One of ‘those’ days

On Sunday I took part in a concert of popular sacred music. We had 7 soloists, a small choir, a chamber orchestra and small children’s choir. It was the kind of concert where you recognised the tune even if you didn’t know the name of it. Beautiful sacred music abounded, stretching from Charpentier through to Douglas Mews. 

I had three solo(ish) moments – “If God Be For Us” from Messiah, the duet “O Lovely Peace” and the soprano solo for Mozart’s ‘Laudate Dominum”. It was the first time I’d done the Messiah aria and the Mozart with orchestra.

For various reasons I was a bag of nerves leading up to the concert. Not a dainty little jewel-encrusted evening bag of nerves, but a cavernous hold-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink kind of bag. I’m not sure exactly why. Partly because all the other soloists are such excellent singers and I was feeling a bit intimidated. Partly because my voice has been feeling quite tired and out of sorts lately. Suffice it to say, nerves are not a singer’s best friends. Shaky legs, shortened breaths and tight muscles are, funnily enough, not conducive to a good sound. 

We had a rehearsal earlier in the afternoon and my bits went ok. But I could feel my voice was not in the greatest shape. And the more I thought about that, the tenser I got. Is it any wonder that 20 minutes before the start of the concert I got a migraine? Fortunately – if you can call getting migraines fortunate – I pretty much only get the visual aura for about 15 minutes or so, and then just a residual ache around my forehead, not the searing pain that so many do. However for the next hour or two afterwards, my brain also feels like it has put on a fluffy pink dressing gown and slippers with bunny ears and has smoked something slightly illegal. You can see where this is going right?

The little man that lives in my brain and gives a running commentary every time I have to sing to an audience had an absolute field day. He revelled in his role, criticising onsets which started with a slight catch, mocking phrase-endings that went wobbly from lack of breath and whispering with vicious gleefulness about upcoming difficulties which, in his opinion, I was unlikely to surmount. Do you get put in jail for stabbing an imaginary little man who makes it his life’s mission to tell you how useless you are? Because I would have considered it totally worth it. Especially if the onset to his dying screams was less than perfect.

But hey, first-world problems right? The majority of what I sang was fine. Some of it was actually beautiful. There, I wrote it out loud. Like my little blogger ‘About Me’ blurb says: I like to sing. Sometimes when I sing, I sound good. I’m working on the other times. 

I have to learn how many new things?!

I’ve just emailed my competition entry away – there is no turning back. So this is what I’ve let myself in for:

  • Own Selection – not yet decided a.k.a. ‘what can I dredge up from the past and polish up quickly’
  • French Art Song – Mandoline (Faure) – completely new
  • British Art Song – King David (Howells) – at performance level
  • Oratorio – With Verdure Clad (Haydn) – well on the way
  • Lieder – Nacht und Traume (Schubert) – prepared last year, but not sung
  • Operatic Aria – Batti, batti o bel Masetto (Mozart) – completely new
  • Scholarship – Spring Goeth All in White (Caskie) – test piece, completely new, don’t even have the music yet and Les Filles de Cadix (Delibes) – contrasting piece, slowly getting there.
So there you have it, 3 completely new pieces in 7 weeks as well as works-in-progress. Which would be a doddle if I was a singer by trade, but I’m not. I work full-time, have a soon-to-be 8 year old to keep alive and preferably not breaking bones, a partner who works shift work, a choir to sing in and conduct with and there’s that wee sporting competition currently going on that has sucked away vast amounts of sleep time leaving me feeling like a three day old lettuce leaf. 

I guess everyone has their own unique way of learning new rep. My personal little quirk for learning words of the non-English variety is to print them out with the English translation alongside, laminate, punch two holes at the top and insert string. Then, and this is the good bit (and explains the necessity for lamination), I hang it over the shower head. And there it is, slap bang in my face first thing in the morning, nice steamy environment and relaxed vocal chords. The other half takes it in his stride – I have yet to determine if he has learnt Nacht und Traume by osmosis. I wonder what he will make of the translation of Batti, batti?

Once a Day and Twice on Sundays.

I sing with the small choir at St Mary’s Basilica in Invercargill, usually every second Sunday. So far, I don’t think they have figured out that they have a cuckoo in the nest, me being a Baptist-raised agnostic, although my ingrained version of the Lord’s Prayer complete with thou’s and trespasses might have tipped them off. Anyway, it is a musical education for me, as I learn all the setting of the Glorias, Amens etc. Every so often I get thrown into the Cantor role, where I have to concentrate very hard. It’s a whole different style of singing and at the moment I still tend to sing it as a song rather than as musical speech. But I’m slowly getting there.
The other great thing about singing with this choir (I use the term choir relatively loosely given that on a good day we have one bass, two tenors, two altos and two sopranos) is that there is often solo work to do – an aria from Messiah, the Vicar of Dibley version of The Lord is My Shepherd and so on. We sit up in the choir stalls so are hidden from the view of all but the Priest and any parishioners who dare to risk putting a neck vertebra out of alignment to have a look. That means the focus is on the music and not the person singing which is much more relaxing. The acoustics are great too.
Easter in the Catholic Church is A Big Deal. From Holy Thursday we sang every day and twice on Sunday. I love that we get to sing plainchant and music that has endured for centuries in the same form. It’s amazing to think that the notes we sing are the very same as would have been sung by someone in the 12th century. I had quite a bit to do, including Cantor work and two Mozart arias – the Laudate Dominum and the Ora Pro Nobis from Regina Coeli K128. It was the first time I’d sung the Ora Pro Nobis and it appears that it was the first time anyone there had heard it which is a shame because it is the most gorgeous piece of music. The choir also discovered a new talent we hope to retain, Joy Kerr, who sang a marvellous rendition of ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ 
By Sunday evening I was well and truly sung out and the medicinal application of chocolate and wine was a necessity. And now it is full steam ahead with Dido, reminding myself that I don’t have to rush the phrases, that Purcell was very fond of word-painting and I can use that to colour the notes. 

Yes. Yes I Can.

This photo was taken after I got home from the concert. Because if my dearly beloved had tried to take this photo beforehand, I would have a) most definitely not been smiling and b) snapped at him for…oh I don’t know, taking too long, not taking long enough, not finding a better place to pose…heck I would have found something. I was wound up tighter than a badly-tuned lute.
So to the concert. I was second last on the schedule. There were some lovely items before mine. At least I’m sure they were lovely because they were all by people I know and love who would have sung/played beautifully. I have no idea really, because all the time they were performing the little voice in my head was going “You have to sing the Alleluia! You have to do all the runs without ending up in the rose bushes! You have to sing a top C at the end. Fleeeee!!!”  Except I couldn’t flee because I was sandwiched in the middle of the row between all the other performers.
As the singers among you will know (Hi Sarah! Hi Amanda!) singing without a warm-up is far from ideal. As a soloist in a choral work, you can usually do some humming exercises under-cover of a loud chorus but no such opportunity here. The first word I was due to sing was ‘Es’ so not even the assistance of a  consonant to get me started.
So finally the moment arrived. I stood up, moved gracefully up to the stage in my new posh frock (if it was going to be a disaster at least people could say “Never mind dear, you looked lovely” as I sobbed into the folds of my chiffon skirt). First up ‘Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen’. At least the tessitura was nice and low to middling. I probably mangled the German but all in all it went well. Next up was what the organisers had described in a newspaper article earlier in the week as a ‘highlight of the concert’ – the hymn written by the late Russell Cowley ‘Sweeter Sounds Than Music Knows’. Apart from a bit of a tight-sounding ‘sweeter’ at the start, I think Russell would have been happy with my rendition.
And then, old Short-and-Deadly, the Alleluia. I’m going to go a bit stream of consciousness on y’all here and channel the voice in my head. Accompanist starts at a nice comfortable pace. First few phrases nice and firm and clear. Here comes the first run, big breath, muscles supporting and……away we go! Nice and even, no mistakes – bit tight on the A at end of the run but not bad, not bad. First half down, no dramas. But uh-oh, second section, the big runny bit and……. hey no worries, all in one breath, no mistakes, niiiice smooth singing on the offbeat accented bit. Woo I can do this!! Settle petal we’ve still got that top C. Open throat, here it comes, take foot off pedal to prevent yodel…..oh bit over-excited there, small yodel, don’t care IdiditIdiditIdidit!!!
And there you have it, a mountain has been scaled and I can’t tell you what a weight off my chest that is. Next up a whole bunch of lovely Mozart for Easter church services and then into Dido & Aeneas. Thanks for putting up with my drama queen-ness darlings 🙂