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November 6, 2000

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Featured Columnist
Lisa Siedlecki "In Your Shoes"

Not everyone is born with a maestro's moves


Tina Johns Heidrich wanted to know what I needed to prepare for my time at the podium, conducting the 55 voices that comprise the Connecticut Master Chorale.

What I needed were several years of training, the instant ability to read music, and an ear for intricate four-part harmonies.

We settled on this: She would let me use her baton. And we'd just wing it from there.

Actually, it wasn't as throw-caution-to-the-wind as all that. Our plan was for me to come to a Chorale rehearsal, watch Tina in action for a while, get a quick lesson on keeping time for a four-beat measure, and then lead the group through a selection.

"Don't worry, they'll sing even if you don't conduct," said Tina, who founded the chorale two years ago and serves as its music director and conductor.

And that was a good thing because were they to rely on me, they might as well have been eating Snickers bars. Were they to rely on me, there would be no singing at all. Or discombobulated singing

Now, I consider myself to be someone with a fair amount of rhythm. I can keep a fairly decent backbeat on a drum set. Yet, when Tina placed the baton in my right hand, I discovered that 'one-two-three-four,' when coupled with 'down-left-right-up' arm movements, is not, shall we say, instinctual.

"It's always down on one, then left on two, right and up," Tina is telling me as I continue to fight with my own arm, which can't seem to stop going down and to the left at the same time, throwing me off a beat.

So there I was, on the podium in front of 50-odd professional-caliber singers and all I could do was wave my arm uncontrollably and laugh at my ineptitude.

They sang anyway. They sang well.

In my own defense as if I could defend myself the piece I was "conducting" was rather difficult. You've probably heard "Michael Row The Boat Ashore" done in rounds, where half the group starts singing and then the other half chimes in, from the beginning of the song, when the first group is halfway through it.

Well, the piece Tina planned for me could accurately be described as a round on steroids. A round run amok.

This time, four different parts soprano, alto, tenor and bass would be weaving in and out of each other in an a cappella piece called "The Word Was God," which is from John 1:1-3 in the Bible.

My job, ostensibly, was to signal each group when its part was to begin.


Before I stepped to the podium, I watched Tina conduct.

"I've always wanted to conduct," she told me. "It's something I was born to do. It's natural to me."

And, true to her calling, she is grace in motion. She is perfection personified. She is agile and in control and, at times, visibly enchanted by the sounds coming from her singers.

She is also a stickler for accuracy and will not hesitate to rap her baton on the music stand in front of her if things aren't sounding just right. After all, this rehearsal is to prepare for a full-blown concert that will take place at St. Mary's Church in Bethel this Sunday at 3 p.m.

"Shhhhhhh!," she hisses to quiet the singing. And they stop on a dime. Heck, they stop on nine cents. "Tenors, I think you are two measures behind me at least. You gotta be looking at me!"

Another time, the Brookfield resident urges the singers to remember the "Heidrich Maneuver," a play on the Heimlich Maneuver, in which the singers strongly puff out a note, adding a certain "pop."

When she chastises the basses for pronouncing their "do" of Gloria's "do me nee" like Homer Simpson's trademark "Doh!," the group laughs as the deep-voiced section continues to struggle to get it right.

Still, amid all the teaching, all the laughing, all the correcting, all the perfecting, Tina manages to keep the 55 or so voices right on target.

The News-Times file photo

Tina Johns Heidrich conducts a rehearsal of the Connecticut Master Chorale, which she founded two years ago.

This is what I had to witness, then attempt to emulate.

To set the mood, the chorale serenaded me with a song called "In Your Shoes," which was written for me by Tina and chorale member Nancy Lavers to the tune of "In The Mood." I was honored and suitably touched.

All the more pressure for me not to embarrass myself.

"How about you all start singing and I just rap the baton on the stand here and make you all stop?!? That's all I want to do," I said to the group, and they laughed.

No chance. I had to soldier on. So I gave them a count to begin, waved the baton and, like magic, the sopranos and altos began singing: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God."

A few measures on, the tenors and basses joined in. I wish I could tell you that I had anything at all to do with that feat, but I would be lying.

What did happen, though and this was amazing was that, at the very end, just before the very last word of the piece, I managed to join them all together. I had no choice 55 faces were staring at me to give them the signal.

So I raised the baton and they intoned the last note, powerful and melodious: "God!"

It didn't take me long to realize that I had to stop them, too. But this was the cool thing: they weren't going to stop singing "God!" until I stopped them. I could have held my arms up until next Tuesday and those guys would still be singing!

That's power!

Yet, somehow I knew the exact moment I was supposed to cut them off, so, with a flourish Leonard Bernstein would die for, I waved both arms in the well-known "cut" motion.

Instantly, the gorgeous harmony ceased, just as it was supposed to. And the cheering started and the Connecticut Master Chorale and I applauded each other.

Quite a rush, I must say. I can only imagine what Tina feels like when she actually has something to do with the sounds that come from this chorus.

I got part of my answer when I watched Tina conduct "Gloria." During portions when the voices melded beautifully, Tina closed her eyes and swayed, a look of pure joy on her face.

"Oh, man, that was gorgeous," she cried, clutching her chest.

Later, she told me that those moments are what she strives for.

"We have a lot of fun. When it comes down to it, I'm a perfectionist and we produce beautiful music. But it's got to be fun."

For more information about Sunday's "A Choral Fantasy" at St. Mary's in Bethel, or to purchase tickets, call 743-0473.

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