Getting into performance mindset and ordering pizza

An intense week of rehearsals last week – the usual Tuesday night session augmented with a Wednesday lunchtime slot – culminated in a Saturday all-day workshop. With a wary eye on the four o’clock rugby kick-off, we gathered in the usual rehearsal room on a frosty-bright Saturday morning at ten, with a full day of working ahead of us.

Chamber Choir: before...

The morning was given over to addressing particular pieces where notes are still not entirely sure;  I’ve found it a useful exercise to help voice-parts approach lines by playing the soprano and bass lines together, followed by the alto and tenor parts. This serves two purposes: when checking notes, the sopranos can relate their melody to the underlying bass notes, and then the alto and tenor parts can see where their harmonies lie; it also means that you don’t leave one voice-part languishing until the other three have worked through theirs, a sure way of losing concentration and focus.

This worked well, and as the morning developed, we began to become more sure-footed. At the mid-morning break, there was a general sense that we’d moved on. At this point, one of the altos rang out for pizza after checking what everyone would like. It’s become a tradition that everyone brings food and drink to share at lunchtime – organised earlier in the week by the choral-rep-cum-nutritional-officer, Matt – however, Lucy had been working so hard during the week (I’m sure that’s what she said, anyway) that there hadn’t been the time to go shopping; so at the break, an order was placed with the local pizza delivery service, and everyone could relax in the second part of the morning.

At lunchtime, I’d noticed that Eliot College Hall was free – usually in use by student societies or alive with drama rehearsals, Eliot Hall lay unusually quiet. As anyone who has been in the Choir before will recall, the usual rehearsal venue is small and has no acoustics whatsoever, and the opportunity to sing in a more resonant space was too good to miss. After lunch (pizzas successfully delivered, and with some very fine chocolate brownies from the kitchen of Choir Cakes and Confectionery Officer Emma), we therefore decamped to Eliot for the afternoon rehearsal, and here is where the day began to gather momentum.

This year, we’ve decided to adopt a more formal mode of concert dress: the ladies have chosen floor-length, formal black to match the all-black suits of the chaps, whilst everyone will be wearing purple scarves or ties. This stems from a sense that, the more formal and organised the group appears, the more the audience will trust it. Look the part, and even before you’ve sung a note, you’ve won the audience over. With this in mind, all the ladies elected to bring in their dresses and try them on, to check the uniformity. It struck me that this would be an excellent opportunity for the chaps to do the same (with suits, not dresses…) and we could run the entire programme in concert-mode.  I’ve noticed before that as soon as you dress for a performance, you stand and sing very differently. The afternoon therefore represented an opportunity to run the concert in the mindset of full performance: dressed, standing, and singing in higher gear – and, thanks to the hall being empty, a chance to do so in an acoustic more similar to that of the Cathedral Crypt.

We’re running the first two items in the programme without a break – plainchant for Matins into Barnum’s Dawn. As soon as the plainchant died away in the hall, and the first colours of dawn began to emerge, the effect was immediate. A change came over the group – we were in full performance gear, and the new acoustics meant we could really feel the music taking flight. A new vigour came over the group, a real sense of relishing the sound we were making.

Over lunch, Paris, one of the sopranos had suggested members of the choir should take turns individually in coming out of the group to stand in the middle of the hall, to hear the sound. (As Dan in the tenors wryly observed, ”that’ll be everyone out for Sleep, then!”). As they did so across the afternoon, most of them commented afterwards that they had noticed the sound was blending superbly; singing amongst the group, you could hear individual voices more easily, but halfway down the hall, the group sounded like a single entity. With Steph leading a finely-crafted run-through of the Sullivan, it was a highly useful opportunity for us all to really adopt the mindset of delivering a performance.

We finished dead on four o’clock – over at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, the whistle was blowing for the match to start, but also to signal the end for us of a very productive day. Driving home in the late winter afternoon towards the setting sun, I felt as though a minor landmark had been achieved. Well done, team: it all bodes well for the concert at the end of next week.

And after...

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