It’s the least wonderful time of the year

No, that’s not a dig at the British attempt at summer. Our choral season is over, and that can only mean one thing – auditions! As well as an opportunity for new members to join, every current member has to re-audition at least every two years. Suffice to say, it’s not everyone’s idea of fun. I asked a few of my choir friends for their top tips on how to get through it:

Drink!

The first tip I got was a reminder that one of our departed and much loved members swore by a quick drink to steady the nerves (RIP Lesley). I can’t in good conscience promote that one though, so I’ll translate that as keep hydrated!

Keep it simple

  • I vote for singing in your native language. Or one you have a decent grasp of. Don’t feel like you have to make life harder for yourself by having to learn how to pronounce half the words. I’ve always auditioned in English. Although my singing teacher has been known to tell me my English pronunciation is unintelligible on occasion. Apparently ALL words are important…
  • Keep it short. People make up their minds pretty quickly anyway (there’s a whole psychology of first impressions thing at work here). If the piece you’re desperate to sing is too long, consider doing an excerpt.

Make friends with your accompanist

If you’re lucky enough to get an accompanist, be nice to them. They will be brilliant, but you can help them along:

  • Unless you’ve learnt your music off by heart (bonus smug points), make sure you have two copies of the music with you. And make sure they’re legible. Not with bits chopped off. Or missing pages. It’s not a test of their improvisation skills.
  • They are NOT an octopus. If you’ve got multiple pages do them a favour and tape copies of your music together for them. It’s not a concert, there’s no page turner.
  • Do bring the music in the key you’re singing in. Asking them to sight transpose won’t endear you to them.
  • In the same vein, maybe reconsider that little number in G flat major, it might be hard on everyone.

Practise

Lots of auditions will include sight reading. Don’t choose to demonstrate yours with your chosen piece! You don’t need to learn it by heart, but it does look better if your facial expression isn’t conveying your wonder at what might come next in the music.

Excuses, excuses

If you walk into an audition and think you’re the first person to suggest you might not be on top form today, think again. Half the people have already highlighted their hayfever, summer cold, dog-eaten music…

Enjoy yourself

No, really. Sing something you like singing. You’ll be happier about it and there’s no point in trying to predict what an audition panel might prefer. You’re not Mystic Meg.

Having asked everyone what they tend to sing for auditions, we eventually excavated our audition list (presumably created to stop everyone asking the office what to sing), so have a look here for a few suggestions from my choir. Of course, if you really want to impress you could do what one of our basses does, and compose your own piece to audition with! Solves the problem of you being compared to someone else singing the same piece and of any questions of interpretation. Unless your composing ability is similar to mine of course, then maybe stick to the list…

Do share if you have any great music suggestions for auditions or any other top tips! Have you experienced the same format, or does your choir do something different? Several people suggested to me getting people to audition in groups to better assess blend. What do you think? And if you’re auditioning soon, good luck!

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It’s the least wonderful time of the year: song choices

Thanks to all my friends for their suggestions, and to my choir whose list of suggested pieces I have stolen (see list below). I feel I have to point out success isn’t guaranteed by choosing one of these. I don’t think it’s possible to run out of options though! Happy singing…

Composer Volume Suggested pieces
Bach Oratorio anthology Quia respexit (Magnificat)
Cantata no. 68 – My Heart ever Faithful
Prepare thyself Zion (Christmas Oratorio)
Benedictus (B minor Mass)
Quia fecit mihi magna (Magnificat)
Grosser Herr und starker König (Christmas Oratorio)
Barber 65 songs Sure on this Shining Night
The Crucifixion
Britten Complete folksong arrangements The Salley Gardens
O Can Ye Sew Cushions?
The Trees They Grow So High
The Ash Grove
O Waly Waly
The Last Rose of Summer
I Will Give My Love an Apple
She’s Like the Swallow
Bruckner   Te ergum quaesumus (Te Deum Laudamus)
Copland Old American songs Long time ago
The little horses
Debussy 43 songs Nuit d’étoiles
Beau soir      
Fleur des blés     
Les Cloches
Les Angélus
Delius Twilight Fancies To Daffodils
Dowland Fifty songs Weep you no more, sad fountains
Flow not so fast, ye fountains
Elgar Thirteen Songs    
Sea Pictures
A Song of Autumn     Queen Mary’s Song
The Shepherd’s Song
Where corals lie 
Faure 30 songs           Oratorio anthology Les Berceaux
Notre amour
Automne
Le Secret
Lydia Chanson d’amour
En Prière
Pie Jesu (Requiem)
Hostias (Requiem)
Finzi Let us garlands bring Earth air and rain Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Proud Songsters
Gounod   Sanctus (St Cecilia Mass)
Gurney Five Elizabethan Songs Twenty Favourite songs Sleep
Black Stitchel     
Down by the Salley Gardens   
The Apple Orchard
The Cloths of Heaven Desire in Spring    
The Fields are Full
Handel Oratorio anthology Thou art gone up on high (Messiah)
Gentle airs (Athalia)
But Thou didst not leave His soul in Hell (Messiah)
Revenge, Timotheus cries (Alexander’s Feast)
The people that walked in darkness (Messiah)
Haydn Canzonettas and songs The Mermaid’s Song
Pastoral Song
Pleasing Pains
Head Songs of the countryside    
Over the rim of the moon
A Green Cornfield
Sweet Chance
Limehouse Reach
The Ships of Arcady
A Blackbird Singing
Ireland The complete works for voice and piano Santa Chiara
The Bells of San Marie The Vagabond
Sea Fever
Summer Schemes
Her Song
Spring Sorrow
I have twelve oxen
If There were Dreams to Sell
Mahler 24 songs for voice and piano Frühlingsmorgen
Serenade
Phantasie
Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?
Mendelssohn Oratorio anthology O rest in the Lord (Elijah)
Lord God of Abraham (Elijah)     
Mozart Twenty One songs    Oratorio anthology Redente la calma
Das Veilchen
Un moto do gioia
Laudate Dominum (Vespers)
Pergolesi   Fac ut portem (Stabat Mater)   
Purcell Volumes 1-4 Sweeter than Roses
Music for a While
If Music be the Food of Love
Quilter Three Shakespeare Songs  
Five Shakespeare Songs
O mistress mine     
Come away death      Dream Valley
June
Now sleeps the crimson petal
The fuschia tree
Fair house of joy
Schubert Volumes 1, 2, 3       Die Schöne Mullerin Winterreise  
Schwanengesang
Du bist die ruh
Lied der Mignon
An die Music
Litanei
Wohin der Neugierige Der Lindenbaum
Einsamkeit
Standchen
Schumann Myrthen    
Frauenliebe und Leben
Dichterliebe
Widmung
Der Nussbaum
Die Lotusblume
Du Ring an meinem Finger
Ich Grolle Nicht
Strauss Lieder Albums 1-4 Morgen    
Du meines Herzens Krönelein
Die Nacht
Allerseelen
Various Italian songs and arias Caccini – Amarilli, mia bella
Carissimi – Vittoria, mio core
Lotti – pur dicestic O bocca bella
Durante – Bergin tutto amor
Caldara – Sebben Crudele
Caldara – Alma del Core
Gluck – O del mio dolce ardor
Vaughan Williams Collected Songs    
Songs of Travel
The turtle dove
Linden Lea
Silent Noon
Three Songs from Shakespeare
The Water Mill
Seven Songs from the Pilgrim’s Progress
The Vagabond  
Let Beauty Awake
The Roadside Fire
Youth and Love
In Dreams
The Infinite Shining Heavens
Whither Must I Wander
Bright is the Ring of Words
I have trod the Upward and the Downward Slope
Vivaldi Oratorio anthology Domine Deus (Gloria) 
Warlock A book of songs       Warlock Songs Sleep
Passing by
Cradle Song
Jillian of Berry
There is a Lady Sweet Kind The First Mercy     
As Ever I Saw
Sweet Content
Lullaby

BBC Proms 2019: the choral edit

Looking through the Proms guide is always a highlight of the year. For choral music fans there are plenty of wonderful concerts to choose from (and I’m mildly less biased this year as I’m not in any of them!). Thankfully, with the entire festival broadcast on BBC Radio 3, it’s possible to hear all of these works this summer. However, assuming you or I might have to fit in some other activities (like work, or sleep), here are the concerts that have caught my eye:

  • Berlioz’s Childhood of Christ (Prom 37) is at the top of my list. It’s a piece I’d like to get to know better, and the cast they’ve assembled to perform it is superb. I’d probably listen to that quartet of soloists (Sarah Connolly, Allan Clayton, Roderick Williams, Neal Davies) sing nursery rhymes, never mind Berlioz, accompanied by the Halle. Plus obviously, the sublime choral movement that we all wish would get scheduled for our Christmas concerts.
  • If you like your singing on an epic scale, then you can do no better than the European premiere of John Luther Adam’s In the Name of the Earth (Prom 66). Eight choirs, and an opportunity for audience participation provides a rare choral singing spectacle.
  • A personal favourite is Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (Prom 44), a riot of a piece that is exhausting to sing and exhilarating to hear. The London Symphony Chorus and Orfeo Catala will be tackling this one under the energetic baton of Simon Rattle.
  • New to choral music? I’d start with Mozart’s Requiem (Prom 26). One of the most glorious pieces of music (it’s my favourite Kyrie), in the capable hands and voices of the National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales.
  • And finally, if you’re looking for something a little more pared back, why not try VOCES8 at Cadogan Hall. Stunning ensemble and clarity, performing a combination of Renaissance and modern music.

Full list of Proms with choral music:

  • Prom 1: Janacek Glagolitic Mass (Karina Canellakis, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Singers)
  • Prom 14: Haydn The Creation (Omer Meir Wellber, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Proms Youth Choir)
  • Prom 26: Mozart Requiem (Nathalie Stutzmann, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC National Chorus of Wales)
  • Prom 36: Late night mixtape (Nigel Short, 12 ensemble and Tenebrae)
  • Prom 37: Berlioz Childhood of Christ (Mark Elder, the
    Hallé, Britten Sinfonia Voices, Genesis Sixteen)
  • Prom 38: Bach cantatas (Solomon’s Knot)
  • Prom 43: Beethoven Ninth Symphony (Sakari Oramo, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus)
  • Prom 44: Walton Belshazzar’s Feast (Simon Rattle, London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Orfeó Català & Youth Choir)
  • Prom 53: Elgar The Music Makers (Andrew Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus)
  • Prom 55: Handel Jeptha (Richard Egarr, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus)
  • Prom 66: John Luther Adams In the Name of the Earth (Hackney Empire Community choir, Victoria Park singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus, London International Gospel Choir, London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus, LSO Community choir)
  • Proms at Cadogan Hall 1: VOCES8
  • Proms at Holy Sepulchre London: English choral pieces (Sofi Jeannin, BBC Singers)

Top tips for performing from memory

Performing choral music from memory is simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. It gives you freedom to engage with the music and to connect with the conductor and their vision. But it does make you worry about what will happen if your memory fails you. So what we can do to avoid that happening?

The CBSO Chorus is about to perform Beethoven’s ninth and Mahler’s second symphonies from memory, and have been known to find the learning process a challenge (I don’t think it’s just me?!). As an amateur singer with a busy life, it’s tricky to find the time to memorise these works. It’s also difficult to know the best way to go about learning music to make sure it sticks! There has been a surge of recent interest in education in how to apply information from the field of neuroscience on learning in the classroom. I’ve had a look at some of the cognitive psychology research, to see if their suggestions can help us learn choral classics. Disclaimer: I’m not a cognitive psychologist. However I do think that understanding a bit more about how we learn could help us.

Part 1: Learning the music

Ever felt like your brain was going to explode while trying to learn something new? Welcome to cognitive load theory. Our brains can only process a small amount of new information at a time in our working memory, and it’s possible to overload it. However, large amounts of information can be stored in long-term memory. That information is stored as ‘schemas’, which allow us to organise and store knowledge. You can build increasingly complex schema in your brain, and you will find knowledge easier to manage. For example:

“The limitations of working memory can be overcome by schema construction and automation. For example, try to remember the following combination of letters: y-m-r-e-o-m. In this case each letter constitutes one item, so you are being required to remember six items at once. Now try to remember the following combination of letters: m-e-m-o-r-y. In this case you are still required to remember the very same six items. However, because you have a schema in your long-term memory for the word ‘memory’, you are able to chunk the letters into just one item. Now your working memory is freed up to remember other items.” https://www.cese.nsw.gov.au//images/stories/PDF/cognitive-load-theory-VR_AA3.pdf

The more knowledge you transfer into your long-term memory, the more of your working memory you will free up to learn new information. Classical musicians will already have complex schema in place that allow them to, for example, read music fluently. So how might you go about adding further knowledge, such as being able to recall your choral part of his ninth symphony? Below are some evidence-based suggestions (i.e. people have actually researched this) about how to learn music, with the intention of transferring the information into your long-term memory.

  • Start rehearsing with the intention of memorising the music. Don’t think you’ll do it all at the last minute! You’ll get better results if you are aiming to learn it from the first rehearsal, so start by telling yourself that’s what you’re going to do.
  • Listen to a great performance of the piece – it helps to know what you’re aiming for and it will give you a sense of the musical structure, that will in turn help to learn the music. If you need a recommendation of a recording, I’m sure your conductor would be delighted to provide one.
  • Singing through the entire piece initially will also help you with the structure, but then you need to get down to detailed work. Rehearse it slowly. Break down challenging sections and repeat them to make sure you have them right.
  • Identify musical markers that are going to help you remember your next section (although I’d caution against making them from a solo part if that’s relevant, because quite often you can’t hear them properly in performance)
  • Practise starting from different places in the piece – repeating what you already know is going to give you a false sense of security. It’s all too tempting to keep starting from the beginning and might mean you never make it to the end…
  • Mentally rehearse the music – hear it with your inner ear – you can do this anywhere, no excuses!

But it’s not the music, I hear you cry, it’s the words I can’t learn. Well, a lot of the same applies. Sometimes you’ll notice the way your score is laid out makes it difficult to learn because the words are a long way away from the notes, or there are multiple languages to choose from. This results in the split-attention effect, and does slow down the learning process. It explains why you’ll often end up singing new pieces to random sounds in rehearsal, and adding the words later, because it allows you to focus on learning the music, and not overloading your brain. Learning will likely be even slower if it’s a language you don’t actually speak, but you don’t have a schema in your brain for it. So try the following to get those words in your head:

  • Listen to the music. Again, understanding the structure of the piece, and how the words relate to that will help
  • Write the text down separately from the score, so you can focus directly on it. If you need to, you may also need to write down pronunciation prompts.
  • Read the words out loud. Practise it slowly so that you are getting the words right, then try to incorporate a sense of the rhythm that relates to them.
  • Break the text down into small sections, and practise with the notes, as connecting words with melody will help.
  • Test yourself by making some flashcards.

Part 2: Remembering what you’ve learnt

Put that score down!

What happens when your conductor asks you to sing without your scores when you’re in the middle of learning a piece for performance? Mild grumbling? A sense of panic? And aren’t there always a few people clinging on to their score until the last minute before the concert? Evidence suggests that if that last one is you, you’re probably doing yourself a disservice. One of the most effective ways to learn is through retrieval practice, or put simply, testing yourself on what you need to know. The more you practise retrieving the information you want, the easier it will be.

So why does it help you to practise singing a piece without the score if you know you haven’t learnt it all yet? There are two benefits. The first is that you are practising remembering what you do already know, which will strengthen the pathways you’re using to retrieve the information and help you move it from working to long-term memory. The second is that you will identify what you don’t know, which is just as important. Make a note of where you went wrong, or where your memory failed you. That’s what you need to study next (and that might be words or music). Using your score during an exercise like this will only give you a false sense of security. Next time, you should find the music is much easier to remember, as you’ve already practised doing just that. A sure fire way to panic during a concert is to realise you’ve never allowed yourself to try singing a particular section of the music without a score before.

You’ll remember it for longer if you take a break

The next approach you’ll want to try is distributed practice. And that is broadly what it sounds like – leaving gaps between learning sessions/ rehearsals. This is also an exam revision top tip! Cramming at the last minute is better than doing nothing. But you will get significantly better results if you space your learning out over time. The evidence actually says the longer the gap between study sessions, the longer you are likely to retain the information (some studies have left up to 30 day gaps between learning sessions). This explains why, for some people who have performed standard choral works over the years, they have embedded them into their long-term memory. It’s not just that they’ve repeated them lots of times, it’s also that they practised them with lengthy gaps between sessions, and that act of recalling something partially forgotten strengthens your memory.

However, this is all relative to the amount of time you have available to you to learn in the first place. For individuals who already have the piece more or less memorised, a series of rehearsals over a few weeks will likely be enough to reignite the pathways and allow the information to be retrieved easily. If you’re learning from scratch, you’re going to have to do your homework (sorry!).

So what should you do? If you’re short on time, evidence suggests that if you leave 24 hour gaps between learning sessions, then the overall effect will likely be you can retain the information for a week (which is probably what you need first time out!). If you leave longer gaps, then the more likely you are to keep the information longer term, but balance that against the total amount of time you have before you need to perform the piece. You simply have to keep revisiting it regularly.

So is there a shortcut to learning a piece? No, not really. But there are techniques that have been researched and shown to improve the efficiency of the learning process, so why not give them a try? And don’t forget to enjoy the performance, safe in the knowledge that you have done the right type of practise to allow you to sing a choral classic from memory.

The CBSO Chorus will be performing Beethoven’s ninth Symphony on 28 March 2019, with the CBSO conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and Mahler’s second Symphony on 13th and 16th June 2019, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

All I want for Christmas…

After MANY years of singing in Christmas concerts, I have developed some strong opinions. I’m always excited to see what music we have each year.

LOVE

  • Descants! I’m a soprano so I’m biased but nothing more fun than belting out a good descant. Although spare us the weird ones.
  • WORD of the Father – best chord ever
  • Friendly readers/hosts – we love the people that come backstage to say hi to us
  • Comedy organ playovers (and the ensuing glare they receive)
  • Genuinely funny readings (not that balloon joke again – Alan Titchmarsh I’m looking at you)
  • When our conductor is forced to put a Christmas hat on, even though he hates it
  • The occasional gem of a new piece that is an instant classic (loved Esenvalds’ Stars even if the wine glasses were a challenge!)
  • Our children’s choruses – they are brilliant and behave much better than us (so we’re told)

HATE

  • The Twelve Days of Christmas. It’s not an interesting tune and goes on FOREVER. Only acceptable with full audience participation (not just on five gold rings). London Oriana Choir once did this and I nearly fell off the podium in hysterics at the people in the gallery dancing around.
  • Ditto The Holly and the Ivy. Audience participation would not save this one however.
  • Discordant modern carols in frequently changing compound time. No one wants to have to count or calculate intervals at Christmas. And it just bewilders the audience.
  • Glacially slow audience carols (fortunately also a Simon Halsey pet peeve, so the CBSO ones tend to move along quite nicely).

What do you look forward to at your Christmas concert?

CBSO Christmas concerts run  from 16 – 19 December. Hosts this year are Matt Baker and Alan Titchmarsh – book your tickets now!

 

Lingua Franca

A little unsure

Maeve chewed the end of her pencil thoughtfully. No one had told her that singing in a choir meant learning so many languages, otherwise she’d have paid more attention in school. Apparently not many composers used directions to the beach or asking for a beer (the one phrase she could claim to be truly multilingual in) as their inspiration.

“Push your lips forward, then drop your jaw, while keeping your tongue flat,” pleaded the rather frazzled looking man at the front of the hall. Looking around the room, Maeve wondered whether some of these facial contortions were strictly necessary, or whether Dave from Marketing was lurking somewhere with a camera, laughing his head off.

She leaned over to her neighbour to ask, “How are you writing that?”, pointing at a mind-bending collection of consonants. “Apparently it’s a silent ‘p’, a voiced ‘zhe’, a ‘shhh’ then an Italian ‘t’,” came the response.  “Well I’m not sure that’s going to fit under a quaver,” Maeve muttered. Some of the trickier languages made you long for a straightforward piece in Latin, not something she thought she’d ever say.

Meanwhile, desperation appeared to be setting in at the front, in an attempt to explain precisely how to pronounce bar 67. “No, that’s ‘oo’ as in ‘moo’, not ‘ow’ as in ‘cow'”. All that talk about dairy got Maeve wondering which chocolate bar to pick at break time. After all, she’d earned it.

 

To be clear, I cannot extol the virtues of our wonderful language coaches enough. They do brilliant work. If you want to hear the CBSO Chorus tackling some Polish (along with English and Latin), then join us in Symphony Hall on 21 November for the UK premiere of Roxanna Panufnik’s ‘Faithful Journey‘.

 

 

 

 

A eulogy for a concert skirt

SkirtThe results are in, and skirts are out. In a vote with considerably wider margins than anything to do with British politics, trousers have triumphed and #Skexit is happening (thanks chorus management for the pun).

And while the ladies of the chorus have spoken, let us take a moment to admire the finer qualities of this redoubtable garment as we consign it to the uniform scrap heap.

Surely its finest point is its near indestructibility. Made of nothing natural whatsoever, you could spill almost anything on this skirt and it would run off. There was absolutely no need to fold it; crumple this beauty at the bottom of your bag and it would emerge looking exactly as before, pleats in place. I stand proud as one of the few people who actually managed to destroy my concert skirt beyond wearing, achieved by the injudicious application of a tumble dryer. It turns out that the only way to make these skirts look worse is to accidentally remove the pleats…

If showing a bit of ankle is something you despise, then never fear, our concert skirt provided coverage from waist to floor. Or in some more petite ladies’ cases, from armpit to floor, the skirt being worn more in the style of a strapless dress in order to be able to walk. We will no longer be able to have merry laughs with our fellow choristers as we stand on each others’ skirts while trying to get on stage, nor will we inadvertently panic as we try not to stand on our own skirts while rising during a piece.

No more will we hear the changing room cries of “I found it!”, as another lady located the elusive skirt pocket, highly prized for keeping tissues and lozenges safe during a performance.

And no more will the skirt’s capacious depths hide a multitude of pre-concert dinner sins, or in some cases, a nearly full term pregnancy.

Instead, we move to the simple tailored trouser. Where we may all have pockets and can endeavour to wear something not made of a material seemingly designed to consign us to the fiery pits of hell after 20 minutes of singing.

But what will the committee talk about now I hear you cry? For surely it is the law that all choirs must complain about their concert dress. Never fear, I say. For some foolish young whippersnapper will fail to understand the meaning behind ‘tailored trouser’ and present themselves in a skinny jean (although we have been warned that if this does happen you will face the wrath of chorus management). And from past experience, there is plenty of room for a discussion about whether a garment is the right shade of black…

Our next concerts are Ravel and Boulanger on 14 August (Symphony Hall) and Boulanger on 15 August (BBC Proms). Come and check out our new outfits!

BBC Proms 2018 – my top 5 choral concert picks

BBC Proms season is here again, and I’m hugely excited as I get to sing in two concerts this year with the CBSO Chorus. For those of you who are choral music fans, I’ve worked my way through this year’s offerings and these are my top five choral highlights of the 2018 season.

Prom 11 – Mahler Symphony of a Thousand (Sunday 22 July)

If you want epic, this is the concert for you. While actually having 1000 singers would be madness (and would leave no room for the audience), Thomas Sondergard is assembling FIVE choirs alongside the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to tackle Mahler’s 8th Symphony. There won’t be an inch of space spare on stage or in the choir stalls. While for me, the 2nd symphony is the more emotional of the two choral finales, this one will blow you away with its power.

Thomas Sondergard conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the London Symphony Chorus, the BBC Symphony Chorus, Southend Boys’ Choir and Southend Girls’ Choir. Soloists Tamara Wilson, Camilla Nylund, Joelle Harvey, Christine Rice, Claudia Huckle, Simon O’Neill, Quinn Kelsey and Morris Robinson.

Prom 72 – Britten’s War Requiem (Thursday 6 September)

I have actually lost count of the number of times I have performed this work as we took it on tour a few years ago (including the 50th anniversary performance at Coventry Cathedral), but it is extraordinary. Unconventional, powerful, moving, the text moving between the traditional Latin Requiem text and poems by Wilfred Owen. I can personally vouch for the excellence of Erin Wall as she’s performed it with us several times! A piece that everyone should hear performed live at least once.

Peter Oundjian conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus and Junior Chorus and Huddersfield Choral Society. Soloists Erin Wall, Allan Clayton and Russell Braun. 

Prom 73 – Before the Ending of the Day (Thursday 6 September)

And following straight on from the Britten is my next recommendation, a gorgeous range of sacred music performed by the Tallis Scholars recreating Compline. This is music to soothe your soul.

Peter Phillips directs the Tallis Scholars in this Late Night Prom. 

Prom 44 – Debussy, Ravel and Boulanger (Wednesday 15 August)

Yes, I know, this is my own concert… We’ve had so much language coaching I want as many people as possible to hear our (hopefully excellent) French! I had never heard of Lili Boulanger, but we’re loving this piece in rehearsal and can’t wait to perform it with the orchestra. We’re performing it with Mirga first in May, then Morlot in August as Mirga will be otherwise occupied (her announcement preceding the publication of both the CBSO and Proms schedules, but only just!).

Ludovic Morlot conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the CBSO Chorus and CBSO Youth Chorus. Soloist Justina Gringyte.

Prom 9 – War and Peace (Saturday 21 July)

It wouldn’t be the Proms without Beethoven 9. Last year it was us with BBC National Chorus of Wales, this year the BBC Proms Youth Choir, who always make a fabulous sound. Hopefully they won’t make the same mistake we did (shhh no one noticed), neither will there be battles in the arena over the waving of European flags (it was definitely that which distracted us…). The concert also has an Esenvalds premiere, which, based on the reaction to the work of his we performed at Christmas, will likely be very well received.

Donald Runnicles and Simon Halsey conduct the World Orchestra for Peace and the BBC Proms Youth Choir. Soloists Erin Wall, Judit Kutasi, Russell Thomas and Franz-Josef Selig.

These are just my suggestions, there are plenty more fantastic choral works to hear. You can even join in yourself at one of the several singing events the Proms is holding.

You can book your tickets for BBC Proms 2018 from 9am on Saturday 12 May.

 

What’s in your score?

Singing in a choir often means that you’re using borrowed music. My choir will do its best to give you back the copy you used before, but that’s of course not always possible, meaning you get to experience someone else’s markings. This can be an interesting, amusing or frustrating experience depending on the marking up style of the previous user. Which of these score marking personalities have you experienced?

The scribbler

For me, my least favourite type. Opening the music will cause your heart to sink. The scribbler will have crossed out everything except their own part, so if you’re singing a different one, trade the score in unless you want to spend an entire rehearsal frantically erasing or trying to decipher your own part under all the crossing out. Instructions will be written multiple times and dynamics and tricky passages circled, which can sometimes be helpful, as long as you happen to find the same passages difficult. If you’re a scribbler, think twice before doing this on a borrowed score, because it’s likely the next user will be cursing you. And don’t even think about reaching for that highlighter pen…

The conductor’s pet

Possibly even better than a brand new score. This person will have been hanging on the conductor’s every word and will have assiduously captured every breath and dynamic marking, so unless your current conductor has different views to the previous one you won’t have much to write in  yourself. Hurrah! They will have also carefully noted the markings given to you as homework (yes this happens to us) because the concert’s conductor has an edition with different figures so that they always know where they are. [Note: this is not me. Rehearsals for me are characterised by the question, “What page are we on?” and I’m grateful for those around me who constantly indulge me by answering with grace and only mild looks of disparagement.]

The newbie

You can usually spot a score previously held by someone new to choral singing.  The score will be littered with numbers in an attempt to make sure the counting is correct, but you’d better double check their maths – I’ve seen the wrong number of beats in a bar more than once before! You might find translations of common musical terms or arrows all over the page to track repeats. You might also find a whole range of different ways to try and pronounce the words depending on the language (this is actually quite tricky to be fair). If you’re an experienced singer you might find yourself needing to get rid of a lot of markings, as with the scribbler, but at least you feel like the former user was really trying hard.

The jester

While a few helpful markings will exist you will also find your score littered with amusing comments and gossipy asides. Conductors beware, because if you say something amusing in rehearsal, there’s a chance it will be captured for posterity in the jester’s score. The same goes for soloists. If the previous borrower had an artistic bent, you might even find some drawings! I’m pretty certain I’ve also encountered a shopping list… These scores are good for adding a little amusement to a slow rehearsal although don’t laugh too loud as you’ll earn yourself a glare from the conductor.

The academic

This person loves all the technicalities of the music so you’ll always know which key you’re in, which part of the chord you should be singing and whether the third is high or low (yes that’s a thing). If the music is in another language you’ll probably find a copy of the translation lurking in the score somewhere and the phonemes will all be marked in correctly (tip: most of us don’t have a clue what a schwa vowel is). This score is handy if you’re planning on writing an essay, but can sometimes be light on useful hints and tips (yes it’s great to know which part of the chord you’re singing, but sometimes it’s just more useful to know the altos have just sung the same note).

When you open a new score which type are you hoping had your music before? And which type are you?!

Performing at the Proms – an emotional journey

This year we were lucky enough to be invited to perform in two Proms – singing MacMillan’s Requiem for Europe and Beethoven’s 9th with the National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, and then Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with Orfeo Catala. If you’ve ever wondered what’s it’s like to perform in one of the world’s greatest musical festivals, here is my emotional guide:

Joy See a trip to the Proms on your choir’s schedule
Secrecy Immediately assume the air of a glamorous spy entrusted with their nation’s secrets (schedules are set so far in advance that usually we know about concerts before they’re announced publicly)
Mild panic Check your holiday plans to see if they clash with the performance
Relief Realise you’re available/ re-arrange your schedule to accommodate the concert because that’s how you roll…
Pride Tell everyone you know (and a few people you don’t depending on your social media settings) that you’re going to be on the radio (and on tv if you’re lucky) – once the embargo has been lifted that is!
Excitement Receive the music for the concert – whether it be something new or an old friend
Puzzlement Usually applicable if you happen to be performing a new work/commission. This feeling will likely last some time (and definitely longer than the conductor preparing you for the concert would like)
Optimism By Jove, I think we’ve got it…
Hubris We’re nailing it
Boredom Any long coach journey to get to a rehearsal. Particularly when the coach breaks down…
Puzzlement part II It sounds different with the orchestra…
Satisfaction This time, we really do have it
Awe The size and splendour of the Royal Albert Hall (gets me every time)
Vanity Ooh look, tv cameras. How’s my hair?
Nervousness That’s a lot of people out there, and some of them are so dedicated they’re willing to stand through the whole concert
Exhilaration We’re off!
Breaking into a cold sweat Something hasn’t gone to plan (a rare occurrence!). This may or may not have happened to us this year… The important thing to remember is don’t panic, breathe and carry on with a smile on your face!
Pleasure We did it! Celebrate copiously with friends and family (and people you don’t know on social media)

The CBSO Chorus is getting a one week holiday, before returning to rehearse Haydn’s Creation for performance in September.