Last weekend, I took Curry College's SING! to the Mass ACDA Intercollegiate Choral Festival. (Be sure to explore the AWESOME photos taken by Endicott student, Lauren Holahan.) Among the combined songs on the program was Jack Halloran's setting of Witness that I've sung and conducted multiple times. Of all the pieces we performed, it was the one I knew better than any other...or so I thought.
In the morning, I was tasked with leading the first rehearsal of the piece, and it didn't go very well. In my arrogance, I knew (there's that word again) it was because the choir wasn't watching. (What choir director hasn't assumed that once or twice or a million times?) I encouraged the choir to look up, and in later rehearsals, our synchronization improved, but never quite gelled. I offered my expectations on pronunciation, tempo, and other elements of interpretation based on prior experiences. After all, I knew this piece.
When our clinician for the day, Dr. Dennis Slaughter, took over after lunch, I realized that I didn't know as much as I knew I knew. :-) First, his tempo was WAY too slow. And then he made a big deal about the consonants--something I had tried to downplay. And he didn't pay tons of attention to the rhythmic idiosyncrasies that "made" the arrangement for me.
Instead, he encouraged students to find the inner rhythm of the text. Every sound had its own syllable. Every word had its place in the phrase. All of a sudden, the piece that I thought of as an old, familiar friend suddenly became my teacher. The piece had depth that I had never heard and rhythmic complexity I had never even considered.
In short, I thought I knew Witness last Friday, but now I KNOW that I know Witness...at least until someone demonstrates a better way to do it.
In all of this, the real lesson is something I've known all along, but rarely stopped to contemplate. In music, and in life, there is rarely a single "right" way to do anything. The moment we think we've figured out how something works, someone will come along with a different explanation and turn our most favored ideas upside down. (Wouldn't you love to ask Newton what he thinks of Einstein?) If we're willing to accept some humility, we stand to learn a lot and become better artists--better humans.
Honestly, I needed a slice of humble pie, and I was fortunate that Dr. Slaughter was a skilled chef.
P.S. One of my students pointed out the irony that last year's clinician was Dr. Cutter, and this year's clinician was Dr. Slaughter. Is there a Dr. Bomber we can invite next year? Maybe we should do a medley from Sweeney Todd!