Onstage at Bass Hall

Onstage at Bass Hall

“Music was his life, it was not his livelihood,

and it made him feel so happy,

it made him feel so good.

And he sang from his heart,

and he sang from his soul.

He did not know how well he sang;

it just made him whole.

“Mr. Tanner” by Harry Chapin

As I sang the fourth consecutive “Home For The Holidays” concert with the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, that song—a favorite of mine—played on my mental loop. As with much of Chapin’s music, “Mr. Tanner” tells a story and makes a very specific point. Unlike Mr. Tanner, I know precisely how well I sing–it’s a matter of constant review and analysis–but the rest rings true.

I am the Board President and men’s (tenor and bass) section leader of the Southwestern Theological Seminary Master Chorale, the principal chorus of the FWSO. The Master Chorale has a very long tradition of musical excellence. This year, we sang our 94th annual performance of Messiah, and have a very long-standing relationship with the Symphony. When they need a choir, they call us. When we need an orchestra, we call them.

Musicians are interesting people. As with life in general, there are different strata to consider. Virtually anyone can sing, but relatively few are singers, and fewer still, professional singers. Many people play an instrument during their K-12 years, but far fewer continue in college, and fewer yet beyond that. There is a great deal of brass and wood gathering dust in closets across America.

Most post college singers are amateurs, not neophytes. Amateurs do it because they love it, but they are certainly not beginners. The Master Chorale, for example, is an auditioned choir composed of adults from the community and students from the Seminary. One must be an accomplished singer/musician to gain admittance. Like most choirs, no singer is paid to participate, but the rewards come from being a singer. In the Master Chorale, there are additional, unusual rewards.

Few members of a college chorus—or a community-based chorus—have the opportunity to perform many times each year with a first rate symphony orchestra.   Few have the opportunity to experience the depth and breadth of literature the Master Chorale sings each year. We normally perform with the Symphony from 5-8 times each school year (our two seasons follow the semesters of the Seminary), an extraordinary opportunity.

Professionals are usually defined as people that make much, if not all, of their living as musicians. This is certainly true for full-time symphony players, though many make far less than is commonly imagined, and virtually all teach or otherwise supplement their incomes. Most singers, unless they are solo-quality voices that have chosen a solo career, are unpaid. They do it for love, and because it makes them whole.

This does not mean that there are not many solo-quality voices in serious choirs; there are. Those people, however, have made other choices in life. They chose, as did I many years ago, to have lives and careers and families, and to have stable homes rather than living out of a suitcase. When soloists for major works are required, they are engaged and paid, and the solo voices in the choir understand that they are needed in their sections. Even so, most think “I can do that,” as soloists are plying their trade.

I am one of a relatively small set of singers that is actually a hired professional for a church choir. The church hires two voices in each section, which allows that choir to do works that would otherwise be impossible, and to do more music in a much shorter span of time. I couldn’t live on those wages, but it’s a nice supplement to my teaching salary, and the music and fellowship are compelling and fulfilling.

Symphonic musicians are people that, like serious singers, have dedicated their lives to their craft, but have gone a level beyond. Competition for symphony chairs is cutthroat, not only because excellent players are competitive, but because there are few symphony seats throughout the country, and few symphonies with more money than they need. Most struggle.

A common misconception is that musicians at that level are prima donnas. Most, in fact, are decent, cooperative, friendly people. They have spent a lifetime working with people, collaborating with them, and understand clearly how much easier life is when dealing with pleasant, flexible colleagues. Even singers and instrumentalists generally get along well, or at least that’s the case with the FWSO and the MC, and we go out of our way to maintain that reputation and relationship. We’re there for the music; we don’t have time for bad attitudes.

Most pros realize that there are a great many excellent musicians out there, and most people far prefer to work with kind, accommodating people rather than arrogant twerps, no matter how proficient. Cultivating a bad reputation is not generally helpful to a career in professional music.

With that background, on to my week last night, not to pat myself on the back, but perhaps to provide you, gentle readers, with some sense of what the life of a professional, but grossly underpaid classical musician is like.

As last week rolled around, our last performance with the Symphony was Messiah, performed at Truett Hall on the Seminary campus On November 3. Truett is an older theater, much upgraded to contemporary standards, and smaller and more intimate, substantially more like what would have been available to Handel.

Apart from weekly rehearsals–Monday for Master Chorale and Thursday for my paying church obligation–we had a previously unscheduled rehearsal with the Symphony’s Home For The Holidays director, Andres Franco on Friday afternoon. He couldn’t meet with us at our regular rehearsal time as he had an out of town conducting obligation. After a bit more than an hour piano rehearsal with just the Chorale, we had a half hour off and then did our dress rehearsal with the 70+ members of the Symphony. That took about two hours.

The Symphony’s home is Bass Hall in Ft. Worth, a genuinely world class venue. The acoustics are superb, as is the equipment and tech staff. When we sing for the FWSO, we normally perform there.

One other interesting tidbit: Symphony players always have sufficient elbow room, which they very much need lest up-bows turn into elbow strikes on nearby noses, but those organizing musical events tend to think of singers as sardines and set up chairs with that in mind. For these performances we were working with a high school youth choir, the Lone Star Youth Chorus, made up of kids from Ft. Worth schools. This was their debut performance, so their not-so-little teenaged bodies added to the sardine effect onstage. With a little creative seat shuffling, we managed to get a bit of breathing space after the rehearsal.


It turned out to be wet, cold and rainy weekend, which suppressed attendance on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. In any case, the Friday evening performance was well done, but by the time the baton dropped, everyone had already been singing for nearly three hours. Most people don’t realize how physically and intellectually exhausting singing on that level is. And singing with orchestral accompaniment usually means very little subtlety, and a great deal of singing with great precision and energy merely to be heard and understood.

Getting home at about 2200, I had to be back at Bass Hall for the Saturday afternoon matinee by 1200, so I barely saw Mrs. Manor. It was rainy and cold yet again, and the attendance still suffered, but about half the house was full.

Doing multiple performances of the same works is always interesting. One is able to polish their singing on each number, and the choir always improves. It’s very different than most performances where the choir works for many months on a single major work, performs it once, and then files it away for some distant future performance.

After the matinee, we ran out for Chinese (PF Chang’s), getting thoroughly soaked in the process, but a little pleasant damp socializing with good and smart people is always invigorating. Musicians tend to be smart people.

The evening performance was a nearly full house. This always energizes performers, and the concert went very well. Of course, we were all well practiced by then and comfortable with the director, each other, and the hall. Home For The Holidays is a Christmas concert. The Symphony does several numbers, we do several with them, and each choir did an a capella number. Ours was a lovely arrangement of Silver Bells.

By the time I got home about 2200, I was pretty shot. Members of the Chorale range from 18 to 70-something, but all are seasoned performers, and the younger ones can make up for less seasoning with youthful energy. Still, it didn’t help that I had to be up at 0630 Sunday morning in order to travel back to Ft. Worth for two church services/performances. A bit of Coca Cola and some donuts from a local shop helped with the energy deficit.

Back to Bass Hall at 1230 to prepare for the final 1400 performance, which was as well attended as the Saturday evening performance, with an audience every bit as appreciative. The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Actually, creating moments of transcendent beauty is what makes it all worthwhile. We do it because we can, and because it’s who and what we are.

I didn’t make it home until about 1700, and then it was off for grocery shopping for the coming week, and it was all I could do stay awake long enough to avoid being too tired to sleep.

Monday dawned at 0630 as usual, and the school day was long and tiring, as I was on my feet all day in a computer lab supervising the kids as they took a grammar diagnostic test. As soon as school was over, I drove straight to the Seminary in Ft. Worth for dress rehearsal for the Seminary’s annual Keyboards at Christmas concert. The Seminary is an all-Steinway school, and loads the stage with grand pianos played by faculty and students.

We perform in the MacGorman chapel and performance hall, which is an enormous, modern and excellent theater. It’s a new facility and the Seminary built a first class rehearsal room there just for us. That rehearsal lasted from 1800-2100, so I didn’t make it home until about 2140.

Call for the Keyboards At Christmas concert will be this Thursday at 1800, and our final performance of the Fall season with be Messiah again with the FWSO at Bass Hall on Monday the 7th. That’s always an exciting performance, and the Hall is always sold out. Messiah is special to us all, and particularly to me. We’ll have a few weeks off after that and begin again in January.

Oh yes, I’ll also have two church performances/services on Sunday morning as well. This week I’m singing the first two tenor solos from Messiah, which is always fun, though I’m anything but a morning singer.

And now, gentle readers, you know why it has taken me until tonight to get this article posted!