Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Plein Chant: The Challenges of Open-Air Singing

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Choir singing in open air being menaced by sun, bugs

I haven’t been posting much lately because it has been a busy choir season.  Recently, we had the privilege of singing at an open-air event.  It was wonderful, with several choirs and soloists performing, fine speakers, overall, a truly memorable event.

However, there were certain aspects of open-air singing that I was not prepared for, so, as a public service, I thought I would alert you to some of the hazards that you might have to confront, and provide you with some helpful tips.

The Sun

The venue in which we were performing had a roof, but all four sides were open.  The sun, which at first was a pleasant, cheerful presence, over time became the blindingly bright, searing ball of flame that it is.  The highly reflective white music pages became hard to see, a situation made worse by burning, salty sweat dripping inevitably into the eyes.  It would have looked weird to don sunglasses, even if we had them, so that was not an option.  Or, for that matter, a sweatband, never elegant under any circumstances.  In addition to the threat of heatstroke, some of us were treated to the musical equivalent of a trucker’s tan.  I’ll call it a tenor’s tan, the sunward arm bronzed from the tip of one’s short sleeve to the wrist, the hand remaining ghostly due to its sheltered position beneath the music binder.

Note: bring water.  Long sleeves, while counterintuitive in hot weather, are not necessarily a bad thing, and are useful for mopping the sweat out of one’s eyes.

Bugs

Thankfully, no one inhaled a bug while prepping for a dramatic forte note.  I’m sure it has happened.  Instead, we were visited by the occasional wandering insect of the stinging variety.  On-stage decorum precluded frantic arm waving (or running away, or wildly swinging one’s music binder).  Instead, I mentally intoned the mantra I typically use when encountering snakes while hiking, “I’m a tree, I’m a tree…”, hoping they’ll somehow get the message that I am not something to bite.

Note: forget bug spray; singers would rather inhale a bug than smell that all afternoon.  Be brave.

Risers

We were seated (thankfully) on risers, standing when it was our turn to perform.  But there were no railings behind the back row.  There was a fear that some poor bass would fall off, into the deep end you might say.  A basso profundo indeed.  I am happy to report there were no incidents.

Note: be aware of your surroundings at all times.  Especially edges.

No feedback

When you sing inside, you always have some sort of reflection of your sound, either from a wall behind you, or across from you, and it helps to evaluate your sound in comparison to others.  But outside, with no walls, the sound escapes from your lips…and keeps going.  You might be able to hear the person next to you, maybe the person behind you, but, if you’re toward the back, everything in front of you is inaudible.  Typically, a monitoring speaker is placed facing a choir so they can hear themselves, but this was not the case this day, or if it was, it was so quiet we couldn’t hear it.  More frighteningly, we could not hear our pianist, which meant watching the conductor was no longer optional (note: conductors will tell you it is never optional).  Probably ok, since it was pointless to look down at the music, because we couldn’t see it in the blinding sun anyway.

Note: keep time, read lips when necessary.  And do no harm (drop out if you’re not sure, come back in when you’ve found your place).

I’d like to point you toward a video at this point, or at least audio, but apparently there was a recording problem, and the sound that was captured from anyone who was not wearing a mike (i.e., the choirs) was a weak, feeble whisper not at all representative of what was being produced or transmitted to the live audience.  I think the bees clustering on a microphone would have made a louder sound, though I suspect it would be less four-part harmony, and more George Crumb’s Black Angels.

So, I hope this will help you get ready should you have the opportunity to sing outside.  Be prepared as well for:  thunderstorms, darkness, cold weather, high winds, dust blown by said high winds, audio feedback of the ear-piercing variety, earthquakes…you get the idea.

Just remember to have fun!

 

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