Tag Archives: Advent

Troll the ancient Christmas carol

And so, the Chamber Choir’s first public concert has suddenly come and gone. After all the preparation, the eager anticipation and excitement, the Advent sequence evaporated in a whiff of Christmas spice.

With the first unfolding of the Advent antiphon into the church of St Damian and St Cosmus at Blean, we well and truly ushered in the season of Advent. Carols, readings, poems, ancient plainsong – all combined to bring about a time to contemplate different aspects of this period of the year. Because, after all, that’s what concerts do; they create a defined moment out of the humdrum of normal routine, away from the daily concerns of life, and offer a chance to experience time-out-of-time. For a brief moment, time is governed not by the remorseless ticking of the clock or by timetables, schedules and commitments; instead, time is dictated by the crotchet pulse of a carol, or the lithe agility of a piece of plainchant, or in the measured metre of a piece of poetry.

After the concert, there was a definite sense of achievement, of pride in what we’d achieved; it’s a big step between all the rehearsal preparation to delivery in performance, and nothing can quite prepare an ensemble for that crucible of performing in public. Our next commitment is in Canterbury Cathedral on Monday, for the University Carol Service, towards which we are all looking forward.

Advent is here.

Pictures by Matt Wilson:© University of Kent

Some carols and some lessons

There was an eager sense of anticipation at last night’s rehearsal, as we gathered in the church of St Damian & St Cosmus, in Blean, for our last evening rehearsal ahead of Friday’s Advent concert. At last, we were taking the repertoire for the concert and running it in its entirety, including all the readings, in the space in which we’ll be actually be performing.

The church itself glowed with a gentle light as we all drove down the country lane towards it in the darkness. Spilling out into the crisp, chill November night, you could sense the excitement growing, coupled with a real sense of the Advent season’s imminent arrival. Gathering in the church to lay out the chairs took some time, as we gave crucial consideration to key ideas – could we stand throughout the whole concert ? If we sat and stood again, could we do so without looking ragged ? And why is the Carols for Choir compendium so darn heavy ?

It’s become apparent that Deck The Hall is something of a showpiece for this year’s Choir, the best we deliver best, so this was the first piece we sang, in order to set a benchmark for our standard of performance; then we launched into the first Advent antiphon, and we were off.

Matt rehearsing the Chamber Choir

Matt rehearsing the Chamber Choir

As Matt took his turns to conduct each of the carols he is directing in the concert, I took the opportunity to stand at the back of the church and listen. I learned immediately that all those hours spent working on ensemble, on clarity of diction, on getting the consonants in the right place and on the right beat, had paid off: the ensemble was terrific. When a group is performing as one, the effect is electrifying. Moving between music and poems, the magic of the combination of music and spoken word began to blossom, and one could see a dawning sense on some of the singers’ faces that the programme was coming together.


Mid-rehearsal break

At the end of the run-through we took an interval, and Matt and I took stock; he was equally as excited as I was that things were really starting to come off the page. There had been a few moments where the antiphons hadn’t quite gone in the right direction or had seemed to drag, and we used the second half of the rehearsal to try to limber up the plainchant, instilling a greater sense of freedom to capture the ebb and flow of the phrases. Some of the intonation in a few carols needed checking, and Matt went over how some of his pieces will begin – beats given, note pitched – in order to get them to start with greater commitment. The most challenging part of the entire evening occurred next, when we practiced lining up in pairs and processing on, and how to sit and stand. As one of the sopranos pointed out, one needs to sit attentively during the readings; the Choir is still on view behind the reader, and needs to look engaged rather than shuffling through their music to find the next piece, or gazing off in some private reverie.

Ten minutes after the rehearsal finished, everyone had collected their belongings scattered amongst the pews and left. At ten o’clock on a November night, I found myself standing outside the darkened church beneath the stars – there is no street-lighting in this part of Blean, and the darkness descends swiftly, rendering the night-sky clear – reflecting on the previous three hours. We’d taken a good step forward, now starting to get caught up in the momentum of the programme and following its various narratives through music and readings; the key will be to maintain this through until the concert on Friday evening.

Advent is nigh.

Make we joy now

The season of Advent has well and truly begun over last weekend. In fine voice, the Chamber Choir rose to the match the occasion on Friday and delivered a performance rich in nuance, flexibility, and with a unity of ensemble that at times made them sound as one voice.

In fine voice: this year's Chamber Choir

All the aspects upon which we’d worked in rehearsals – dynamics, diction, flexibility – came out.

In the rehearsal earlier in the afternoon, we’d practiced the pieces, of course,  but more importantly, we’d rehearsed processing in and out and bowing. As I said to them, the performance starts the moment the group processes into the performing space; you win or lose the trust of the audience in that moment, in the manner in which you take command of the space, the way in which you hold yourself as you walk on. Walk with confidence, and the audience will immediately trust that you are about to deliver a performance equal in confidence. Walk on sloppily, self-consciously or nervously, and you communicate that sense to the audience and lose their trust in you. No matter what happens afterwards, walking into the performance governs their initial reaction and trust in what follows.

We also rehearsed bowing. In focusing so much on the pieces, on performing, It’s easy to overlook what happens after the singing stops. If you deliver a polished programme, it can be tarnished by losing discipline in bowing and leaving the performing area; a good group carries high standards of professionalism right through until it has left the public eye. There was some mirth over whether to mutter ‘Have I cleaned my shoes ? Yes, I’ve cleaned my shoes!’ in lowering and raising one’s head or to use ‘Down, two three – Up, two three!’ instead. Then there was confusion (and much hilarity) over whether, whichever phrase one used, one lowered the head over the length of the phrase (‘Have I cleaned my shoes ?’), or whether one whipped one’s head down straight away on the first word (‘Have’) and then immediately up on the later word (‘Yes’), which could potentially result in whip-lash. With such issues are pre-concert rehearsals concerned…

In the waiting-room outside the church, Steph led the warm-ups and we sang the first antiphon and our trusted Remember, O Thou Man to focus our minds on the opening of the concert. When we filed into the back of the church, preparing to process down the middle, we were greeted by a packed audience; from outside, candle-flames flickered and danced a warm orange halo at the windows, and the atmosphere inside was electric. As the first Advent antiphon rose into the rafters, I was immediately reassured; the sound was confident, the ensemble was secure, and the group was about to deliver a fine performance. As the text of Steve Martland’s carol puts it, ‘Make we joy now in the fest,’ and we certainly did.

Congratulations and thanks to everyone who participated, to the choir, readers, those who manned the ticket-desk, to Janet and Tim for their help with setting the church, to those who ran the post-concert refreshments and the nocturnal parking arrangements, and to Stephen Laird for the invitation to perform. Advent has begun.

Not long to go…

It’s the morning of the concert: the programmes are printed, tickets are selling well, I’ve been going through all the music for tonight in my head as I took the dog roaming over the hills this morning, the Choir are chafing at the bit, ready to get to the church this afternoon for a short practice, and there’s little else to do.

Advent concertWe’ve had our final two rehearsals this week, and momentum is well and truly built: we’re full of potential energy (physics-at-school flashback), poised to begin the push through this afternoon into tonight’s performance. Even the Steve Martland carol, which has caused us some interesting moments, is reaching its zenith.

Looking back over this blog at the choir’s evolution over the course of this term, I realise how far we’ve come in a short space of time; I suddenly remembered that, until the first rehearsal back on October 4, this choir hadn’t met, hadn’t sung together, people didn’t know one another. In a mere seven weeks, they’ve turned from a nervous group of strangers into a fully-fledged choir; in the past two weeks especially, they’ve developed confidence in one another, and begun to develop a rounded, confident sound, flexible in its dynamic scope. They’ve learnt an entire programme for  concert performance, and have also been learning repertoire for the concert in February.

Not bad for a group that tends to meet only once a week…a testament to their commitment, and to Steph’s work with them as well.

The church people are currently setting the church for tonight, including (I hope) an array of candles, and possibly even a candelabra suspended from the roof mid-way down the nave. With the place a-glow with candles, hushed expectation in the audience, the first of the Advent antiphons is about to weave its magic through the air and really open the door into the season.

Here’s to tonight: stand by for a review afterwards.

A tale of two halves

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Last night’s rehearsal began, I think it is fair to say, pretty poorly. Tempi were dragging, voices were behind the beat, intonation wasn’t great, lines kept going flat, the words were lifeless, there was no story-telling; it felt like an uphill struggle.

And then, and then…


Midway through the rehearsal, the choir sang what has recently become its calling-card piece, the carol Remember, O Thou Man: they sing this piece extremely well, it has to be said – they breathe as one, they each commit to leading their voice-part, the words really come alive, and the piece works.

It’s as though the group suddenly remembered what they can do, and that they can do it well. The mood changed instantly after the piece, and the second half of the rehearsal worked like a dream. The antiphons had lilt and shape, the other carols came alive, and the prevailing mood was suddenly one of realisation: we can do this, and we are doing it jolly well! At the end of the session, we went back over two of the carols with which the rehearsal had started, and it was as though they were different pieces. Or perhaps we were a different choir.

What’s particularly exciting about this moment is that members of the group are starting to comment on how they can improve, and are starting to give highly motivational speeches – ‘Look, this is what we need to do…’ The first half had been full of my exhortations, trying to get them to do all those things that they hadn’t been doing; but in the second half, they were motivating themselves.

When the group are all working as one, when they are all breathing together, coming in confidently, positively, and telling the story, the results are electrifying. It’s this magic that elevates a performance from a good one to a great one; we just have to remember that we are capable of great performing… When the ideas are fizzing around amongst the singers themselves, when they’re starting to work out what is working well and how they can work to make it happen each time, that’s when things start to get really exciting; the group are learning much faster when they are realising things for themselves.

Such was the palpable enthusiasm that the group suggested singing one of the piece without copies; and did it work! As soon as heads are lifted out of scores, as soon as they are having to look up and sing out, the change in the level of performing is remarkable. You know things are starting to go well when the choir volunteer to sing pieces from memory!

We’ve worked out how to get rehearsals starting at the same standard as that at which last night’s ended: we’re going to start each rehearsal by singing Remember, O Thou Man¸as a reminder of what we should be doing.  As we all realised last night, we were a completely different group at the end of the rehearsal than we had been at the beginning. The trick now will be for us to remember how we were performing at the end, to capture that sense, and to bring it out at the start of subsequent rehearsals, so we start working at the improved level at which we have previously finished.


If we can do this, and do it on Friday, then the concert promises to be something really quite extraordinary…

Mixed-voice formation: it’s official

It’s official: we’re going to be standing in mixed-voice formation for the concert next week.

All mixed up: and loving it!

Working on the programme in rehearsal last night, we made the decision to run the entire session standing in mixed voice-parts, as we’re keen to develop this aspect of our performing, with a view to trying it out a week on Friday. A decision not without challenges, especially given that last night’s rehearsal was the first time we’d been in the church in which we’ll be performing, and given also that some of the Choir were seeing the music for perhaps only the first time, and we were three members short due to illness. (Look after yourselves, people, between now and next Friday!).

Some of the pieces were very good: the three that we’ll be singing in the Cathedral in December in particular are in robust health. Some are finding their way off the page a little less quickly; the up-beats in the soprano melody in The Angel Gabriel need taking firmly in hand in order to give each verse a confident start, which then reassures the accompanying voices that they are also coming in correctly.

In the Bleak Mid-Winter by second-year Rachel Richardson is beginning to ebb and flow nicely – and even had the composer’s approval last night! – as the voices become gradually more secure.

Steph Richardson stepped out to direct two pieces; the carol It Came Upon A Midnight Clear is developing well, but just needs more commitment to the story-telling; there’s a mixture of intimacty and celebration in the words that the group really needs to communicate. Carol of the Bells is a delight, and promises to be a highlight.

The biggest challenge left to us is the Martland carol; the refrains are beginning to develop a lively dance-feel, together with the dynamic markings that lead through a gradual crescendo as the phrase ‘Make we joy now’ is repeated. The verses, however, require supreme confidence both in knowing where the melodic line is leading, as well as in the words, a blend of Latin and English. I can see where the focus of our last few rehearsals is going to be…

In contrast, I proved myself to be utterly redundant in Remember, O Thou Man; as a test of the unity of ensemble, the choir faced not inwards but outwards, away from each other and unable to see one another, and sang the piece through. They have such a firm grasp of the piece that they sang without needing any conducting at all; listening to one another, breathing together and sure of the tempo, they delivered a pinpoint-perfect rendition that had them moving as one. It’s at this point that I feel my work is done.

Speaking to Janet, the extremely helpful Church Warden who looked after us last night, there’s also the possibility that the church will be candle-lit for the concert. Fingers crossed that this might be so: it would create a wonderful atmosphere…

A few rehearsals left before the day; some fine-tuning to do (and Martland to instil!), but we’re on track.

In the Mix

It’s becoming increasingly clear, as rehearsals progress and the choir develops as an ensemble, that mixed-voice singing really suits the group. The strength and depth of sound, the richness of the chords and the accuracy of the ensemble, all are quite different – and vastly improved – when standing with the voices all mixed. Talking with some of the group afterwards, it seems that they prefer a mixed-voice formation – they like the sound that it produces, and they are keen to keep rehearsing as such, in order to see if we can perform in this fashion as well.( And when the group themselves are asking to keep doing something, you know it’s a good sign!)

In the mix

Image credit: Wikimedia

Last night’s rehearsal was a long one – lasting almost three hours – as we’re rehearsing in the church, at which we’re singing our Advent concert, next week, and it was important that the group had gone through all of the repertoire for the programme before adjusting to the performance space. We used the piano less and less during last night’s session, and I’m hoping to spend less time behind the piano and more time actually working with the sound between now and the coming performances.

The antiphons are starting to discover a sense of freedom; there’s a wonderful flexibility starting to emerge as we become more familiar with the lines they weave. There’s a lively sense of fun in The Holly and the Ivy and Ding, Dong, Merrily on High, and a lovely sombreness to Remember, O Thou Man.

We also looked for the first time at a carol written by a second-year student studying at the University; a serene and intimate setting of In the Bleak Mid-Winter, of which we’ll be giving the première at the Advent concert, by Rachel Richardson. It’s a great opportunity to be able to give a young composer the chance to hear their work performed, and her carol will suit the space in the church very well.

Last night, too, was the first time we’ve gone through Steve Martland’s Make We Joy Now, without the safety-net of the piano; a couple of hair-raising moments where the unity of the ensemble was, how shall I put it, not quite as tight as in other pieces, and there wasn’t quite the sense of confidence in some of the voices that there is elsewhere; but we’ve two weeks to go, and even by the end of last night, the improvement was considerable. (You have just got to go away and look at your verses in between rehearsals, tenors and basses!).

Overall, a really good rehearsal; time to start cranking up the momentum as we head towards the first concert in just over two weeks’ time.

So that’s how we can sound! A moment of realisation

There was a wonderful moment of realisation at the end of yesterday evening’s rehearsal.

We’d had a hard two hours, in particular looking at the rhythmic minefield that is Steve Martland’s Make We Joy Now. We’d also worked through a further four carols, including the rich sonorities of Peter Warlock’s heart-rending Bethlehem Down, a piece in which you have to be constantly on your toes to be ready for passing chords and leading passages that occasionally don’t do what’s expected of them.  Parry’s Welcome, Yule! Is a sprightly, consort-style carol that nevertheless has some tricky passages. We’d also looked at a new Advent Antiphon, O Clavis David, that doesn’t quite lie as easily as the earlier ones.

Looking beyond Christmas to the Crypt concert in February, we’d also begun working on O Sonno, a wonderful Italian madrigal with deeply sonorous harmonies exploring the plaintive text; more Italian vowel-shapes to perfect…

The final piece in the rehearsal, the rich and strangely haunting Remember, O Thou Man, we had looked at in a previous session, and the group sang it confidently. On the spur of the moment, to keep the choir on their toes and give them something new to think about, I asked them move into mixed formation, such that each member was standing next to someone singing a different voice-part, and we began the carol anew.

As soon as the first verse began, it was clear that something different was happening: the sound had changed and was deeper, richer and more sonorous – the result of each member suddenly having to take full responsibility for their line when they were unable to rely on hearing the same line sung by their neighbour. The transformation was immediate – and you could see an awareness of this gradually permeating the group as the verses unfolded. There was a palpable sense of excitement at the new sound, and some of the group started to smile without being able to help themselves.

When we finished, the atmosphere was electric: we’d stumbled across something quite dramatic, and something that made the whole group aware that there was a quite astonishing sound waiting to emerge. We’ve decided to explore this idea in future rehearsals: whether we use it in performance or not remains to be seen. Having written previously about the idea of moving the choir around in rehearsal, and the positive effect it can have, it was quite something to see it working, and to see the group as a whole come alive to its potential.

Great stuff: well done, team. (Just make sure you keep looking at the Martland in between rehearsals!).

And just to whet your appetites, here’s King’s College, Cambridge in Warlock’s carol…

Advent Concert: tickets now on sale!

Tickets are now on sale for the Chamber Choir’s ‘Music for Advent‘ concert at the church ot St. Cosmus and St. Damian, Blean, on Friday 25 November.

Chamber ChoirAs I type, the pile of black tickets rests before me, and is a thing of great beauty, with a silken sheen to the deep black of the card.

If you want to lay hands on one of these objets d’art, or simply want to come to the concert, tickets are £6 (£4 concessions) and are available from the University Music Office (01227 827335) or e-mail musictickets@kent.ac.uk, or from the Church Office (01227 763373). Proceeds from the concert are in aid of the Blean Church Restoration Appeal and Blean School Playground Improvements.

Touching the past: the Advent antiphons

And so, this week we ventured yet further into our Advent repertoire. With the concert looming at the end of November, time to start the great Advent antiphons. As written about in a previous post, the magic of these antiphons resides in breathing life and flexibility into them, finding a rhythmic freedom that will allow the lines to ebb and flow with a naturalness, whilst still retaining the integrity of the ensemble. We explored the first and third, ‘O Wisdom’ and ‘O, Root of Jesse.’ Singing this music is a direct link with the past; you really feel history coming alive as the music unfolds. The antiphons date from before the ninth century, culled from Old Testament texts to foretell the coming of the Messiah, and singing them puts one in direct contact with a tradition dating back over a thousand years.

From medieval simplicity to the rich, clashing harmonies of the carol, Remember, O Thou Man; we worked at particularly pungent chords, moving very slowly between particular dissonances in a way that rendered certain passages actually rather alarmingly modern.

Steph then led the group in their first look at the Carol of the Bells, getting the choir to sound like bells ringing. A sprightly piece, this, and popular with the group. Lots of words to get across, too…

Time also to get to grips with a tricky corner in Barnum’s Dawn, building some of the chords note by note, a real opportunity to revel in the rich colours of many of the added-note chords that require great commitment from the voice-parts: the chords need to be delivered with great conviction for the colours to bloom.

Brahms’ In Stiller Nacht is maturing nicely; just some pronunciation aspects to sort out, as there are also in Monteverdi’s Ecco mormorar l’onde. This piece is the hardest so far. By contrast, and as a respite from the linguistic minefields afforded by these pieces, we went back to Sleep Wayward Thoughts, which is starting to lift off the page and achieve some rhythmic grace.

A final return to Whitacre’s Sleep, to look at the climactic section towards the end; tricky lines for the choir, where each part has to have courage to follow their lines through and stand firm in clashing dissonances.

A great rehearsal, full of colour; next week, we’ll be getting seriously in the Christmas mood as we broach, for the first time this year, that harbinger of the Christmas season: Carols for Choirs