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The Work under the Surface

Updated: May 30

Infographic created by Australian illustrator, cartoonist and writer Megan J. Herbert

A week from Saturday, the PDX Vox groups will perform their songs at the annual Fall Showcase. The show will be packed with intricate vocal arrangements that have been learned over 12 weeks of preparation. And this highly anticipated event will last a little over an hour. People who have never sung with PDX Vox or participated in a music ensemble might be surprised to learn how many hours it takes to make that one golden hour possible. The multi-step song selection process. The weekly 2-hour group classes. The weekend all-group rehearsals. The regular practice time each singer dedicates to learning their parts, memorizing their lyrics, and securing their choreography steps. Then there's the time that the instructors put into arranging the songs, preparing for the rehearsals, sending song notes and recordings to their students each week. So much work under the surface!

Leonard Cohen famously wrote countless drafts of his songs, including “Hallelujah.” The complete version has 15 verses.

The work that is shared with an audience is a small fraction of the work required behind the scenes. Most of the process is invisible, and it can even seem invisible to the creator at times. It is too easy to minimize the efforts we put into practicing, trying out ideas, building skills on an instrument or with a pen, or writing terrible first drafts. In a product-driven world, It can seem pointless when these efforts seem to be bringing little to no progress.

An early draft of Ulysses by James Joyce. The author used a different colored crayon each time he went through a draft,

incorporating notes into his multiple reviews of the piece.

I've been a writing musician for a long time, and I still need reminders that a messy process comes with the territory. The road is almost always long, nonlinear, and littered with embarrassing attempts to make something worth sharing. But this is the artist's way! Creativity is not the same thing as productivity, as much as I wish it were. There are no shortcuts. There are no guarantees that I'll have a product in the end.

A page from Lin-Manuel Miranda's songwriting notebook. This is an early draft of "My Shot," from the show Hamilton.

It took Miranda a year to write the final version of the song, and 7 years to complete the musical.

But the rewards are there on the path, if I look around for them along the way. I clumsily practice a scale on my bass for 6 days, then I manage it with a little more fluidity on the seventh. I write a song that hits a dead-end, but then I salvage the chord progression from it a year later and write something that sparkles. I sing a soprano part on Thursday nights for 12 weeks, and my low alto voice eventually stretches to cover the part without too much strain. Progress is slow but usually happens, if I stay the course and don't expect instant results. And even if progress doesn't materialize, I've dedicated myself to work that might be invisible, but is still good for my head and heart. I'm happier on the path than not, regardless of where it leads.

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