Take that, little man in my head!

It’s a fortnight after the Senior Vocal Competitions and I am still basking in the reflected glow of my cups and trophies. Oh dear, that’s bragging isn’t? And we Kiwis aren’t meant to do that are we? Well convention can just go sulk in a corner. I worked damn hard and I deserve to have my wee moment in the sun, right? Right?? So those of you who don’t agree with me can go and read this Wikipedia entry and the rest of you two remaining readers can settle back with your libation of choice and join me in my cup-reflected glow. Because I’m a sharer.

So here are some highlights/moments. Friday night I had 3 classes – Operatic Aria, French Art Song and Oratorio. There had been one or two people pull out and the adjudicator discombobulated everyone by starting about 5 minutes early. I have a thing about being late and when it says in the competition rules ‘Competitors must be ready to start 15 minutes prior to their class’ I take that to mean I must be ready an hour before. Other people like to rock up at a bee’s whisker before the 15 minute deadline. Which is fine if  the classes are running according to the published times. Not quite so if things are ahead of schedule. There was a fair bit of frantic rushing to find people until everyone got the hang of things and started to turn up in time.

Operatic Aria goes well and the money note pings out so I am feeling good. I go to hand in my scores for French Art Song and Oratorio and have A Moment. One of those uh-oh-where-is-the-oratorio-copy-I-am-supposed-to-be-holding-when-I-sing moments. Realise I haven’t made a copy. OK, I’ll just take the original score and hand in my singing folder photocopy. Great, no problem. Oh wait, problem. The score is small. So small that it’s hard to read without my reading glasses. No matter, I know this pretty well I can deal with it. Heart rate returns to near normal. Nip back to the waiting area and ask where we are, someone says you’re on next. The bell dings, and I sail confidently onto the platform, Oratorio score in hand. I announce my piece and while helpfully providing a translation of the Latin, notice that my accompanist has gone back to her front row seat and is scrambling frantically through her folders of music. Poor Jo, I think, she’s picked up the wrong music. And then a voice intones from the back “This is the French Art Song class”.

Excellent. I’ll just fall into this big hole I am praying will open up underneath me. Only it doesn’t. “Right then” I say, “I’ll just go off and come back on again shall I?” Risk a quick glance at the adjudicator, she is smiling sympathetically, phew! Exit stage left not quite with indecent haste, drop the wretched Oratorio score, take a deep breath and sail back on to sympathetic applause. “I will now sing a French Art Song” . Much smiling from the audience. Think – I’ve stuffed this up before I even start so might as well enjoy it. And I did and so fortunately did the adjudicator.

Oratorio was interesting. I used the small score and only had one oopsy, where I looked down to where I thought I was to find that I was looking in the wrong place. It’s funny how your brain gets a memory of where things are on the page and then when that page size changes….

Saturday was British Art Song in splendid solitude in the morning, then a flurry in the afternoon – Lieder, Duet, Comic/Light Operatic and finally the Senior Scholarship. This was the one I really wanted, having fallen short in the past two years. And thanks to the combined efforts of my wonderful teacher, my lovely accompanist, my excellent voice therapist and some damn hard work from me, the little man who lives in my head remained almost entirely silent and I came off the platform happy. Yes, you read that right, I was happy! Here’s my happy face….


My singing teacher is about to have another baby so there will be a period of no lessons, but I have plans to do my LTCL (Recital) in the next year or two so I will carry on working on new rep. Oh and I’m going to be part of a very special performance of Handel’s Messiah in December, featuring my wonderful teacher Rebecca Ryan and Jonathan Lemalu. 


ShowerIt’s local singing competition time again. I’m sure it’s only been 6 months since the last one. I’m pleased to say that I’m a little better prepared than last time, thanks to the constant prodding of my lovely teacher. Oh except for the ‘own selection’ for the Scholarship section, which we dithered over for various reasons and then I chose an aria I’ve never even heard before, let alone sung. And promptly went on holiday, as you do when you have a new aria to learn and not a lot of time left to learn it.

So here’s the rep list:

  • French Art Song: Les Chemins de l’Amour (Poulenc)
  • British Art Song: Song of Shadows (Richard Rodney Bennett)
  • Lieder: Neue Liebe (Mendelssohn)
  • Oratorio: Cujus animam gementem (Pergolesi)
  • Duet: Domine (Mozart)
  • Operatic Aria: Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen
  • Scholarship: Test – Bist du bei mir (Bach), own selection – Fair Robin I Love (Mechem)
  • Comic/Light Operatic: I want to sing in opera (David & Arthurs)

There’s a fair bit of singing in that lot. As I’ve mentioned before I make use of the shower to learn rep in other languages. But here’s what I’d really like in order  to make the shower into a music study:  A shower with a wall which encloses a large touch screen linked to some device on which all my scores are loaded, so I can turn the pages (a giant iPad if you will) and this screen is also linked to a piano accompaniment which I can sing to. Ok I just read that back and really all I’m asking to do is karaoke in the shower. How hard could it be to design something like that? If someone out there knows how to do it, I’ll patent it and then off you go, give me 25% of the profit and the first shower off the production line and we’ll call it quits.

Remember in my last blog post I talked about the little man who lives in my brain? I came across this great video of the gorgeous Joyce di Donato talking about her inner critic. I nearly put my neck out nodding away.

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. 

Lesson #324 – why singing from memory is a good idea

I got a last minute request to sing at a Registered Music Teacher’s concert and my teacher said “Let’s do something from your new repertoire, how about ‘Kommt ein schlanker'” and I replied “But but but! I haven’t learnt the words from memory yet.” However she was keen for me to get a performance of this one under my belt so I agreed that I would do it with the music. I did try to stuff all the words into the small walnut that passes for my brain in the intervening couple of days, but you know, that irritating thing called Life got in the way. 

Being of a certain age, I now frequently have to resort to reading glasses which is disconcerting. If I sit them firmly on my nose, the audience looks blurry and I feel as if I have lost connection with them. Sit them further down so I can use normal eyesight for the audience and I look like a caricature of a dragon-lady librarian. Alternatively I could grow my arms another 6 inches and problem solved. So learning things off by heart is definitely the better proposition.

The concert was being held in a large room of our local museum. Carpeted with a lowish ceiling. I figured this would swallow the sound, especially when filled with an audience, but it was actually very nice acoustically. When it was my turn I stepped up to the piano (teacher accompanying) and discovered that a) the lighting was feeble and b) my folder clearly didn’t have non-reflective plastic. Nothing to be done but soldier on. 

Fortunately I had the opening couple of pages off pat so things started well. Just as I was mentally patting myself on the back for putting my glottals in the right place and actually making the trill sound like a trill instead of a wobbly vibrato, disaster struck! I glanced down at the page to pick up the next lot of words and couldn’t see them properly. Have you ever tried making up something on the spot in a language other than your own? Me either. But I did. It’s entirely possible that instead of saying Sollten ja sich Blicke finden (If you should catch his glance) I said something like  Meine Katze sitzt auf einer Keksblume (My cat sits on a biscuit flower).

The rest of the aria passed without incident. So here’s what I learnt from that experience:

1. If you’re going to make up words, do it in front of an audience that neither knows the language you’re singing in nor the aria you are singing.

2. Don’t let any flicker of panic cross your features and no one will be any the wiser that your cat sits on a biscuit flower.

3. Avoid having to do 1. by memorising the dang aria!

Getting stuck in

Yes, I am still alive. And singing. There was a bit of a lull once Christmas arrived and the country went on summer holiday, and I allowed myself to be lazy and not practice properly. But now we are back into it, indeed we are. I’m talking like the Queen. I shall revert to first-person so you don’t have to curtsy while you read this.

I already have several performances lined up for the first half of the year. First up is a Concert South concert on 17 March. You may remember the Concert South concert I was preparing for at about the same time last year and my dalliances with metaphorical rose bushes. There’s still a thorn or two lurking to catch me this time too, but my bicycle doesn’t wobble as much when it spies a top C or in this case a top C#. I have been asked to sing Les Filles de Cadix as well as be part of a trio for two songs – Lift Thine Eyes from Elijah and Handel’s Where E’er You Walk. I’m doing the middle part for the Handel and I’m having to concentrate mightily to fight off the tendency to sing the tune. I also get to repeat Les Filles at Womens Club about 10 days later.

Hard on the heels of that is Easter and a full programme of music starting with a service on Holy Thursday evening and finishing with Easter Vespers on the Sunday afternoon. I’ve got some nice solos amongst all of that including the Mozart Ora Pro Nobis.

On April 28th as part of the Southland Arts Festival, A Capella Singers is doing a programme of Rutter music with the main work being his Magnificat. It’s a very approachable work but, dare I say it, could do with a little editing here and there. Is that heresy? If this blog post stops abruptly at some later point, with little whisps of black smoke curling up from the last few words, you can assume I have been smote. Or should that be smitten? Either way it ended badly. 

But despite this potentially terrible fate awaiting me, I shall bravely soldier on. The work calls for a soprano soloist and our director decided that she would divvy up the three solo bits amongst choir members. We were asked to audition, preparing one of the three solos. I worked on the Misericordiae, which is the hardest of the 3 (for me anyway) but, fortunately as it turns out, also had a look over Esurientes. I turned up for my audition and the director said “Right let’s do Esurientes!” I got through alright – it’s a piece that lies nicely and suits my voice. The director apparently agrees with me as that’s what I have been given.

And finally in June there are two concerts with a mixture of choir work and solos. So plenty to work on, and I’m right into singing lessons again picking up new repertoire. I’m doing a gorgeously lush-almost-to-the-point-of-corny French song Les Chemins de l’Amour by Poulenc. Listen to this version by Veronique Gens. This is very different from the Poulenc I know! 

I’m also learning one of Richard Rodney Bennett’s ‘Dream Songs’ – The Song of Shadows, a lovely atmospheric piece.

I had a session with the voice therapist yesterday, which prompted some interesting thoughts as I drove home. But that’s for another blog post.

Something old, something new

Now is the time of the singing year where, with competitions over, I get to choose a whole bunch of new music to learn and expand my (pathetically small) repertoire and Christmas music starts looming in the shape of end of year concerts and solos gigs. So a mixture of new (to me) and old.

Firstly the new music. My teacher hauls out all sorts of new and delicious pieces from her vast collection and tantalises me by singing snippets of this lieder and that aria which she thinks will suit my voice. Frankly I just want to sit and listen to her sing the whole time but she’s clever enough just to sing enough to let me get a feel for a piece and decide if it’s ‘me’ or not and then she moves on to the next one. I know there are teachers who just say “Here’s what you are to learn” and off you go, but I guess I’m a big enough girl to say no and my teacher is relaxed enough to not mind when I say no. Let’s face it, it’s not like I’m preparing myself for a singing career where I would have to sing things I might not like in order to advance myself. 

So currently I’m beavering away at: the lower part of the Flower Duet* from Lakme (will learn the upper part later), Mendelssohn’s ‘Neue Liebe’, and ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’ from Der Freischutz. 

As we work away at extending my register upwards, it’s a pleasant feeling to be able to look at piece of music with a C6 or three and not feel an immediate rise in heart rate. If I can become as comfortable with D6 as with the C6 then it will open up a whole lot of new repertoire for me. It’s only 2 semitones difference but feels like 2 vertical miles some days.

Christmas music comes in the form of choir music with A Capella Singers and the usual church music including 2 services on Christmas Eve. The ACS concert is a combined one with a brass band. This is a combination for which the singers will have to find their collective squillo!! Then there is a programme of Christmas music at Womens Club which I am in charge of, which is allowing me to be self-indulgent and allot myself Adam’s O Holy Night, which I can then repeat at a dinner gig a week later.

*Do those of you of a similar vintage to me always think of the old British Airways ads when you hear/sing this??

The Morning After

Competitions are done and dusted for another year. I got into the car after prize-giving and realised I could actually put something in the CD player that wasn’t a competition piece!* This will be a long post as I go through the classes, as much for me to reflect on as for you to read. Grab yourselves a cuppa and a bikkie and get comfortable. 

It was as always, a mixture of ups and downs, of learning and stumbling and conquering. Friday night started with Operatic Aria (Batti, batti). The first one’s always the hardest, at least according to my shaky knees. The piano for various reasons was not situated in the best place for the accompanists to be able to hear the singers and unfortunately this proved problematic for me and my lovely accompanist at the tempo change which was a  bit unnerving until we got back in sync a couple of bars later. All in all I gave a safe performance  but not a very characterful one, so only 3rd out of three. The winner was a 4th year Honours performance student from Dunedin so a cut above me technically. That’s not me making excuses by the way – I’m going to write of my performances in relation to my own standard.

Next up was British Art Song, the beautiful King David. It was my first time entering this class. I concentrated on telling the story and having a smooth line and I think my teacher – who unfortunately was out of town this weekend – would have been pleased with the climactic phrase which she had been urging me to make more of. I had some more timing issues but nothing too terrible  and from an audience point of view, not neccesarily obvious. The Dunedin singer sang Danny Boy beautifully. The adjudicator said when reading the results for this class “This singer sang a song I love and sang it so beautifully I nearly cried”. I leaned over to one of my singing friends and whispered “That’s her (meaning Dunedin singer) for first then”. And then the adjudicator said ‘First place to Christine McLeod” and my jaw nearly hit the floor! So that was a very nice moment for me.

Next morning was a very early start – FB friends will have seen my grumbles about being asked to sing Oratorio at 9am in the morning! Fortunately I had French Art (Mandoline – Faure) to warm me into it. I was, sadly, the only entrant in that class. It amazes me that so few people down here sing French Art songs, there are so many to-die for pieces. Anyway, I got first and the adjudicator pointed out that she was not at all obliged to give a first, or second or third for that matter. but that I deserved first. I think I sang it reasonably well although I fluffed a couple of words which annoyed me. Next Oratorio, With Verdure Clad. This one took a LOT of work for me and I still feel I’ve got a long way to go with it. However I actually felt quite good during the performance and finally did as my teacher tried to get me to do, and ‘went operatic’ at the high arching phrases. Isn’t in amazing (<— sarcasm) how it’s so much easier when you do what your teacher tells you? End result, a second, which I was very happy with.

Next up Lieder, Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Traume.’ Only 2 pages but oh what 2 pages they are. I seriously would have liked an extra pair of lungs for the loooooong phrases. Was reasonably happy with the way I sang it and got a 3rd.

Then the big one, the Scholarship class. I thought I might have had a good shot at it this year, but after hearing the Dunedin singer, I knew it was unlikely. So I decided to forget about trying to win and just get out there and have fun. I wore my ‘singing dress‘ as I wanted something that I could make look a bit girly and flirty for my contrasting piece (Les Filles de Cadix). Firstly the test piece, Spring Goeth All in White. It went well although I could have put more contrast into it. Then Les Filles. As I have mentioned before, I tend to be a bit of a statue (apart from the old shaky knees) when I sing, so I decided I was going to really move and act out the part. And I did!! And as I sang I could see the audience smiling as they got the characterisation. There were moments in the singing where things definitely weren’t perfect but I reckon I did a pretty good job of it overall. And when I popped out the top C# at the end, frankly I didn’t care about the competition, I just was just mentally going “Woooo!” So no win, but definately satisfaction that I had made some progress with my singing. 

So a good weekend, meeting old friends, hearing voices developing, hearing new music (Andres Maienlied!), and winning a pretty cup. And best of all? My voice survived without going all husky. 

*For enquiring minds, I started with ‘Ca’ the Yowes’ from Dougie Macleans’ ‘Tribute’ CD