Climbing mountains has prepared me to sing Rossini’s Stabat Mater.
If you know me, you also know I’m a rock climber. My usual outings are sport climbs on single pitch at mountain approaches, boulder fields, or in the gym. Rarely do I summit tall peaks. But on October 27th, my friend Matt took me to hike Mount Indefatigable in Kananaskis Park near Canmore/Banff.
It’s a 1000 metre ascent with snow beginning at the 500m level. We came prepared with poles, gaiters, and cold weather gear. ‘No trad gear, “just” a hike…
The ascent began at Upper Kananaskis Lake where the temperature was around 15 degrees Celsius. The trail was beautiful with small creeks traversing it from the early snowfall run-off. Emerging from the tree line, we encountered the possibility of avalanche. Though I have usually stayed away from avalanche conditions, I was glad to be with an experienced friend as a guide. The snow was waist deep, save for patches of scree. Though we wanted to walk on the rocks, they were far more unstable than the snow because of the ice mortared amid them. We had to be careful.
The summit was a ridge about 2 feet wide. At least, that was the width safely traversable, but it appeared to be much wider because of the snow drift on the East side of the ridge. Not knowing where the ridge ended made me nervous to walk on any part of it. We had to stay in a super focused path. If things became too dicey, we had a rope to tie between the two of us so that if one of us spilled over the edge, the other could jump over the opposite side to break his fall.
This week I will sing the tenor solo in Rossini’s Stabat Mater for the first time. I’ve had both nervous and elated feelings about it; nervous, because the aria is a high tessitura and calls for a high D flat in the cadenza, and elated, because when I can sing it comfortably it is such a thrill! Though I’ve sung scads of high C’s in public, just one more semitone seems like adding another cliff to the mountain.
Just like traversing the summit of Mt. Indefatigable with a narrow passage, I feel the approach to singing the Stabat Mater is equally narrow. One insecure footstep could send me plummeting down a precipitous slope.
The key to both climbing and singing, I found, was achieving consistent balance. To do this, I first I stepped in all the same places that my guide stepped. I trusted his experience and knew that I would be safe if I followed him; much like following my teacher or listening closely to the recordings of other successful tenors. Second, I learned that if I stood up straight and avoided the temptation to hunch, squat or rely too heavily on my poles, my boots could grip the rock, snow and ice easier. Third, I found it essential to be grateful for each step; keep my awareness focused on the present and avoid thoughts of falling/failure.
‘And so it is with the voice. If I maintain a “tall” column of air in the body and keep it resonating in my bones, the passagio is super simple and the high D flat is a piece of cake. Balance is key.
Finally, I had to remind myself that it is exhilarating! Along with compassion and hard work, adventure is my core belief! I mean, look at this place! God must hang out here occasionally.