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.


Fairytale endings

Frozen on stage

Photo credit: Laura Munslow

Glitter, plaits, high pitched excitement… And that was just the choir… (Well ok, probably not the men).

I love Disney. I was one of those children who sang along to everything and wanted to voice a character when I grew up. I would have been over the moon to have an event like Frozen in concert to go to (I mean I was fairly excited anyway and I’m now in my thirties).

I was genuinely curious as to how this concert was going to work. It’s really not an easy thing to have a live orchestra and choir perform alongside a film, with the endless opportunities to get out of sync or miss a cue. We were slightly reassured by the thought that it was likely to be a forgiving audience of mainly young children, until someone pointed out they would likely know every single note…

I will give credit to Julian Wilkins here, who must be by now absolutely sick of the soundtrack given how well prepared he got us for this concert. He was probably relieved he got to spend yesterday in Manchester with the Youth Chorus who were performing the more usual CBSO fare of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Personally I’m not sure when the perpetual earworms of ‘Do you wanna build a snowman’ and ‘Fixer Upper’ are going to leave me, but I think it will be a while.

As we found out, the way you keep in sync with films is by using a click track. For the uninitiated, it is literally clicks you can hear (via headphones) that tell you where the beat is. If you’re not with the clicks, then you’re out of sync with the picture. We unfortunately didn’t get the click track in the concert, so we were relying on the conductor, and it turns out that it’s quite tricky to conduct along to a click track. Enough said.

By some miracle though, it all came together in the performance. The tech team had managed to get the sound working properly (for the first half of the rehearsal we’d had no film dialogue!), everyone who should have had microphones had microphones, and the music was synchronised with the picture. We were told it sounded good out in the auditorium, and this was evident thanks to the excitement of lots of small children singing along, waving flashing wands and jumping up and down!

One thing I was struck by was that a number of parents were commenting afterwards on social media that is was the first time their child had ever been to a live orchestra concert. That’s amazing. For children to have the opportunity to experience the magic of both Disney and live music together is just wonderful.

And talking of princesses, have the CBSO found their own? After a lengthy search, they have appointed Lithuanian Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla as their music director. I’ve not seen her conduct yet, but I’m told she’s terribly exciting and she certainly was lovely and hugely energetic when she popped into a chorus rehearsal recently. I’m looking forward to working with her.

While I’m not usually a huge fan of pointing out gender in the workplace, there is an understandable focus on the fact that she’s a woman in a profession dominated by men. Mirga herself acknowledges it is an opportunity to be a role model, to allow girls to see that this is an opportunity open to them. I am really proud of being part of an organisation that’s leading the way in this respect, as well as many others.

Let’s hope the parents of the little Elsas and Annas who were in the audience yesterday are able to bring them to see Mirga conduct one day, so they can see what may just be the fairytale ending to the CBSO’s search for an inspirational leader.

You can see Mirga conducting the CBSO at the BBC Proms on Saturday 27 August.

My 2015 musical highlights

I didn’t do nearly as much singing as I would have liked in 2015 thanks to a rather large work project (see number 2 below), but there were still some wonderful highlights for me. Here are my personal top 5 musical moments of the year (rather different from the Guardian’s list, which the CBSO topped with their Parsifal). What are yours?

5. Our most recent concerts, the Festive Favourites are my choice for number five. Not, I have to say, because of the music, which this year was a bit of a struggle to get wildly enthusiastic about. No, my entire reasoning behind this choice is because my Christmas was made once Simon Halsey put on a reindeer hat to conduct We Wish you a Merry Christmas. Something he has assured us will never happen again. Sadly I do not have a photograph. Plus of course the percussion section of the CBSO never fails to raise a smile as they play through Sleigh Ride dressed in costumes they can almost certainly not see out of, and the fact that the tuned percussion is played correctly is a true testament to their skill. This starts off the festive season for me with a bang (or in this case a gong as Alan Titchmarsh joined in the percussion hijinks).

4. Star Wars! This makes the cut because I really am a geek at heart. I love taking part in the Friday Night Classics concerts and the Star Wars concert in September was no exception. Only participating in two pieces was no hardship, I was very happy to sit and watch the second half for free (along with some equally geeky tenors). It was also a pleasure to see Birmingham’s Symphony Hall absolutely full, something that we now see all too rarely and just goes to show the draw of film music. I hope some of those that were first time visitors to see the orchestra will come back for more.

3. Beethoven 9 at the Proms. A last chance to work with maestro Andris Nelsons this year as he took his leave for Boston. I grew up loving the Proms and it is always exciting to perform at this wonderful festival. I also blogged the experience for the CBSO.

2. The reason I missed out on 6 months of choir, The Global Orchestra. The organisation I work for decided that we should take students from all of our schools (31 at the time), create a music summer school and have them perform together. No mean feat in less than 6 months. My musical highlight was standing in the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York in June, listening to 80 students from all around the world play together for the first time. After all the hard work to put it together (with much thank to fellow chorus member Julian at One Stage for his assistance) it was an incredible moment, and made it all worth it.

1.Mahler 2 with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Kate Royal and Magdalena Kozena, performed at the Royal Festival Hall. Only the second time I have performed with Rattle conducting, the first being my all time personal music highlight (Bach’s St Matthew Passion). I am not on the whole a huge Mahler fan, but you cannot fail to be moved by the emotional weight of the end of the symphony.

I’m now very much looking forward to what 2016 will bring. The CBSO Chorus begins the year with Henry V, a Shakespeare-inspired concert conducted by Edward Gardner and featuring actor Samuel West on Thursday 7 January. Listen out for us on BBC Radio 3.

A Choral Christmas

(With apologies to actual poets…)

‘Twas one night before Christmas, and all o’er the Earth,

Choirs were singing their hearts out, in praise of a birth,

For singers they celebrate this festive season,

With so many concerts it’s nearly past reason.

In churches they sing the nine lessons and carols,

with red and white robes as their festive apparel,

a young treble whose voice is so pure and so clear,

by tradition begins the night’s service each year.

Some other choirs sing Hallelujah by Handel,

in venues lit beautifully just by candle,

And children melt hearts with renditions so bright

of archangels, and donkeys and reindeer in flight.

Some hymns are old favourites, with tunes so renowned,

that even the audience makes a fine sound;

Away in a Manager, Hark the Herald, again,

the voices ring out the familiar refrain.

A few other pieces could be performed less,

As their presence in programmes do cause me some stress;

I could be persuaded, for example, to sing

far less often of lords, ladies, milkmaids and rings.

The more modern carols can be hit and miss,

With composers who like to begin with a dis-

cord, and try out some funky new rhythms and times,

when really we’re happy with 4/4 and rhymes.

Sopranos love descants with notes oh so high,

It’s a chance to show off (I’m not going to lie);

The organist too has their own chance to shine,

With pedals and stops that make music divine.

‘Tis the season musicians make people feel jolly,

(even if they can’t cope with more songs about holly).

So lift up your voices, spread joy and good cheer,

As we wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.

Why sing?

I have to say that last night’s concert left me feeling defeated. Like the music got the better of me (or my voice which most definitely gave out – I feel a lecture from my singing teacher coming on…). It’s extremely rare that I have to give in and stop singing during a performance. In fact, it’s only happened twice before that I remember and on one of those occasions it was the same piece. Maybe Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem is my nemesis…

I was asked this week why I sing in a choir. I was also asked rather innocently if I was paid to do so, and when I replied in the negative, rather incredulously asked if at least I was paid expenses. I have in the last fortnight spent 6 evenings rehearsing or performing in concerts, driven over 700 miles to do so and I’m not working out what that costs in petrol because I don’t want to know. So why would I go back and do it all again tomorrow (and yes, it’s another Brahms performance)?

Because for me, there’s nothing else like it.

  1. It’s a genuine community. How many other activities have you spending hours learning how to breathe at the same time as 200 other people? Good choral singing means you rely on the people around you, whether it’s to help you shape a musical phrase, to hold a note to allow your neighbour to take a breath or, as was the case last night, to show concern and care when something is wrong.
  2. You make friends for life. You bond over flat notes and singing when you shouldn’t and rehearsals that feel like they’re never going to end. I feel for the sake of my reputation that I should point out that mostly I sing what I should, but somehow in rehearsals that’s less fun than the mistakes!
  3. It’s a great stress reliever. My attendance was at its best when I was teaching, a job which for me was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. Of course, some of my fellow choristers might have wished my attendance was a little less good as I moaned about my job yet again in the break…
  4. You realise that there are other people even more geeky than you out there. And I’m talking about hugely successful people like John Williams, having learned during last week’s Star Wars concert rehearsals how he came up with the words for the music!
  5. We get to perform with some of the best musicians and conductors in the world. Sometimes you have to take a moment to realise what an incredible experience it is.
  6. We get to perform in some of the best concert halls in the world. And some of them are really uncomfortable (not ours obviously). But you can’t have everything.
  7. And of course, we perform some of the greatest music on earth. And yes, I include the Brahms in that statement.

So I will pick myself up, drink as much honey and lemon as my body can take, and go back to tackle the Brahms once more. Because I won’t be alone when I do so.

Yes, no, maybe? Which concerts make you smile and which do you suffer through?

I love a new schedule. And my choir’s schedule for next season has been long delayed owing to the departure of Andris Nelsons for Boston and the ongoing search for a new Musical Director so I was even more excited to see what was on it. And it’s a good one. Perhaps owing to the difficulties of creating concerts with no MD it has huge variety on it, including quite a number of pieces I’ve never sung. We generally have to commit to around 70% of the concerts, and this is where the fun comes in.

Now if you’re the sort of person that will sing anything anywhere, then it’s easy. Just tick yes in every column and you’re done. If, like me this year, your job does your deciding for you by scheduling overseas trips at the same time as concerts that that’s also easy, just sign up to everything you can do in order to meet your attendance requirements. However, assuming neither of these situations are the case, what about your personal preference? Everyone has their favourites, but what happens when, looming up on the horizon, is a piece you just know you can’t stand?

For example, I am currently happily avoiding Wagner’s Parsifal. It’s not so much that I dislike Wagner per se, I actually enjoyed both Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman, it’s more the sheer amount of Wagner that happens in one of his operas. I’m more about the highlights. Plus, as a soprano, you spend way more time hanging around than actually singing, which is fine if you’ve got a good book to finish but less fine if you’re actually on stage. Apparently bringing your knitting to a concert is not acceptable (I don’t actually knit but there are plenty in my section who do, rather well in fact).

When it came to Andris’s last concerts with the CBSO I was really torn. As it turns out, my workplace decided for me, but I went backwards and forward over whether to take part. Why? The combination of a new Esenwalds piece and Mahler 3. And it wasn’t the Esenwalds putting me off. Rather controversially I’ve found, I loathe Mahler 3. All the sitting around puts me to sleep and then when we do sing, we have to remember whether we’re bimming or bamming…

As for our final concert of this season, our party piece Beethoven 9, that’s always an interesting one. On the one hand, we perform it so often it doesn’t need much rehearsal. Which is good, because rehearsing it is torture (for reference, there is such a thing as too many high notes). On the other hand, performing it is often fantastic, particularly with the CBSO. Plus this is at the Proms, which is really a special occasion and in this case the clincher. That’s got the tick in the box.

So what makes you sign up immediately and what will you avoid at all cost?

As for next year, my ticks look like they’ll mostly be in the yes column.

Beethoven 9: a soprano’s survival guide

The appearance of Beethoven 9 on a choir’s schedule does, in my experience, elicit an interesting response. On the one hand, lots of people love performing it, for the CBSO Chorus it is core repertoire which we know by heart and a great concert can be exhilarating. On the other hand, no one wants to spend lots of time rehearsing it.

For the CBSO Chorus Beethoven 9 was scheduled for the first five(!) concerts of the season. We took the choral classic to Bonn, Paris, Birmingham, Stoke and Manchester along with the CBSO under Andris Nelsons and the BBC Philharmonic with Juanjo Mena. Amazing venues, great orchestras and conductors and what turned out to be a somewhat varying quality of soloists. I performed in three of these concerts (should have been four but an encounter with a mosquito when working in Budapest meant I couldn’t actually put a shoe on my foot for several days and I missed the Birmingham concert), taking me into double digits of B9 performances. Using my experience, I have therefore compiled my guide to surviving Beethoven 9:


Other than the amount required to actually learn the piece, try to do as little as possible. It’ll only hurt. Even the most fantastic singing technique gets strained by that many notes that high for that long. The 13 bars of “der ganzen Welt” on a top A sound thrilling in a concert, but not if you’ve wasted all your firepower in the rehearsal. Rehearsals are for finding out what that particular conductor wants to do with the piece not how marvellous your top range is sounding (or not as the case may be).

Different conductors

One of the trickiest things can be not singing on autopilot. Conductors do ask for different phrasings, articulations etc. and if you’re performing it without the music you really do need to pay attention. Otherwise it’ll soon become obvious when you’re the person singing a legato “Ihr stürzt nieder” and everyone else has left a gap…

The language

Top tip: Don’t pronounce ‘Elysium’ like the soloists do. The chances are it will be wrong. Unless a soloist is actually German. Other than that, you will always be asked to enunciate the text more clearly. Mind you, that’s true of every other piece, ever. You can never emphasise the word “Brüder” enough.

The bit you don’t sing in

The challenge is to successfully sit still through the first three movements. Why wouldn’t you be listening intently to the wonderful orchestra in front of you, you ask? Well, that probably depends on how many times you’ve performed the piece (my choir has some members who must be nearing their 50th performance). And on whether the orchestra is in fact being wonderful – I really have heard some pretty bad renditions of the symphony. Sometimes the venue is not conducive to concentrating on the music; I really would be happy not to have to spend another concert trying to make myself as small as possible on uncushioned risers, as in Bonn.

Overindulging at dinner can be a fatal mistake as this can lead to drowsiness. Now I have witnessed some people who have mastered the art of closing their eyes with an expression that suggests they are listening with fervour. This is definitely a skill worth acquiring. A good game though, if the music is not holding your full attention, is trying to spot the full-on snoozers. These can usually be identified by a certain slackness of posture, a hint of sliding off a chair, or in extreme cases, snoring. If you see anyone you think might be dozing, keep an eye on them in the second movement – any timpanist worth their salt will be making their instrument resound to the roof and can cause the unsuspecting to start out of their chairs. Of course, if you happen to find yourself sitting next to someone who might be exhibiting these symptoms, it might be kinder to give them a little nudge before they are spotted by eagle-eyed chorus management…

The bit you do sing in

Take a breath. This piece is definitely a marathon to sing but it also has a sprint at the end which you need to save your energy for. Yes, you do have to sing that high.

Women, you’re definitely at an advantage at the beginning. Not only do the men come in first, the soloists also sing your section before you do, which ought to help with remembering the words (assuming that the soloists are standing somewhere near the choir and in fact are singing the correct words).

Try not to bob along when the men start singing ‘Laufet, Brüder”. It’s tempting, but frowned upon.

Teamwork is the key. There’s a reason choirs like to sing with the same people in concerts and it’s not just because we want to sit next to our friends. You get quite good at working out a system of keeping the sound going, without all of you actually singing at the same time (very handy when your chorus master has decided that breath marks are for wimps). No one is going to sing 13 bars of a top A without taking some substantial breaths – if you did a) you would turn an unattractive shade of purple and b) it would probably be flat. Therefore you just work out a nice system with your neighbours about who is having a breather where.

The presto. I mean, it’s just bonkers. Particularly if your conductor is Andris Nelsons, who when he sees a prestissimo tempo on the horizon really goes for it. Hang on tight because there’s no time to think – just sing!

What I’ve learned about choral concert tours

By islandjoe from Helsinki, Finland (On the plane to Lisbon  Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By islandjoe from Helsinki, Finland (On the plane to Lisbon Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I often can’t believe how lucky I am to sing with a choir that actually gets to travel. Over the past few years I’ve been to, well, mainly Germany, but also Paris, Helsinki and a lovely couple of weeks in Malaysia. Here are a few things I’ve learned from our recent whistle stop European jaunt:

1. Performing in a different city each night sounds glamorous, but really isn’t. Unless you happen to love getting up at 5.30am every morning, long coach journeys and airports. On the plus side, if you don’t get travel sick, there’s ample opportunities to catch up on lost sleep / read the latest bestseller as you cruise down a German motorway.

2. German coach drivers will load your luggage onto the coach for you. French coach drivers will not.

3. When they tell you you’re going to Paris, they usually forget to tell you that your hotel is more Paris adjacent than in the thick of it…

4. Aforementioned European hotels have no grasp of what it means to have a large choir staying. When the chorus manager tells you that you need extra bar staff at about 11pm, they aren’t kidding. Also, we will all be wanting breakfast at exactly the same time. Get your queuing shoes on…

5. Seating large choirs on small unpadded risers is a form of torture (take note Bonn Beethovenhalle).

6. Trying to stand up quietly, as a group, after sitting for an hour in a space that would fit a small toddler (see above) results in a collective geriatric-inspired suppressed groan (which fortunately probably can’t be heard over the orchestra).

7. Soloists can be highly amusing, particularly when boogieing backstage to Beethoven. Note: it is not considered professional for your shoulders to be shaking with laughter whilst you are on stage, so practice the art of calm exterior, dying with laughter on the inside (as commonly used by many in the teaching profession).

8. Tours are a great opportunity to talk to so many more people than you usually would – make the point of learning some new names. Or if you’ve been sitting near someone who’s name you’ve forgotten but it’s gone past the point where you can ask them without feeling like a twit, make sure you’re standing near them when they introduce themselves to someone else!

9. A celebrity spot whilst travelling brightens everyone’s day. And is useful for giving directions, as overheard from my choral colleagues: ‘Where are the toilets?’, ‘Down the corridor, turn left at Colin Firth.’

10. It doesn’t matter how whistle stop the tour is, or whether you know lots of people that are going – getting the chance to sing around the world is totally worth it.