Final rehearsal before Studio 3 concert this Friday

There was an increased sense of expectancy about last night’s rehearsal, as it was the final one before Minerva Voices performs in the rich acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery on Friday.

We always undertake our final pre-performance rehearsal in concert-mode, and last night was no exception; performance folders deployed, running orders given out and music organised, and the singers all wore their performance scarves to add to the sense of formal delivery. The chairs were removed, as was the piano normally used in rehearsals, and concert-lighting was set; it creates a mind-set that puts the singers on the spot as though performing, and focuses concentration.

WP_20160209_001 webHaving spent the first half of the rehearsal working on Vivaldi’s Gloria for the Crypt concert in two weeks, the tone of the rehearsal rose in the second half with our practice run-through. What it taught us was that the level of sustained concentration is very demanding, even in a mock situation. And working through the pieces in order allowed us, afterwards, to reflect on the pacing of the programme as a whole, and how we might improve it. Assistant conductor Joe moved the pace of Holst’s O Swallow, Swallow on slightly, and produced a much freer interpretation; the same also for Tartini’s setting of the Stabat Mater, which needs to avoid luxurious wallowing if the piece isn’t to feel too unwieldy. Of course, you always pace a performance according to the nature of the acoustic in which you are singing, and Studio 3 Gallery has a rich, resonant acoustic that could lure us into really dwelling on chords and the ends of phrases, so we will have to be alert to any tendancy to dawdle!

WP_20160209_002 webSo, the next time Minerva Voices meets, it’ll be in the gallery, warming up for the performance on Friday lunchtime (details here). Come and experience both the music and the exhibition at 1.10pm, admission is free – and let us know if we got the pacing right…

In-Choir Within: Alice Baker

Continuing our series introducing choral singers at Kent; this week, first-year soprano with Minerva Voices, Cecilian Choir and Chorus, reading Wildlife Conservation, Alice Baker.

How did you get into choral singing ?
When I was younger my parents took me to our local church (St. Matthew’s, Redhill) and I can remember always staring at the choir as they paraded through the church at the beginning of every service. By the time I was nine, I was already involved in choirs my primary school organised and was certain that I would be good enough for the church one! Thankfully, the Choir Master and Vicar agreed and in 2006 I joined their SATB choir as their youngest ever member. Very soon after this I went to my Secondary School and instantly joined their Yr.7 choir and progressed up the school, joining choirs wherever I could. Eventually I joined the school’s Senior Choir where I had some of my best singing experiences.

What’s your favourite piece ?
Alice_BakerThis is such a difficult question to answer! I have sung so many pieces in a variety of styles, both in choirs and as a solo performer, that choosing one is no easy task… I think my favourite choral piece has got to be ‘And The Glory Of The Lord’ from Handel’s Messiah because it is so much fun to listen to as well as sing, although it’s no easy task!
That being said, I do also love How Beautiful Upon The Mountains by John Stainer. This was a real favourite at my church and I love the joyful yet haunting qualities of it, created by the harmonies between all four voice parts and the delicate accompaniment.

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ?
My best memory is a bit of a tie… When I was presented with my Dean’s Bronze Award medal I had the honour of singing at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It is an iconic building and singing in there was really special. My other best memory is being told that I had been chosen to sing the Once In Royal David’s City first verse solo for our church’s Nine Lessons and Carols service. This is one of the most popular services of the year and when I heard my voice ring out through the knave I think it was the first time I thought to myself: ‘Wow… That actually sounds pretty good’!
I’d like to think that I don’t have a worst memory but after some thought, a pretty nightmare-ish one came to mind. Our choir had organised a concert to raise money for a new set of robes and the day before the performance, I lost my voice. Every singers’ worst fear! (I think I am already gaining a reputation in Minerva Voices for losing the ability to talk every time I get even the slightest cold!) So I spent the day before the concert not making a sound, didn’t sing during the final rehearsal, and only practiced my solo once. When the performance arrived my silence had, thankfully, paid off and I was able to sing every piece to a decent standard. But I can honestly say I have never been so nervous for a solo before and probably won’t be again!

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing ?
I think the music itself is the key component to capturing and inspiring an audience. And I feel the only way to do this is if the music has  already captured and inspired the choir who will be performing it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether the people watching came in liking that style of music, if the choir show they enjoy it and performed it well, then the audience should walk away with a new-found respect for whatever was presented. I think this inspires anyone watching and listening to keep an open mind, and it will help them seize opportunities to try new musical experiences in the future. This to me is a choir’s purpose, to bring music to the masses and show them something new and exciting.

Follow Alice on Twitter @AlViBa18

Colour, art and cake

You can tell that we have performances looming; our rehearsals are coming thick and fast, none more so than Saturday’s all-day session. These lengthier rehearsals are infinitely more useful than our customary two-and-a-half-hour weekly meetings, as they allow for more concentrated, more sustained working. You have time to develop the whole process –  looking at notes through balancing chords, to shaping, dynamics, placing consonants, making sure vowel shapes are correct, unity of ensemble sound, time really to get beneath the skin of the music far more in longer rehearsal sessions; and over more pieces, too.

Twitter9853554Saturday therefore allowed us to immerse ourselves in the repertoire for our looming performances, and showed us aspects of the programme that hadn’t been apparent before. A long look at Tartini’s Stabat Mater, for instance, ended with the Choir singing the whole piece through for the first time, and we discovered the piece has an emotional scale and drama far outweighing the scope of its slight appearance on the page. Moving between radiant, three-voice colours and the stark simplicity of plainsong in its setting of the agonising text reflecting on Christ’s Mother weeping at the foot of the Cross, and a yearning to share in Christ’s passion, the music demands sustained concentration in order to bring out the tone of the text as it unfolds.

We also pieced together, for the first time in its entirety, Veljo Tormis’ Spring Sketches, a beautiful set of short songs evoking various nature-scenes – the ebb and flow of the sea, apple-blossom, the colours of the evening sky, the warmth of late spring and the echoing cuckoo-call. There are some ravishing chords at various places in the suite, which need careful balancing if the colours are to come forth. Assistant conductor, third-year Joe Prescott, also took the Choir through pieces by Mozart, Brahms and Cornysh’s Ah, Robin.WP_20160130_008

WP_20160130_012Mid-way through the afternoon, we decamped to Studio 3 Gallery, the venue for our first concert on Friday 12 February, in which the Choir will perform amidst the backdrop to the gallery’s new exhibition, After the Break, which exams the work of two artists, Grete Marks and Kurt Schwitters, who both fled Nazi Germany and came to settle in England. There’s something highly atmospheric about performing amidst visual art – the rapport between the two media means you experience the music differently in the context of the artwork, and your response to the artwork is different in the context of music.


The Choir rehearsing in Studio 3 Gallery

We arranged ourselves in the corner of the gallery, and started to sing what will be the first piece in the programme, a Kyrie by Hildegard von Bingen. We reached the end of the first phrase – and stopped. The rich acoustic of the gallery had blossomed as that first phrase unravelled, lifting and filling the space, and there was a sense immediately that time had turned, travelling back over a thousand years.

WP_20160130_022It was a remarkable moment.

You could see on the faces of the singers that something had just occurred, something unexpected, something quire powerful. There was a pause, and then an excited buzz went around the room; this gig is Going To Work!

We spent the remainder of the afternoon running through the entire programme, from that skirling Kyrie and ending with the dancing Song of the Stars by Bob Chilcott. Clothed in the sonorous acoustic of Studio 3, the ensemble had a much more vivid, unified sound; and in fact we discovered that we need to tailor the louder sections somewhat, in order not to overwhelm the listener! But we can also go very much quieter in the softer passages, really draw the audience to us and make them listen.

WP_20160130_019All in all, then, a good day’s work. And first-year Alice S’s cake-making skills were in evidence yet again – there was some pressure to live up to the excellence of her contribution to lunch after the success of her effort last term, and it seems she didn’t disappoint this time around either. We pick up again tomorrow night, in a steady build-up into both concerts this month, and at last the pieces are starting to bloom. Come and here them for yourselves…

Sweet singing in the Choir

When you are preoccupied with such issues as getting in place by the end of Once in Royal David’s City, processing without tripping up, juggling a folder of music and a lit candle without setting light to anything, and not letting your candle burn down to your fingers, then you know it can only be the annual University Carol Service.


Minerva Voices waiting to process

WP_20151214_013Last night’s service, always a high-point of Kent’s cultural calendar, saw over a thousand people packing out Canterbury Cathedral, including the members of Minerva Voices, who performed several solo pieces as well as leading some ringing descants in the congregational hymns (which involved some serious planning over dinner betwtixt rehearsal and concert). The choir arrived in the Nave yesterday afternoon, to rehearse its repertoire, as well as to practice processing from the West Door down to the steps before the rood screen, and to get accustomed to singing in such a magnificent venue. Standing at the end of the Nave, you suddenly realise the volume of vaulted space that the Choir needs to fill with sound.

At 7.55pm, the Choir walked down the side aisle to take up position in front of the West Door; the Dean bid everyone welcome, the lights were extinguished, the first reading delivered, and then a sprightly rendition of Past Three A Clock blossomed into life to fill the expectant hush. Assistant conductor, third-year Joe Prescott, led a vivacious performance that set a joyous tone for the service. The congregation then stood, and that magical moment that really unwraps Christmas occurred; the solo opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City, in a ringing performance from second-year Music Scholar, Charlotte Webb, that soared to the Cathedral’s vaulted roof and rang clear around the Nave. The ensemble rose to match it in the second verse, before the third verse drew Choir, congregation and audience together, and we were off.

The mix of carols and readings also saw the Choir performing the Coventry Carol in a rendition that explored the piece’s melancholy and woe in significant detail; the final solo carol was a vigorous reading of the medieval Nowell Sing We Both All And Some, delivered with gusto in rousingly celebratory fashion.

WP_20151214_017The service closes with a candlelit communal performance of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and as the congregation departed, bearing their lit candles out into the night and into the mist-strewn city streets, you felt the reach of Christmas go with them. It’s a wonderful occasion, with so many of the University community coming together to hear anew the message of the season in words and music, to reflect on the tidings of the moment and to reach out to others. Now that really is the meaning of Christmas.

Minerva Voices is back in action next term when rehearsals begin anew on Vivaldi’s Gloria and an eclectic mix of repertoire for the Crypt concert in February. Meanwhile, season’s greetings to everyone!

All done bar the singing

Minerva Voices had its final rehearsal last night, prior to singing amidst the majestic surroundings of Canterbury Cathedral next Monday night for the University Carol Service.

As is customary, we had our last pre-performance rehearsal in full concert mode: concert-dress, performance folders, subdued lighting to mimic the candle-lit ambience on the night, and standing in mixed formation. It’s a really useful exercise to focus the mind and really draw attention to the proximity of public performance.


Stand and deliver: Minerva Voices

We worked on all the various carols and solo verses that we’ll be singing next week, with the main priority, as I said to the singers, being to look confident. Even before you’ve sung a note, the manner in which you walk on and stand in front of the listener wins or loses their trust in you; the manner in which you present yourself as an ensemble sets up expectations in the listener’s mind as to the level of performance you are about to deliver. Winning them over is most of the battle; if you’ve reassured them that you know what you are doing and are about to present a polished performance, then what comes next will be informed by this expectation.


Assistant conductor Joe Prescott rehearses the choir

The next time we meet as a choir will be in the Cathedral Nave next Monday afternoon, ready to go through the pieces in advance of the performance in front of over a thousand assembled congregation on Monday night. It’s a daunting prospect, particularly for anyone new to the choir who hasn’t sung in the Cathedral before; but it’s always a fantastic occasion; there’s some nerves, but eager expectation and excitement for Monday. Not long to go now…

Turning a corner: in rehearsal

Last night’s rehearsal with Minerva Voices was one of those that felt the ensemble turn a corner. You just can’t predict when these turning-point moments are going to occur – you can’t schedule them in to your carefully-planned rehearsal organisation and rely on their happening when you want them to – and all you can do is plan and hope that the work will pay off.

In recent rehearsals, we’ve started to sing in mixed-formation, breaking out of singing in voice-parts to stand with different voices either side; we’ve started to work at singing sections of pieces looking at the scores as little as possible; we’ve begun to sing without using the piano; and, let’s face it, I’ve been nagging the choir each week to lift their heads, breathe properly, take control of the line, sing out and generally get themselves in gear. The choir has responded each week, it’s true, tentatively learning to take a more positive approach, not to be afraid of making mistakes, having confidence in themselves; but it takes time for all these elements to come together on an instinctive level, where you sing with all these factors taken into account because they’ve been instilled in you during the formative, learning process. So you just have to keep working, and wait for it all to start to come together – and pray that it will happen before the performance itself…

P1110049 - CopyAnd all the weeks of nagging – by both myself and this year’s assistant conductor, Joe – finally began to yield results last night. The ensemble sound was more confident, the choir was beginning to find its feet and start to perform, rather than simply singing through the repertoire.

P1110035_webThe other aspect to last night’s rehearsal was a first try-out of the choir’s concert outfits, to see if the colour and co-ordinating will work. This year, we’ve gone for the simple but stark contrast of black and cream, and last night we sang for most of the session in concert-dress; and it does make a difference. Not only do you need to sound like a choir, you need to feel like one; to stand and deliver in a manner that tells the audience that you know what you are doing, and that wins the listener’s trust even before you have sung a note. Standing like a choir last night also helped them sing like one too.


Assistant conductor, Joe Prescott, in action

So, when it comes to singing in Canterbury Cathedral at the University Carol Service on December 14th, we will know how it feels to stand and sing in the outfits we’ll be wearing on the night; another variable removed. Of course, what we won’t know is how it’ll feel on the night with over a thousand people waiting expectantly by candlelight for the first notes of Past Three O’Clock to be lifted into the cathedral’s vaulted roofing; but that will add an extra frisson of excitement to the moment of performance. We hope, anyway…

Electric dreams: ensemble sound is coming together

Well, well; there was an electrifying ensemble sound to the Cecilian Choir’s rehearsal this afternoon. I can’t quite identify a specific reason for this; partly, perhaps, a growing familiarity with the repertoire we are learning, or a more comfortable social feeling developing as the choir gets used to singing together. I had set the choral seating slightly further back, in the position in which they will be singing on the night behind the orchestra – so perhaps there was an acoustical difference.

Whatever the reason, the sound was completely different; much more vibrant, the unity of ensemble was much improved, the singing was much more positive. I’m going to set the chairs in exactly the same place next week, too, to see if the sound continues to improve. The choruses for part One of Handel’s Messiah were in sparkling form; now we just have to make sure that we deliver in the same manner in the concert in three weeks’ time…!


In-Choir Within: Harriet Gunstone

Continuing our series introducing choir-members at Kent. This week, third-year BioSciences student and soprano in Minerva Voices and the Cecilian Choir, Harriet Gunstone.

Harriet GunstoneHow did you get into choral singing ?
My parents have both been choral singers at a church in Greenwich since before I was born and so every Sunday was spent at church listening to choral music and Sunday afternoons were spent in the pub. The choir is a real community and it seemed only natural that I joined when I was 17. Joining the choir was quite intimidating at first with new pieces every week but being thrown in the deep end had its benefits as I was always expected to just keep up.

What’s your favourite piece ?
My favourite piece has to be And I Saw a New Heaven by Edgar Bainton. It has such beautiful words and the interweaving lines which fade away into a single line at moments make this piece particularly beautiful. I particularly love the moment where the tenors sing ‘And God shall wipe away all tears’ for the second time.

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ?
One of my best and worst memories has to be the first time I had a solo at church. There were three solo soprano  lines and we had to sing on the balcony above the choir. While it was nerve-wracking experience, it was also quite exciting and amazing to see how one voice can fill such a large space!

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing ?
The moments I most enjoy about singing in choirs are when everything comes together and the music becomes so much more than just a series of notes. The emotion which can be conveyed by a single group of people is astonishing.

Follow Harriet on Twiterr @HGunstone.

In-Choir Within: Catriona Bradley

Continuing the series introducing choral singers at the University this year. This week, second-year Biology student and alto with Minerva Voices, the Cecilian Choir and Chorus, Catriona Bradley.

How did you get into choral singing ?
I think the first time I heard Choral music will probably have been around Christmas time, there wasn’t really a choral culture back home where I lived, where pop, rap and musical numbers were more the bill, but my family and I enjoy such a wide range of music it was inevitable I’d stumble across it.

Catriona_BradleyI enjoyed listening to Choral singing when I got the opportunity to, such as listening to King’s at Christmas or other events, but it was only really when I joined the University of Kent last year and I joined a full SATB choir that I fully was able to appreciate the music and get into it.

What’s your favourite piece ?
I don’t have as wide a knowledge of Choral music as I’m relatively new to it but I greatly enjoyed Verdi’s Requiem when we sang it in Chorus last year.

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ?
No worst memories as of yet (hopefully that will last a little longer), although I remember singing “Land of Hope and Glory” last summer unexpectedly with the Chorus and couldn’t look my mum (who was sat in the audience) in the face as we were both recalling my 5-year-old rendition, where I changed the lyrics from:
Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.
to the embarrassing words:
My dad is snoring….
My dad is snoring….
My dad is snoring….
Please help me to sleep.
The best experience would certainly be singing Verdi’s Requiem in Canterbury Cathedral, it’s such a beautiful place both architecturally and spiritually and to be able to hear such an immense and beautiful sound echo and flow around the building really created an atmosphere I think will be hard to ever re-create.

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing ?
When I’m singing in the choir it feels very different to singing a solo, when singing alone I feel like as I sing I’m revealing a small part of my soul to a room of people with each word and note I sing. However, singing as a choir it’s like you are revealing and joining a part of your soul with those around you to form a new beautiful body that is the music you create together. It’s hard to explain such a feeling particularly when going through the rehearsal process as you only get snippets of it, it is in the final performance when all is brought together that there is that light feeling and power that comes through the words and notes that creates this body of sound that although strong and powerful is lightening to the spirit to be part of.

A lot of modern music loses this so singing Choral music is a great way to escape the bustle of modern life that I don’t like and return to a more primal, traditional, spiritual feeling that I enjoy much more.

Catriona is on Twitter @HighlandGirl95

In-Choir within: Ruth Webster

Continuing our series introducing choral singers at the University. This week, second-year BioSciences student, Music Scholar and alto with Minerva Voices, the Cecilian Choir and University Chorus, Ruth Webster.

How did you get into choral singing ?
I always loved singing as a child and was part of various primary school choirs. When I was ten, I auditioned for the Derby Cathedral Girls’ Choir and began my 7-year career as a chorister there. The rest, as they say, is history!

Ruth Webster Chorister PicWhat’s your favourite piece ?
I’d be lying if I said I could pick just one favourite piece. My most favourite pieces involve anything Christmassy, especially Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and Handel’s Messiah. The final verse of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem gets me every time!

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ?
During my first ever performance of Handel’s Messiah as a little eleven-year-old I had a coughing fit in the middle of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ My eyes were streaming throughout the whole piece and I remember seeing my mum in the audience holding back the giggles! My favourite choir memories involve the amazing travel opportunities I’ve been afforded and the incredible venues in which I’ve performed such as Notre Dame, St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing ?
Along with the beautiful music and stunning venues, I love the sense of community and camaraderie you feel as part of a choir. Hours of rehearsals and a mutual love of choral music makes for a great sense of togetherness among singers. The more experienced members of the choir are able to take new singers under their wing and help them build on their skills while new members can look up to and learn from their peers. I’m looking forward to see how our new upper-voice choir, Minerva Voices, grows and develops as a team this year!

Ruth is on Twitter @himynameisruthy.