Often when a chorus is invited to sing at a funeral it’s because the family of the person who has died has had a close personal connection to the group. This can make it very tough on the singers – unless there’s a plan.
Singing while you’re crying just does not work. In fact, even fighting back tears creates a huge steadfast lump in the back of the throat. Trying desperately not to cry also shuts down the regular breathing apparatus so that we’re unable to sustain a note for any length of time without it choking off.
So what helps?
Practising disciplined mental/vocal technique every week at rehearsal enables us to call upon this very focused state when it’s needed.
I tell my chorus members that before they get into emotional difficulty, they need to switch into technique mode – thinking only about placement, vowels, diphthongs, synchronization, stance, balance and blend. Because we work on this sort of thing every week, most are capable of switching on this state of mind, and can subdue the overwhelming emotions to where they’re just background noise.
As a Director I apply the same kind of technical thoughts – and make absolutely sure that I don’t cry. I have found that once I’m face to face with the group, even looking like I’ve been crying recently is enough to set off the sensitive chorus members.
I decide at the beginning of the funeral at which point after our performance I give myself permission to show emotion. Then I stay mentally very, very busy until that time.
And finally, anyone who thinks that they’ll have to contend with emotions that will get in the way of performing their best should go to the funeral parlour at the visitation time the day before.
Once, when I knew I’d be playing and singing at the extremely difficult funeral of a little boy I’d known, I decided that I needed to diffuse some of the grief ahead of time. When I went to the funeral parlour and saw the little one in the casket, a sound came out of my mouth that shocked me – not very loud, but quite primal. I had no idea that this would happen – but it was truly cathartic. Somehow, I managed to get through the next day’s funeral, singing and playing reasonably well.
One final note. In my years as a church musician I played many, many funerals, and was often seated very close to the family of the person who’d died. There seemed to be two types of groups of people – people who had obviously considered, and previously thought about death and the afterlife (usually regular church goers – and it didn’t matter what denomination), and the people for whom this whole experience was truly shocking.
The people in the first group were in better shape by the end of the funeral, but the people in the second group were almost always even more panicked when it was over.
Having begun to work on accepting our own mortality really helps to get us through tough times – like funerals.