Brain-Tired from Music?

No, I’m not trying to do a music theory analysis of free-form academic jazz. That falls under “These are trained professionals, do NOT try this at home.” No, I’m talking about why it felt like I was thinking through a fog after back-to-back intense rehearsals.

The group I sing with is at the point that we are moving away from “repeat phrases and sections until we can’t get them wrong” drill-n-kill practice to “what is the composer trying to accomplish?” In this case, it is a very unusual marriage of liturgical text with technically difficult music. In some ways, it’s easier to do Christian religious music from the Medieval to the Baroque because the Catholic Church had official and customary ways of setting certain texts in order to emphasize certain meanings. That started to go out the window in the mid-1700s, if the composer was good enough and if his patrons were willing.

So now, in addition to remembering the notes, the text and its meaning, and the special technique needed to do this music properly, the chorus is having to try and understand exactly what the composer wanted the listeners to feel. No, I’m not naming names, because this isn’t unique to this person. However, we, the chorus, generally don’t tackle this kind of work. We’re better known for purely vocal things like Renaissance madrigals and modern a capella pieces. Piano or organ and a few strings or woodwinds are the usual accompaniment, if there is any. The current cantata is a big mental shift from our usual.

I’ve had this feeling before, when doing some organ music as an undergrad. The organ requires both keyboard technique and an understanding of what sounds are required. A piano varies in volume, and in duration of notes, but an organ has a lot more sound possibilities. However, you can’t change the volume by pushing harder on the key. You either use the swell pedal (which changes the sound color as well as volume), or add and remove stops. When was the piece written? What sound did organs of that time and place have? How would this music be used? All those shape your interpretation as you adapt a modern instrument to older music. A Spanish early Baroque “Tiento de Batalla” is going to be hard to register on, oh, a church organ that is based on French Romantic sounds. Likewise a composition by Gabriel Faure isn’t going to work on a Bach (German baroque) instrument. It can be done, but the sound is not French Romantic, exactly.

Humans can’t change our stops, unless you count the male falsetto register. So we have to use a lot of other tips and tricks and techniques, all of which require both physical and mental effort. So I end rehearsal in a brain fog from trying to remember everything the music, text, and conductor demand. It’s a much an intellectual exercise as translating German into English, or reading an academic work in an unfamiliar field (say, geochemistry or paleo-mammal taxonomy). I’m a much better vocalist for all this work, but my brain is mush.


3 thoughts on “Brain-Tired from Music?

  1. I know that “brain is mush” feeling!
    I took the exam for the EIT certification back in the 80s.
    Four hours of testing over general areas in physical science (chemistry, mechanics, electricity, etc.) and four hours of testing in your field of engineering (mine was chemical engineering).
    Fortunately, my sister drove me home.
    Sister: “Where shall we stop for dinner?”
    Me: “Uuuuhhhh…”

  2. I cannot imagine how much work that actually is, thanks for a peek behind the curtain, so to speak.

Comments are closed.