. As the year goes on, the circle expands. The teens join us in September. In October we meet our children for the first time. Volunteers appear to work on props and make crafts to sell at the merchandise tables. Designers stop by.

In November we have weekend rehearsals in larger spaces. The costume and props crews start fixing us up with things to wear and things to hold. In a little over a week, we’ll be holding circle under the stage at Lisner, where there’s no room for a single file circle. The usual call is “Come to circle!” but at Lisner, it’s “Come to blob!” as we all squish in to listen to each other’s words.

The 2007 cast assembles under the stage for circle. Photo: Erin Sutherland

Finally, in December, the cast and volunteers and whoever else is there will end every performance singing Sussex Mummers Carol, holding hands, across the front of the stage and up the stairs at the side of the theater to encircle the audience. That’s when the circle is at its largest.

The point of Revels isn’t to stand on stage and sound pretty. (Although we do that, and quite well.) What makes Revels special is that we build a real community among ourselves, as we learn and practice the traditions represented in a particular show, and then keep expanding that community to include the whole audience in our celebration of the seasons. As the poem goes: “Singing, dancing to drive the dark away.”

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Eight Hours Beneath the Basketball Hoops

Chorus members line up to carry props from the rental truck into the gym. Photo: Helen Fields

As the fall goes on, rehearsal starts taking up more time and more space. This weekend we have two all-day rehearsals at a school in Bethesda. Saturday there were props. Today there will be costumes. There are musicians wielding brass instruments. There are musicians wielding every other kind of instrument, too. And apparently we’re going to perform this show in two weeks in front of a paying audience, so Saturday seemed like a good time for the directors tell us where to stand for the second half of the show.

So we spent all day Saturday under fluorescent lights in a gym, walking through the second part of the show. Lines on the floor corresponded to the borders of the Lisner Auditorium stage. We got a bit of music practice with the brass quintet and Trio Sefardi. I used to find these all-day blocking rehearsals exhausting, but I’ve learned over the years when I need to pay attention and when I can zone out. I impressed one of the new people with my ability to knit whenever there was a break in the action.

I made a lot of progress on this baby sweater today. Photo: Helen Fields

One of the teenagers got excited this morning when she heard I was writing a blog and said I should do it Gossip Girl-style. Me: “I heard a rumor that someone hasn’t memorized all her lyrics yet.” Her: “Is it…95 percent of the chorus?”

I think most of us know most of the lyrics already, and I know I’ll have it all down by the time the show opens (hopefully earlier). But the lyrics don’t really get solidified in my head until I put my notebook down, walk around, and sing the songs as if we were on stage. With more than 40 hours of rehearsal in the next two weeks, I’ll have plenty of opportunities to do that.

Makeup designer Roger Riggle saw everyone on Saturday to match their skin tone with foundation. Photo: Helen Fields

Today we’re back for another six hours in the gym. It’ll be our first time running the whole show, our first time rehearsing in costume–and our first rehearsal “off book.” That means the notebook, with my script and music, stays in my backpack. Yikes. I’ll be spending the morning transferring all of my blocking notes onto a piece of paper and copying the lyrics I’m not totally sure about onto index cards. Then I just have to confront the reality of a day where I’m reliant on pieces of paper and wearing lovely white robes…with no pockets.

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