It is not possible to study choral singing – and so we founded the Academy and the Schola to give voice students an impression of the fascinating work of a professional choir, and to offer them some insights into a choir singer’s professional life. But what makes it such a pleasure singing in the Rundfunkchor Berlin? Sabine Eyer (alto) and Jörg Schneider (bass) provide answers.
What is the attraction of singing in the Rundfunkchor Berlin?
Schneider: Even while I was studying in Berlin I had noticed that you were able and indeed obliged to sing every genre in the Rundfunkchor. And as a musician I found that more attractive than working in an operatic choir, although I do love opera very much as well. But in the Rundfunkchor Berlin we sing romantic music and modern music with huge orchestras as well as a cappella works and chamber music in a small ensemble. And we produce dramatic projects – there is very little that we have not yet sung since I joined the choir. That is a great luxury.
Eyer: In my case, I actually wanted to go into the theatre. I have sung in a choir for as long as I can remember. I was in a children’s choir, and later in the choir of extras at my home town theatre in Hagen. Then I had some contracts as a guest soloist with a theatre – and I was terribly unhappy. In that period my teacher at the time was singing with the Rundfunkchor Berlin in Cologne, I remember it was Mahler’s »Ressurection Symphony«. I was sitting there in the concert shortly before completing my studies and I suddenly thought: I would like to do that, too! A short time later I saw an advertisement for new freelancer members of the Rundfunkchor Berlin. I was taken on, and I have stayed. It was a case of love at first sight with this choir.
So is choral singing more attractive than being a soloist?
Schneider: When a homogeneous, really quiet and delicate choral sound evolves from nothing in Mahler’s Second Symphony, that is a truly magical moment – not only for the audience. It’s also an incredible feeling as a singer when you create a sound together with your colleagues which it is impossible to create alone. In the Rundfunkchor Berlin, of course, we are also singing to the very highest standards: to sing the Brahms Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Simon Rattle, for example, or with other world-famous conductors and soloists – it means we are living musical history. And I experience such works as the Brahms Requiem more intensely when I sing them in the choir.
Is it perhaps easier, as well?
Schneider: No, on the contrary. I have done a lot of solo singing, and I find our work in the choir more subtle and difficult. As a soloist you are only responsible for yourself; if a note tips over, it is your own problem. But if the whole choir is singing »Seid umschlungen, Millionen (You millions, be embraced)« unisono in Beethoven’s Ninth and one person breaks ranks, the whole group will have made a mess of things. That puts a great strain on your nerves. You don’t just need to be a good singer to work in a professional choir. You should also be good at teamwork and in a position to hold back your own top notes sometimes, so that you can all achieve the best possible sound together. You need to want to do something in collaboration with other people.
So the attraction lies in the musical aspect and also in the sense of community?
Schneider: The two go together. If you work well as a group, then you can sing well together, too. If the group is not functioning properly, one day it will be possible to hear that. Of course, there are sometimes differences of opinion but a choir is a kind of model of society. We live with each other, we spend a lot of time together – not least on our long, extended tours. And your voice conveys what you are feeling at any one time: if you are not feeling your best, your neighbour will notice straight away. And he will support you then.
Eyer: That’s the nice thing about it: you work together with a lot of very different people on one thing. I also feel that emotions conveyed as a group are stronger than when I am standing alone somewhere. If one person in the group says: »I can’t go on«, the others say: »Come on, we can do it«. As a group you are strong, and yet everyone keeps their individual personality.
Isn’t that just the same for an operatic choir?
Eyer: I sang in an operatic choir once during a summer theatre project. The colleagues stuck together there, too. I really enjoyed it but I still noticed that my heart had already been lost to concert music.
Schneider: My experience is similar. At the start of my career I sang as a guest in the State Opera’s choir and it was great, with some very pleasant colleagues. But here in the Rundfunkchor Berlin we have a unique mixed program. Here, we also do staged productions with costumes and make-up, as we did recently with »LUTHER dancing with the gods«. But every time it’s something special for us and it never becomes routine. By contrast, there has been a reduction in studio work because these days recordings are actually only produced live. I have been in the Rundfunkchor Berlin for almost 30 years, and in the past those studio recordings constituted a characteristic aspect of our work. The fact that you can really polish the finer details in front of a microphone, of course that’s rather different to singing in concert. And there is another thing, which would actually be a topic in itself: our many travels. I experience them as tremendously enriching. It’s not only wonderful that we get to see the whole world, from Japan to South America, from the USA to Australia. It’s also fascinating to be taking music to other countries and seeing how the people there respond to it. Or how, for example, a project like the »human requiem« works in different cultural spheres. This lively travel program is certainly one of the special features of the Rundfunkchor Berlin.
© Kathrin Heller
© Kai Bienert
© Lovis Ostenrik
© Matthias Heyde
© Matthias Heyde
© Peter Adamik
© Lovis Ostenrik
© Matthias Heyde
© Peter Adamik
But doesn’t this huge range of assignments in Berlin and all over the world mean stress, as well?
Eyer: It’s this very range that I find exciting. I don’t want to tie myself down or be tied down and I want to retain my natural curiosity. I really enjoy seeing what is out there still, beyond the customary, off the well-beaten paths. I wouldn’t want to be without this switching – one day we may be doing a dramatic project, the next we will be rehearsing a concert program. Nor without the fact that we sing not only Bach’s passions and motettes but also modern music and the classic choir repertoire.
Schneider: Although we don’t aim to be a specialist ensemble for Early Music. I believe that we do a particularly good job of the romantic choral symphonic repertoire. And, of course, we have already received several awards for that. Personally, I am delighted to see that in the 2018/19 season there is a Bruckner mass again or the »Missa solemnis« on the program, or also a new work. Remember, we also premiered the ninth symphony by Hans Werner Henze and have sung it several times, travelling with it around the world – it is a truly outstanding work.
Ideally, what qualities should a choir singer have? And what character traits should he/she not have?
Schneider: May I compare it to football? If a football player is not capable of passing the ball to his colleagues who are in a better position, then he won’t get very far. It’s absolutely necessary to be able to fit in, in the interests of the group. The other way around, this is also what makes working in a choir so interesting: the choir is composed of so many individual voices. These many different nuances from the very deep basses to high sopranos are the specific trump card of the Rundfunkchor Berlin.
Eyer: And you need to be curious and flexible.
Schneider: Of course, there are probably also soloists that can sing both Bach and Wagner. But most of them tend to sing either just Wagner or just Bach. It’s expected of us, on the contrary, that we can sing the Verdi Requiem just as perfectly as a cappella literature. You have to be a kind of chamaeleon in the best possible sense. Choral singing not only calls for discipline and good singing technique, you also need good social sense and to be able to take a responsible part in a community.
Isn’t it annoying that the music colleges still train soloists first and foremost?
Eyer: It’s true that choir singing is still somewhat neglected in the main. But it obviously depends a lot on the individual teachers – there are professors who make a lot of effort on behalf of the choral singing profession. After all, a large professional field opens up with professional choirs, and if young singers are simply not shown a large number of their professional opportunities, it can be a threat to their progress. It’s at this point that our academy starts out, showing young singers what a fantastic profession it is being a choral singer. At the Academy, graduates specializing in singing are involved in all our rehearsal work for six months, and when they have successfully completed a corresponding introductory phase they also sing with us in our concerts.
Is it a shame that the Academy didn’t exist when you began?
Schneider: When I began each young colleague was already given a kind of mentor. I profited a lot from the professional experience of my older colleagues, when they said to me, for example: »This is a really intense piece, make sure you pace yourself.« In addition, today it’s very difficult to get a place in an ensemble like ours. Our academy enables young singers to prepare themselves for that, and to gather experience in practice as early on as possible.
The Schola starts out even earlier, as it is also directed at younger students. They are involved in the rehearsals for and production of a major concert, and at the end of the two-week project phase they are also able to present their work in a small ensemble in a concert of their own. Is this short period sufficient for someone to decide whether choral singing might be the right profession for them?
Eyer: Oh definitely, to get a taste of it!
Schneider: The young singers already notice after two weeks that singing in the choir is a great thing! And they get a sense of how a group of this kind feels from the inside. I have great memories of the delightful concert contribution made by our Schola last year.