Musical Interludes – Joys of Chorus – A Book Review

I didn’t deliberately decide to drop the “Books of the Month” column, I just haven’t written it for a while. I could not write about December’s books as my Christmas books were in transit. It takes six weeks for them to cross the Atlantic or I end up paying more than they are worth to ship them. Most of them were books I cannot buy in the US. Or at least not yet, so they had to be sent over. I may even start writing my Books of the Month column again in a while. It has been nice reading without worry about what to say about the books.

In the meantime, I will occasionally review books that have caught my attention and want to share with you. One of those was the Bluegrass Reader, which I wrote about earlier. Music is obviously a theme for me at the moment as I borrowed a few books from the same section of Newark Free Library. After all once there the others caught my eye.

The book I enjoyed this time is Joan Oliver Goldsmith’s “How Can We Keep From Singing” (Amazon). JOG is a freelancer writer who spends a lot of her time singing with local choirs in the Twin Cities. The book is about her choral adventures, from when she first auditioned for the Minnesota Chorale after eight years of not singing. From the sound of it her life had collapsed about her – losing both husband and career. Singing was a way back to…what? Sanity, life, to finding herself. Probably all of these.

Admittedly I am not all that keen on introspection. I’m too British or something. I do enjoy her descriptions of what singing is. Earlier on when she is getting ready to audition and starts practicing again:

Rusty vocal cords? All right. Acute stage fright? Duly noted. I walked over to the piano, stood directly in front of middle C and took a deep breath. “Nnn” on the high note, sliding down, slowly smearing through each pitch, tickling the nose, landing where it will. Now higher. Practice begins again.


I imagine myself as a clarinet – not a clarinetist, but the instrument itself, straight up and down with just a bit of flare at the bottom.


I focus on keeping my body as stable and unconstricted as a clarinet. Lips, teeth, and tongue are just keys, valves to open and close as needed for consonants and vowels.

One description as to why we singers do this without pay; as amateurs:

And the pleasure of seeing the conductor’s face, of responding with a wave of united energy. When he makes his movement smaller for pianissimo and we don’t get soft enough, so the gestures become tinier yet, until he gathers into those hands the power of two hundred voices precisely making almost no sound at all. With consciousness of the impending crescendo, but no increase in volume. Not yet…not yet…Now…YES! This is payment enough.

JOG gives some statistics – a little repetitively but they are still interesting. The National Endowment for the Arts sponsored a survey of public participation in the arts (SPPA). This was also carried out in 2002 where four out of ten Americans reported personally performing or creating art between September 2001 and August 2002. I should point out, for those of you not wanting open the pdf file above that the music portion of this included the categories of jazz, classical music, choir/chorale, opera, and composing music. It doesn’t mention folk music, country music, or even pop and rock. To make it fair, in the creating art section knitting isn’t mentioned either. In all sections of music performance, the percentage of Americans involved has decreased since 1992, but I wonder if that is because they are ignoring the more popular forms of music performance. Composing music did increase, probably because that would allow for those “alternative” music types. Still, according to this data, 9.8 million Americans performed in a choir or chorale during Sept 2001 – August 2002. The full report as a pdf is available here.

More from book. As to why do we do it? Why do 10 million of us do this?

Most of us sing in a chorus do it because we like following. To make music without the glory but also without the stress: no one noticing the occasional extra breath or missed note. The shade outside the limelight can feel delightful, refreshing.


On days full of too many hassles after a night of too little sleep, making an insignificant choice like which route to drive home during rush hour can plunge me into grumpiness. Then I go to rehearsal, where the person on the podium has (most of the time, anyway) considered, pondered, perhaps asked for advice, and is ready to set out direction. Weight lifts from my shoulders. Carrying out those directions requires skill and a host of other noble qualities, but for three hours, I am only 1/80th, 1/120th or even 1/150th responsible.

She is lucky enough to be singing in a concert that Robert Shaw (Wikipedia) conducted. He has to be the guru of choral conducting. It must have been a great experience.

There is much more. It is enough to say that if you are already an choir member you will find interesting snippets through out this book.