Tag Archives: Rehearsal

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…

Commitment, commitment, commitment…

With only two weeks until our opening concert of this term, last night’s rehearsal was all about developing an ensemble sound. As I said to the Choir, we need to start sounding less like eighteen singers standing around the edge of a wall, each putting our own individual sound forward, and more like a unified singing entity.

The key to unlocking this is, and always has been about, listening; listening to one another, to other voice-parts, to the harmonic landscape of a work. The voices need to be aware not only of others singing the same part (standing in mixed-formation really makes this essential), but also of how their line relates to other lines around them – moving in similar motion, working against, responding to or picking up from a line already in progress, and understanding how their line relates to everything else.

lux_coverThe moment of epiphany came during Whitacre’s ravishing Lux Aurumque; flying now without piano support, we launched into those colourful opening chords; it was fine, but wasn’t really working properly; the notes were in place, but the colours weren’t coming. ‘Listen,’ I said – ‘now really listen to one another – watch someone who comes in when you do – listen to another part and work your dissonance against theirs. Be aware of everyone around you, and commit to the sound.’

Commitment is the other crucial factor, particularly in those contemporary works we’re performing that rely on a firm embracing of a tangential tonal language, rich in dissonance, often without resolution. Those added-notes and chromatic relationships really need to beat against one another – you have to really stand your ground and commit to your note, and if everyone else does the same, the colours can really start to scintillate.

So we stopped, and began again. And the effect was immediate. There was a fullness to the sound, and the harmonic landscape was transformed; suddenly, those cluster-chords were working. As we sang on, you could see some real astonishment lighting up the faces of those who were ‘getting it’ – this is what it’s meant to sound like.

And the knock-on effect was such that the same core commitment to the sound emerged in the desolate yearnings of the Brahms songs as well. You need to learn your notes and watch the conductor, it’s true; but being prepared to commit fully to your line, to listen to others and understand how what you’re singing relates to what they are doing, means the music can really start to lift off the page and come to life.

We’re getting there…


A moment of frisson with Whitacre

There was a magical moment at the all-day Chamber Choir workshop on Saturday when, in a moment of ‘I can’t wait to try this’ recklessness, we ran the last two pages of Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque without the piano. We had literally just looked at the final section for the first time, exploring those chocolate-hued chords and sudden moment of harmonic brilliance in the change from minor to glorious major, resonant and rich chords of C#; and it was a moment of ‘Ok, let’s just see how we get on…’

And we tried it. And it worked. There was a moment’s awe-struck hush after the final chord had died away, and then a real sense of excitement hung in the air – this will be the moment which will end the first half of the Crypt concert in March, and what a poised moment on which to finish it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one bearing an irrepresible grin across my face at that moment, either…

Matt B leads the Chamber Choir in music by William Byrd

Matt B leads the Chamber Choir in music by William Byrd

As is customary, we hold an all-day rehearsal early in the first term, in order to get to grips with a large amount of repertoire, build the momentum from the first rehearsal, and get the Choir to bond socially during the day during the breaks and over lunch. The student conductor, Matt, and I had carefully planned how we would use the day, and by the end of it – apart from two movements of the Brahms op.62 lieder – we aimed to have sung through everything in the Crypt programme, over these first two weeks.

There’s a real sense of achievement at the end of the day, that I always forget, and which is very pleasing; from now on, we’re revisiting pieces, rather than having new ones thrown at us (well, rather than my throwing new pieces at them). The psychological effect of this is to make you feel that you are really starting to make progress, rather than starting from scratch each week with something new.

Throghout the day, the Choir took every piece we threw at them, ranging from William Byrd through Brahms to Whitacre. (There were one or two exciting moments in Chilcott’s Steal Away where the basses were singing in parallel octaves rather than parallel minor sevenths, but that will come…) Matt had the Choir in high spirits as he led them through Rutter’s Dashing Away With The Smoothing Iron, which is trickier than it looks – whilst one voice has the tune, the other voices are often punctuating with rhythmic chords and off-beat interjections, which takes some getting used to – and we ended with my setting of Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here To Stay, which will show the Choir in jazzy, barbershop form – lots of added-note chords and jazz-infused sonorities to perfect and to tune.

Luncheon of the Singing Party

Luncheon of the Singing Party

All in all, though, a very good day, and one in which we all felt we’d made great strides, particularly in singing some pieces (the final section of the Whitacre and Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus) without support from the piano, at this early stage, showing the signs of good things to come.

So, back rehearsing again tomorrow night: and it’s time to get festive with a look at the great Advent antiphons and some carols in preparation for the Advent concert at the end of November. It never stops…

Lift-off at last

We’ve been talking in the Choir about That One Rehearsal, where it all comes together. It happened last year, a decisive moment when things turned a corner and the choir never looked back, and we’ve been feeling that a similar moment hasn’t yet happened this year; and we’ve been wanting it to. When will it come ? How can we make it occur ?

Last night’s rehearsal started with the three carols we will be singing in the Cathedral for the University Carol Service; some serious note-bashing of individual parts, building the verses section by section, following the lines and thinking about the text. We sang them through – ok, progress had been made, we were starting to get a feel for the carols, but nothing particularly exciting was happening with the music, with the ensemble sound.

In a spontaneous and completely un-premeditated moment, I now asked the Choir to stand to sing through the last of the carols, and said ”Right, let’s try it a little differently; sopranos, can you stand over there (pointing to where the tenors normally stand), basses, can you go there (where the altos usually are), altos, can you stand on the end on the left, and tenors, over where the basses usually sing.” We’ve customarily sung in a line, sopranos on the left, moving through the alto and tenor sections towards the right and ending with the basses on the right-hand end; but in order to try to make something happen here, we were now to stand in a new formation.

There was some shuffling around, we arranged ourselves in the new line-up, and sang through Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of ‘The Truth from Above.” The last chord died away, and there was something of an extended silence; we could, I think, all feel that something significant had just happened. The ensemble sound had changed completely. The balance was better; with the sopranos (who are normally the more dominant of the voices) now standing in the middle, the sound was no longer left-hand-heavy; the altos and tenors, now standing on either end, could now be heard more clearly, and because the basses were now also in the middle, everyone could now hear the bottom of the chords and tune to them better.

After a moment, I said ”Ok – how do you fancy singing through the three pieces for the Gala concert in the same formation, to see what happens ?” There was an excited nodding of heads, copies for the three relevant pieces were gathered, and we launched into them.

The effect was astounding. The ensemble sound was more confident, the intonation was improved, and (very importantly) the pitch didn’t drop throughout the entire set of pieces. We reached the climactic phrase at the end of ‘For the Music,’ and there was a moment’s hush followed by sponteneous clapping and whooping from the Choir. (I may even have done a whirl of sheer delight as well.) We had done it; we’d found Our Ensemble Sound, found a way of arranging the Choir in formation that produced the best result.

The rest of the rehearsal seemed to pass in a whirl, as we sailed through the remaining pieces I’d planned. Handel. BAM! Tavener. BAM! Hassler. (Well, ok, some more note-bashing was required for that one). But the prevailing mood was buoyant throughout the rest of the evening; the moment we’d been waiting for had finally happened, and all through an unplanned decision to mix things up there and then.

It just goes to show – the key is to keep changing, keep trying things out, and be experimental, flexible, until that moment comes when you draw a sound from the group unlike one you’ve heard from it before, and which everyone realises is what we’re striving for.

We have lift-off…


And so this year’s Chamber Choir has met for the first time; after weeks of preparation and two days’s worth of auditions, finally comes the time actually to get to grips with the repertoire, not to mention getting to know the group.

Camille Saint-Saens: 1835-1921

For a group finding its feet for the first time, our first rehearsal was somedeal astonishing; having chosen the first few pieces with which to begin, we ended up rehearsing five works in total, rather than just the three I’d selected (so much for breaking the group in gently!). Our first musical steps were into Handel’s Hear Thou My Weeping, in an arrangement for four-part choir by Desmond Ratcliffe, a setting of the Ave Verum Corpus by Saint-Saëns (rather than its more famous incarnation from Mozart), and a look at two sections of the piece written by Yours Truly for the December concert.

The Handel in particular came off the page rather well, and the choir readily picked up the mood of the piece. The piece is a four-part setting of the aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo, usually sung as a solo, but realised here for SATB in a manner sympathetic to the original, and the group got the hang of it well. There’s already a sense amongst some of the group that it may become the choir’s calling-card piece this year…

And not content with those, we also looked at one of a series of four Forgotten Children’s Songs, which I’ve written for choir and percussion for the February Crypt concert, and a setting of Cantate Domino by Pitoni, a lively piece which will open the same concert in an uplifting and a decisive fashion.

This year’s student conductor, Emma, led the group in some lively physical and vocal warm-up exercises to get the rehearsal underway; she will be leading the choir in rehearsing one of her chosen pieces next time.

There’s a good feeling amongst the members already, for all that it’s very early days; some of the members are returning from last year, whilst roughly half of the group is new. The speed with which the choir picked up the pieces bodes well; we are up against it this year, with a major concert in December, together with the fact that the Crypt concert falls a week earlier than it did last year, so we will lose valuable rehearsal time. But it feels like it could be a very good year…