Pitch Perfect: the perils of singing a cappella

NWCF2011 (119) Cheshire A Capella

NWCF2011 (119) Cheshire A Capella (Photo credit: Digwyddiadau Conwy Events Conwy)

The blended, beautiful singing of the choir floats through the auditorium, delighting the audience. They wait in anticipation as the orchestra creeps in… a tone and a half higher than the choir.

It’s happened to the best of us. However much ‘smiling’ or ‘thinking high’ you’ve been doing the bloomin’ piece has gone as flat as that soufflé you once tried to impress your mother in law with. It’s the ultimate downfall of a cappella singing (that’s singing without accompaniment for the non Italian speaking or anyone who has not succumbed to Gareth Malone’s charms).

Now the trick is not to look like anything has gone wrong. You must master the art of looking serene and knowing, as if Bach or Tchaikovsky had intended a key change at that point, in a surprising precursor to the tactic favoured by popular music ballad writers when they’ve run out of ideas and feel that simply belting the music out a note higher will move things along nicely. You must maintain this look, even as your conductor is piercing you with a gaze that would slay dragons.

Correct pitching is a tricky thing at the best of times. In large choirs it can be even more challenging; there always seem to be some people (cough*tenors*cough) whose sense of pitch seems to be ever so slightly south of the norm, as if rooted in the Baroque period. A cappella singing requires choirs to have an incredible collective sense of musicality, of rhythm and pitch, and that’s what makes it amazing. And a little scary to perform.

Of course, it’s not the end of the world if the pitch goes a little wonky. Some pieces don’t have any accompaniment at all, so who is going to notice if you go off key? No one really, apart from possibly those cursed with perfect pitch and the basses, who may suddenly find themselves having to find low notes previously unheard by the human race. But I think they like the chance to show off their growling skills.

So why spend all that time rehearsing, holding your breath as the rehearsal pianist plonks his fingers down on the chord you ‘should’ be singing? Because when it goes right, it is the very best of what choirs have to offer.

For all choirs performing a cappella soon, particularly those who, like us, are taking up the challenge of Benjamin Britten in this wonderful anniversary week: may your melodies ring out, may your conductor’s brow be unfurrowed, and may your pitch be perfect.

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Have you got the voice?

Singer model 15-91 sewing machine

Singer model 15-91 sewing machine (Photo credit: Go_OffStation)

I’ll let you into a secret. I’ve been watching one of those TV singing contests. And I’ve almost enjoyed it. Not all the hype and messing around. I’m not a voter. But there are a couple of fantastic voices in there (not necessarily the ones that have made it to the final, never trust the public to vote).

There are a myriad of shows dedicated to finding musical talent, looking for uniqueness, that something special that will captivate people (and of course make lots of money). And no, they’re not always that great. I am frequently scathing. As someone that’s spent years training their voice, watching people being congratulated for staying in tune throughout a song is irritating. Some of us manage that all the time. Well alright, most of the time (I may have been known to go sharp on the occasional high note).

These shows mainly encourage the solo voice. In my view, it’s a good thing if you can listen to a solo artist and identify them by tone and style. But what makes you the right voice when it comes to choral singing? For a start, if you can hear yourself over everyone else, you’re doing it wrong. Choral singers have to blend with one another. So singing the right note helps. As does the correct rhythm. But it’s more than that. As I’ve said before, choral singing isn’t a competitive activity, it’s a collaborative one. And you’ll find that each choir has a different sound.

I’d always recommend checking out a choir before you join. Go to a concert. Even better, join in a rehearsal, then you’ll really find out if your voice fits in. I’ve been performing in multiple performances of Britten’s War Requiem recently, accompanied by several different youth choirs. And these youth choirs have really demonstrated that is possible to create completely different sounds with the same music. The Hannover girls choir made an astonishingly mature noise, complete with some weighty vibrato. Not, it has to be said, to my taste, particularly for the Britten, although the acoustic of the Dresden Frauenkirche helped them out in the second performance. The CBSO youth and children’s chorus and the young ladies of the Radio France chorus made a much purer sound, as I’m sure will the choir of St Paul’s this week. It’s not about right or wrong though (although you might well have an opinion on this), each choir is unique and creates their own sound.

That’s not to say that in a choir you have to sound exactly the same as the person next to you. That’s impossible. But you do have to fit in with the overall picture. I don’t have much vibrato in my voice, so I find it easy enough to blend in a classical chorus with a cleaner sound. Stick me in rock choir and I’d be scuppered. Over the years I have found that you tend to gravitate towards certain people in a choir. You’ll find the people you like to sit with, not because you like a chat (although I do like a chat), but because your voices work together. The best thing you can do is listen and become part of the team, and work towards the vision of your choir leader.

So, how do you know if you’ve got the voice? Think about the type of music you like singing. Listen to yourself, then go and listen to concerts. Try some choirs out. Don’t be afraid to change if it’s not working for you. There’s a choir for everyone, you just have to find it, and when you do, you’ll find your voice.

To old friends – hello and goodbye

this can only end badly

this can only end badly (Photo credit: Rakka)

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.

Can singing reconnect us?

choir

Photo: Bristol Choral Society

CBSO Chorus Director Simon Halsey gave me some food for thought as he warmed up the 900-strong crowd who turned up to sing Handel’s Messiah together at Symphony Hall last Sunday. He asked different age groups to stand up. There were teenagers to octogenarians in the room, all willing to give up half a day to sing a piece composed over 250 years ago together. And why? Partly because of the music. The Messiah is one of the most loved and frequently performed pieces of choral music (although not by the CBSO Chorus as it happens). The Hallelujah Chorus has become part of our culture. A year 8 student I was teaching this week was singing it in their Science lesson. I have no idea why, as I don’t think  it has a connection with recycling, but they were still aware of it. Although I dread to think what they would have said if I’d asked them where the music was from. Anyway. Why else? The simple experience of singing with other people. Simon talked to this scratch choir about the way that singing can create communities. As our society changes, I think that creating and maintaining communities has become a challenge. Many people feel disconnected from each other, and singing is a way to change that.

Now I move house a lot, and while a colleague’s spiritual home is a library, mine is a choir. One of the first things I do when I move to a new area is find one to join. Many of my good friends are people I’ve met at a choir rehearsal. There’s nothing like spending a few hours giggling on the back row of the sopranos to cement a friendship. But it’s more than that. There is something about a group of people singing together that creates a unique bond. However, many people will say, if asked, that they don’t sing, that they are tone deaf, that singing is not a part of their lives. I would bet that would include quite  a number of the people you will hear bellowing Bread of Heaven or Swing Low Sweet Chariot this weekend at the rugby. In reality, almost anyone can be trained to sing in pitch and in time.

Gareth Malone has been trying to prove this very point on our TV screens for the last few years. He’s tackled teenage boys, youth offenders, council estates and workplaces in an effort to prove that singing really is for everyone. And who could fail to be moved by the military wives choir, singing their hearts out while their partners were away fighting? I loved that they felt their choir really gave them a voice, a way to express how they were feeling and an outlet for their emotions as they waiting for their loved ones to come home. But I don’t think people watch these shows just because they are interested in music. They watch them for the journey from reluctant participant to confident soloist, for the emotions as people perform together for the first time, for the sense of achievement and pride. These communities were built, and they continue to develop and support people through whatever type of music they enjoy.

And it’s not just face to face communities being created. Composer and conductor Eric Whitacre has found a way to use technology to bring people together through music. Watch his inspiring TED talk about his virtual choir project to hear his discuss how, even though his singers never met, they still feel connected through the shared experience.

So for those of you whose last experience of communal singing was a school assembly, then why not try out a choir? There are hundreds of them out there, singing all types of music. You don’t need to be able to read music for all of them, and it’s not all pieces that were written 250 years ago. Give it a go. It’s like nothing else in this world.