Tag Archives: workshop

Playing with space: workshop day for the Chamber Choir

The Chamber Choir had its termly workshop day on Saturday, a concentrated rehearsal period that offers scope to work for longer than our customary weekly two-hour period, and really drill down into the nitty-gritty aspects of the music we’re singing this year.

This year’s assistant conductor, second-year Doug, roused the Choir into an early Saturday state of wakefulness with a series of technical warm-up exercises, before moving in to rehearse the group in Tavener’s The Lamb. The piece sounds deceptively straightforward, hiding the angularity of the lines that weave around one another in ever-changing intervals and palindromes. We then worked on two Italian madrigals, one of which is Lassus’ The Echo Song which creates the illusion of a choir playing with (and mocking) its own echo, throwing material antiphonally between two choirs and which we’re hoping to exploit spatially to the full in the concert in the Cathedral Crypt in the spring.


Second-year Doug rehearses the Choir

Perhaps the most rhythmically challenging piece we are performing this year is Augustinas’ Tykus, Tykus, which again pitches two choirs aganist each other in rapturous and cascading sections, driven by a fierce, almost tribal energy. We initially rehearsed in individual choirs (the other choir going for a well-earned tea-break), followed by putting both choirs together. You really have to know exactly where your line enters during this piece, with short phrases often scattered throughout the texture coming in on the half-beat; and the fact that we’re also singing in Lithuanian creates additional, linguistic hurdles for the choir to face.

In contrast, Doug took the choir through Purcell’s solemn Thou Knowest Lord, which has spaces in the music of heightened dramatic tension, as the Choir beseeches God ‘shut not Thy merciful ear unto our prayer.’ The morning ended with Warlock’s Lullaby, My Jesus, arranged by Andrew Carter, full of yearning chromaticism in the inner voices that need to be delivered confidently if we are to deliver the quite astonishing dissonances which Warlock unfurls throughout this highly expressive carol.

Lunch was dominated by the eager anticipation of this year’s home-made quiche made by Matt; last year, Inger had set the bar high and there was some pressure, but I’m pleased to say that Matt’s was every bit as good – at least, if the fact that it apparently disappeared extraordinarily fast is anything to go by.


Great expectations from Quick Captain Matt and the Choir at lunch

Amongst the repertoire we rehearsed in the afternoon, the hynotic, dancing lullaby (a recurring theme amongst repertoire this year) And by Alec Roth; another two-choir piece, it combines circling ostinati with bell-like cluster-chords in a lulling opening, supported behind by sighs and sussurations in the second choir in a soundscape mimicking the sleeper’s breathing. Doug’s third piece, Hassler’s Cantate Domino, combines lyricism with a sprightly triple-meter middle section, which the choir is starting really to enjoy.

anthologyWe ended by playing with space in a literal sense, arranging the choir around the balcony of the concert-hall to sing Alexander Campkin’s carol, Sleep, Holy Babe. This is all about removing the safety of singing in close proximity, encouraging each singer to sing confidently, committing to their line and developing a rich ensemble sound.


Panoramic shot of the spaced-out choir…

This took some getting used to, but when the Choir came back together to sing in formation, the effect was immediate; the singers felt more confident standing together, but still sang with the commitment to the voice-parts, and the result was a fuller sound. The Choir will be singing the piece next month in Canterbury Cathedral, so it’s important that they grow accustomed to filling quite a large space…!

It’s customary, on workshop days, to do the latter part of the day in concert-mode, i.e. with the dress-code and performance folders that we will be using on the night; it’s a particularly effective means of focusing the Choir’s attention on the fact that they will soon be performing in public, and to start getting used to standing, holding ourselves as a group. (It also allows everyone to check they have the right clothing in the right colour…). It definitely creates a mock performance condition, as we head towards our first engagement, singing in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral to over a thousand in the congregation in the University Carol Service next month.

Getting into performance mode

Getting into performance mode

The afternoon ended with the Choir learning a carol, Sleep My Jesu, written by Jamie W Hall as part of a seasonal initiative to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Care under the #choirsagainstcancer hashtag. The choir took the piece up very quickly, and half an hour later we recorded a performance as a means of participating in the nationwide project to raise money for this very worthy cause. Considering that this was only the fourth time we’d sung through the piece, and the second without the piano, the group picked this up very quickly indeed! (Find out more about the initiative or make a donation here).

My thanks to all the singers for their hard work on Saturday, and for giving up a large part of their weekend to rehearse; we all came away afterwards with the sense that we are really starting to find our feet as an ensemble. There’s still some way to go, but we are heading in the right direction…

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…

Choir in the Workplace: the Estates Team

A colleague who leads the University Interweb Presence (not his official title, which I can’t now recall) was reflecting on the recent success of the Gareth Malone Choir-in-the-Workplace phenomenon, and the idea of getting people involved in music who might not otherwise do so. With the new music building here at Kent now in operation, what about doing something similar here ?

A great idea, I said; a chance to involve more of the University community in music-making, and to entice staff into this fantastic performing space who might otherwise not cross the threshold.

That was on a Friday; an exchange of e-mails with one of the Senior Managers in the Estates department, who sprang into action and sent out an invitation to her team to participate, and six working days later a group of about twenty-five of the Estates department duly arrived on Tuesday lunchtime. (That must be some kind of record, surely…)

A ring of chairs in the concert-hall was our workshop arena, and we played a variety of muscial and rhythmic games, tongue-twisters, call-and-response pieces, and forty minutes later had a working choir who were champing at the bit to work on some suitably festive pieces to sing at the end of this term around the University Christmas tree. There was much laughter, lots of leaping around making star-shapes and strange faces, but what came through most strongly was a tremendous sense of fun, combined with a willingness to take on absolutely any activity which I was prepared to throw at them, and which they threw back in spades with an infectious enthusiasm.

So; here’s our first term plan – singing a couple of festive pieces and some Gershwin in four weeks’ time. None of the singers reads music, or has done very much singing before, and we’ve three rehearsals to pull something together. Can we do it ? Watch this space…