Aside from time spent as a Senior leader, I have been an RE teacher for over twenty years. To be honest it was the only subject I ever really enjoyed at school and was pretty certain from Year Nine…
The emotional experience of leaving a much loved choir is not to be underestimated. If you were in some way responsible for this choir or one of the ridiculously keen members, then this experience is exaggerated greatly. The additional fact that the University Choir and A Cappella societies where the ones in which I had my first conducting experiences made the transition all the more significant.
Singing brings people together. Using your voice leaves you completely exposed and every day I meet so many people who demand that they cannot sing or would never be able to join a choir due to lack of confidence or something similar. Of course I know this not to be true; there is a singing activity out there for everyone who wants one. However, there is an element of courage required to join a choir especially if you have not done so before or are not from a particularly musical family or background. For those who do not read music or who do not read it very well, joining a choir which uses score can be very daunting although, within a surprisingly small amount of time, sight reading improves vastly. For those who love singing but lack confidence in their abilities within a group there is also a huge step of courage to be made. For as many people that I have met that are convinced they could not join a choir I have those who were nervous to do so but took the plunge anyway; in all the cases I have experienced this has paid off.
Even if you are full to the brim with confidence the very act of using your voice in a communal way to create pleasing harmonies and dynamics brings with it an emotional aspect. Many times when conducting I have been stunned at what I hear (it is just a shame that during rehearsals the conductor is the only one who hears the full effect!) and on almost every occasion when singing in a group, no matter what the members’ personal differences may be, team work has been paramount when striving to create that moment here and there and iron out that little stumble that the group keep meeting. The group share struggles, laughter, success and sheer exhaustion. Try going through that with a group of human beings and not forming some kind of emotional attachment!
Additionally, many choirs have socials. Be it monthly bingo or pub quiz, a Christmas or celebratory meal, a Tour or theatre trip, or even a particularly hard core night out at the pub, these are the things that bring people closer together. When I moved house for University I made most of my closest University friends in the choir and I know I am not the only person to have settled in to a new part of the world by engaging in communal singing.
Being University societies means that every year there is a significant number of members leaving both Choir and A Cappella. Towards the end of my first and second years I was very upset to see a group of members (including some close friends) leave not just University, but our main weekly social activity of singing together in Choir or A Cappella. Towards the end of third year it all felt surreal. I had a placement to finish, a dissertation and assignments to hand in, jobs to apply for and interviews to attend making singing a mixture of pleasant escape and more work that needed to be meticulously time managed. Partly I was exhausted by the whole thing and ready for the holidays but at the same time I didn’t want the holidays to come because then it would all be over for good. Saying goodbye was difficult but I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of people who were going to miss myself and the other Director (my boyfriend!) and the emotions that they also had attached with us leaving and of our experiences becoming memories as the groups moved on to the next chapter of their being. Moving to a new job and a new city (one that is at some distance away from home) made the whole experience a real ending to one life and beginning to another. Starting a new job also meant leaving the school choir which brought a whole bag of its’ own emotional experiences.
Some Emotional Goodbyes
So the goodbyes came and went, the hand over took place and the move away from University happened. It was a strange Summer not having Christmas arrangements to look at as we had the previous year but a relatively relaxing one. Then came the flat hunting, the dreaded deposit and first months’ rent, the transport of our items to our new bed sit, the (never ending) attempts to get all our belongings to fit neatly into this miniscule room and finally the start of a new job as a Year 2 teacher in a fantastically huge and multicultural school. There really was no time to join a new choir at this point. We researched groups in the local area but for a couple of weeks didn’t get around to joining anything. Then, naturally I suppose, as time went on I became friends with the schools’ specialist music teacher and soon enough she received an email about a new community choir starting in the local area which teachers were keen on joining. My boyfriend was unable to join at the time due to needing to commute to the South West for part of the week for work but I decided that this was the right move in beginning my musical experiences in our new area.
There were so many beginnings that it is hard to remember them all. Another step I took was to volunteer to help with the school choir. Two teachers already ran the group (so this was immediately different from my previous experience!) and were happy to have an extra pair of eyes and ears as well as an extra voice amongst the crowds. I say crowds because, naturally, a bigger school meant a bigger choir. Ultimately, although the choir was full of children I didn’t know, very different socioeconomically from my previous school choir and run by teachers I had only just met, it still gave some sense of security and consistency amongst the change as, it turned out, did the community choir.
The first thing I loved about the community choir was its’ people. Friendly members and an enthusiastic conductor were an immediately good start. The second thing I loved was the range of music. Gaudete, Lean on Me, Les Mis and Let it Snow found their way into the same concert and one of my favourite pieces that we have learnt so far fits into the folk genre (of which I am a big fan). This range reminded me of that huge strong point that the University Choir had displayed in always embracing a great variety of music; and generally, the more contrasting the better! Being a new group the community choir has not had any socials yet although we have had one, pretty strong, performance which is encouraging after just three months of existence. After a little self-doubt, a lot of thought and a push of courage I gained the confidence to offer some arrangements to the director. Luckily she is very keen to see some of my arrangements and has even asked if I will cover any rehearsals she cannot make. Biting the bullet certainly paid off in this instance.
Towards Christmas, another wonderful musical thing happened. My boyfriend and I went to watch a local Choral Society, of which the music teacher is a member, in their Christmas performance. There were some challenging full pieces sung alongside carols which the audience participated with. Something about being part of that Christmassy atmosphere, hearing beautiful, live harmonies (and singing some) whilst watching the musicians play and the conductor conduct, brings such a familiar and joyful feeling. After some difficult weeks at work and with illness, that concert really helped both of us to feel a little more settled in our surroundings. Unsurprisingly, we have both decided to join that Choral Society in the New Year.
So I suppose in a way history is repeating itself in a way that so many people have experienced. I have moved to a new city and singing is having a big impact on helping me to settle in. There are obviously some significant differences. First of all students at the pub after choir rehearsals, who do not need to be up at 6am the next day, do have the opportunities to bond much more quickly than teachers and other professionals who need to be up and spritely for work. Secondly I now have much more experience of communal singing than I did when I initially joined the University Choir. Since then I have set up an A Cappella group and a school choir and began training as a choral conductor which included taking a choir on tour to some beautiful venues. Next year I hope to save up for the initial conducting course with ABCD (Association of British Choral Directors); I had meant to go on this course last year but weddings and a school choir performance got in the way!
But I suppose these changes come with growing up and it is not the only aspect of my life in which adulthood is having a big effect of change; I have attended five weddings this year, become a Godmother, taken responsibility for 28 other people’s children on a daily basis, started to pay extortionate London rent, decided to sponsor an orphaned or abandoned child and am making very real plans to upsize, save for a mortgage, get a puppy and visit a friend in America. Just reading those things on paper makes me feel a little daunted!
So, on to the new. With any luck next year shall bring a new choir, a chance to get more involved in the community choir, a trip with the school choir and a conducting course. My conducting journey is far from over. It seems that surprisingly it may still be only near its’ beginning.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 360 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.
- Organisation is great but it is okay to change things if it is for the best: When taking over a choir or orchestra, conductors appear to go one of two ways. They either organise to the max noting down every detail and (as recommended by my conducting teacher) create a rehearsal schedule, or alternatively they wing it. Generally the style I would recommend is organisation; it will save you much hassle, last minute work and improve the overall quality of the sessions; although obviously each individual group varies as to how much organisation is required. However, flexibility should not be completely overlooked. As I discovered this year, there will be parts of each and every plan that are just not working or need some major adaptation. It can be hard to break away from a carefully mapped out plan and take a risk but it can be so worthwhile. For example, in the Autumn I spent much time striving to be inspired by a piece suggested by a choir member, which had already been timetabled into the rehearsal schedule, only to come to the conclusion that I had wasted a lot of time trying to harmonise a piece that just wasn’t going to work for our group. Then, at a local jam night, I suddenly had a burst of inspiration, decided on a new piece, began to arrange it and finished within hours. This ended up being one of the favourite pieces of the concert. In comparison, our idea for a theme for this particular concert changed six or seven times before we settled for a definite. So overall, I’d suggest that yes, it is good to have a plan, but it is also good to be open to new ideas, adaptations and updates even if they seem scary and last minute. End quality rules over all else.
(Pictured Below) The Insanity of the Rehearsal Schedule
- You need to enjoy the pieces you choose: Over time I have taken suggestions, perhaps more so for A Cappella than Choir as that better suit the dynamic of the group. However, when it comes to suggestions there need to be two strict requirements; potential for high quality and your own engagement with the piece. If you are not inspired by the piece, then your members won’t be. If the piece will not develop the members musically, provide enjoyment and inspire you then there is simply no point in including it. Suggestions are an interesting one to look out for; they can be a God send or the Devil himself so don’t be scared to pick and choose. So long as your decision is for the overall good of the choir then you know it is the right one.
- Beating and Expression: Conducting is not just about keeping time. Keeping time is the bare minimum. It means that the singers have a highly improved chance of staying in time with you, each other and the accompaniment, but not much else. If you want expression from the singers then you are going to need to indicate to them what you want. Nine times out of ten, these indications need to be much more obvious than you first assumed and may require vocal instruction the first two or three times. Directors develop a variety of ways in which to do this; through gesture, facial expression, body language or use of eyebrows! Find what works for you and make sure that at all times you are giving some indication of what the mood and dynamics of the piece should be. It is true that some directors go completely OTT and end up ripping their jackets/ knocking things over/ sweating all over the place etc… but better that than a rigid conductor who inspires no passion from their singers.
- Singers using score will almost never look up at the conductor unless reminded continuously: This is actually a tremendously tricky problem. I am still in the early days of working out how to resolve it. Over my time conducting it has been very clear that the A Cappella singers who are working without score always look at the director whereas the Choir members who usually have score rarely look up. Although A Cappella is a smaller and newer society, the general quality of dynamics, general togetherness and exhibitions of enjoyment seemed to be much greater than those displayed in Choir due to A Cappella members being forced to look up. A Cappella members have been able to focus on the dynamics, expression and overall joy of singing in a group whereas many choir members hide behind the score unless tricked into coming out! As a result we have chosen to teach many of the songs to the school choirs without lyric sheets in order to help them grow to sing harmoniously and to listen to each other. In the University Choir, I have experimented with a few different methods. First of all, the old reliable. Telling people to look up whilst rehearsing a piece in the hope that it will eventually become habit. Next, the holistic method; explaining to the singers exactly why they need to look up and exactly how it will benefit them. Then we sang a song that we all knew well without the score during a rehearsal. This worked really well but as soon as they got the score back they were hidden again. Lastly, the method I have not yet tried, sticking funny notes to, mainly the other conductors’ head, so that people have a reason to look up.
- Standing still is hard!!!: When you are directing, especially if it is an upbeat piece, it can be incredibly difficult to stand still. Expression is good yes, however moving your feet and legs around is somewhat unnecessary. The venue, group and style affect the difficulty of this factor hugely. For example in A Cappella, it is much harder not to dance around, however it is nowhere near such a big crime, in fact sometimes it can even be helpful. Then, with the school choirs it is often absolutely necessary to engage in movement. It is the University Choir that can be a challenge. Bath Abbey was a formal enough venue that I more or less remembered throughout not to dance; other venues are much trickier. The only real resolution to this is practice and concentration… as if you didn’t already have enough to think about!
(Pictured Below) The first A Cappella concert during which I danced, a lot!
- There will always be people that will try to make you doubt your musical ability: During my last ever conducting class a dagger-like letter received by one of the other students, from a member of one of his choirs, got us on to the topic of those singers that spend their time picking holes in everything and anything. The revelation of this letter turned into a sombre moment when I bravely vocalised the feeling that had been growing and intensifying over the past year; “this really is the hardest bit of conducting, isn’t it”. It wasn’t a question and the shared silence of seven adults showed just how difficult this topic can be. The discussion that followed was the most valuable of all my conducting classes; in fact, it would have been extremely helpful if this had been the first class of the year rather than the last! My extremely experienced teacher went into deep analysis of this issue highlighting potential causes and possibilities for making these incidents more manageable and less hurtful. He suggested that there can be a few reasons why these individuals or cliques may begin to cause upset. He suggested that in most cases it is an insecurity; these can then range from talented singers being bored by other singers, who take a bit longer to learn, therefore causing the talented members to either feel bored or feel a need to assert their musical authority, all the way to those who have many personal insecurities that they struggle to deal with on a daily basis or musical ones; you are an easy person for them to take it out on. Of course there is often some combined element concerning the causes including, dare I say it, jealousy. My conducting teacher suggested that some members may think the director is taking all the glory meaning that the director needs to make it as obvious as possible how little they intend to take the glory and how grateful they are for the work put in by the singers. In my experience, very few conductors are in it for the ‘glory’ but little actions can be misconceived. Similarly to the ‘looking up’ issue, this is a tricky one to balance in terms of finding a happy space between over-complimenting and under-appreciating. This just takes practice in finding the balance and of course the balance will be completely different for each choir. The most important thing I discovered is that as a conductor you have no obligation to justify yourself to hole pickers. If I had only known this a year ago I could have saved myself a lot of trouble! The problem is that however kindly you try to explain your actions to this kind of member it is often irrelevant. You could compile the most top notch and convincing justification for your ideas but someone will still find, or possibly even create, a new problem to focus on. My conducting teacher taught me some polite ways of explaining to members that you will not be justifying yourself in this situation the best of which seemed to be “There are very good reasons why this has been done but I am afraid I am not in a position to share them”. This line could have saved me many long and well-intended discussions over time. It can be very intimidating but actually no one has the right to make you feel that way. Early on I made the mistake of changing something in a piece I had arranged during a rehearsal where I felt like I must be an awful director as a result of interruptions being made. Turned out the change made the piece sound odd and I only had to come back to it the following week and change it back to how I had originally arranged it. I suppose my mistake there was assuming that everyone would be supportive and that if they were not then I had clearly done something wrong. Have some faith in yourself; you got this role for a reason.
“Do what you feel in your heart is right, for you’ll be criticized anyway”- Eleanor Roosevelt.
- It is okay to make mistakes: This is a fact that also applies strongly to my teaching career! Mistakes are unavoidable for human beings. Big, small, embarrassing or luckily overlooked, as tough as it may seem we can choose to let mistakes make or break us. Early on in my conducting I made the mistake of believing that every single person in the choir was just waiting for me to make a mistake so that they could rip me to pieces. Perhaps I felt this way because I had only recently realised I was capable of conducting whereas the other and previous conductors of the choir had had much more self-confidence. I had been able to imply self-confidence for a long time but learning how to deal with mistakes when viewed by 40 odd choir members was a different challenge. The first time someone pointed out a mistake in my arrangements, as I mentioned before, it was not actually a mistake; just a slightly more exciting harmony than said member was used to 😉 However the mistake I then made was to change from what I had written, realise it sounded worse and then have to change it back the next week. It was embarrassing, not because my musical abilities had been degraded but because I had given in to a person whose voice was louder than mine; the old fashioned view that introverts are to be respected seems to be slowly coming back into fashion and my goodness I hope it catches on! However, I did learn from this mistake and since then if a person questions my arrangement I calmly look down and check it and, so far, all I have then had to do is explain the musical reasoning behind the choice as often this is what they have misunderstood. Obviously one day I won’t proof read properly and there will be a mistake in the score and, from observation of other directors, the best way to react to this is not to panic, just to take it as it is with a pinch of salt and a bit of humour and say something like “oh woops, clearly wasn’t concentrating on that bar! Everybody please mark such and such into the space instead”. Simple. You are just as human as the choir and have far more opportunities to publicly make mistakes so don’t fret when it happens however bad it might seem at the time. Chances are, you worry because you care so much about getting it right. However dwelling on worry rarely solves anything. Take a deep breath and engage in some good old British Keep Calm and Carry On.
- People will not necessarily see you as a normal person with feelings anymore: This is an odd one and possibly a little controversial. However, in my own observations and those of other conductors I know, there is a factor of a conductor almost becoming choir property once they take on the role. It can feel at times as if you are no longer an ordinary person with the same thoughts, hopes and desires as other members, but simply a music making machine that the choir may or may not pay direct attention to (Refer to No. 4)! Just remember that this is not personal. In fact, before your conducting days you were probably one of those people who saw the conductor as, possibly not even a particularly important, piece of the furniture and this can go for the pianist too! It is taken for granted that these musical people turn up, do the job and you are possibly even quite cautious around them in your conversations in the pub afterwards. I know I was initially.
Being choir property can also mean that people talk about you as such and even continue to do so after you leave. In a less exciting way, your life is like one of a celebrity whom people are allowed to express their opinions of openly, consistently and without guilt. It may be hard to hear but believe it or not, after a little while you will not be capable of caring less about these opinions.
- Despite this… you will make some really good friends and receive some unbeatable support: Conducting can bring the tough times, and, as is so often the case, when the hard times hit your true friends emerge out of the woodwork. Sure you have always got on with most people in the group and hopefully still do however there will be some people who will stand out. They may or may not be close friends. For me it was a combination of close friends who I bonded with even more so as we struggled through late night arrangements and logistical nightmares together, and members whose names I wasn’t even certain of beforehand. It is a wonderful moment when an otherwise quiet but keen member approaches you one day and tells you how choir is the highlight of their week and they love your choice of music! I only wish I had said that to some of the previous conductors I have sung for. Additionally, if the choir is going through a tough time maybe extensively rehearsing for a bunch of performances, dealing with a social issue or a significant illness, it is incredible to see which unexpected people show and voice their support. These brilliant comments make your day to a much greater extent than negative ones bring your day down. Seeing and hearing that you are the cause of a group of people’s musical enjoyment and addiction is one of the best things ever.
- You will learn so much more than you could have possibly imagined! However musical you may be, conducting is a steep learning curve. You cannot just be a strong musician. You must also be capable of bringing people together, inspiring others and improving quality amongst many other things. A combination of personality, dedication, musical ability and imagination is essential. I imagine that level of professionalism depends on the individual choir. It can be tricky to have a sense of humour on a dark, rainy evening when you arrive wind swept and distracted, perhaps preoccupied by a difficult day at work or a personal issue. However, you alone are responsible for the enjoyment of other members that night and the inspiration they feel from the music. Remember that they will all have their own issues too but the difference is you have given up the right to half participate whilst in a bad mood all evening and to half-heartedly and distractedly plod along in the background. Others may do so but no matter how tedious your day was you are in charge of the enjoyment of the members. Just like all the other elements of being a new conductor, this one gets easier surprisingly quickly.
Musically you will develop your own style to a great extent. It is a fantastic opportunity to be able to regularly hear your creations come to life and there is a definite sense of pride in conducting your arrangement at its peak and often in front of an audience. It always amazes me to hear how great a piece sounds when sung by humans for the first time rather than the computer!
However, the most important thing you will learn is love. It may sound corny but actually love is just as ingrained into human nature as mistake making. Some researchers say that humans sang before they spoke; well other animals communicate by pitch so it doesn’t seem that hard to believe. I suppose in a way infants communicate by pitch too when babbling or crying; be it more comparable to a small child playing a broken violin at times. (I love my Godchildren dearly but they do have some screech in them early in the morning!) Adults also communicate in pitch; if you listen to a person’s tone of voice you will hear different pitches for excited, dull, tired, content and every other emotion. If you have gone into conducting then you most likely already possess a love of music and strong ability but the love you gain from conducting is deeper and rarer. It is a wonderful feeling when you are able to bring a group of singers together, no matter if they are experienced or inexperienced, and create something harmonious. Harmony seems to be pleasing to all consumers of music; for example classical, folk, rock and pop music alike use harmony to create sensation. Being responsible for creating that harmony and shaping it with dynamics and tempo is an amazing feeling. That first time your choir gets a tricky phrase just right leads to a moment where you just want to dance around the room and hug each member individually. It is hard not to shock the choir at times with the overwhelming happiness you will feel when things come together. Of course, in rehearsal, only you can hear just how good it is. Most of the singers hear mainly their part with the others in the distance. What they hear may be great but the conductor is in such a special position where they are able to hear all parts equally from the sweetest spot in the room.
So ultimately, enjoy. There are challenges and there are huge rewards but so long as you take each day as it comes, keep calm and use your logic you should be fine. To any other new conductors out there, good luck and have fun! The first year is a tough one but an incredible experience and you will soon find yourself yearning for more! Having learnt so much during this short experience I wonder what the future has in store!
“Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul”- Plato
*Please feel free to share any of your own experiences of conducting!
(Pictured Below) Conducting for my student choir’s Centenary Recital in November 2014.
So, the Finnish education system. One of the most discussed and celebrated systems amongst those in or studying the education profession. So what is the big fuss about?
Well naturally that is a question I cannot answer; however I have been lucky enough to have spent a two month placement teaching in Finland and even luckier to have spent that time working with the music specialist teacher in that school. So is music teaching really that different in Finland? From the school that I experienced, yes it is.
First of all, that was the first primary school in which I have ever experience the teaching of music theory. It was also the first school in which I observed and was also able to engage every child in music lessons.
The main method I experienced was that of creating a band with the entire class. The key here seemed to be allowing the children to choose their own instrument. I don’t know what other people experienced in Primary school but when I was younger the teacher decided what you were going to play. They would usually give what they deemed to be a ‘better’ instrument either to a well-behaved child or a favourite. If you misbehaved, you received an instrument that was deemed inferior. It was always clear which instruments were supposed to be better. Should instrument allocation really be used as a punishment or reward? Surely every person will have a different preference for instrument anyway? And what kind of damage could these stigmas cause? Well in Finland, this did seem to be the case. The children were allowed to choose whatever they wanted to play. Piano, keyboard, xylophone, shakers, drums, drum kit, guitars and singing were all options. I even witnessed children playing upside down bins. If a child did not choose an instrument, they would not be forced. “Music should be done out of passion” one teacher said to me. The idea was that no one should be forced to play an instrument. Music was seen as being special to each individual who engaged with it. The few children who did not choose an instrument or to sing were not disruptive. Children who had lessons in a specific instrument could choose to play that at their own level but still had the freedom to choose another instrument if they preferred. If a child chose a tuned instrument that they had never played before the teacher would encourage them to learn the chords.
After they had chosen instruments or vocals the teacher would write chords on the board for those using tuned instruments and help those on percussion to work out some rhythms. It wouldn’t take long before the whole class were able to play and sing in the form of a band.
The structure I decided to use was that of a four chord song. We would repeat (toista) four chords (sointu) over and over with very little deviation from this pattern. We practised dynamics in this way as well as tempo. I was lucky enough to be asked to do this lesson with several different classes and witness the different interpretations that each class gave. Each class chose two or three songs from a selection I had chosen to put together. They were all able to perform together.
I have not yet had the opportunity to try this method in an English school but look forward to it greatly. Being able to choose their own songs, mostly popular ones, gave some meaning to what they were performing. Work on dynamics and tempo seemed to bring them together as a group. This method was self-differentiating. Children could challenge themselves to whatever level they chose. They were also allowed to enjoy music for what it is rather than doing it because their teacher said they had to. In addition, the pupils showed progression over their sequence of lessons and dedication to the project.
Another big difference between Finnish and English approaches to music seemed to be the time allocated to the subject. In Finland the classes would each have two music lessons a week. In England, as far as I have experienced, it is rare to have one a week. The Finnish school allowed children to book out the music room at lunch for practice and teachers would give up their breaks to teach basic guitar. In England the instruments are often kept in a cupboard in a hall and brought out rarely; children often only learn specific instruments if they can afford a private teacher and their own instrument. During teacher training Finnish teachers are all taught either the guitar or the piano. During my own teacher training I have spent eight sessions on music over three years. In this time we learnt some basic chords on the ukulele then left to pursue the instrument ourselves if we so wished. It seems to be these basic differences that have an impact.
Finland has completely changed my confidence in music teaching. I was always a willing volunteer to teach the subject, especially singing, but I feel that my understanding of how to do so has improved massively since this school placement. Many teachers seem under confident about teaching music; perhaps the biggest issue of all is how we can change that. Does this mean that something is missing from our training or is there something missing from our culture as a whole? There is much evidence to suggest that musical patterns are beneficial to a child’s development in addition to music allowing for development of specific skills and understanding of culture. So why is it that music is often so undervalued in schools?
Singing without score; the bad dream of many a choral singer.
Like many others, I love score. I spend much of my spare time searching through it, arranging it and putting it into black concert folders. It is also very satisfying to feel an improvement in sight reading during periods of heavy rehearsal and practice. However, my passion for music was not begun with score and this, I believe, is the case for many.
During my younger years music was part of daily life for my mum and me. We listened to various artists and genres constantly; Irish music, Mozart, Erik Satie, Madness, The Scissor Sisters and a variety of artists on the radio. We sang all the time. Never had I seen my nursery and school peers happier than when we were singing a silly song to break the day up. Music seemed to appeal to a deeper instinct.
As I grew older I learnt to use score in my clarinet lessons, but still the majority of music I engaged in was improvised and interpreted. I played the recorder and keyboard without score and, like so many of us, sang without score. I believe that I have had an advantage in being able to understand both the world of score and the world without. When I reached my teenage years I began piano and singing lessons which involved sight reading and written music theory. I found that many things I had learnt from experimenting with my own harmonies and improvisations done in the shower, whilst playing or even just going out for a walk, had names and were important elements of music. However, being able to have worked such things out before being given technical labels and symbolism, seemed to give me a deeper understanding of what these labels meant.
When I came to University and joined the Choir, I was grateful that I had some background in music theory as it gave me the opportunity to develop the sight reading that we seemed to rely on so heavily. After a period of refreshing my memory, I was able to sight read at the appropriate level. However others I met had never encountered score before joining this choir.
As expected, these members began learning the pieces by ear. This appeared to be a much more difficult skill to master. When learning by ear, you have no written notation to fall back on. You must know what is coming next and learn your harmony thoroughly. Something about this spoke to me. I knew what it was like to learn purely by ear and I soon realised that I missed it. I missed having the line freshly imprinted in my head and having freedom from the pieces of score in front of us.
As it was, two interesting parallels occurred. Those who could not read score began to follow the notes up and down meaning that they could work out the basics of score reading. On the other hand, many of us who had been learning from score learnt the music by heart from repetition, and did not need any score as time went on. For the first group of people learning by ear helped them to interpret the score and for the second group of people learning from the score helped them to break away from it and insert their harmonies by ear. And really, is there anything wrong with either of these approaches?
Simultaneously, as mentioned in my post ‘The Art of Falling into Conducting’, the A Cappella choir was beginning to grow. The original conductor chose never to use score. We began by learning both words and notes by ear then later on having individual sheets of lyrics and making our own notes on them. Some members preferred this method, others found it a challenge. Interestingly, the ones that found it the biggest challenge were the ones who had had the most traditional choral training and experience. This made me wonder if by overdoing the teaching of notation and use of score, something natural and instinctive had been pushed into the background. I became very reflective about this point. As a child I had asked my parents if I could be in the Cathedral choir. I couldn’t of course; it was an all-male choir. It made me wonder how different my musical experience would have been if I had joined a choral SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) choir as a child. Would I have had those years of musical freedom, notation free compositions, improvisation on my recorder and my mum’s tin whistles, and unstructured passionate singing?
That is not to say that it is impossible to sing passionately from score, quite the opposite seems to be true, however there can be something quite restrictive about having to stick with what has been written.
It made me wonder if an ideal music education as a child would contain a combination of different styles. In this hypothetical education music theory would be taught but the chance for children to work separately from score and work out some musical phenomenon for themselves would also be present. I would never want to give up the skills I had learnt from written music theory however I would hate to think that for some children written music theory takes over from allowing the children to work out some principles of music theory for themselves. There also seem to be many singers who feel that either learning with score is the only way to learn music or that learning without score is the only way. There are precious few who feel that both practices are beneficial.
As A Cappella stands at present, we have learnt only one song from score and that score was taken away after the first rehearsal using it so that the singers could learn the piece by heart. We never perform holding any paper or folders. So far this has worked very well. Even after our fourth rehearsal of this term with mostly new members we managed to sing two songs at our student union jam night without lyrics in front of us. As far as I can tell, this allows the singers to engage fully in what they are singing and in listening to other members of the group. We appear to have promoted a close team spirit in this way.
Last year in Choir, an enthusiastic member of both groups requested that we learnt one song in choir in this way. We said we’d think about it, then after a little while the perfect opportunity presented itself. We decided we would learn a piece by a local composer but discovered that every piece of score used must be paid for. So we bought score for the other musical director and me, the chair, the pianist and no one else. We got mixed reactions to this idea. We experienced a few people get into a state of panic and someone telling us that it would be impossible to learn the piece in this way as well as enthusiasm from a number of people. Last rehearsal we split the men and the women and learnt the first phrase in sectionals before putting it together as a choir. After asking a couple of members to put away their IPads and stop trying to search for the score online, we began. I have to say, everyone learnt it extremely well and we were told by many members that they had really enjoyed the rehearsal. So we are one phrase down in teaching a choir who have never learnt a piece without score to sing from ear and from memory. Perhaps it is the idea of not having the score to fall back on that scares people. Since the rehearsal I have agreed to put the lyrics on our Choir group so long as no one uses them in rehearsals, I also allowed one of the men to record our practice. This method of recording rehearsals is another practice that we engage in in A Cappella and appears to benefit the members very much.
So in conclusion, I suppose that this post is an introduction to my experiments in trying to inspire singers to try different ways of learning and arranging pieces. This is an experiment that I hope to continue during my school practice. It’s a bit of a brain stretcher at times for myself just as much as the members, but as my boyfriends’ mother would say “it is probably good for us”.
Many people talk about falling into different jobs and vocations; admin, teaching, catering, call centre work, media and marketing, just to mention a few. Well I chose teaching as my career and it ended up leading me to doing something quite different alongside.
I started University planning to work hard at my teaching degree. Previous to University I spent every evening and most weekends at dance lessons with piano and singing lessons thrown in. I spent the daytime at the weekends having a part time job meaning college work was the last priority. My A level grades were fine and I got into University, after working for a year full time, determined that the main focus at University would be my degree.
I planned to join only one University society; the student choir. The idea was that I would go to choir once a week leaving other evenings free for study and dinner with my flat mates. If the work load got too much or if I was on placement, I would lessen my commitment to the choir. I decided that I would not take on any extra roles in the choir as in previous hobbies I had ended up taking on so much extra work that spare time had become a distant dream.
In hindsight I probably should have realised that this was never going to happen. All it took was for me to be reminded just how beautiful choral harmonies are and to notice how wonderful it is to gain like-minded friends. By the new year, a chorally committed fresher, who had already become a close friend of mine, managed to persuade me to stand for a committee position. And so, in February 2013, I stood for the role of Treasurer. I lost the role to a competitor who was much better qualified in Mathematics. This did not deter me.
By this point I was spending my evenings in the following ways; at choir, at A Cappella (I will explain this one shortly), bell ringing or in the pub with a bunch of singers and musicians. Now eager to polish my clarinet and piano playing, the trap was set. I was about to become very committed to music. However, despite these new commitments, my course did not suffer, if anything the hobbies made me happier and more motivated all round.
So, A Cappella. It was not a practice that I had previously thought much about. I had seen Pitch Perfect and it wasn’t really my cup of tea although the idea creating music purely with vocals was an appealing one and always satisfying to hear.
The Winter of 2012- 2013 was, as you will probably remember, a particularly wet one. Although it was not until the following year that the Dawlish line became entirely unusable, there were many floods and delays on the railway at that time. It was as the result of one such delay that I ended up on a train with Lia. That day the train was packed to the brim. We were all packed together so tightly that we had no choice but to socialise. I made many new acquaintances that day but Lia remained my friend. It turned out that Lia was studying at another local University and played in the orchestra run at my University. We had many mutual friends but most interestingly Lia had just started an A Cappella group at her University. What happened next is a perfect example of how to end up with an unexpected commitment. I said “Oh that’s cool, I wish we had an A Cappella group” and Lia replied “Well let’s start one”. I wondered if she might forget about it, but it was not to so!
Roughly three weeks later, the group was formed. For several months we practiced for an hour a week, with Lia as our conductor, in a growing group of enthusiastic singers. We then decided to become a University society so that we could gain more performance opportunities. So okay, I was busy, but it was more or less manageable. Then the group of enthusiastic future committee members decided that I should stand for Chair, they also decided that none of them wanted to stand for Chair. So there it was, my first position of responsibility in a University society. However, this was still far from over. During the Autumn term our conductor found out that her placement after Christmas would prevent her from having time to direct A Cappella. This is when I was told that I would follow in her footsteps and become the new musical director.
I spent Christmas planning and YouTube-ing, asking conductor friends for advice, and planning some more. Then January came, and it began. And despite the huge amount of dread I felt for the 24 hours before the first rehearsal, it actually went pretty well and, more or less continued to do so. Over the term I felt my naive conducting style improve significantly in addition to the singers progressively working better as a team as well as improving their individual skills. Perhaps we were not working in a conventional style but we were achieving something a bit different and enjoying ourselves in the mean time. After all, isn’t enjoyment the most important part of communal singing?
Not long after I began conducting, talk of the next choir AGM began. I was asked if I was going to go up for a position, but I wasn’t sure. Design and promotions, maybe? Health and Safety, perhaps? But for each role I thought of their seemed to be more enthusiastic others going up for the same position. Did I really want any of these roles enough?
A year previously a friend had tried to persuade myself and two others to stand for the role of musical director. To start with, I had said no definitely not, I wasn’t a conductor! However, one year later I was asked again and this time I started to seriously consider the role. I experimented by asking to conduct a piece for the Spring concert. After the first rehearsal of that piece, I decided to stand for the role. As you can probably guess, this time around I was successful in gaining the position I stood for. My enthusiastic fresher friend, Rose, was simultaneously successful in gaining the role of Chair.
Since then I have become involved in the process of starting a school choir and joined conducting classes. In addition myself, Rose and my boyfriend have joined another local choir of an older age group to further our choral experiences. Conducting is now as big a part of my life as dance was just a few years ago. I suppose that it is in my nature to engage in the arts no matter how I try and battle it! I feel a passion and dedication to this role. I love to hear the harmonies come together and notice individual singers gain confidence. Consequently I spend much time researching around the role and questioning choral and orchestral conductors. I have learnt a lot from this; conducting can only really be practiced on the job. You can do it in front of the mirror but it is nowhere near the same. It isn’t just having knowledge of musical matters or singing and piano grades or being able to count a bar that makes a musical director. Conducting involves an innate feeling for the music and an effort to work with your choir to shape the sounds and encourage them to use their voices as the wonderful instruments they are not to mention a burning passion for singing. This passion is what ultimately led me to the roles I have at present and the plans I have to improve my conducting in the future. Another conductor told me recently that it is important to have some humour when conducting; I suppose this goes back to my feeling that singing should, ultimately, be for joy. My degree is still incredibly important to me and a huge focus in my life. I find that the two things complement each other as well as knowing that conducting is a skill that could be transferred directly into school life. I couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out.
And so, that is how you accidentally fall into one of the most specific hobbies you could possibly have! And how do I feel about it now? Well I love it. It’s as simple as that.