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.


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.