This week’s hello goes to Norbert, our German language coach. I will confess that at school I was not a big fan of learning languages. Whilst happy to chatter incessantly in English, my German teacher said my German GCSE oral exam was like trying to get blood out of a stone. Being the product of a selective girls’ school means that my other GCSE language choice was of course Latin. Which as it happens, has been quite useful in choral singing terms. Now, it is not to say that you need any foreign language skills to sing in a choir. It will depend on your choir’s repertoire – if you’re singing with Rock Choir for example, English will do you just fine. If you’re in the classical sector though, you can find yourself spending entire rehearsals working on a vowel sound that feels entirely unnatural or being told that your tongue is in the wrong place.
When I sang with choral societies, generally you could get away with singing in English, with some Latin and occasional German. Having got used to this, I got quite a shock when I went to sing with the London Oriana choir, who it has to be said do like a challenge. The first piece I was handed was in Icelandic. Icelandic?! How is a person supposed to make a good impression when you’re sightsinging in Icelandic?
Now that was admittedly a little unusual. In the world of classical choral singing if your Latin and German pronounciation is solid, you’ll go far. Add to that some French, Russian and a smattering of Italian and you’ll pretty much be sorted. Sounds easy, yes? No.
Hence, Norbert. He’s brilliant. One of the perks of singing with a great choir is that you know when you’re mispronouncing your text as there is someone there to chastise you. In a nice way. Or in a slightly more sarcastic way if you’re our Russian coach. As we rehearsed Wagner’s Flying Dutchman this week the key tactic was to make sure you were spitting on the person in front of you (I did say you make good friends in choirs). Then you know your consonants are having an impact. Another source of entertainment is who can come up with the best written equivalent of the sound you are supposed to produce. I have copies of scores littered with miscellaneous vowels in an attempt to tame my wayward utterances. My ultimate nemesis is French. I just do not understand what you do with the ends of words in that language. So I am ever grateful for the patience of people like Norbert who allow you to mangle their native tongue repeatedly in the pursuit of great music. You’re welcome at our rehearsals anytime.
My goodbye is for alto and founding member of the CBSO Chorus, Lesley Nickell, who lost her fight with cancer this week. There are many people who knew her better than I, but I know from the time I spent with her that she was a real character, to whom the choir meant everything. She sang with us until the end, singing Britten’s Spring Symphony as her last concert in January. We perform this piece again tomorrow at the Royal Festival Hall, and I will be thinking of her as we sing. Rest in peace Lesley.