I sometimes think directing an a cappella choir must be a little like playing an organ in which all the keys have their own wills, their own ideas about what they ought to play, who sometimes aren’t paying attention and sometimes don’t know or can’t hear the part. The sections have their own personalities, too. Soprani get the melody, and they like to be heard. Altos are steady; they say, “When we get a note, we stick with it.” Tenors are scarce, and baritones singing tenor are always asking to have the pitch lowered. The basses are very spiritual; they stare into space and forget to turn the page.
And yet music comes out of us. We can’t find our pitch by listening to an outside Thing–organ, piano, guitar or whatever. We have to find it from each other. When someone in our part goes out of tune, we struggle together to find the pitch.
Our director gestures, points (upward if we’re flatting), tugs his ear if we’re disharmonizing at the wrong place, grimaces or smiles. When it’s his mistake, he puts his hand to his chest and bows a little; we understand. The organist is as much as member of the organ as the organ is of him, and the music belongs to all of us, as well as the congregation. We all make music together; at this moment, all together, we are the music.