© Richard Grossman MD, 2009
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice, practice, practice” – Old joke
There is evidence that singing, especially in a chorus, is good for one’s health. My wife and I joined the Durango Choral Society shortly after moving to Durango. Recently members of DCS had the chance of a lifetime to sing in Carnegie Hall!
The reason we sing has little to do with health benefits, although they are a welcome side effect of doing what we enjoy. Health advantages include decreased blood pressure, better posture and breathing, improved immunity and the release of “feel good” endorphins. These effects help account for several advantages noted in a study of elderly singers. These seniors, averaging 80 years old, had fewer doctor visits, took less medication and were less depressed than age matched control subjects who did not sing or participate in music or art.
When I was in high school I was chosen to sing in our school’s select choir. I am not all that great a musician, but Miss Brewer must have seen some unrealized promise in me. She gave me a good start as a choral singer.
Diane Estes VanDenBerg was the conductor of DCS for many years. One of the most amazing experiences of my life was to sing two exciting performances with the great jazz musician Dave Brubeck. I can still remember the thrill of seeing Dave, seated at the piano, turn to the chorus while we were singing “To Hope” and beam us a beatific smile.
Dr. Linda Mack Berven, professor of music at Fort Lewis College, is the group’s current director. Although she is as an accomplished pianist and a superb soprano, her forte is teaching vocal music. She wrote her doctoral thesis on leading community choral groups, which she does with great skill and infectious enthusiasm.
Part of our conductor’s success is her candor. Yes, she is technically excellent and demands a lot from us. But what makes her so successful is that she lets the love and enthusiasm that she feels for the music show. This openness is refreshing, and has encouraged us to improve constantly. We also know that she knows and cares about each of us individually, and delights at the improvement of each member of the chorus.
Linda points out that singing is a very personal extension of an individual’s ego, and that we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable when we sing than when playing a musical instrument. Fortunately members of the choral society have a feeling of community that counteracts this vulnerability. Friendship is an important part of any community chorus, and is strong in DCS. Each individual feels supported by the whole team as we share our joys and grief.
We are amazingly lucky to have Dr. Mack Berven in Durango. I have feared that she would be lured away by a prestigious university, but she reassures me that she loves teaching in a smaller school. From little Durango she has built a national reputation, having sung several times at Carnegie Hall, led the Desert Chorale in Santa Fe and sung with the famous Robert Shaw Chorale in Europe.
Linda got her musical start from nuns who taught her piano at Catholic school in Chicago. Her first teaching job was in high school, where some of her students were on fire for music. She knew that she wanted to prepare and inspire music teachers, so she went on to graduate school.
Dr. Mack Berven has inspired lots of college students to be music teachers during her 27 years here. We have gotten to know many` of them since they have sung with the DCS. Several were with us during the arduous rehearsals preparing for our trip to New York.
There we were at Carnegie Hall, looking out at a full house. The decorations were beautiful and the acoustics perfect. The orchestra and soloists sounded first rate. Our conductor was John Rutter who rehearsed us carefully over the prior two days. An internationally famous British choral conductor and composer, we were initially anxious if we were up to Rutter’s high standards. We knew that we had succeeded when the performance received a standing ovation—unusual at Carnegie Hall.
Rutter later wrote us “Congratulations and thank you all for what turned out to be a splendid performance of the Mozart Requiem.” Linda talks frequently about “raising the bar.” Indeed, she has raised the level of performance of the Choral Society by many notches since she has been leading it.
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