Today, at Carnegie Hall, in our weekly Moving Star session, Bonita Oliver suggested we focus on singing one note: a B-flat. She remembered that there are some fascinating and mystical principles associated with the frequency. Check out this entertaining NPR report from 2007. (And whether we were tuning into the Big Bang or not, it did feel centering and beautiful to remain focused on a single pitch.)
I continued to think about the power of one note, as I peeked into a rehearsal of the song "Somewhere," led by conductor Leslie Stifelman. At the very end of the song, which is in the key of E, the melody has a long held E natural with a diminuendo. But underneath that long held E, the orchestra moves to an A major chord with an added F#, leaving the tune unresolved. It's a beautiful and misty moment, dramatizing the utopian dream of Tony & Maria and their desire for a refuge from their current predicament (Tony has just come from the Rumble, where Bernardo murdered Riff and Tony murdered Bernardo.) As we held our final note, I could feel us all trying hard to extend the time of the dream sequence. After all, who wants to wake up from a dream that beautiful?
It is not easy to hold a note. I remembered that while coaching my son on a tenor aria from the Bach Magnificat. There's a moment, at the end of a long, florid run where the tenor must hold a low E natural for nine beats. Nine doesn't seem so long, until you factor in the run before, and see you can't really breathe just before without breaking up the phrase. You have to plan and calculate and practice until you might just have enough breath to perform the feat. It's not easy, and I was impressed with my son's willingness to drill and drill until he could do it.
When we hold a note, we keep it safe, we hold it close. We do not let it go. We keep it for ourselves, for as long as muscle or breath will allow. And though machines or synthesizers can hold a note indefinitely, it is an entirely human trait that we cannot. We can hold a note for a long time, and some of us can even seem superhuman for the time that we do, but eventually, we must let go. Which makes the holding, while we can, all the more precious.