Last night I was part of a world premiere! In fact, I can now claim to be the first person to sing a particular song in 450 years. I am a member of A Capella Singers and A Capella Concertino and last night we gave a performance entitled ‘Let There Be Joy’, music with Scottish connections for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. These are songs and carols researched, translated and edited by Dr Raymond White and recently published in a book also entitled Let There Be Joy.
In the mid-1500’s John Knox and his cohorts of the Reformation disapproved of art, music, dance – in fact as Raymond puts it in the preface of his book, ‘they were the cultural terrorists of their time’. Apparently Knox had the idea that ‘Satan had corrupted the noble gift of singing cheifly through the Papists, by the use of the Latin language that does not edify’.
Surely the man must have been tone deaf! How can you listen to Palestrina or Gabrieli and not want to be a better person??
It was a good test for me of how well my focus on breathing was working, as it was a big sing – 13 items in all, including 3 of them with the small Concertino group and one a solo. (Not to mention I was making my debut as a conductor with two of the songs). In rehearsal the solo had gone well, and felt nice and free. Stepping up to sing it at the performance my mouth was as dry as the Sahara and I was terrified that the lower notes at the end of the first and third lines (only middle C#, so yes I can hear the mezzos and altos amongst you scoffing – stop it Sarah!) but a leap downwards to get there and I wanted to stay in head voice rather than grind them out in my chest. So I just focused on taking the most relaxed and full breath I could and let that do the work for me. And it did. And more good breathing and the echo-y acoustic of St Mary’s Basilica allowed the higher notes to float out easily. For once I was actually reasonably happy straight off. Just the chamber organ and cello as accompaniment.
The music as a whole was joyful and uplifting and I absolutely adored ‘Illuminare Jerusalem’. So many of the songs are dance-like there were times I wished we could have moved accordingly, but of course choirs in church don’t do that, that would be naughty. And the shade of John Knox would come and clip as all around our collective ears and consign us to the fires of Hell.
And of course what would a concert of carols be without a good hearty rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, Adeste Fidele – ooh! more of that wicked Latin – and Silent Night.
My next gig is as part of the entertainment at the local Rotary club Christmas party. Apparently I will be on straight after the main meal so hopefully they won’t have all nodded off by then. I’m going to lull them into a false sense of security with a Quilter art song and then knock ’em dead with ‘A Word on My Ear’.
It’s been an interesting week, full of birthdays (my Mum, Dad and I all have birthdays within one week of each other), singing opportunities and another session with the voice therapist.
The therapy session was intense and I felt quite wrung-out by the end of it. Lots more breathing and focusing on the muscles involved. I discovered that I am a tactile person when it comes to understanding these things – I need to actually feel what is happening – and so I spent time with my hand placed on various parts of my therapist’s mid-section, trying not to be depressed that she has abs and I have flabs! We discussed the fact that we girls tend not to breathe freely because we are too busy holding our tummies in. All I can say is that if anyone is standing at right-angles to me when I’m letting it all hang out it they may find themselves thinking about having jelly or blancmange for dessert that evening. NB: I have never eaten blancmange, but I’ve always wanted to use it in a sentence. Excellent, another item crossed off the bucket list.
The evening after my session I was in charge of the programme for the Music Circleof the local Womens Club to which I belong (and which my brother-in-law somewhat unkindly but, it must be admitted, truthfully calls the ‘Grey Hair & Glasses Society’. Actually ten years ago it would have been more accurate to say ‘Wisteria Rinse & Glasses Society’, but I digress). As well as organising the programme of items, I was also performing a duet, an arrangement of Silent Night.
After work, I had a quick run-through. And discovered that instead of being all lovely and free after my therapy session, my voice had….gone into hiding. I could barely reach an F5. I walked into the kitchen and my other half, for whom classical music is something other people listen to while he listens to Glen Campbell, said “You wouldn’t have been happy with that”. Well that ratcheted up the stress-levels to a bicycle-clip factor of 8.5 in a heartbeat. What to do? I contemplated not doing it at all and then decided that with a combination of steaming, gentle warm-up exercises and a real focus on getting the sound forward, I could manage. And thankfully, I did. It certainly wasn’t as good as it should have been, but neither was it a disaster and fortunately the middle and lower register filled out nicely and blended well with my singing partner. I emailed my therapist the next day to tell her what had happened and we both agreed that it was probably a combination of a long day, intense concentration during our session and the stress of organising the programme.
I sang again on Friday at a function, this time all was well. A rendition of Flanders & Swan’s ‘A Word on my Ear’ which is always great fun. Although it’s surprisingly difficult to sing off-key deliberately!
I had my first proper session with the speech therapist (Vanessa Jerome, in Dunedin) yesterday. She identified from my initial assessment that my speaking voice is not as it should be and feels that if we can work on that, it will flow through to my singing voice. So back to absolute basics – learning to breathe properly.
It’s amazing how an hour of breathing exercises just flew by. Envisaging myself rhythmically inflating and deflating a balloon with no tension. Then we added an sssssss on the exhalation. Another discovery – I tense my neck muscles on ssssss. I found that by putting my hand gently on my throat I could feel what I was doing and adjust accordingly. Hmmm yes, but it wouldn’t be a good look in a recital! Best I learn to do it without the physical prompt.
Then using zzzzzzzz. When I got it all together it was amazing feeling of power with no effort. So now I need to practice all this and be aware of what I am doing so that eventually it becomes automatic.
Tomorrow I have two lots of singing – firstly normal Basilica choir which will include ‘How Beautiful are the Feet’ from Messiah and then in the afternoon A Capella Singers has been invited to sing at the St John’s Church 150th celebrations. So a couple of opportunities to try and put the above into practice. Wish me luck!