Amen – a fugue story.

This past fall I rejoined the Marshall University Choral Union, a choir open to the public and comprised of an eclectic mix of college students participating for credit, retirees, and a smattering of musically-interested folks in the ages between. We sang Handel’s Messiah, which I had sung with Choral Union years before. But this semester was with a different conductor, and we were singing some different pieces, so it was a welcome mixture of familiar and new. Instead of ending with the Part II, concluding with the famed Hallelujah Chorus, our conductor picked various movements throughout and concluded with the true end – Part III – Amen.

The Amen fugue is a difficult, rambling piece in the best of conditions. Add to that the fact that we practiced all semester in a classroom, but were performing in an old soaring church sanctuary with different acoustics, seating arrangements, and alongside the symphony orchestra and we were a mess. Dress rehearsal was a disaster. The night of the performance we arrived early to warm up and review some of the more difficult parts of the work, including the Amen fugue. It was passable, but we were still having difficulty hearing ourselves and finding some notes. I sang at a whisper for much of the piece.

Between rehearsal and the concert we were all gathered in a back room chatting about holiday plans. The conductor, Dr. Wray, came in to give us some practical instructions, and then addressed Amen. “You have practiced this all semester, and have done the work you need to prepare. So now you have to relax and just enjoy the performance. Is it going to be perfect? No! Will there be mistakes? Absolutely! So know that you are going to mess up and just have fun. Don’t hold your score with white knuckles, nervous about making a mistake – that will only make things worse. We will make mistakes. So just have a good time.”

We took a collective sigh of relief. He was right, of course, in so many ways. Don’t we all white-knuckle things that we have absolutely no control over? Of course we should plan and prepare and do our very best work. But when our “very best” effort makes the final product worse because of hand-wringing, what do we accomplish? A tight-throated performance devoid of joy, that’s what. (Literally, in this case, and figuratively otherwise).

It was not perfect. But it was significantly better than our ramshackle rehearsal. And we finished smiling.