A few months ago, I joined the church choir. This was very proactive of me. We meet to practice on Sunday afternoons and sing during two services Sunday mornings. It is what you might call a commitment.
The choir director is an enthusiastic professional musician who attended the church I grew up in, so I’ve known him quite a while. He has great dreams for us; I think he wants us to be the next Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. He challenges us to sing complicated four to five-part harmony pieces. He recently procured a set of tympanis off of Ebay. He’s really gung-ho about the whole thing.
When I joined the choir, I was sent off to the alto section, which isn’t necessarily the section with women who have lower voices, but rather the section with women who can read music. Being named an alto was quite a shock to me. I’ve always been a soprano. Though my voice has gotten lower since the birth of my children, I can still hit a high A on a good day. Good days happen once every six months or so, but still.
Sopranos get the best parts. This is simply a fact. They almost always sing the melody and they get more solos. Being forced to sing as an alto has been quite a blow to my inner-diva.
However, if sopranos are prima donnas, then altos are snobs. As an alto, I’ve found myself sighing impatiently during the occasions when the sopranos sing harmony. So used to singing the melody, they need their part played over and over again. Altos think sopranos are helpless and needy and sopranos don’t think about the altos at all. Music is all very politically complicated.
I began to embrace my new alto status. I made notes in my music and learned how to find my pitch based on what the basses and tenors had been singing. I enjoyed alto camaraderie as we all rolled our eyes together after the sopranos screeched out a high-pitched, very flat b flat. We met beforehand in the practice room to go over the music, and divvied up the high and low alto parts.
Yes, life as an alto was satisfying. And less taxing on the old vocal chords, too. That is, until we started practicing the Hallelujah Chorus for Easter Sunday. My inner-diva came out in full throttle.
The Hallelujah Chorus is awesome. It might be my favorite composition in the history of compositions. Whenever someone tells me they don’t believe in God, I look at them, astonished, and say, “Have you never listened to the Hallelujah Chorus???” The Hallelujah Chorus makes me want to jump up and down and run around the room like a Pentecostal. And the sopranos, as usual, have the best part in the piece. They, alone, sing King of Kings (while everyone else sings forever and ever, hallelujah, hallelujah) and Lord of Lords! The tension slowly rises, and the focus is all on the sopranos.
Let’s not forget the final hallelujah at the tail-end of the song. Again, it’s all about the sopranos. One analysis of the piece states that “it ends triumphantly with trilling tympani and a huge plagal cadence on the word ‘Hallelujah.’” I don’t know about that (true sopranos care little about technicalities and music jargon- it is of diminished importance when compared to our soaring vibrato voices), all I know is that singing the alto part seemed… lame (in comparison to the soprano part.) I submit than when anyone thinks of angels singing in the sky, they think of the soprano part and not the alto part, or even the tenor or bass parts.
Like a true quasi-professional, i.e. a person singing in the local church choir who happens to read music, I sucked up my enormous soprano pride and learned the alto arrangement. And it was maybe a little bit fun. However, on Easter morning, I knew (with true soprano egotism)that the plagal chord at the end would have been all that more triumphant if I had been singing as a soprano.
Here are some pics of the kids on Easter: