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.

In-Choir Within: Alice Hargreaves

Continuing our series featuring choral singers at the University. This week, first-year soprano with Minerva Voices, Chorus and the Cecilian Choir Alice Hargreaves.

How did you get into choral singing ?
From a young age I loved choral music, as I watched my older sister sing in many concerts, but it started properly when I performed a solo in my Junior School Concert at the age of 10. I will never forget how nervous I was, and how amazing it felt after I had sung.

Alice Hargreaves

Alice Hargreaves

What’s your favourite piece ?
There are so many pieces that I love. But if I had to pick one, it would probably have to be Silent Noon by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is such an amazing piece and it sends shivers down my spine every time I sing it.

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ?
My worst memory would have to be when I was 12 years old and had been practising for a choral concert, it was an unusually warm day and I remember in the rehearsal on the day, I was so ill that I couldn’t actually make the performance. I was so upset at the time but looking back I think it was for the best!

My best memory, well, I have two! My first would be when in July I sang ‘Pie Jesu’ from Faure’s Requiem in St Paul’s Chapel, Ground Zero in New York. It was a special moment and one I will never forget. My second would be when my school were fortunate enough to perform the choral work Every Purpose Under The Heaven written and conducted by Howard Goodall.

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing ?
Being able to meet and sing with so many other people, and connect with them through beautiful musical works, with the result of this connection being something special and magical.

Alice is on Twitter @alhargreaves_

In-Choir within: Alice Scott

Continuing our series meeting new members of the choir. This week, first-year soprano with Minerva Voices, Chorus and the Cecilian Choir, Alice Scott.

How did you get into choral singing ?
I’ve always loved music and choral music has always been a part of my life, but it started properly when I first performed Stainer’s Crucifixion at the age of six.

Great Scott: first-year soprano, Alice

Great Scott: first-year soprano, Alice

What’s your favourite piece ?
It’s impossible to name just one! I love Stanford’s The Bluebird, The Lamb by Tavener, Allegri’s Miserere, Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,  How Shall I sing that Majesty to Coe Fen (the ending always makes me cry) and The Stars in their Courses by James McCarthy.

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ?
A not-so-fun memory is of my first performance of the Crucifixion – I had super-loud hiccups throughout the whole work and then got completely lost in ‘Fling Wide the Gates…’ I told the conductor it was too fast! I have some wonderful memories over the years, but some of the best include performing in Truro Cathedral, opening Nine Lessons and Carols with the solo verse of Once in Royal David’s City, performing The Stars in their Courses and performing with my friend Matt White, a piece composed by him, This is the Place.

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing ?
The timeless and uniting power of faith which has inspired composers across the centuries makes choral singing a real delight.  You’re transported as a musician and take the listener on an amazing journey. The works are magical, when simple or complex, and their effect is incredibly prayerful.

Alice is on Twitter as @alicetscott.


Getting a Handel on Christmas: the Cecilian Choir back once more

Back in action again this year, the University Cecilian Choir has begun rehearsals ahead of its Christmas concert, which will launch December’s music-making in Colyer-Fergusson.


A by-invitation choir formed from students, staff and alumni, the Cecilian Choir has sprung back to life over the past two weeks working on Part One of Handel’s Messiah for a Baroque Christmas concert that will also include instrumental works by Vivaldi. We’ve already been grappling with the tricky contrapuntal ideas so loved by Handel, as well as the bold homophony and harmonic landscape which gives the music such an invigorating quality. There’s still plenty of work to do, of course, but the Choir has made such a positive start – and it’s obvious that it takes the rehearsal process very seriously indeed…


Find out more about A Baroque Christmas on Friday 4 December in Colyer-Fergusson Hall here. The journey towards Christmas has already begun…


Ladies first: launching new ensemble, Minerva Voices

With the start of the new academic year, it’s an exciting time to be launching our new vocal ensemble, Minerva Voices.

An auditioned group of twelve female singers, the ensemble began rehearsing last week ahead of a busy schedule of commitments this year, which includes performing in the University Carol Service in December and in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral in February. The repertoire the choir will be building ranges from the medieval mysticism of Hildegard von Bingen to contemporary works, via the radiant glory of Vivaldi’s Gloria in the upper-voice incarnation not often heard, but most likely to have been performed in Venice at the Ospedale della Pietà at which Vivaldi worked.

Members of the Choir include Music Scholars, returning second-year students and fresh-faced first years; our first two rehearsals have looked at music by Hildegard, Brahms, Tartini, Chilcott and the first two movements of the Vivaldi already. As I explained to the choir, repertoire will come at them fairly swiftly over the first few weeks, in order for them to grasp the musical geography and scope of this year’s programme; it can be daunting to be sight-reading so much music from the start, but the rapid turnover means people will (hopefully) find something that they like amongst the music, at least!

WP_20151013_003This year’s assistant student conductor is third-year Music Scholar, Joe Prescott, seen here in action leading the warm-up session last night in typical charismatic fashion. It’s been a dizzying start to the choral year for the choir so far, but we’re looking forward to the year ahead. We’ll be following the group’s progress over the year here on the blog, and look forward to sharing the highs and lows of our choral year with you through rehearsal to performance.

A rehearsal of two halves: removing the variables

With the annual Crypt Concert looming this Friday, last night’s rehearsal was a full performance-mode run-through of the entire programme in concert-dress.


There are several reasons for doing this: it focuses the performers, makes them step up and deliver the programme in full, and gives them an idea of the emotional geography of the running order, as well as of the stamina required to deliver it. It makes sure everyone has the right dress, has their performance folders organised, and practices the levels of concentration required to deliver each half of the concert. Granted, it’s not the same as delivering the programme in the white-heat of a public concert in front of an attentive audience, when the adrenalin is flowing and you’re alive to every nuance of the occasion – the length of the acoustics, the emotional temperature to which you respond dynamically, and so forth – but it does throw into sharp relief the commitment required in bringing the music off the page.

The first half of the rehearsal, the first half of the programme, came to a conclusion. We took a ten-minute break, reconvened, and then ran through the second half of the programme; and there was a remarkable difference between the two halves. The first had been somewhat hesitant, functional but not emotional; the second really came alive, had an emotional energy and was much more successful. Why was that, we asked ourselves ?

It became apparent that there had been a lot of nervousness when the rehearsal began with the programme’s opening piece – people had genuinely felt they were performing. That sense of needing to step up to the mark and deliver, so often talked about in rehearsal, was suddenly being asked of them; and they’d felt nervous. Attired in concert-dress, standing beneath dimmed lighting, folders at the ready, had really brought home the need to perform, rather than simply rehearse.

Once the first half was over, though, people began to feel confident in what they were doing, and re-grouping after the break, the singers were much more relaxed, and hence could perform the second half confidently, with a greater sense of musicality.

Rehearsal and practice are, of course, in part about removing uncertainties, about limiting the variables, cutting down on the unknown quantities such that you reach a level of technical and musical proficiency that allows you to concentrate instead on the nuance of in-the-moment performance. After last night’s rehearsal, we’ve removed another few. There will still be nerves on the night, but on one level we can have a new confidence in that fact that we’ve now delivered the programme; not publically, but we’ve mapped the levels of commitment, concentration and stamina required.

Here’s to Friday…