Lowering Holiday Stress With the Help of Handel's Messiah

Pitch rises at Christmas.

Stores hire seasonal workers to open earlier, close later; mail carriers rush to deliver presents wrapped for nieces and nephews by exhausted aunts and uncles who feel guilty they don't live closer, can't deliver the gifts in person; church musicians and clergy work extended hours, leaving their families at times when most others join together; those who lost loved ones around the holidays find themselves filled with anxiety, depression and melancholy.

Yes, the pitch of all our lives rises metaphorically at Christmas. But the pitch also rises at Christmas in a literal way, and that literal rising can, I think, teach us about how to lower the emotional pitch at this time of year.

Circa when supermarkets replace Halloween candy with Christmas wreaths and laughing Santa statues, choirs around the country begin rehearsing Handel's "Messiah."

"Messiah" is one of history's most famous pieces of classical music, and even though the whole of it is more suitable for Easter, the first portion describes the anticipation of Jesus' birth and is often performed in December.

For many people, nothing sings Christmas quite like the famous "Hallelujah" chorus.

As a child, I learned "Messiah" by heart while singing in the girls' choir at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on Long Island. I fell in love with the elegant splendor of Baroque music, the discipline necessary to sing long series of notes in rapid succession, and the flexibility in the adult soloists' voices.

God seemed very near when we sang that piece of music.

I also remember my choirmaster telling me about the way "Messiah" used to be performed: When Handel wrote the cantata back in the 1700s, pitch took a slightly different form than it does today.

Oboist Bruce Haynes explains this phenomenon in his book, "The Story of 'A.'" He writes that there are two elements of pitch: name and frequency. F sharp and B and E flat are all names of pitches. This nomenclature remained consistent: Modern day musicians from Yo-Yo Ma to Britney Spears talk about pitch names the same way Handel and his contemporaries did.

But there's a second element of pitch -- frequency -- and this did change between Handel's time and our own. Frequency is measured in Hertz or sound waves per second (although my physicist-majoring husband tells me that technically, frequency is a broader term that defines the number of occurrences of any event in a given time period, which in the case of sound waves, means the number of vibrations of air per second).

Today, the note called A, which is what most musicians tune to, has an agreed upon frequency of 440 Hertz, which means 440 cycles of sound per second. But back when Handel wrote, frequencies weren't so standardized. While it varied by region, in many European locations the frequency of the pitch called A was only 415 Hertz, or 415 vibrations per second. Less frequent vibrations equal lower pitch. So what was called an A in Handel's time sounds like a modern day G sharp.

That means that musicians in Handel's time performed "Messiah" a half step down. The pitch was lower.

For a soprano like myself, even a little half step can make a huge difference in performance: High notes that feel like they ripped the vocal cords if sung incorrectly possess a kind of safety and stability when they're a half step lower. Trills that flutter up and down in one's range are more grounded. The musical runs in "For Unto Us A Child Is Born" become less likely to induce an anxiety attack and instead conjure images that one is sitting on a horse and galloping through the woods on a sunny afternoon.

A half step down, the challenge of singing Handel's masterpiece becomes much more manageable for a high-pitched voice like mine.

So what can we, the general public, learn from this lesson in pitch? Well, life, like "Messiah," is neither simple nor easy. Just as Handel's chef d'oeuvre seems to have an impossible number of notes crammed onto a single page, our lives seem to have an impossible number of commitments and responsibilities crammed into a single day; our inboxes fill up at the rate sopranos sing the sixteenth-note runs. But a singer can't stop rehearsing because a dense cluster of notes intimidates her, just like we can't always avoid life's stressors.

But what we can do, like a singer, is find grounding and authenticity. When a choir director chooses to lower the pitch of "Messiah," he not only grounds some of the higher voices, he also creates a performance that is more like what would have been heard in Handel's time.

Perhaps the lesson, then, is that we can look for the grounded and authentic opportunities in life's 16th-note runs. Instead of braving the mall -- again -- to buy one more present and shouting when another driver steals that coveted spot, maybe grounding and authenticity mean staying home, forgetting the present, and spending time with the child, spouse, nephew or friend for whom it was intended. Maybe it means grabbing an apple pie at Trader Joe's when you always make one from scratch.

Maybe it means being silent for a few moments.

There's no doubt the pitch around the holidays is elevated. But perhaps, when we make conscious efforts to lower the pitch, the music we make in our lives will be that much more beautiful.