Category Archives: Not drowning but waving

The choral conductor’s art

In review: Matt Cooke on the Sing for Pleasure conducting course

Each year, thanks to the generous support of one of our musical alumnus benefactors, we send the in-coming student assistant conductor of the University Chamber Choir on a course, ahead of facing the choir for the first time in October. This year, second year French and Business Administration student Matt Cooke (pictured, far right) found himself travelling to Keele University for the week-long Foundation Course run by Sing for Pleasure. Here, Matt reflects on how he got on, the real use for mirrors and folk-dancing…

Back in May, having shown an interest in become the new student conductor for the University Chamber Choir, I was asked to audition. Facing a choir with which I have sung and which I’ve respected so much over the past year was probably one of the toughest things I’ve had to do; describing it as walking into Lord Alan Sugar’s boardroom would be an understatement! Regardless, I was pleased with how the audition went and consequently overjoyed to find out that I would be taking on the role. I couldn’t wait to start choosing repertoire and to attend the Conductors course itself.

Two weeks before I was due to attend the Sing for Pleasure summer school, a pack of music arrived at home containing the four pieces of music that I would have to prepare for the week’s course. I’ll be honest, looking at these scores I was a bit confused as to why the pieces were so simple. A musical round of 4 bars hardly seemed a challenge compared to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditsye Dyevo, which I’ve chosen to tackle this autumn with the choir. Nevertheless, I recorded the chosen pieces into Garageband and proceeded to ‘study’ them in the lead up to the course.

I had spent a week prior to the course performing up at the Edinburgh Fringe; arriving at Keele University for the start, it was safe to say I was exhausted, but regardless I couldn’t wait to get started. The 7am start was daunting enough, but after the huge buffet breakfast followed by a strong black coffee, everything didn’t seem so bad! After breakfast we had a vocal warm-up, which every participant on each of the different courses attended. Each warm-up session focused on different warm-up techniques to engage different choirs in different situations. This was followed by a one-hour choral session taught by the tutors. We looked at a Mass written by Ariel Ramirez, called Misa Criolla. It was a challenging piece of music in its own right, but not only did we have two days to learn and perform it, it was written in Latin-American Spanish, which surprisingly didn’t come naturally to many of the choir!

Following the Choral session, we had the first technique session, where all of the foundation conductors came together to focus on the basic gestures and patterns. Firstly, we started on the correct hand position. ‘This can’t be too difficult’, was a phrase that was shortly shot out of my head the minute we started! After what seemed like an eternity of extreme concentration and focussed practise, we began our individual workshops where we split into two smaller groups (picture left) and began work on our prepared pieces. As mentioned above, the pieces didn’t seem particularly challenging, but I soon realised that even the simplest of pieces were a challenge when it came to practising the correct hand gestures and techniques learnt from the previous session.

What really made these sessions so helpful and rewarding was supporting our other class mates during their section of conducting. It was particularly useful to identify common errors, and how to fix them. It was soon found to my surprise that I talk and waffle too much and move too dramatically for music that doesn’t need such gestures. Who’d have thought it! Our tutor Ruth showed us a technique to combat this. I had to stand up against the wall whilst conducting. This kept my back and shoulders against the wall, supporting a good posture, meaning that my beat pattern was the focus of the singers, rather than an over-expressive shoulder.

After a freshly prepared lunch, we moved onto what was perhaps the highlight of my week. We were asked to sing for the Intermediate 2 level conductors, where they were conducting a new arrangement of some Barbershop classics. Having never sung Barbershop before it was great to find out how much I enjoyed it. The session flew by, and before dinner we had an hour of personal preparation and practise. The week has shown me that a mirror is not just for spending hours doing one’s hair, but also to repeatedly go over gestures and beat patterns for practise! The evening’s entertainment was folk-dancing. Admittedly folk dancing isn’t my strong point, but after a couple of drinks, and a disregard of my dignity, we all had a great laugh and what a fantastic ice-breaker that was!

Day two was much the same, with a vocal warm-up followed by choral and technique session. We focused on 2,3 and 4-beat patterns and looking at how to start pieces which begin on an upbeat,  on the bounce-anacrusis and single anacrusis, and how to use them in each time-signature. Following another brilliant Barbershop session and practise session in the mirror, we had Monday night’s entertainment, the first of two informal concerts, where anyone could offer to perform something if they wish.

Tuesday, was a repeat of Monday, with the addition of the formal concert. Wednesday, was a particularly good day with the afternoon off to practise and perhaps a little nap. The evening was taken up by the dress-up, sing-along version of the Sound of Music. It was great fun to see the weird and wonderful costumes that people had made, a particular highlight being the group who had dressed up as the mountains…

Thursday bought with it again more choral sessions this time lead by the advanced conductors. They introduced two more pieces, Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir and Emmanuel d’Astorga’s Stabat Mater, which were to be performed on the Saturday evening. Watching the skills and professionalism of the advanced conductors was a great motivation to see what we could be like in years to come. However, back in reality, we had chosen our pieces to perform in our foundation concert, I had chosen My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean but the other songs conducted by the others included the Welsh traditional All Through the Night and American Traditional Strike the Bell. After this we had bigger things to prepare such as the performance of the Barbershop chorus, which with huge over the top reactions and moments of comic singing, went down a treat for the watching audience with laughter throughout.

Friday was The Big Day for the foundation conductors. For the majority of us we’d conduct a choir for the first time in a concert setting (pictured above). Further rehearsals throughout the day, settled our nerves and we were all very excited to get on stage and perform. I’m glad and very proud to say that the whole concert was a huge success followed by a very relieved bow at the end of each piece! To follow a successful day, we had the second informal concert of the week. I performed in two acts, one of which was ‘Without Love’ from the musical Hairspray and myself and three other guys performed in Barbershop quartet of the song Shine on Me which was received with great laughs and applause

Saturday wasn’t as relaxed as we had hoped as we had last minute rehearsals with the advanced conductors and video feedback from our performances yesterday, where we got to watch our conducting and to reflect on what we had learnt during the week. Reflecting on my performance, I hadn’t quite eradicated the dramatic head and shoulder movements, but applied to the right piece I’m sure it could be quite effective, however for the time being I’ll leave Beethoven’s 9th to the professionals. Saturday evening brought a fantastic performance of the advanced conductors and both pieces of music. It was followed by the awards and then the end-of-course party. I won’t talk too much about the party for several reasons but, ordering over £150 worth of pizza goes to show how big the party was…

Overall I can’t praise and recommend Sing for Pleasure enough for the thorough and professional attitude that all the tutors have to the teaching and development of every participant. The tutors are fantastic and incredibly willing to teach and help but also friendly, making this week not one to forget. I can’t wait to book onto the next course. The week has taught me so much that will benefit many people for the years to come. I would even go as far to say, that it has inspired me to pursue a career in conducting and music, if I were to continue my training. A huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who made the week a fantastic week and to those who enabled me to attend this course, I am incredibly grateful!

Good conduct: second-year Doug reflects on the ABCD Young Conductors Course last month

Each year, the University Chamber Choir auditions for the post of student conductor, mentored by Your Loyal Correspondent, to work on several pieces with the choir during its performing year. This year, the task falls to second-year Law student and bass, Doug Haycock, who, in preparation for the role, attended the Young Conductors Course as part of the Association of British Choral Directors Convention last month. Here, Doug reflects on his experience.

On the 26th-28th August I was lucky enough to take part in the Association of British Choral Directors annual convention. The University of Kent Music Department sent me on the course due to my being awarded the position of student conductor, where I shall deputy under Dan Harding conducting the University Chamber Choir.

Doug Haycock (left)

Doug Haycock (left)

Over the span of the course I was taught several beginner tactics and tricks that every conductor should know. I was taught how to conduct most simple time signatures, both simple and compound. It was also demonstrated to us how to to easily teach melody lines by simple aural methods, and, leading from that, a round.

As well as the Young Conductors course, I was able to meet John Rutter as well as other British composers. I also attended several repertoire sessions that took me through new editions and compositions that had been released in the last year. I also attended vocal training sessions where we were taught how to try and obtain the best sound out of your choir.

Doug Haycock (back left) at the convention.

Doug Haycock (back left) at the convention.

The whole weekend was amazing for what it taught me in conducting, vocal training, and repertoire.


Doug (second from left); spot last year’s student conductor and recent alumni, Joe Prescott too…

With thanks to Amy Bebbington for the photos.

Defeating the tyranny of the barline

I often find that notation gets in the way of music. Granted, it’s an evolved communicative system that works to impart information from composer to performer, but sometimes it actually runs slightly counter to what the music actually feels as though it wants to do.

Feeling chicken...This has become particularly apparent in recent rehearsals as the Chamber Choir works on Lassus’ Chi Chi Li Chi, a cacophony of bantam-banter in a late sixteenth-century chicken-shed, written well before the modern standard system of notation. Stepping deftly between different metres, full of rhythmic interplay, the notation actually works against the sense of flexibility and vitality which lurks at the heart of this outrageous piece. We’ve had to re-bar certain sections and write different stresses into the scores, in order to overcome the tyranny of regularity imposed by barlines.

It’s hard; as musicians, we’re so well-trained to observe bar-lines and time-signatures in our subservience to the printed score that we can find it difficult to ignore them, in order to allow the natural rhythmic language of a piece to come through. But, as I keep reminding the singers, notation is only a means to an end: the music lives not on the printed page, but in the moment of delivery, in the white-heat of off-the-page performance. Lots of work still to do, but it seems to be working. (Well, I’ll let you know after our all-day rehearsal this Saturday…).

Stand and Deliver

How you stand as a choir is an all-important part of the delivery of a programme; from the moment a choir walks out in front of an audience, it’s judged by everything it does, even before it has sung a note.

The way a singer stands conveys their whole attitude to performing. Too casual, and the audience thinks that you don’t take what you are doing seriously; keep your head buried in your copy, and it will think that you don’t know your music. Feet crossed means you’re not really planning on staying around too long, and aren’t therefore really all that bothered with the concert…

As I have been saying to the choir in recent rehearsals, you have to stand with authority, projecting an attitude of confidence; one that says ‘I’m in command of this repertoire.’ And everyone has to stand in this manner, as the eyes of the audience will be drawn to anyone standing differently from everyone else. It’s also a part of getting into the mentality of performing the task in hand – if you stand properly, not only will it facilitate correct breathing, but it also focuses your mind – ‘I’m performing now.’


Make sure your Choir members are all standing with authority.

All aboard! No passengers

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingOne of the aspects of singing with an ensemble that less experienced performers can sometimes forget is actually being responsible for making your individual contribution to the ensemble.

Each member of the choir has to contribute to a collective responsibility for delivering the musical line, and not just wait to follow rest of their section as, by definition, they will then be behind the beat.

Where quaver up-beats are used to begin a phrase, this is especially important; think of the opening of I Saw Three Ships; in 6/8, the conductor gives the first and fourth beats, leaving the fifth and sixth undirected – the choir enter on the sixth, the upbeat. That’s two undirected beats to leave up to a group of singers to count and then come in, in the right place.

What members of the choir need to grasp is the fact that they each need to be responsible for entering in the right place; this means everyone counting the rests and coming in confidently on the sixth quaver, the up-beat with which the phrase begins. Rather than waiting for everyone else to enter and then follow them, which means they will necessarily be fractionally late, they need to sing as though they are taking the lead, or indeed are singing on their own – everyone will then sing together, and the ensemble sound will begin at the start of the phrase rather than emerging a few notes into the phrase when everyone else joins in.

The overall effect is to improve the ensemble throughout; if the phrase starts confidently and with everyone together, the rest of the phrase will similarly be strong. Less experienced choir-members can tend to wait for stronger members of the section to lead, and then follow slightly after; this means the overall togetherness of the ensemble never quite comes, and entries can be ragged and lacking in confidence.

Make sure, as a conductor, that you rehearse the beginnings of phrases such that everyone is confident enough to come in for themselves, and the overall ensemble will be much more positive as a result.

No passengers.

Read the other articles in the series here.

Coming to terms with – the new term

With the new academic year beginning in just three weeks’ time, it’s been a busy summer putting together programmes for the Chamber and Cecilian choirs for the coming year.

ConductingI always find this period exciting and also rather daunting – the opportunity to explore new repertoire, the search for suitable pieces that can be combined to form a cohesive concert programme, and looking at former favourites and wondering if it’s too soon to unearth them again, is fun and interesting, but then comes having to plan the rehearsal schedule, order the chosen pieces, and then seating myself at the piano to learn the pieces.

I always find that first sitting at the piano, with the pile of new scores in front of me, somewhat daunting – so much music to learn. What has rescued me was remembering a previous post I’d written about how to learn music quickly, by starting at the end and working backwards. This technique means you aren’t faced with the psychologically daunting prospect of a new page when you’ve learned the first and turn over to the next; instead, you learn the last page, then turn back to the page before and play through this and on into the page you’ve just learned.

This is much more empowering – you finish by playing the section you’ve just learned, which boosts your morale, and as you work backwards, you find that sections you’ve already learned are in fact a reprise from earlier in the piece, which means you’ve already learnt it.

I don’t actually know whether this practice actually shortens the amount of time spent learning a piece, but it certainly feels as though it does, which makes the task of moving through the scores seem much quicker.

There’s also the act of planning – with a brand-new choir, you want to rehearse pieces that they will be able to pick up quickly, so they feel early on that they have started to achieve and develop a real belief in their performing and working as an ensemble; however, there’s also the tricky question of when to introduce the harder pieces – too soon and they lose morale, too late and there’s not enough time to learn them properly before the concert. Notwithstanding the question of how soon is too soon to start working on the seasonal repertoire for Christmas ? You don’t want to start it in the late summer evenings in September, but you don’t want to leave it to the last minute either. Decisions, decisions…

This year, I’ll also be sharing conducting with a second-year student, a chance for one of the students to hone their conducting skills and perform with a choir during the year.

I’m about halfway through learning the pieces for the coming term, having prioritised those which will be worked on in early rehearsals. So far, so good. There’s a contemporary carol for the University Carol Service, some Italian madrigals, some twentieth-century British pieces, some French music, and more: I’m not going to give anything away here about the nature of the Crypt Concert in February, but I’m sure it will become clear as we follow the progress of rehearsals here on the blog.

Watch this space…

Circle in the Round: moving the choir in rehearsal

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingIt’s important, in rehearsals, to move the choir around. Too often, voice-parts grow accustomed to hearing the same singers around them each week which, if it’s their own voice-part, can lead to a great sense of security and, sometimes, a reliance on that other singer.

Moving the singers around in practice sessions means they hear a different voice-part singing next to them; breaking up the group, such that they stand in a circle but aren’t standing next to someone who is singing the same part as they are, means they suddenly don’t have the comfort-blanket of being surrounded by others singing the same line. Not only do they have to work a bit more to keep their own line, but they can suddenly hear another line next to them, and can start to hear how their line moves in relation to another. (It’s also a great way of showing singers who don’t quite know their line that they need to learn their music, without pointing fingers at individuals…!).

Socially, too, it’s a useful tool to deploy: people suddenly have to stand and sing next to others whom they might not know so well, and it’s a great way of getting them working with others.

Arranging the choir in a circle, rather than in lines, means that the sound is directed into the centre; everyone can now hear the complete sonority to which they are contributing, focusing the sound and also making them aware of balancing the parts: at particular points, one vocal line may be more important than the others, key notes in the chord colour the balance and influence the harmonic motion, and a moving line leads from one chord to the next. All these factors are significant, helping the singers understand the importance or the relevance of their contribution, and hence give meaning to their line and the way they sing it.

In our rehearsals, it’s become known as ‘Circle Time;’ a chance for everyone to get out of the rows in which they sit, to stand together and to hear a different sound. Move your singers around, and see how it affects the way they sing and the sense of ensemble the ensues: it’s sure to be different, and a positive experience.

All planned out: using your rehearsals

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingIt’s a useful practice to tell the choir what they will be doing in the session, at the start of the rehearsal.

Some learning styles indicate that some people learn best when they know what they will be doing, and what the expected outcomes are. Telling the group at the start of the session what they’re going to be doing establishes a clear timescale for the rehearsal, so they can see how they will be using the time, and also lets them know that you’ve done your planning and have thought ahead. They don’t begin slogging through a piece with no idea of how long they will be working for, or when they will finish. (Additionally, anyone who doesn’t like one of the pieces will know that they’re only going to be working on it for a certain length of time, rather than for a whole rehearsal: this quietens their dissent somewhat!)

It’s also useful, at the end of the rehearsal, to tell them what they will be doing next time: this allows the more zealous members to practice next week’s repertoire in advance, or at least to have listened to it before the next rehearsal.

I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all of the repertoire in the year, logging when each piece was rehearsed over the weeks. Obsessive ? Perhaps. Useful ? Definitely. There’s at least twenty-eight pieces to learn this year, with only one of the choirs. At a glance, I can see which pieces have been covered, which pieces have yet to be looked at, and also how recently pieces were rehearsed. Nearer a concert, you don’t what to be scratching your head, thinking ‘Now, how many times have we looked at this piece, and when did we last sing it through ?’ When you only meet once a week and are working through October to March, say, it’s easy to lose track of what you rehearsed and when.

Finally, there’s post-rehearsal reflection. As with good teaching practice, take time after the rehearsal to assess what went well (both for the choir and for you), what didn’t go as well as you’d planned, and what needs further work. This allows you to pick up on key elements to take forward into future sessions; things you did with the choir that worked well that should be used again, things that you thought you were being clear about but which the choir didn’t seem to pick up on so readily that need revising, and particular areas that will need further rehearsal.

Use your rehearsals effectively, plan ahead, and reflect on how they went. Good for the classroom, and good for rehearsals too.

Work backwards: learning music quickly

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.Conducting

Let’s face it, with over twenty pieces to learn this year and rehearsals occurring once a week during terms that aren’t all that long, getting through all the repertoire is going to be something of a challenge. I’ve felt it important, in these early rehearsals, to move through repertoire quickly, in order to give the choir a sense of the overall landscape of the music for the year, in particular for the February concert in the Cathedral Crypt. It’s also a useful method of helping the choir members find something they like; in an ideal world, everyone in the group likes all of the repertoire the conductor has chosen for them, but those rose-tinted spectacles were broken long ago. By working through a large chunk of all the music for the year, hopefully everyone will find something that they like and will enjoy singing.

The danger with this approach, particularly during the formative stages of early rehearsals, is that the singers will feel totally bewildered. Working at such pace through repertoire means they have to pick the music up very quickly – we’re not, at least at this stage, dwelling too much on note-bashing or building key chords or phrases. This is deliberate: it’s important to keep the pace of rehearsals moving, so that experienced singers don’t get bored with repeated note-bashing for less able singers, or that so much time is taken on a single piece that people start to lose interest.

That said, it’s also important not to leave them feeling all at sea, carried away by the whirlwind of covering a lot of ground in a very short time, bewildered perhaps by not having got all the notes exactly right and where on earth did that phrase go, I got completely lost ?! As a conductor, it’s a delicate balance that has to be struck in rehearsal between covering repertoire and learning music but not turning people off at this early stage. A treacherous tightrope indeed…

One trick I’ve found, that particularly helps me learn pieces as a pianist, is to start towards the end, or perhaps somewhere in the middle. You learn the final section, or a key section in the middle, and then work backwards; the idea is that, each time you move backwards, you learn a new section and then carry on to play (or sing) through the section you learned previously. Psychologically, it works wonders; you feel you know a large part of the piece already each time you work through,and you don’t have that often dispiriting sense of turning the page, to find the music is still going on and on and on… Plus the end is the section you then know best, which gives a really good finale to the piece, and often covers a multitude of errors that may have occurred in the middle…

Try it with a new piece next time: learn it from the middle first, or learn a key phrase or passage that recurs throughout, and then work backwards. You might be surprised at how it works.

Breathe with me: working with a choir

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingOne of the most useful pieces of advice to give someone who wants to learn about choral conducting is always to breathe with the choir.

Michael CaineI remember, many years ago, watching the great Michael Caine giving an acting masterclass on television; the topic was how to work with the camera whilst being filmed, and one of the key things he pointed out to the students was to make sure that, when you were moving (in this instance, getting up out of a chair), you took the camera-man with you. Letting the camera-man know that you were going to move by communicating your intent, he said, meant that the chap wielding the monstrously-large film-camera wouldn’t get a hernia through having to follow a sudden movement.

The same is true with directing a choir. In rehearsal, when working on a particular phrase or entry, you need to give the choir a chance to breathe in preparation. I’ve seen a few young conductors say ‘Right, sopranos, bar 40: here’s your note, GO!’ Whilst their enthusaism to get on with rehearsing is great, it never works: the singers are so busy getting ready in their own minds – finding their note, remembering the words and the tempo – that they can’t possibly all come in together without proper warning.

Counting them in both gives them time to breathe in readiness, as well as reminds them of the tempo at which you want to take the passage: if you’re note-bashing, the speed will necessarily be slower to help them get the notes right, and if you’re now taking the music at concert speed, it will let them know the new, quicker tempo.

A simple ‘OK, sopranos; let’s try your phrase at bar 40: here’s your note; and… three… four…’ The singers aren’t suddenly caught on the hop and left struggling to catch up: you’ve let them know where you’re starting from, gathered them all together and, in counting them in, given them time to breathe in anticipation. Replacing the last counted beat with the instruction to breathe is also useful: “Ready, sopranos; two…three…breathe!”

Always breathe. And with your choir, too.