By Fred Bogert
One of our inherent goals as kappelmeisters is to reach out to the community, whether it be schools, churches or local organizations, and gather singers to add to our core participants. It’s a great adventure to build a bigger combination of voices for those special mass choir events. Everybody wins when this happens. We meet new talent and they get to know us and ours as well.
Today I’ll share an episode of a recent mass choir gathering that I was asked to direct in cooperation with Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM). They are a great organization that helps to resettle and provide resources for bunches of refugees from all over the planet. And sure enough, among those newcomers are all levels of talented musicians and singers, to whom English is very much a second language! We fell in love with the idea of organizing a great big concert featuring all this international talent.
Many of the refugees have very crowded schedules, balancing jobs, education, housing, and family issues. But KRM has found that the musically inclined among them yearn to express their talents so that they can share their culture of origin with their new neighbors. That reinforced our desire to plan a big concert here in Louisville with around 100 performers on the Bomhard Theater stage. About a third of the performers were to be local talent who volunteered to help raise a joyous noise in more than one language with our new friends. And, because of the dense schedules, language and transportation challenges, we narrowed the focus of the mass choir portion of the program down to four songs, to be learned in … wait for it… one rehearsal.
We did two songs in English, one in Spanish, and one in Swahili. I left it up to the featured soloists and their rhythm sections to define the outlines of the structure and groove of each piece and started writing parts that could be sung by all and learned in the short time we had available. With help from some local church singers I recorded mp3’s of each song for the folks who didn’t read music, and notated scores for those who did. The songs were chosen based on their suitability to a choral setting, which helped a bunch as we moved forward.
As the concert date approached and the rehearsal loomed, the myriad details of the process all fell into place nicely, thanks to the dedication and wisdom of scads of energetic, hospitable people. As we frantically gathered together for the rehearsal, people got lost, forgot music, and all those other wonderful things you’d expect from this sort of endeavor. As we finally got ready to start, I realized that I had yet to address a particular question – how to warm up the choir. This coalition of international talent did not represent a common language, or even a unified culture. And I had ten minutes to get them focused and functioning.
I chose what I thought might be a common musical snippet to bring everyone together. I started singing the “A B C’s” and invited all to join in. I made everyone stop at “Z” and left out the lyrics beyond that. And, sure enough, by the third time through we were all on it, singing and lightly giggling together in innocent play. As we repeated the alphabet I started speaking and miming the directions to focus the group sound. We went through low and high dynamics, staccato and legato, tempo changes and modulations, all of us listening to the others intently and mimicking the better singers when we had to. In half the allotted time we had a nice sound going, and everyone was smiling together.
The icing on the cake – I realized about halfway through the warm up that “A B C’s” has a melody almost identical to one of the songs we’d be singing in the concert – “What a Wonderful World.” Who knew?! We segued into that, and it was downhill from there. Sure, we stumbled over foreign pronunciations and helped each other through the language issues we encountered, but our confidence grew quickly as the music bloomed, and in the end, all of us found common ground in singing and playing together.
Yes, the concert was wonderful, and we’ll all remember the rehearsal where “A B C’s” helped music unify the world.
Fred Bogert has spent the last 45 years in the music business. He has produced, written for, and performed on three Grammy-nominated CDs, as well as appeared as composer, producer, and performer with a variety of artists. His website is fredbogert.com, and his choral scores are available on sheetmusicplus.com. Fred lives in Louisville, KY.