Listening

Singing in tune is not always easy, but it’s a lot easier if you listen!

That might sound like an obvious statement, but I see lots of people in amateur choirs who spend too much time with their head in the copy, more or less blinkered to the outside world. Their focus is on singing the right notes. There are many who feel less than confident in their music reading skills, so this is understandable – but it’s still unacceptable. There has to be a better way.

MCCS is a fine form at the moment. We are currently working on Fauré’s Requiem, a firm favourite in the choral repertoire, but by no means easy. There are few to rival Fauré when it comes to harmonic inventiveness, and there are places in this work where the key changes, thrilling as they are, can cause real problems with intonation. But these issues shouldn’t be insurmountable if the choir know what they are listening for – and this choir does!

The first thing to be quite clear about is that singing in tune is more often that not a vertical thing, not a linear one. In other words, it’s not about pitching successive intervals in the vocal line, but rather how each note fits with the rest of the chord. In order to do this, choirs need to understand a little bit about harmony, and they need to listen.

tuning 1

Let’s take this passage in the middle of the Libera me. One chord per bar, which alternates between simple major or minor chords, and dominant sevenths. The dominant seventh has a distinctive sound, and the choir needs to be able to recognise it – just an ordinary chord but with an extra splash of colour; a quick demonstration on the piano (with – without, with – without) is all that is needed. I rehearse a passage like this one chord at a time, unaccompanied, and by insisting that the choir listen to the sound of the whole chord, each singer is given responsibility for their own tuning. In this passage the altos were very quick to realise that in alternate bars they had the sevenths. All of a sudden, it’s not just a continuation of the same note, but a change into an altogether more exciting version of the same note, and as a result the choral sound on this chord was so much more vibrant.

tuning 2

Bar 77 is more problematic; here comes one of Fauré’s stunning modulations, and in all likelihood, some tuning problems – intonation can tend to slip here. The basses need to know that they are headed for the third of the chord in bar 78. In rehearsal, I focus in on this chord [F# major, first inversion.] We need to ensure that each section of the choir can hear the ‘place value’ of their note in the chord, especially the basses who have the major third. This becomes a ‘meeting place’ chord – somewhere to regroup, where everyone knows where they are with regards to tuning – before moving on. And now we go back to bar 70, still unaccompanied, and stop on the first chord of bar 78 to check that the tuning of this chord is secure before we continue.

There is a world of difference between singing at the same time, and singing together.

This kind of work ensures that every member of the choir realises that critical listening is an integral part of choral singing; it’s not just the singing, but the listening as well. And it gets better – a choir which listens carefully to tuning also listens carefully to the balance between the voices and to the overall choral sound. Our rehearsal last week demonstrated this brilliantly; after a few minutes of work on this passage, the choir sounded as good as it ever has done.

Our next concert in on Sunday 10 June – Fauré Requiem and Vaughan Williams Benedicite and Serenade to Music.

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Vaughan Williams for 2018

It’s been an interesting start to the year for Monkton Combe Choral Society. Our December concert, Schubert’s Mass in G and Mozart’s Vespers, was postponed due to bad weather, and rescheduled instead for 4 February. I think the choir appreciated a couple more weeks of rehearsal, and on the night the Mozart in particular was electrifying!

Our summer concert will be later than usual this year, on Sunday 10 June. Rehearsals for Vaughan Williams’ Benedicite begin this Tuesday, 20 February, which will go alongside an old favourite, Fauré’s Requiem. I’m also planning a little something else for the second half of the concert, but more on that to follow in due course … should be exciting though 😉

Our choir is in great shape. Numbers of tenors is always a good indicator, and we now regularly have ten or more at our rehearsals each week. Just as importantly, every season sees an influx of new singers, some of the them ‘seasoned pros’, others total novices. We are certainly not standing still, far from it. And this is also a choir which is prepared to be stretched, and as new members come in they quickly recognise this and are up for the challenge.

After the concert in June, I hope that many in the choir will sign up for the South West Festival Chorus’ performance of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem. Having sung it just last year, many were disappointed that after all that work it was suddenly all over following just one performance! So here’s the chance to go again – more details here, and get the date in the diary now – Sunday 8 July.

Brahms Requiem, 21 May

It is just over six weeks now until our performance of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem on 21 May. Tickets will be available at our first rehearsal of the new term (18 April) or by email request to music@monkton.org.uk.

Brahms Requiem poster FINAL v2
I am delighted that both of our soloists, Rebecca Van Den Berg (soprano) and Matthew Sprange (baritone), are former New Generations Artists with Iford Arts, and we very much look forward to welcoming them.

Before then, Catherine Beddison, who is a senior conducting tutor with Sing for Pleasure, is coming to our rehearsal on 2 May, and I’m really looking forward to watching her at work with our choir – she’s amazing 🙂

Looking back at our past concerts, this feels to me like our biggest undertaking yet (although I think I probably always say that). It is certainly the most substantial piece which we have taken on, just in terms of the sheer number of notes and the stamina required to get through it all. It just never stops, something which I think the choir finds both exhausting and at the same time exhilarating! Coupled with the thrill of live performance, I have no doubt that this is going to be one which we all remember.

South West Festival Chorus

February 2017: I am delighted to announce that I have been appointed as Chorus Master to the South West Festival Chorus. The choir was founded in 2001 and draws on singers throughout the South West and beyond. I hope that this will take me one step further towards my ultimate dream – to conduct Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.

Before that, we will be singing Mozart’s Requiem on 9 July in Frome, and I am hoping that we can encourage sizeable numbers to join us for one of the most sublime works in the entire choral repertoire. More details can be found here. It would be marvellous, of course, if as many members of MCCS as possible would sign up; our Brahms concert is on 21 May, after which we don’t meet up again until September – the perfect thing to keep everyone going until the autumn.

 

A growing choir

Last term we sang Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. It was a big challenge, and also a big risk; not to everyone’s taste, and certainly not an easy sing. I must confess that I was a little worried that choir numbers would fall away as people decided that it was not for them. I was wrong. To my surprise, the choir numbered ninety-something for the concert, and I was blown away by their enthusiasm and commitment to the task.

mccs-logo-blue-1

Heading into a new term, I was confident that, having survived the Bernstein, Brahms would be a much more popular choice! However, I wasn’t fully prepared for where we find ourselves now. A hundred and thirty singers have signed up to sing the Brahms Requiem, including 14 tenors! I’m not sure how we’re going to fit everyone on the Assembly Hall stage, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it in May; in the meantime, it is clear in rehearsals each week that the choir has gained new energy and even more commitment than before.

We are also raising our game in several areas. We have a new logo, and for our next concert we will have a glossy colour programme sponsored by several local businesses [including The Leafy Tea Company run by Monkton pupil April Collins].

Perhaps most excitingly, as the choir continues to grow, it is evident that many of the new singers who come along are experienced and have come because they have heard good things about Monkton Combe Choral Society. Although we only perform in Monkton, either in the Assembly Hall or the Chapel, our reputation within Bath seems to be growing. No mean feat, since Bath boasts more choirs per square mile than just about anywhere else, or so I am led to understand anyway!

Brahms’ Requiem

In January 2017 we will be embarking on a new project, Brahms’ Requiem. Every new work which we undertake has unique challenges, and the most recent one – Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (set in Hebrew) was certainly no exception!

Brahms’ German Requiem is his largest work, and simply in terms of notes to be learned it is going to stretch us. In the past I have also been put off by the huge forces required for this piece. Brahms envisaged a chorus of 200 singers, and the orchestra is scaled to match this, complete with full brass; far too big for our choir to sing against. However, I have found a new orchestration, by Joachim Linckelmann, which makes the work accessible to smaller choirs. So there is nothing to stop us now!

Guest blog – the alto who can’t sing

Ann teaches Biology at Monkton, and so knows about my Choir who can’t sing project which I launched some 4 years ago now. Last term she stepped out way of her comfort zone and joined Monkton Combe Choral Society. I am full of admiration for her courage.

I was thrown out of the primary school choir aged 10. The choir master walked along the row listened carefully and beckoned me out. I didn’t pass the audition for the secondary school choir. My daughter has tried to stop me singing whenever I open my mouth. I could never tune my violin (bad choice of instrument). So I have been understandably unconfident in my capabilities in the singing sphere. And yet, when I’m happy, I whistle or sing – it just bursts out. I sing in church, the volume and the confidence slowly having increased over the years and my sense of “I don’t care, I’m just going to let go” increasing as I get to the age where I am less concerned about what others think of me. And yet, to join a real live choir that gives public performances seemed like a big thing. What if I was found lacking again?

Three things encouraged me to join the choir. One, I love Handel’s Messiah and have sung along to the tune part (not having a clue as to whether it was soprano, bass, tenor or whatever). Two, there are around a 100 people in the choir, so I reckoned I could hide and just open and close my mouth at approximately the right moments. And three, George says there are no auditions for the choir – you just have to be able to “sing approximately the same notes as the person standing next to you”. So I thought I’d take him at his word. “Approximately” gives quite a bit of scope!

Unfortunately there had been a few weeks of rehearsals before the summer break which I had missed. So it was straight in. I had to figure out where the alto line was in the score. (I had no clue whether I was alto or soprano so had to sing a few notes to George). I had no idea of the range that a soprano covered, or an alto. I tried to position myself in the middle of the altos as I knew that if I was too near another part I wouldn’t be able to hold the line. I gropingly followed the person next to me. Often I had no clue where we were and had to sneak a look at my neighbour’s page number. I am hopeless at counting so tried to work out the place we were to come in from the soprano line. But what note to come in on? That was the hardest part.

The rehearsal CD with the alto line picked out was like gold dust. Unfortunately I didn’t get it till quite late and because I’m busy (confession time), I never actually sat down with both the CD and the score together. So I learned the alto line, but couldn’t always figure out the words that went with it. Another confession – I was so busy trying to follow the music that it was only two weeks from the performance (under George’s urging) before I took my eyes off the page and actually watched the conductor. What a wally am I! He actually brought us in most of the time! What a revelation!

So by the performance I was far from perfect, but I had had fun rehearsing, I had the tunes on the brain and I was humming away all the time. I think I’ve cracked it! (The fear bit). Thanks George!

Ann Stuart writes her own blog, Sense of place at Monkton, well worth a look!