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400 amateur singers take on Mozart with just a few hours practice

Twice a year the San Francisco Symphony hosts workshops called “Sing Out Davies”, as part of the symphony's Community of Music Makers program. For one evening, singers from around the Bay Area come together to make music as one.  KALW's Alyssa Kapnik stood among them for a recent workshop and brought back their impressions of what it's like to be an ordinary person in such an extraordinary experience.  

Susie Orb, David Silverman and Linda Holbrook stand in a crowd of hundreds outside Davies Symphony Hall.  "I live here in San Francisco.  I sing alto, and I can sight read," says Holbrook excitedly.

"What do you anticipate the workshop will feel like?" Kapnik asks the three.

"I want to cry.  A little sentimental," Silverman answers.

"It feels good, exciting.  I can’t wait to get started," says Orb. "We're entering the Upper Orchestra in Davies Hall. And we're looking around. We're thinking, Hmm.  I'm gonna be somewhere up on stage.  And it's very exciting. I've found that singing in a big chorus is very inspiring.  It just fills you up, makes you feel good.  And there's a great amount of power that comes from 400 voices."

All participants in Sing Out Davies gather together at 6:30.  Ragnar Bohlin, Chorus Director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus leads a warm-up, and tries to get everybody on the same page.

"After about half an hour, we split into sectionals," Bohlin says. "And we have assistant conductors that help me work with each section. During that hour, it’s about learning the music solidly.  But also to start polishing and start finding the phrasing, shaping of the music. From the get-go, in the warm-up, I try to unify everybody. Then we have a break, and then we all meet again on stage, and we have about 1 hour to get everything together. And that's when I push very hard all of the musical aspects of phrasing, dynamics, diction."

After sectionals, the group gathers together, and Kapnik asks what's going on. "We just broke up from Sectionals, which I really thoroughly understand now that I do not know German," he laughs.

Holbrook says of sectionals, "We started singing together and getting the kinks out so we all sound like one voice!  But we're not one voice.  That's the beauty of choral work.  But if we pronounce things the same way, and we accent the notes the correct way, the way they want us to, it sounds like one voice."

"We're spitting out a lot of German in the proper time, or trying to," adds Orb. "With the proper notes.  At the same time.  Which is, for some of us, kind of challenging."

Of the last ten minutes is the performance, Bohlin says, "We sing through the pieces, and usually there will be a little bit of an audience out there, relatives and friends up in the balconies, and we sing to them."

After the final performance, Holbrook asserts, "Everybody got better.  And the attention to detail got better, and the feeling behind the music started to come through the words, as opposed to just singing the words."

"It did inspire me to go out and sing more," notes Silverman. "I'd like to join a chorus or choir.  It woke something in me that had been sleeping for a while."

Orb joins in, "I felt like my heart and soul were open.  And the music was flowing out and at the same time flowing in. The group is way better than the individual.  The group is what makes it."

This piece produced with assistance from Niels Swinkels.  For more information about registering for the next Sing Out Davies Workshop, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.