Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
I Welcome Your Point Of View On Whether I Am An Alto
I love listening to and singing a lot of labor and folk songs. Like, the highlight of my week a little while back was when a friend got out his guitar and learned to play "Union Maid" and three of us sang it and harmonized together in a living room. I have an untrained voice but I enjoy using it.
A little while later, I saw a friend mention on social media that she would be participating in The Mobile Hallelujah, organized by Make Music New York, and asking whether anyone wanted to join her.
In this participatory choral program open to all interested vocalists, producer Melissa Gerstein and conductor Douglas Anderson team up to bring George Fredric Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" -- from his Messiah oratorio, the oldest continuously performed piece of Classical music -- out of the concert hall and onto the streets of NYC.
I said sure! And then, on a bus on the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night, I looked at the sheet music and listened to the guide track, and, uh, NEWS FLASH, HALLELUJAH FROM HANDEL'S MESSIAH IS WAY HARDER TO LEARN THAN YOUR AVERAGE PETE SEEGER TUNE, this surprises no one. It's a gorgeous piece because it's got a bunch of interconnected cause-and-effect stuff! It's not an eternal golden braid, but it's a very complicated four-minute Rube Goldberg machine! And it's not like I am actually good at sticking to a vocal part during a round or even a simple harmony (I'm an alto I think? I've never actually checked) if there are other people near me singing another part. I sort of gravitate to whatever I'm hearing loudest and end up chameleon-ing into that, like a panicky manager throwing their hands up and saying nobody ever got fired for buying
But hey, New York City has a ton of great singers, so I figured they'd carry the thing and I would just, you know, add oomph for the bits I could figure out.
So I practiced a bit and got to the point where I could, most of the time, keep track of where I was in the sheet music. I think a bindi-wearing woman whisper-singing "Hallelujah" is in, at most, like the thirtieth percentile of weirdness achieved during that hour on New York City Transit. I arrived on the museum steps, tried and failed to find my friend, and saw people assembling -- like 8 sopranos, 20 altos, 1 bass, and an alto or two who said "I guess I'll try to sing tenor" -- and we sorted ourselves out and then the maestro gestured for us to start.
And I found out that a lot of us were muddling along! It was not like "dozens of people who know their parts very well, plus Sumana". It was .... you know how you can call food "authentic" or "rustic" to say "it was lumpy and the presentation was unpolished but I loved it because of who made it and how they made it and how I relate to them"? It was like that. We blurred a bunch of the cool counterpoints and whatnot instead of hitting them precisely, we didn't enunciate great -- whatever. We hit that last Hallelujah and I looked up from the sheet music and people on the sidewalk had gathered to listen, and they clapped! We'd done it! It was a fun thing to try, a fun challenge, and maybe I'll try to get better at singing in chorus, because that is fun!
My friend had been running late and turned up right at that last "Hallelujah". Ah well! We hung out afterwards anyway. Maybe I will see if she wants to sing some Woody Guthrie with me sometime.
I have been enjoying various bits of music recently aside from Handel's elaborate celebration of a divinity that I don't particularly believe in:
23 Dec 2018, 10:58 a.m.
23 Dec 2018, 16:19 p.m.
I also need to learn the alto part of the Messiah... I used to be a soprano, and I think I'm now at highest a second soprano, or possibly an alto. (I haven't been to a voice or music teacher since my voice changed, so I don't know either. I feel like I ought to one-off hire someone and get that fixed! Ongoing voice lessons are not a priority, but I'd totally pay for a one-off.)
This post reminded me of the time when you started singing Union Maid as a vocal warmup in the speakers room at LibrePlanet. That was fun! I wish there were more labor and folk songs in my life.
I'm not sure I've ever purposefully listened to Handel's Hallelujah before. Maybe I'll go fix that now.