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.


  • 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)


  • 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.

Getting to know you

A few years ago I wrote a post about conductors (So what’s the point of the bloke waving his arms), describing them as ‘chaps with pointy sticks’. How delighted I am that this is no longer the norm at the CBSO.

One of the fascinating elements of being in a choir which performs in professional concerts is that you work with many different conductors. Unlike my former choirs, where you would rehearse and perform with the same person almost exclusively, we have more than one conductor who prepares us for concerts (no one’s given Simon Halsey a time turner yet) and then we usually spend a couple of rehearsals with the concert’s conductor in the week of the performance. While our schedule mainly sees us performing with the CBSO, owing to the departure of Andris Nelsons in 2015 and the extended search for a successor, this lack of music director meant an array of familiar and not so familiar faces on the podium.

Plenty of communication usually goes on behind the scenes before a new conductor appears for a piano rehearsal. Questions are posed and metronome markings are issued to try and ensure we are as ready as we possibly can be to react to whatever is required. Every time we start a new project our goal is to give the best performance we can, to make a good impression, to encourage them to work with us again! It’s not about singing the right notes (that’s a given – most of the time…), it’s about knowing the music well enough to be able to react to the person in front of you as they shape the performance. It’s why the perpetual cry of our chorus master is to get our head out of our copies!

The conductor is in the driving seat during a concert (well usually, I will say I’ve seen performances where the orchestra appears to be in control!) and this means that anything can happen. The piano and orchestral rehearsals provide an opportunity to get to know how a particular conductor works, to familiarise yourself with their gestures and to understand their vision for a performance. However, they can (and do) do something different once the audience is in their seats and if you’re not careful it can catch you out. Andris once set a significantly faster tempo for the opening of the Verdi Requiem than he had in rehearsal – for a couple of slightly scary bars it sounded like there was an echo in Symphony Hall (hence the instruction to get heads out of copies!). A recent concert with Tortelier also got a little interesting when a particular gesture was interpreted by many (including myself) as speed up, when in fact he wanted more sound. It is rare for that sort of thing to happen, but it acts as a reminder that anything can happen in live music, and often it is the unpredictability that will make a performance exciting.

We got to get to know a new face this week – the CBSO’s new(ish) music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Despite being in post since September, the chorus has not had an opportunity to work with her before this week (although she has popped in to rehearsals to say hello). I think it’s safe to say that we wanted to impress her, and were also very excited to work with her since she’s been getting rave reviews all year. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’re smitten. She doesn’t wield a baton, but every gesture is musically expressive. She is both clear with what she wants and exciting to watch (she has the same tendency as Andris Nelsons to jump up and down on the podium). Last night’s performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo could have dragged (we don’t actually sing that much), but instead flew by (some of it was seriously fast!). I can’t wait to get to know her even better when we work with her again in the new season.

Up next: Beethoven 9 and MacMillan’s A European Requiem, then Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder at the BBC Proms (with Xian Zhang and Simon Rattle at the respective helms).

Ring in the new…

The prevailing narrative is that 2016 has not been a good year. I don’t know that you often hear a BBC obituaries editor being interviewed about his busy workload, but he seemed to think a rest wasn’t forthcoming. Violence and humanitarian crises are rife, and politics has become so ridiculous that an episode of The Simpsons from 2000 was more accurate than the pollsters. Along with the sad news of passing notable figures, comes more woe for the arts sector in the form of funding cuts. Birmingham’s jewel of an orchestra, the CBSO, reliant upon the struggling Birmingham City Council, will lose 25% of its current council funding (£228,000) from April 2017. As a member of its chorus, while understanding the circumstances, it makes me sad.

It’s hard not to be depressed. And yet, music is something that so many people turn to, to make them happy, to be uplifted, to move them. I was told recently that SO Vocal, the CBSO’s local community choir not only has around 200 members, but a huge waiting list. We’re told that singing is good for you (I wholeheartedly agree), and this is encouraging people to sign up to sing all over the country, whether it’s rock, pop, classical or show tunes. I firmly believe that music making is one of the tools that will help us to combat often identified problems like loneliness, depression, lack of community. It’s also why people celebrate these great musicians and entertainers as they pass away – they have made an impact on individuals, on communities, on the world. We need to celebrate their achievements and be inspired by them. And yet I think we also must be pragmatic. The world we have built means that little comes for free.

2016 was also a great year for the CBSO. After a lengthy search, their crowning achievement was to appoint yet another highly antipated young conductor as its Music Director, this time the Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. She is already receiving plaudits and selling out concert halls, and is undoubtedly the focal point for hope for the future for this particular institution. I’m excited to begin working with Mirga (which won’t happen until June and Mozart’s Idomeneo). Our new schedule for the next 18 months looks brilliant (can’t tell you, sorry, sworn to secrecy), and her rallying cry at the end of her Proms debut, “See you in Birmingham!” created a huge sense of energy and direction.

I suppose what I’d like to say is that I hope she feels that she is welcomed by a musical family that is passionate about what she can bring, and how we can support her to continue to both perform at internationally excellent levels and add value to our local community. Both the chorus and the orchestra recognise the uneasy financial situation and have been making some fundraising efforts of their own; the chorus taking up their instruments to perform a concert, and members of the orchestra and management doing a Grade one-a-thon on new instruments. I suspect these fundraising activities will become a more regular feature, but it’s one that I think we recognise as part of our commitment to the institution.

What I have taken from 2016 and its ups and downs, is what must not die is the music. Why not make one of your new year’s resolutions be to support the CBSO (or your local orchestra)? Come along to a concert – if you think symphonies aren’t your thing then there’s an array of film music, musical theatre or even comedy. 2017 is going to be an exciting year, and we want to share it with as many people as possible.

The CBSO are currently on tour in China, but will be back performing in Birmingham on Sunday 8 January in their Magic of Vienna concert. The CBSO Chorus will be seen next in Handel’s Semele along with the CBSO conducted by Richard Egarr on Wednesday 25 January.



There is music in the midst of desolation

Last night we performed Elgar’s Spirit of England, a piece I wasn’t familiar with despite studying music at Birminaunty-brendagham (where he was the first Professor of Music) and a university friend being Elgar-obsessed (why is why I know the previous fact along with several other random pieces of Elgar trivia). I am however familiar with one of the poems, For The Fallen, as are many, since it is now widely used in remembrance services.

While the poem was written about soldiers in WWI, there are some lines in it that, for me, were especially moving. My aunt was fighting cancer, and she lost that fight this week and I found that singing about remembrance has been particularly emotional. I’m not religious, but I do love the idea that we leave a mark on the world and Elgar’s setting of the poem was surprisingly wonderful to sing.

“As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain”

For me, music is my consolation and my joy. Singing never fails to make me feel better, even when singing something sad. I was thinking about my aunt as I sang. She may not have fought in a war, but she certainly battled with her cancer, determined to see her granddaughter married, which she did only a few weeks ago (see very glamorous photo above). Music is extraordinary in the way it can convey emotion, and in the way it can make people feel. I feel so lucky to be a part of such wonderful music making and thankful that I have it to support me, whether I’m happy or sad.

Rest in peace Auntie Brenda. You are remembered. xx

Back to choir

It’s that time of year again. Our pencils are sharpened, our uniforms have come out hibernation and we’re excitedly writing our timetables in our diaries. Yes, it’s time to go back to choir. And if the summer sun has wiped your memory of all choral vocab, here’s a quick guide to  your choral director’s favourite phrases, to get you ready for that first rehearsal.

Have you got a pencil? = we’re about to spend 30 tedious minutes putting in breath marks

Heads out of copies please = not a single one of you is paying me any attention

Good attempt, the accompanist is just going to play your line for you = every single note you just sang was incorrect

Eyes bright = you’re flat

Keep those eyebrows high = you’re still flat

Sit up straight and uncross your legs = you’re really flat and I’m running out of ideas of what to do about it

Let’s try this standing up = this is my last attempt at getting you to sing in tune after which I may retire

There are a couple of tricky page turns = the publishers employed a baboon to do the page setting and you will be frequently required to turn 8 bars early to avoid ruining the quiet bits

This is a schwa = absolutely no one has any idea what this means, just change the vowel sound and nod knowledgeably

Put in a glottal = don’t run those words together as otherwise you’ll be singing about something completely different

Use a ‘wet’ (English) ‘t’ = spit on the person in front of you

Use a dry (Italian) ‘t’ = ‘d’

More text needed = no one has any idea what language you’re trying to sing in

Don’t worry about what the soloists are doing = despite being paid for this, there’s a 50:50 chance the soloists will be on the wrong beat/note/piece so just carry on regardless

Make sure you breathe far enough in advance = your entry was late again

Watch the blend = someone is sticking out like a sore thumb

Watch the balance = there are only 5 tenors and you’re drowning them out

You’ll be able to find your note, it’s just the 5th of the A flat minor chord in bar 129 = that entry is impossible to find, I’m praying for you

Make sure you sing up and over the top of that note = you sound more like banshees than sopranos

Could you all make sure you stand up together = nursery children do a better job of standing up than you do

Toi toi = superstitious (posh) way of saying good luck

The CBSO Chorus continues rehearsals for Haydn’s Creation with the BBC Philharmonic on Saturday 24 September 2016.