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April 19, 2005

Directing a 1,000 voices as one

Minneapolis Star Tribune (MN):

Philip Brunelle, the unofficial choir director of Minnesota, is seeking 1,000 volunteers to participate in a choir at the big July 4th State Capitol Centennial. There are all sorts of very difficult jobs in our perilous times. But bringing together 1,000 amateur singers, representing each of the state's 87 counties and making them sound good for one dramatic performance may be impossible. "No problem," Brunelle said. "No problem."

Deep down, Brunelle, 61, surely realizes he's full of false optimism. I know from experience that a few off-key voices can destroy an entire choir. Many years ago, in a church far away, I was one of three tenors in a choir. And among our choral duties was to sing the "Sevenfold Amen" (by Sir John Stainer) at the conclusion of each service. The concept was good. The choir was to send the congregants home in a reverent mood. It seldom worked that way.

Typically, with each "amen" two of us tenors would fall flatter and flatter on this lovely piece of music done without accompaniment. By "amen" No. 2, the slippage would begin. By "amen" No. 3, the director was wincing at me and my fellow flat singer. By "amen" No. 4, our peers in the choir were blushing. By "amen" No. 6, congregants were trying to stifle giggles. By No. 7, everyone was just relieved to be getting out of the building. No matter how hard we tried, we could not help ourselves. Week after week, we'd fall flat. "It's not as lovely of piece of music when it goes flat," Brunelle admitted. "And it doesn't take many to pull the whole choir down."

So how does he propose to keep a 1,000-member choir in tune? "We're going to stay positive," he said. "We surely don't want a flat Fourth of July. The first thing you want with a choir is rhythm. You really want everybody doing the same thing at the same time. The second thing you want is pitch. You do want everyone in tune." Again, though, easier said than done.

Brunelle, the artistic director of VocalEssence, the organist/choir director at Plymouth Congregational Church, guest conductor of choirs and orchestras around the state, has a vision for what will happen on the Fourth. He wants to hear a sound as big and bold and wonderful as the building we're celebrating. The choral performance will kick off a day of parades and other festivities.

A thousand enthusiastic singers from across the state will arrive at the Capitol on the morning of the Fourth for one massive rehearsal of the patriotic songs that will be performed. (For an application, choir groups or individuals may contact www.ourhouse100.com or call 952-893-1111.) Brunelle said he expects that all who come to the rehearsal will know the words and their parts to the songs on the program. The rehearsal, in his view, merely will be fine-tuning for what the Capitol Centennial Commission is calling "one of the largest choirs in Minnesota history."

Brunelle said he hopes this group will include 300 sopranos, 300 altos, 200 basses and 200 tenors. Think about it: 200 amateur tenors in one choir. How many tenors would it take to undermine the efforts of a 1,000-member choir? "It's hard to come up with an exact number," he said. "It would depend on the volume of the singers. I suppose you could have one or two falling flat, then, dragging down others and then ... let's just not think about it."

We all know of songs that have notes that are particularly dangerous. Take, for example, the National Anthem. Most of us are incapable of hitting the high note that comes with the word "free" on the phrase "the land of the free." "An 'F'," said Brunelle of the note that has tripped up even professional anthem singers. "You've got that same ol' 'F' in 'Minnesota, Hail to Thee,' which we also will be singing."

How will Brunelle get each choir member to deal with his or her limitations when it comes to hitting that high "F"? "Let's say that we have a Doug Grow or two in the choir," Brunelle said. "I would say to him, 'Mr. Grow, when we come to that 'F' I want your mouth open. I want it to look as if you're singing the word 'free' with total conviction. But let's not have a sound coming out of your mouth." Lip synching? "Yes," said Brunelle. "And afterward, when your friends come up with you and say, 'You sounded great. You hit that high note just perfectly,' I want you to simply say 'Thank you.' "

Posted by acapnews at April 19, 2005 12:23 AM