Tags: barbershop, harmony, ladies, leeds, music, retreat, sally mclean, singing, steve jamison, white rosettes, women
Retreat. The word suggests a place of calm and contemplation; of quiet solitude and peaceful reflection. The odd hushed conversation. Maybe a bit of yoga. Line dancing doesn’t normally spring to mind. But the White Rosettes’ retreats are no ordinary retreats.
As you know, Providence intervened a few weeks ago and propelled me towards the White Rosettes, the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. (Providence: ‘Stop carrying on about how you’d kill to do barbershop, and GO. Go ON. For heavens. This is getting really boring.’) This turned out to be excellent timing, as I just managed to sneak under the wire for the Retreat, where the Rosettes get together for an intensive weekend of singing and learning and chatting and bonding and probably wine.
Our guest educator/ animator/ sorcerer for the weekend was Steve Jamison. We’re heading towards LABBS Convention in October (the big annual competition for British ladies’ barbershop choruses and quartets), and Steve’s visit was part of our preparation for this. Industrial espionage is RIFE in barbershop, so there are lots of things I’m not allowed to write about. I won’t be telling you about how we’ve made enormous strides in [REDACTED] or how all the chorus are really excited about [REDACTED] or how Steve is just simply unbelievably amazing at getting us to [REDACTED]. It’s a good job, really, as I’m not sure I can put much of it into words. Steve’s guidance, interpreted and applied by Sally, made us sing entirely differently; it moved us on in ways we’re still struggling to fathom. Steve was the catalyst; Sally was the conduit; and blimey, magic happened. I mean, it really did.
I can’t tell you the intricacies of what we went through, so you’ll have to make do with my scrambled, half-parsed reflections. But I feel like I’ve found my spiritual home. As someone who blesses her smartphone every day because it means I don’t have to talk to anyone in the school playground, I can’t believe I feel so comfortable in this group of people I barely know. Liz says barbershop’s the perfect hobby for a control freak; rehearsals are a heady combination of obsessive attention to detail, and everyone cackling like Sid James. But there’s more to it. These are special people: outgoing enough to want to perform, but lacking ego. Barbershop choruses have no stars*, no soloists; no first and second strings. The aim is the polar opposite: to create a sound where nobody sticks out, where the blend is so seamless that it sounds like one voice.**
There’s something about a shared endeavour. I was struck by how many women came and started conversations with me in my first few weeks, and offered me advice and support, and made me laugh, and made me feel like it was all within my grasp. Competition – which seemed so odd at the beginning – is a straightforward, powerful motivator. Instead of vaguely hoping we’re going to be ready for a concert in a month or two, we’re thinking in terms of scores. Can we improve on last time? This bit’s good, but can it be even better? How do we make the judges drop their pencils altogether?
But it’s also about sharing peak experiences. At one point, singing a ballad, we were trying to apply something new. About two-thirds of the way through, I could suddenly sense the thrill as the whole chorus realised how brilliant we were sounding. The energy was insane. My shoulders started to shake. Sally released the music, barely able to speak. ‘Five minutes. Get out of here.’ Liz and I had a good Barbershop Hug™ and a bit of a cry. Other people drifted by, red-eyed. Someone smiled and gave us a tissue. High points like these I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
My latest theory is we are designed to sing barbershop. That’s how it feels. In the same way that discovering your own relaxed, natural running pace makes you feel like you could keep going for ever (Margaret and Liz gave each other ‘What’s she on about?’ looks at this point), barbershop, done properly, simply makes the best of what we have naturally. The whole spectrum of women’s voices is there; you find your place in the chorus according to your natural resonance and range. There are no People Who Have A Voice and people who don’t. You breathe and sing naturally, neutrally; if you don’t feel like you’re trying, you’re doing it right. Your body moves, easily, as you sing. You sing for other people; to captivate and entertain. And those raging harmonics, the overtones and undertones from singing in close harmony, and the buzz in your ears… they’re just Mother Nature showing you what VERY good work you’re doing.
* Apart from Sally, of course, who should be a DBE at the very least by now
** There’s a whole branch of necromancy around the ‘stacking’ of voices on the risers. Swap singers about, and you can hear the difference immediately. It’s nuts.
Tags: 2015, barbican, britten sinfonia, countertenors, fangirling, iestyn davies, music, nico muhly, premiere, review, sentences
The day started fairly unpromisingly. My +1 had cat problems and couldn’t make the wandering-around-the-V&A-in-the-afternoon bit of our assignation, so I found myself in St James’s Park on a sunny Saturday feeling a bit lost, and wishing my kids were there so I could buy them ice creams.
Things improved swiftly when Tiffany arrived – ‘We spent half an hour trying to get him into his box then gave up’ – and we sallied forth for pizza and wine and a good gossip. At the venue, we stripped off (gad, it’s hot in the Barbican, etc.) and immediately ran into Sanae, Sakie and Adrie; it turns out the key to finding your friends at gigs is not to sit in the cheap seats. I’m pleased to report the Barbican’s new FanFinder™ seating app works, as Adrie was in the seat right next to mine. We earned a few disapproving looks from nearby ladies for squawking and giggling before curtain-up.
Anyway. ROW D. Some people always sit at the front (I’m looking at you, Sanae) but this was a new experience for me. I felt a bit self-conscious, as if Iestyn might think, ‘Why does that woman keep STARING at me?’ But given that I couldn’t hear much last time I went to the Barb, it was a good move. The programme hung together nicely – Dowland’s If my complaints could passions move, which muses on love and rejection; Britten’s Lachrymae, a set of variations on the Dowland piece for viola and chamber orchestra; and Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, portraying Mary’s grief at seeing her son on the cross. These laid the ground for exploration of similar themes in Sentences, Nico Muhly’s new meditation on the life of Alan Turing.
Well. The Dowland and the Vivaldi were lovely, of course. Iestyn sang, as ever, so beautifully, expressively and perfectly that I’m beginning to doubt he’s actually human. I can get a bit grumpy during the instrumental bits in gigs ‘cos, well, SINGING. It’s the THING, isn’t it. (I know this is unreasonable of me.) But I enjoyed the Britten very much, not least because I could see all the detail of Laurence Power’s sparky playing and his interaction with the Britten Sinfonia.
We spent the interval queueing for the loo (as you do in the Barb) and wondering what to expect from Sentences. I’d read the Telegraph piece and listened to the podcast. Adrie had been to the pre-concert talk (‘there was a lot of hand-waving’), and we’d read the programme notes, but we were still none the wiser, really.
For all that the piece featured knitting needles, a typewriter and crotales (don’t worry, I had to google them, too), it was unthreatening. Most of the contemporary stuff I’ve been to in the past was much harder work for the audience, but I found that freeing; I would give up trying to follow it, and just experience it. Sentences had tunes and harmonies and themes I could understand, but in a way this was discombobulating; I was caught between ‘lie back and let it wash over you’ and feeling I should try to work out what was going on, to spot developments or recapitulations. Eventually I settled, more or less consciously, on the micro approach, and came away with an impression of textures: layers of fizz and crackle, filmic strings and woodwind, moods that shifted between sombre and shimmering, Iestyn’s voice looping and merging with itself.
Nico seemed to tower over the orchestra, beating a time I barely comprehended with Wing Chun blocks and punches, then stooping to add keyboard lines, one hand still conducting above the fettled piano. Again, it was terrific being up close; his energy was palpable, and Iestyn was alive and engaged, counting under his breath, giving away little grins and frowns. It made me think how unusual it is to see this at recitals, and how I miss it; I spent a few years going to wiggy out-there free improvisation gigs, and one of the things I loved was the sense of the music being created before my eyes, the conversations between performers in a glance or a nod or a smile.
The let-down for me was the libretto. Nico’s Old Bones is brilliant, weaving found texts into something incredibly moving, and I’m in love with his settings of folk songs (the encore was one of these, The Bitter Withy, which is breathtakingly beautiful). I wanted something realer or subtler or more out-there than the words Adam Gopnik came up with for Sentences.
It was all over by 9:20pm, which was a bit of a surprise. I tried to get Tiffany to go dancing, but she had to be up in the morning to play her piccolo. Sigh. Still, there’s always the FANGIRLING, right? I’ll admit my heart sank when I saw Iestyn would be signing CDs after the gig; I know I’m being selfish, but in my experience fangirling is much more successful when there isn’t a queue and your fanobject isn’t protected by a desk. We managed to say hello, despite the best efforts of some chap who thought he had more right to be there than we did (not for the first time, I regretted forgetting the Iestyn Davies Appreciation Society badges). Never mind. I’m sure there won’t be any desks on the Glyndebourne bus.
Tags: a cappella, barbershop, harmony, if you think you need some lovin', ladies, music, pomplamoose, singing
My first bash at arranging (well, partly improvising) this marvellous song, for four parts. I couldn’t work out how to listen to something I’d already recorded while I was singing another part, so I just listened to a metronome to keep in time while recording each part separately. I’m quite ridiculously pleased with how it came out.
* I’m aware that this arrangement probably violates all the Rules Of Barbershop, but, you know. Baby steps
Tags: audition, barbershop, fear, harmony, ladies, leeds, music, singing, white rosettes, women
Every now and then, it seems like someone is trying to tell you something. Ages ago, I went to a barbershop singing weekend at lovely Benslow Music, and came away besotted. But I was pregnant, and having small boys charging about turned out to be a lot more complicated than I was anticipating, and I never did anything about it.
Fast-forward ten years, and a series of almost-chance encounters leads me back. Sarah, my singing teacher, persuades me to go to the women’s singing group by telling me Liz, the leader, is a barbershop freak. I somehow inveigle myself into Liz’s quar-/quin-/sextet, the Remingtons, and spend a few weeks happily stumbling my way through Mr Sandman and Ain’t She Sweet? and feeling chuffed to have met this bunch of lovely people. And then one Wednesday, Liz takes me to a White Rosettes rehearsal.
The legendary White Rosettes. They’re the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. I mean, they win EVERYTHING. Here they are, winning in 2013:
Well. I’ve never been to any kind of practice and heard something that already sounded so perfect. Even the warmups seem impossibly complex and beautiful: cascading harmonies, perfect pitch shifts. The director gives out soft, rapid-fire points and tips and ideas and explanations. Everyone is alert. There’s no ‘Right, come on everybody, are we ready?’ Everyone just IS. They apply what Sally says immediately. There are words I don’t understand, explanations of how to produce a phrase or a sound. Everyone seems unfazed.
There’s something compelling about ladies’ barbershop. Not only is close-harmony singing the absolute BOMB, but there’s a place for everyone. From deep bass tones to stratospheric high notes, the whole range of women’s voices is there. Each barbershop part has its own special role. Leads carry the tune without overwhelming everyone else; they’re the hook that everything hangs on. Tenors soar above the lead, giving the mix that unmistakable barbershop ring. Baritones are the brains of the operation, weaving around the lead with mad intervals and counterintuitive harmonies. Basses are the corset of the barbershop sound, keeping everyone grounded and supported.
They’re working on a song with fiendish words, cross-cutting syncopated rhythms, tempo shifts from dead-slow to rattling-along and several changes of key. And did I mention the choreography? People strut and act, dance and merge in formation across the stage, like the Red Arrows, while staying pitch-perfect. Um. How do they do that?
And however impressive it looks on video, it’s phenomenal live. This clean sound. The perfect tuning. The ring. The harmonics. The buzzing in your ears. After the break, Sally introduces me, and the whole chorus turns to face me, sitting in my orange plastic seat, and sings to me. ‘You are welcome as the flowers in May…’ It’s like being the receiver in the middle of a satellite dish. The focused sound makes my heart try to leap out of my chest. Tears pour down my face.
Afterwards, we hang around chatting while the trainees do their appraisals (singing songs they’ve been given to learn, to see if they’re ready to move on). Then Sally appears. ‘Come on, then, Alison.’ There’s something of the charismatic leader about Sally: if she’d said, ‘Right, take off all your clothes and jump into the lake,’ I’m pretty sure I would have done it. Thankfully, she is just auditioning me. Wait, what?
OK, I knew this was possible. I’d spent quite a lot of the rehearsal thinking, ‘Could I do this? I couldn’t do this. Damn, I really want to, though. But, argh. I’m not up to it.’
But there I was. OK, then. The audition’s simple: sing up the scale as far as you can, then down as far as you can. Sing Happy Birthday. That’s it. Sally: ‘Well, this is where I do my spiel about how we’re only looking for basses at the moment…’ Everyone laughs. She grins. ‘So, I’d like to welcome you to the White Rosettes as a bass.’
HOLY CRAP. I AM IN THE WHITE ROSETTES.
Sally compliments me on my resonance. I manage to squeak, ‘Thank you.’ I turn round and Liz engulfs me in a hug.
I sit in shock all the way home. What have I done? A large glass of wine, and I’m starting to feel a bit less terrified. That night, I dream that I’m trying to leap aboard a speeding car. By the next morning, I’m grinning like an idiot. I’M IN THE WHITE ROSETTES. I spend the next two days learning When I Lift Up My Head. The 9yo interrupts me singing along with the CD: ‘That’s AMAZING.’ The boyf bounces in: ‘I was listening to you upstairs. You sound great!’
COME ON, WEDNESDAY. COME OOOON.
Tags: 2015, advice, eddie izzard, electoral reform, fangirling, general election, humour, marginal seat, safe seat, spoiled ballot, tactical voting, voting
Still agonising over your choice tomorrow? Help is at hand! Follow my simple voting guide and place your cross with confidence.
First question: Is your constituency a safe seat? (You can check here.) Yes? Congratulations! You’re one of the lucky ones – FREE to vote with your heart! Go, examine the manifestos in minute detail! Quiz your candidates mercilessly at the hustings!
Of course none of this will make a sod of difference because the outcome’s already certain, so (unless you happen to support the outgoing MP, in which case you have my permission to look slightly pleased with yourself) you might as well wrap your voting slip round a brick and chuck it through the UKIP candidate’s window. In fact, that’s probably a more effective gesture than using it to vote.
So, you’re in a marginal constituency? DAMN. This should be the sexy scenario, right? Every-body wants you! Every-body wants your love! Leafleters and canvassers are all OVER you. Lock up your baby in case someone tries to kiss it.
The SINGLE good thing about being in a marginal constituency is EDDIE ACTUAL IZZARD might show up.
Other than that, it’s rubbish. If you like the outgoing MP, you have to fret about all your neighbours suddenly deciding they’re going to vote for the Stop Costa Coffee Coming To Little-Itching-Under-The-Armpit party, letting the rival in by mistake. If you don’t like the outgoing MP, you have to vote tactically, which is like that time you were in the school play and you had to kiss Martin Notyourtype while your real love, David Blindtoyourcharms, flirted carelessly with the third years.
But! you cry. There are other options! I could spoil my ballot! Or maybe not vote at all!
Firstly, spoiling your ballot: No. No. Believe me, over-worked up-all-night vote-counters are NOT separating that pile of dog-eared scraps into ‘people who are definitely making a considered gesture about the inequity of the first-past-the-post voting system’ and ‘people who don’t understand that you only vote for one person’. Really. You’re wasting your time.
Secondly, not voting at all: They’re all the same, right? You can’t tell them apart! Except, well, you can. They may all be bastards, but there are degrees of bastardry. As Dave Walker points out in his cartoon, even if you don’t vote, plenty of people will, and you might not like their choices. And also, Emmeline Pankhurst.
So, there you go. I suggest you hold your nose, vote, and then join the Electoral Reform Society. Or move to Scotland. The SNP have definitely pledged to get rid of midges and snow. Definitely.
Tags: #WAC15, #WACC2015, #womenandcycling, 2015, advocacy, bicycle, biking, business, campaigning, conference, cycling, girls, infrastructure, ladies, retail, shops, trade, women, york
Women And Cycling 2015 attracted delegates from all over the place. Kersten England (Chief Exec of City of York Council) said the aims were to ‘share experiences of what’s working’ and ‘build a network of people who can make a difference across disciplines.’ We had short talks from six people in the field (which Carlton Reid summarises nicely), then a set of roundtable discussions*.
It did start off a bit gloomily. According to surveys, 75% of women want to do more exercise. What stops them? Well, Survey Woman doesn’t like the word ‘sport’, for a start. She doesn’t like competition, doesn’t have time to exercise, doesn’t feel facilities are designed for her. She fears being seen as sporty and ‘butch’, but she worries about being ‘rubbish’, too. She’s pretty risk-averse. She doesn’t like intimidating-looking bike shops, though you might entice her into places that are open and airy and don’t have much stock in them. She ‘thrives in a no-pressure environment’.
It was hard not to feel that Survey Woman needed a bit of a pep talk. Come on, love! It’s not that bad! I did wonder whether a) we were fighting a losing battle, if women really ARE that pathetic and b) whether all the women at the conference weren’t actually women at all. They didn’t look like a bunch of crazy cycling-nut population outliers; there were women who evidently cared what they looked like, women who wouldn’t necessarily dominate a conversation, women who probably felt a bit worried about stuff sometimes, maybe even women who didn’t know one end of a crank extractor from the other. But they were out there, getting on with it, with passion and intelligence and commitment and humour. I felt a bit like Graham from Twenty Twelve: ‘If you ask the wrong people the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers.’ Survey Woman, having resigned herself to her sofa-bound fate, probably didn’t have much idea what might work for her. These people, however, had a lot of answers, and a lot of new questions, too.
Some of the answers were relatively simple: organise events, lead rides, reorganise your shop or website, train your staff. Other answers needed more than just the hard work of individuals: build high-quality infrastructure that allows people to cycle safely with children, encourage more women into the cycle trade, tackle the culture that puts teenage girls off cycling. But the point is, there were ideas. So many ideas. I particularly loved how the roundtables – simply groups of people sitting round discussing a theme – meshed research with the knowledge of those who worked or volunteered in the area and the experiences of non-experts. In contrast to other conferences I’ve been to, there was no floor-hogging by people going, ‘Well, the research says…’ or ‘My many years of experience indicate…’; all ideas and viewpoints were fed into the discussions.
Earlier, someone had tweeted grumpily along the lines of ‘How to get women into cycling? That’ll be a short conference. Infrastructure.’ While there’s obvious truth to this – in particular the need for high-quality infrastructure to allow children to cycle safely in cities – different stories emerged from different places. One council simply got rid of its car park (apart from the disabled spaces) and installed a bike park instead. Elsewhere, a critical mass was needed in order to argue for infrastructure changes where the purse-strings are held by people who see bicycles as a distraction. Differences in types of trips made by women and men were fascinating; the challenge is not just to design safe infrastructure, but to create spaces in which people can ‘trip-chain’ (e.g. come home from work, pick up the shopping, collect the kids from school, all in the same trip). Unexpected reasons emerged for stopping cycling; teenage girls gave up cycling to school, not just for the stereotypical reasons of helmet hair and looking daft, but also because the walk or bus ride to and from school is an essential part of their social life.
We chatted about the continuing difficulties getting women into the bike industry, as customers, bike shop staff, or working for bike-related companies. Chris Garrison tells her Trek dealers that the best way to make women feel welcome is to have women on the staff; if they can’t get women to apply, she suggests asking customers if they’d like a few hours in the shop, emphasising that tech skills can be taught if needed. Isla Rowntree, founder of children’s bike company Islabikes, said for some positions she has no applications from women at all (despite posts not requiring any technical knowledge). So the bike industry still has an image problem, though Melissa Henry from Sustrans said women are better-represented in jobs that emphasise people skills, like marketing and communications. We talked about the dreaded ‘women’s corner’ in bike shops, and the way tabs on some websites read Road, MTB, Urban, Women. Some participants relished ‘women-only’ events and provision, though Sustrans’ Sheridan Piggott said York Bike Belles had welcomed the few men who enquired about joining in their ‘no-pressure’ rides. Bernie Cullen, who was one of the founders of York Cycleworks all-women co-op in the 1980s**, said women-only spaces are needed for ‘counter-cultural’ activities (e.g. learning how to use tools).
Delegates commented on how great it was to see an entirely-female panel of speakers, and to be largely among women in the discussions. (There were a few chaps about: I greeted Phil from VeloVixen with ‘Hallo, token man!’) I wasn’t too conscious of the female dominance, but someone who’d been to a lot of transport conferences found it ‘refreshing’. (And I did get on the train afterwards and think, ‘Ooh, look at all the MEN. Weird.’)
I’ve never felt like I wanted to go round an entire conference hall, shaking each individual’s hand and talking to them excitedly about what they were doing and what they had found out and what their ideas were. Not until this one. I left wondering all sorts of things, which I might have been able to find answers to if I’d only I’d had the whole weekend. Next year…
* I asked twitter which sessions I should go to, and got nothing approaching a consensus. In the end I opted for Cycling and teenage girls, The bike business: the role women could play, Cities fit for children and Cycling for everyone. So my observations are based on going to these roundtables, plus conversations I had with random people who weren’t quick enough to get away.
** Me: I used to take my bike to Cycleworks in the 80s! Her: I probably served you!
Tags: children, family, fangirling, jonathan dove, kids, music, opera, opera north, review, swanhunter, the wrong crowd
In between building Lego spaceships and using unlucky shrubs as goalposts and designing underground lairs to live in when they’re grown up, the boiz have been vaguely intrigued by my Damascene conversion to opera. They peer over my shoulder, going ‘Is that Iestyn Davies AGAIN?’, and hum Handel/Thunderbirds mashups while eating their tea. I came out of Rinaldo last year thinking the 9yo would have loved it, so I got all excited when I spotted Swanhunter – a short opera by Jonathan Dove, written with younger audiences in mind, brought to The Lowry* by Opera North in collaboration with The Wrong Crowd.
In proper opera-going fashion, we got dolled up and headed for Pizza Express. Me: ‘That’s the bar where the bouncer gave James Laing the side eye.’ Boiz: ‘Yes mummy. Can we have ice cream?’
Suddenly it was five to seven. A last-minute dash got us to our seats in the lovely, intimate Quays Theatre; row J gave us a brilliant view. The 6yo sat on my rolled-up coat. ‘When’s it going to staaaaart?’ ‘Soon.’
Swanhunter opens with the cast swapping stories around the campfire. The opera is based on a Finnish legend: Lemminkäinen travels to the frozen North in search of a wife, where the Mistress of the North sets him three perilous tasks involving mythical beasts before she’ll allow him to see the girl of his dreams. This is a tale of love, bravery, foolhardiness, death, resurrection and the magical power of song; pretty spot-on for an opera.
It’s a small-but-perfectly-formed production: six cast members, a variety of clever props, and a kooky little folk-meets-classical band including a squeezebox, a harp and a French horn. Marvellously, the music wasn’t at all dumbed down for kids, apart from in the shorter running time. It was a proper opera. Dove writes amazingly for voices, teasing everything out of the singers’ vocal and emotional ranges; the Swan’s stunt aria knocked all our socks off, and there was so much to love in both solo and ensemble writing, brought to life through some terrific singing and playing. (We particularly liked how the Mistress of the North had her own theme, a bit like a character from Bod.) Despite it being all modern and everything, I was relieved to see a few operatic rules being adhered to. The hero was a tenor, his mother a contralto, the baddie a bass. There was no cross-dressing this time, sadly (though I can imagine a reprise with a countertenor as the Mistress of the North, in her Brighton Rock wig). I could say to the boiz with honesty at the end, ‘The operas I go to are just like that. Just bigger. And longer.’
We go to the odd kids’ play, and I tend to avoid puppetry, finding much of it uninteresting compared to real people doing actual acting (though this may have its roots in my pathological childhood fear of the Muppets. I’m fine nowadays. Really.). But the puppet animals stole this show. The Mistress of the North’s dogs, scenting something suspicious from the South; the Devil’s Elk, all red leather antlers and torchlit eyes; the huge Devil’s Horse, pawing the ground and rearing, but eating out of Lemminkäinen’s hand by the end.
It was pacy and witty and dark and scary and moving and surprising. The 6yo sat there for an hour with his mouth open. (Boyf: ‘I’ve never seen him sit still for that long.’) There were some jolly small people in the audience (one mother had brought a booster seat for her daughter to sit on), but I didn’t hear a squeak from anyone the whole way through.
When the lights went up, the 9yo stretched and said, ‘Well… That was long.’ But on the way out he was talking excitedly about the singing and the way the music made the dogs bark and how Lemminkäinen was his favourite. Me, to the 6yo: ‘What was YOUR favourite bit?’ Him: ‘I just liked it all.’
Nobody wanted to go and hang around the stage door, despite me insisting that it wasn’t a proper trip to the opera unless you did a bit of fangirling. But I cheered up when the 9yo put his hand in mine. ‘I’d like to go to the opera again.’ Job done.
* More Local Opera Locally
Swanhunter’s tour continues to Alnwick, Hexham, Canterbury and Harrogate.
Tags: biking, cycling, humour, magazine, spoof
Tags: fangirling, julius drake, lieder, masterclass, mezzo, opera, pianist, rncm, royal northern college of music, sarah connolly, singing
Going along to watch them coaching people who DO know what they’re doing, though, was VERY appealing. I saw Sarah in the Barbican’s Poppea last year and was instantly smitten with her voice and her terrific stage presence. She was lovely in person – gracious and funny – and I was intrigued to see how she’d work with student singers. Plus, a bit of a jolly to Manchester on a Friday morning? What’s not to like?
Excitement only mounted further on the train, where we crafted pinhole cameras from business cards and projected the eclipsing sun onto the carpet. COSMIC. (This was only slightly dampened by a conversation about exactly how old we were all going to be for the next one in 2026.)
A trot down Oxford Road noting what has survived the twelve years since I worked at the University (On the Eighth Day), what is sadly no more (Amigos) and what is moribund (the Cornerhouse and the pub where I used to go salsa-ing), delivered us to the Royal Northern College of Music. I love the RNCM: you can sit in the café playing Trombone? Or Uzi? while gifted types waft around buying coffees for their ‘cellos. It feels like there’ll be a sudden blast of music and everyone will leap onto the tables and break into Hot Lunch.*
We took our seats in the cosy concert hall. The audience was small but keen. Everyone moved down a bit, so Sarah didn’t have to shout. The masterclass participants were four student mezzo-sopranos and their accompanists. One by one, they sang a song (or songs) they’d chosen, then had around twenty minutes of detailed critique.
Gosh, this was fascinating. I mean, really. Sarah and Julius quickly homed in on improvements for each musician. Everyone came out of the experience sounding different. The singers (and pianists) had very different qualities, but themes emerged. Do exactly what the composer’s written on the music. Keep to the tempo. (Sarah [pointing at score]: What was going on here? Singer: Um. I was fiddling around with it. Sarah [with a smile]: DON’T.) The music is moving along, even if it’s slow; work out where it’s going, and make sure you are heading there. Don’t predict the song’s ideas for the audience; present it in such a way that they work them out for themselves.
There were some surprisingly simple adjustments. Pianists, make sure you can see the singer. Singers, stand with your feet far enough apart to form a steady base. There was a lot of emphasis on posture and good physical support for singing, and even on facial expression – one singer was told to ‘smell the roses’ for the high notes, to make them gleam.
Some points were very subtle, like the difference in feel between 6/4 and 6/8 time, and how the pianist can ‘allow herself some space’ while still keeping to the tempo. There was a lot of fine-tuning of French and German pronunciation (Sarah: Whose recording have you been listening to? Singer: Yours.).
And there were some things to try at home. Declaim the text dramatically, in time, before you sing it. Start consonants on the note, not below the note. (Sarah: I don’t THINK I do that. I probably do. Haha! Now I’ll go and check.) Add a subtle /h/ when the first word in a phrase starts with a vowel, to avoid starting on a glottal stop.
Demonstrations from Julius and Sarah were stunning; you realised what stars were in the room with you. I was in awe of all the students. It’s one thing to perform; another to perform in front of people of stature; yet another to subject yourself to their critique in public. It felt like a tremendous privilege to be there watching these learning processes unfold. Sarah and Julius expected a lot from them, and got it; that they did this leaving everyone grinning is testament to their thoughtfulness and skill.
I left wanting to burst into SONG, but knew I’d be swiftly frogmarched from the premises by the GMP (Genuine Musicians’ Police) if I dared open my mouth. Instead, I headed for Johnny Roadhouse Music where I bought a capo for my guitar and fell in love with a drumset sized perfectly for a six-year-old. And when I got home, there was an email waiting for me with a sheaf of barbershop music attached, in time for next week’s rehearsal. As International Happiness Days go, this was pretty much up there.
* So far this has never happened, but I live in hope.
Tags: community, group, music, singing, terror, women
‘It’s all about having fun!’ my teacher said. ‘Not pitch, or timing, or accuracy.’ Then, pointedly: ‘It would be really good for you.’
The previous week, I’d reclined on her figurative couch and rambled on about my musical upbringing, while she tried not to look too shocked. Apparently there’s more to making music than Getting It Right. Some people find it enjoyable! Who knew?
Despite my conviction that rabid anxiety is all that’s holding me together, she insists I need to loosen up. Enjoying singing, it turns out, is not just about hitting that high F on your own in the kitchen, to the freezer’s baritone thrum. It involves OTHER PEOPLE. So there I was in the Town Hall bar, waiting for the Women’s Community Singing Group to show up. Efficient types tried to recruit me to the Arts Festival volunteer posse. I may have agreed. I’m not sure what to.
I’ll admit I was PETRIFIED. There’s a whole lot of community in our town, and it mostly freaks me RIGHT out. While I’ll happily wave at people from the safety of the other side of the square, I feel like an alien interloper among all these people Gaily Mucking In.
My kung fu background helped, here: I am no stranger to waving my limbs around and looking a bit daft in public. The verbal exercises were a different story. Try this. Count out loud, singing up and down the scale as you go. One. One two one. One two three two one*. Go up to five, then six, then seven. Quicker. Now replace every ‘three’ with a clap. Now do it in French. The teacher was laughing openly at me by the end.
OK, first song. Four parts. I nipped round to join the basses. Wise decision, as it was an easy part with lots of repetition. It’s all taught by ear, so no music to read; instead, the teacher goes through each part in turn and you’re supposed to remember yours. Then you all sing together. I was smugly confident**, but it was more difficult than I expected, mostly because a) I realised halfway through that I was trying to remember everyone else’s parts as well as mine, and b) it was all in Swahili, FGS.
A cup of tea, and then a different song, with harder words. Happily, my section were mainly going, ‘Hum, bum, KULE!’ Well, I think we were. I’ve done some group singing before, but this was weirder than I remember. Maybe it was the room; I couldn’t hear myself, and I couldn’t really hear anyone else. Singing turned into a leap of faith. (I explained this to the boyf later; he said, darkly, ‘You can hear yourself if you’re doing it wrong.’) Every time I tried to listen to what everyone else was doing, I screwed my bit up. A couple of times, I was so busy watching for the cue I completely forgot to sing at all.
The next day, I tried to teach the boiz ‘Hum, bum, KULE!/ Sha-la, la, la!’ in three parts over breakfast. We got as far as the 6yo going, ‘Hum, BUM! You HUM. Out of your BUM!’ and the two of them collapsing. Boyf [horrified look]: ‘You were doing WORLD MUSIC?’
But it was fun. No, it really was. I had fun. Me, Little Miss Don’t-Make-Me-Leave-The-House. The basses were a jolly bunch, cracking jokes and making up dance steps and coming in in the wrong places and cackling. People kept introducing themselves to me, even though I forgot all their names instantly out of shock. (I decided just to call everyone Sarah or Cathy.) It was bewilderingly friendly. ‘Are you new? Are you going to come again?’ Yes. And yes. ‘Good!’
* do, do re do, do re mi re do…
** I got 94% on a musical memory test for the Goldsmith’s earworm project. That’s NINETY-FOUR PER CENT. You’re DAMN right I’m proud.