August 29, 2010

National Youth Choir of Great Britain Summer Course 2010

Having begun the next part of the journey, Beky and I set off from Merton, aiming to catch the next train to Banbury. We already knew that it’d be tight on the time side having spent a little too long at the cafĂ©. Only 5 minutes up the street from Merton, we saw a bus pull in. It happened to be the bus bound direct to the train station so we hopped on and were at the station in 10 minutes, making us thankful that we didn’t walk the route that was really much longer that we thought. Arriving at the station, we used the automatic ticket machines. When trying to use my travel card for the ticket purchase, it was declined despite the fancy little VISA logo sported by the card and the ANZ banking advice that came with it.
While I’m not sure if the card will work at an ATM, I have cash in the meantime and won’t be spending anything substantial over the courses as they are residential and catered. Anyway… I got a ticket and it was only a matter of minutes and seconds till the train was scheduled to leave. I grabbed both of the suitcases and we ran up the stairs to platform 2, sprinting over the gangway and down the stairs to greet the arriving train. The carriages were completely packed but we managed to squeeze in through the doors for a standing ride.

Only 20 minutes later, it was off the carriages and down the stairs where we met another couple of members of the National Youth Choir including Octavia who I met back in 2008 when I went on my first Eton Choral Course. We all got together to catch a taxi to the Tudor Hall School, only just managing to squeeze in our 4 large suitcases into the boot.

Arriving at the school, we saw groups of people gathering around the main hall, obviously catching up since the last course they had been on. Beky showed me to the registration area inside the hall. Lining the walls and the tiers of the grandstand were a total of 140 chairs, all laden with the music that we would be covering over the next 10 days. Part of the registration procedure in the hall included a quick video where each person who was new or had only been on one course beforehand would say their name, age, school and interesting point. Later we realized that these clips were for Mike to assist him with learning the name of every single person in the choir (and by day 2, he certainly knew everyone). After everyone was settled into their rooms, having met some new faces along the way, we had our first full rehearsal.

Our first encounter with the music was with Mike Brewer himself and his own piece, Meguru. Despite the substantial number of people who hadn't sung the song before, we sang it off by heart. Lucky for me, this was one of the pieces that we did in Adelaide so I already knew it well enough. Singing the song brought back floods of great memories from Adelaide and reminded me of the people who I had them with. The sound emanating from this 140 strong choir was truly amazing with all of the force and sensitivity that made for quite an awe-inspiring experience. Right from the word go, I was practically in heaven. There is something special inside that is triggered by the physical wash of auditory vibrancy that can be experienced in such a choir. Straight after the first run through, Mike was straight onto his trademark work on sound production with a unique emphasis on the creation of harmonics in every singer.

Our first main rehearsal quickly gave way to sectionals, a pivotal component of the NYC main choir tactic. I was part of the Bass 2 section for this course, also known as the only ‘real’ men on the course. I soon realized that each section really did have a strong characterization and that each section would form quite a close bond. The first in a small trove of things to know about NYC that was made clear from the beginning was the institution of the 5 minute rule. This simply means that everyone is required to be seated and ready to sing a full 5 minutes before the quoted rehearsal time, letting the conductor start exactly on the time with absolutely no delay. Penalties for disobeying this rule are generally handled by the singer’s section, ranging from a sharp hiss from the Soprano section to a de-hairing of the leg using Veet by the Baritones or a flip-flop (I should probably stop calling them thongs) slap to the rump by the rest of the section in the case of a Bass 2. Other punishable offences in the Bass 2 section are: Not having a pencil during a random pencil check and also in the rarer case, getting a part of the music wrong after many tries in solo testings. This made for a great system where everyone generally made sure they were prompt, looking for opportunities to catch other basses out on their late coming, making sure they had their watches set to the sectional room clock. Whilst taking our first look at some new music, we were also split into 3 mini groups which were named Doris, Jeannine (mine) and Babra. We would often split into these groups of 5 or 6 singers to raise the accountability of each singer, ensuring we were not relying on each other to get the music right. This was an exciting part of the choir since it gave a better arena to lead and show ones confidence in reading the new music at hand. With such good infrastructure to ensure all singers are performing, this makes for a very high standard where everyone is expected to perform and ring true on those expectations.

Whenever one is singing for more than 7 hours in any one day, it becomes apparent that an extensive morning warm-up is essential to maintain the required vocal stamina. After the 8am breakfast call, we began every morning with a 9:15 warm-up. This is usually in a sectional scene, focusing first on a physical warm-up including stretching and a general rise in heart rate. After the body is warm, we will move onto some gentle vocalization. Some aspirated consonants and then to some hummed noted, slowly encompassing the whole range, including both head and chest registers.

The previous day, some other elements of the week’s schedule were outlaid including times for various auditions. Most of the auditions were for later in the week, covering the series of solos available over the songs for the concert. The one for the second day is different though, it was for Laudibus, Mike’s high grade chamber choir. While the chances of me getting into this prestigious choir were very low, especially given the competition from other singers with much more experience in the area of sight singing, I had to give it a try as my time is short. After plenty of time waiting for the previous candidates to audition, I went in and was faced with a panel including Mike, Robert (one of the other conductors) and Lisa (one of the other admin staff).  I was asked to sing a descending arpeggio from a given note and then a rather simple (deceptive though) sample of music without accompaniment. It was at this point I realized that I really hadn't had any proper experience auditioning in this way before. It went abysmally really, screwing up all sorts of trivial things and not giving myself any time to think about tone production or musicality. Despite leaving the audition rather disappointed with myself, it was still good experience, really pointing out a particular weakness in my singing. It made me ask questions of myself like: How could I let myself be so affected my the audition conditions (I normally don’t get too nervous about other solo sings) and also; How does my sight singing work in the first place? After a couple of days I had an idea (or maybe just a rationalization?) as to where my sight reading strengths and weaknesses lie. The way I read music normally will depend a lot on harmony and the progression of the melody and where my part fits under it. I use this knowledge of tonality and of where the music is going to narrow my field of interval ‘guesses’ to a point where I can pick the correct interval. This of course doesn't work half as well if you don't have a chance to determine harmony and the placement of a melody in the instance of the audition. While I can obviously pitch any interval with a little bit of thought, the necessity of an instinctual correspondence of read interval to vocalized interval means that I still have much work to do. The development of my sight reading has arisen almost entirely from singing in St George’s Cathedral, in an environment where there is always harmony and always a varying degree of accompaniment. Therefore this method has always done me quite well in the choral environment, allowing me to quickly learn music and know when I am wrong in order to lead a section in a correct way whether it be renaissance polyphony or abstract works from the 20th century. I am very lucky to have the voice I do and it is always a great let down to have myself hindered by sight reading ability when there are such amazing groups out there. If I wish to gain a places in the highest institutions and choral groups then this weakness must be amended. This skill of direct interval correspondence takes nothing but practice to improve and I intend on using two books to do it: Firstly, upon recommendation from Ralph, Hindemith elementary training for musicians and secondly, Mike’s own sight reading book - Improve your sight singing. This can only be fixed in an unaccompanied environment and that is how will address it.

In other news: The News! There are many perks and traditions that are entwined with the proceedings of day to day life on the tour. One of those is the news which happens every evening after rehearsals and all of the admin announcements. The news begins with a theme song as all good news programs do which is started by the basses. The news is a bit of a comedy show, hosted by one of the singers, telling humorous anecdotes from throughout the day and also including any relevant ‘banter’ (general relationship gossip about any two choristers). The news can also be given a prelude in the instance of a birthday. Once again started by the basses, the up-tempo, harmonized version of happy birthday is quickly learned by all new comers. Another little quirk arises upon every mention of the number 45, coaxing the rest of the choir into a chorus of repetition of the number. No-one knows why… it just happens. Following the news, there are normally social activities (or competitions) to get you integrated into the choir, starting at the ‘family’ level. By coincidence, I was in the same family as Octavia and Beky who I already knew (about 10 people in a family). You would also travel in this group when on the road. In true social tradition, the last hour of the day was always dedicated to the pub. In our case, the nearest pub was in Banbury, a good 25 minute walk. The pub was also the site of a popular drinking 'game' where if someone slipped a penny (1 pence coin) into your drink, you would have to 'save the queen' (the back face of the coin) by drinking your drink as quickly as possible. The sign in time was 23:30 with a loose lights out time of midnight. This sign in time was enforced by making any late comers mark everyone off the sign in sheet the following night, effectively impounding in the common room for the night.

On the third day, we rehearsed a bit more with Robert Isaacs, covering a couple of his pieces, one being Spiderman and another being a rather simple homophonic piece by Bassey. This piece was used as an exercise in sight reading at first and then as an exercise absolute tuning (rather than equal temperament). To do this, he had all of us sight read the piece using scale degree numbers (it was in D major the whole time so no changing tonic) instead of the words. After we had tried using this technique to figure out our parts, recognizing the pitch of the scale degrees and then reproducing them whenever the number came up, the line went more to the memory. At this point we began the more high fidelity task of absolute tuning. In the main choir, I find every person really has very good intonation and certainly knows when they are singing badly off pitch whether they are singing in tune or not. This meant that this aim of absolute tuning is certainly a worthwhile goal. What I mean by this is that when we play a particular scale on a keyboard, it uses what is called equal tempering where a middle ground pitch is used so that we can play in any key without things sounding off. In a vocal world though, we can change the pitch of our notes very minutely and tune into the scale degrees of a particular key in a more precise way. The ‘absolute’ scale degrees can be attained from the harmonic series of a particular root. This means that when compared to an equal tempered keyboard, the minor 2nd is slightly higher, the major 3rd is slightly lower and so on. This is where singing of the scale degrees served as a good reminder of the differences in pitching between equal temperament and absolute pitch. When everyone started getting these pitches just right, the harmonics grew tremendously with an amazing ringing sensation in the head.

By day 4 I was starting to think about my travel and lodging arrangements for the following weeks. I got word back from Dan in Kingston (on Thames), confirming his address in London and when I could come around. This was a great relief as it was starting to get a little close for comfort to not have address details. Just talking to people here and there, I quickly found that there were quite a few members of Rods who sang in NYC, about 4 of which who would be heading down to London after the course. All those who knew Dan said that he’s a great guy so I look forward to meeting him and getting into London music.

Another one of the checks that the members take is in the form of a voice lesson. I sang for Kevin who asked me to sing my prepared pieces for him, including Der Lindenbaum, parts of the Mozart aria and Sea Fever. After that I sang some scales and did some exercises before we sat down to talk. I asked about teachers in London and he advised that I contact Mark Wildham at the royal academy of music. He was happy with my performance and said that I should take a diagnosis lesson with him and go from there. I plan on contacting Mr Wildham soon to try and organize a time in 3 weeks when I come back to London. After talking to Kevin, I took the chance to ask Lisa, one of the staff on the panel whether she had any tips on the Laudibus audition I had tried before. She said it was really just as I had suspected an requires not much more than just practice. While asking about other groups in London, she also mentioned this group of London based NYC singers called Chantage. This group meets once per week (Wednesdays I believe) and would be another nice singing opportunity if I have any spare time. She also thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to contact David Trendell when trying to find a suitable voice teacher.

After all of this advice and a little bit of grounding in the process of auditioning, I prepared myself for the up and coming solo auditions. The first one on the list was called Pueblo Sunrise, a real belt up. Coming into this one, I felt quite confident since a couple of people from my section had already recommended that I give it a shot. While the Laudibus audition was a private audition, the solo part ones were done in front of the other contenders, providing an excellent opportunity to hear the other voices in the choir in a solo capacity. This little listening session reminded me how lucky I was to be singing with these people.

Day 4 marked the first of some sectional specific theme days. In this case, we had Soprano 2 attitude day. This theme embodied itself in the diva personality of the soprano and involved the donning of sunglasses (only in the evening) and all black cloths. This would be followed later by alto Love day, Tenor 2 pride day and Bass 2 water pistol day. Yet again this is just another little NYC quirk that helps to break the monotony of continuous daily rehearsing with a bonding dose of humor within the participating sections. In the afternoon I had a one-on-one with the spacey Alexander technique teacher who had come to help on the course. This was a rather surreal experience since the most part of 40 minute lesson was really just consisted of surrendering one’s body to the likes of this rather crazy haired person who seemed so chilled out she could have come straight from the 70s. Most of the session comprised of laying on ones back in the ‘semi-supine’ position as she slowly stretched each one of your limbs into the theoretically correct positions. After about 20 minutes of this mostly silent exercise, I would slowly stand up and find myself in this new, more sustainable and efficient position. Two main pointers for me were to stretch my shoulders away from each other and also to lean forward slightly more to achieve a straighter lower spine. She recommended that I find time (about 10 minutes) to occasionally to lay down on the carpet and lay in that position to become more familiar with the position. If there is anything I have learned over this long course, it is that good singing posture is essential to good vocal stamina. Just 20 minutes of bad singing in a slouched position would always leave a lasting diminution in the day’s vocal status. For this reason, I took those pointers into mind during rehearsals, trying to achieve that back position and avoid shoulder tension. I think this concept of posture, along with a good morning warm-up and proper on-the-voice singing has kept me running for so long under heavy rehearsing conditions. Having got back to the main rehearsal after the lesson, I was told that they had rehearsed Pueblo Sunrise while I was away, one of the pieces I had hoped to get a solo in. In this run, my name had been mentioned but another singer had sung instead in my absence.

There were more auditions and vocal works on the next day. Today the audition was for a bass solo in Lux Aeterna by Edward Fissinger. This went without much fuss, stating my interpretation and what I would give if chosen. I knew my chances were slim given the quite light tone they likely desired for the cantor like lines. I just had to give it a go really as one can’t know the aim of the conductor until the position has been allotted to a singer. Some interesting remarks were made later in the day where Kevin (my voice teacher for the course) held a workshop. He made some points about the role of head voice and the desire to extend the head voice downward and add the sonorous qualities of the chest voice as the two registers become more interchangeable. Ideally this desirable blend can be maintained through a wide range, achieving the ability to control volume and tone superiorly by using the registers as needed.

Rehearsals continued and a couple more auditions popped up which I tried for in vain where narrative character was a crucial component. By this time, I had I great idea of how the other singers in the choir sounded. To think such a great collection of soloistic singers could come together for this choral project and still all blend so wonderfully in the group context.

Soccer at lunch was a great way to pass the 2 hour break we had that day under the unusually bright sun. This delusion of summer was quashed no longer than an hour after kickoff with a rainstorm that even came with a decent rumble of thunder. This rainy reminder of England’s more typical weather patterns forced us once again into cover and to the next rehearsal. After some talk in the rehearsal about the next NYC event being a recording of new works by Karl Jenkins, I asked Mike about the conditions of my membership in the Main Choir and he said he’d be happy to have me there and at the Easter course. It was around this time that Mike also said that I would be able to do the Pueblo solo in the concert. It would be another 2 days before I would get the chance to perform the solo with the rest of the choir.

The 25th of August saw the institution of pink day where everyone wore some item of pink clothing. Two days later, in similar fashion we had pyjama day. This day also included our Bass 2 outing to the pub in Bloxham where we had our customary Bass 2 steak and chips with a pint of British lager.

Upon return, I made a call to the UCL housing authorities. I was very pleased to hear that I had been accepted into Ramsay hall, my first preference for accommodation close to UCL. I immediately contacted the hall and accepted my place and asked them about early arrival. Luckily for me, the earliest possible arrival day is the 20th of September which also happens to be the day I have booked for arrival from Sweden. Once reminded about issue of accommodation outside a choral course and having found that there would be no accommodation provided immediately after the concert in Coventry, I realized I’d have to book a room for that night. After a short time I had checked up different hotels near Coventry Cathedral on Google maps and had called to book a room at the simple but effective ABC motel, about a 5 minutes’ walk away.

Just as we were getting comfortable with the repertoire, it was time for recording. For this tour, we would be recording 5 tracks at Merton College Oxford, in the same chapel where I had been the week prior for the Eton course. The acoustic of this chapel was ideal for the recording of all 140 of us with an extensive array of microphones surrounding our position at the high alter. We began with the recording of the ‘Tau Bet’, a powerful piece by Augustinas in Estonian. This recording would be the last in a lengthy affair of producing the NYC Baltics CD. After a good 90 minutes of patching and re-recording, we then split into 2 groups, one group doing one piece each, giving each other group a little time to recover for the next recording session. I was in group X which concentrated on an arrangement of Mozart’s Lacrimosa by Mindaugas Urbaitis. Our session took another solid 90 minutes of pure concentration. After a well-deserved break for lunch and a stroll around the commercial outlets of Oxford, we returned back to the chapel for the last frontier. This last piece of music was Totus Tuus by Gorecki, a piece I was familiar with back from the Winthrop Singers in 2008. This piece is an absolute marathon, repeating the same set of words to the same tune in a very repetitive way, getting softer and slower from start to finish. While the effect can be quite eclectic, the performance is very tiring. We struggled to keep our tone throughout the recoding but after the allotted time had passed; we had a version of the song that would be ready to be added to a CD for pieces by the same composer. With the recording session only finishing at 7pm, we had no hope of returning to the school for a meal within an hour so it was time that we were released onto the dining institutes of High street. We stopped at a chain bar (All Bar One) with some nice food to take us through the night. Following this time-restricted meal, we all made our way through the rain and darkness to the coaches. Some people crammed into the bus still wielding their drenched pizza boxes having picked something up for the hour long trip back.

At this point of the course, we only had one more day of rehearsing left before the big performance day. This passed lightning fast as we skipped from song to song, checking on known hot spots in the music and working on the finer points of tuning and sound production.

Concert day came, its onset defined by minimal warm-ups and rehearsals in the early morning before being bussed to Coventry Cathedral. As we arrived in the city, it was apparent that there was a real contrast between post and pre-war buildings. Historically, Coventry was very heavily hit by German air raids during the Second World War. This could not be demonstrated by any structure more than the decimated ruins of the once colossal pre-war Coventry Cathedral. The remaining segments of stone wall and window frame faced onto the English retort to the destruction of the wonderful building. The new Coventry Cathedral is a concrete tribute to the old cathedral and makes a very modern take to the cathedral concept. With the vast interior space, walls adorned with impossibly heavy carved stone plaques quoting selected bible passages and a wonderfully high ceiling, this building makes a comment of defiance. I have never been in such a vast but modern building. The stain glass had a theme of minimalist depiction of religious figures, the sculpted roof defied all traditional designs and all of the interior furnishings had obvious intentions to be new, rethought to move into a new time and place rather than dwelling on the ruins outside. Centred in the cathedral, in front of the choir stalls was the highly tiered stage that we would be standing on for the concert. Despite the height of this 5m staging, it looked dwarfed by the thin but high ascending pillars and the massive depiction of Jesus covering the whole rear wall behind the high alter.

We moved downstairs to our holding rooms before the concert, changing into our dinner suits when I realized that my mobile was missing. Having just used it earlier on the bus and having had it in my pocket all other times, I had absolutely no idea where it could be. While this was an issue of vast distress, it was not something I could attend to with the concert starting so soon. All I could do was to put it out of my mind for the moment and think of the task at hand.

The concert started with our 3 choir configuration, split into three lines that would give the audience some serious stereo sound for the Guerero ‘Duo Serafim’. Moving on to our Estonian piece, we produced some incredible chords that rang all the way up and down the building with the great Russian depth of sound that this music required.

Having rehearsed all of our stage movements on, off and to the sides during the dress rehearsal, we also tried out the choreography of the Pueblo Sunrise where Dave and I would be the tribe leaders/soloists, leading the choirs on for the second half of the concert. This was scary but much more exciting than anything else, being able to fill the vast space with the first word after interval, driving a top D into the roof in full voice with all the strength of a 140 amazing voices coming in in stages behind me. Being able to sing in front of this group made me very proud to be a part of the NYCGB and to sing with all of the people I had come to know over the past 2 weeks.

Towards the conclusion of the concert, we sang some American inspired tunes taught to us by Robert such as Spiderman, John Henry and Rocks and Gravel. With the end of the course looming, it was a matter of trying to give the best result, making a lasting impression on our audience, closing with the spirited El Cascobel and Meguru. The last song provided an opportunity for those leaving the choir to have a little ad lib solo time as the rest of the choir slowly moved to the back of the cathedral and down the stairs humming the background accompaniment.

Recordings of the 2010 NYCGB Summer concert at Coventry Cathedral

The post-concert atmosphere was full of an eclectic mix of triumphant completion and of sad goodbyes. With the concert over, all of the members slowly drifted out of the basement foyer and off to nearby homes or with family for a long drive home. I said my farewells, exchanged my contact details as best I could without having a mobile any more and then found a group who would be carrying on at the pub for a while after. I decided to join them and also that it would be best to stay with people before making my way to the ABC motel I could no longer navigate to without a phone. Following a pint and a conversation about Cambridge entry to a choral scholar of St John’s at the nearby pub, I got some rather vague directions from a taxi driver outside and made my way towards the motel. It was 1am in the Sunday morning when I made my way through the seedy clubbing district of the city, eventually making my way down a dark, short road where I found the back door to the motel. Having checked in, I found myself having been given a free upgrade to a 2 bed suite with a fridge, kitchen sink and very nicely appointed bathroom. With the addition of fast Wifi, I was set, shooting off all of the necessary correspondence to begin phone retrieval operations. Having called home for the first time in 2 weeks, I was ready to sleep and ready myself for the next big leg of the English choral adventure.

Over the course, many people had asked me about choirs back home and how the NYC compared. To this I could only say that it was a matter that hinged on the history and culture of the place. The outcome of the English church music tradition is a unique and wonderful thing. With all of the traditional institutions that have been training young children to sing in the country and with a sheer size in numbers. This mix of population density and choral culture makes for the best capability for youth singing that I know of. With that in mind, it becomes possible for this sort of fully auditioned, sight singing capable group to emerge. While there is an astoundingly strong group of singers back in Perth, their number is sparse and the number of young new singers coming up into the choral ranks is low. This is why when I say we don’t have something like the NYC in Perth to the people on the course and they say I should start something similar; I say that it is not so easy. I don’t think it is possible for these large high quality groups to arise back in Australia just because of the numbers game coupled with the distances we deal with. When I asked admin about the number of applications for the National Youth Choir of Australia, it numbered at only 20, 18 of which were accepted into the choir for the Adelaide tour. This shows the contrast in demand for such a choral exercise and how far people will go to get it. Having now tasted the glorious sound of such a tight nit group, I am already beginning to wonder how I will manage when I come back to Perth having experienced all of the singing opportunities that England has to offer.

For the next week I will be in London, singing with a rather different group, the Rodolfus Choir with Ralph. After this, the music will just keep on coming through the King’s College London Chapel Choir and also in late October when I will sing ‘The Armed Man’ by Karl Jenkins with the NYCGB in the Royal Festival Hall in London. With all of these events and opportunities popping up without having to even look for them, I know it is going to be a very musical year.

1 comment:

  1. The armed man will be such a good concert! I really enjoyed that piece back when WAYC was running. I don't think Perth will ever have such a huge group of talented singers in a position to form a performing group. We certainly have potential to form chamber sized ensembles of a high quality. However, it would take some work and would really need a director to enforce a stringent rehearsal schedule and to that naturally will be added the already existent social framework between the singers in Perth.

    I must say the opportunities for music performance over there sound amazing. I am really glad you are experiencing such high calibre of choral ensembles.

    I love NYC's approach of section characters and family bonding. Can't wait to hear the recordings!

    Ariel xxx