You don’t have to sing like a lark


Robin in an apple tree

“The woods would be very silent if no birds sang but those that sang the best.”

I love this little quotation so much I’ve got it on my business cards. It sums up what I’d like to convey to people about singing in particular, and music in general.  Just because someone else does it better is no reason for you to give up – or never start.  Birds sing because they want to tell other birds they’re alive.

Sometimes I go on courses and I’m in a room with a whole bunch of other people who earn a living through music.  One of the most noticeable things – every time – is that during the introductions a lot of people will say of at least one area of music “I’m not very good,” and admit during the tea-break that they feel very aware that other group members know more, play better, or have nicer voices.  Music is such a vast ocean of experience – all the genres, the instruments, the technology, the different cultures and histories – that even if you do nothing else for years you can only paddle in a small corner.  Sometimes it seems that the more you learn, the more you become aware of the size of the ocean you know nothing about – so the most skilled musicians are often the most humble.

Kittiwakes in Durham

Kittiwake is the name of my business.  Kittiwakes are one of the gentlest of the gulls – not aggressive like herring-gulls and the vicious great black-backed.  They have a call which is incredibly distinctive but not praised like the lark or the nightingale.  They live on the wild edges of Britain, laying their eggs on the narrowest of cliff-ledges.  There are kittiwakes colonising the Tyne now (thank you to Eileen for telling me about them), finding little ledges on buildings like these in Durham, and they call from underneath the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle.

In Pembrokeshire they thrive alongside pilgrimage birds like puffins and Manx shearwaters, birds that people travel hundreds of miles to see, and nobody notices the kittiwakes very much.  But they sing their individual song and without them the whole seascape would sound completely different.

Some birds are lucky enough to be born a nightingale, or a lark, whose songs we humans like the sound of.  Some are like the great tit, which sometimes produces really tuneful little scraps of song but spends most of its time sounding like a squeaky wheelbarrow. That’s not going to stop it singing.

Some of us humans have the genes that give us a melodious voice, or a wide vocal range,  or the sort of brain that learns tunes quickly.  We all have a voice which is individual, unique to us, and precious.  And we are lucky enough, like the mocking-bird and the parrot, to be able to learn other people’s songs too.



Some thoughts on Hallelujah

Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen is pictured on January 16, 2012 in Paris. Leonard Cohen's new album "Old Ideas" will be released in France on January 30. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET (Photo credit should read JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)RIP Leonard Cohen, a beautiful man with an extraordinary gift for poetry and melody. His voice was soft and yet strong, his words moving and surprising but flowing easily, never showing off.

I wrote the following as a diary entry a few months ago, probably on hearing another lazy cover version, but didn’t publish it – and suddenly this week I have had several requests that we sing “Hallelujah” as a tribute.

We’re not going to sing it in choir.  It’s a beautiful song. I love the sweeping compound rhythm, the melody that pushes upward step by step before reaching a peak and subsiding, the chorus of a single word repeated four times. The music is not fancy, but it’s far from pedestrian.

I’m not possessive or prescriptive about songs I love; I am not anti-cover-version. Jeff Buckley sings Hallelujah perfectly, with pain and reverence, longing and gratitude, desire and fulfilment.

What I hate (not sitting on the fence here) is people singing a song without listening to the words, without thinking about the emotions. Leonard Cohen never wrote a careless word and the recent adoption of Hallelujah as a default audition song seems disrespectful.

Each verse of this song paints a very specific picture with resonances of the Old Testament, the ancient stories shared by Jews and Christians, but overlaid with an intimacy that makes it clear that the shout of Hallelujah is as much about physical ecstasy as religious awe; and the hushed Hallelujah is the word of wonder whispered in the afterglow.  God can be found through music and desire, he is saying; these things can take us to spiritual heights and depths.

David, who in the first verse finds the secret chord that heals King Saul and pleases the Lord, in the second verse is overwhelmed with desire which leads to his undoing. It conflates the stories of David who saw Bathsheba bathing and wanted her so badly that he sent her husband off to die on the front line, and Samson, whose legendary strength was lost when he submitted to Delilah and she cut his hair.

This song is absolutely not (another religious borrowing) an anthem. It is a song from an individual to another individual revealing complex emotions. It is not something that a block of people can feel all at once or express all at once.  I have heard choirs of children sing it, which feels quite wrong even if the most explicit lines are edited out.

There are enough poor versions of this lovely song in the world – we won’t add to them.

If you would like to see a brilliant choir version of a lesser-known Cohen song watch this video of a flashmob in Sydney.

The hopes and fears of all the …

Not the years, but the choir members, have been shared with each other over the last fortnight.

I asked people to share one thing they’d like to do with the choir one day, and one thing they hoped the choir would never do – with very interesting results.

choir-vision-and-values Click on this link if you want to see the whole list.  I was interested to note that some of the things on the hopes and fears lists were things we have actually done.  We have sung songs from a show, and done some actions, which were both on the fears list – so is this a plea never to do such things again? Or did these comments come from people who have joined the choir since we did them?

There were some lovely ideas about future events – some which would be quite easy to organise, like a walk and a picnic, and some which would take more effort, like an exchange visit.  Several people wanted to do more concerts where people actually listen, rather than us being (ignorable) background music, which is a marker of our increased confidence.  Importantly, there was nothing that I felt was completely out of the question, nothing “over my dead body!”

When it came to the “I hope we never…” I was very pleased by a couple of people just finishing the sentence with the word “close”.  Some of the most popular statements underlined our key values of accessibility, inclusiveness and welcome. I too hope we never have auditions, wear a uniform or take part in a competition.

 So one thing to consider with the more ambitious Hopes is that they will not be accessible to all our members. A trip abroad would need money, and time away from home, and a passport, and the ability to undertake a long journey.  Some of these are already limiting factors when we just go to somewhere in this country for a weekend with Street Choirs. And doing a significant new experience together, away from home, is very unifying – so the people who don’t come might feel left out or that there is an “us and them”.
Our core activity is singing together. What the choir does is sing together on a Monday night in a school hall in Sheffield.  Anybody who comes along and shares this activity is one of us, part of the choir. The other things – the performances, and trips, and parties and committee meetings – are optional extras.

Not averse to Verse

Merely Poets are a duo, one of whom sings in our choir. The Mere is from Meersbrook and the -ly from Heeley, (for foreigners, the former is our little patch of Sheffield and Heeley is the patch next door) so perhaps it’s really Meerley … hey, that rhymes!

Anyway, Linda and Cherry have been writing Poems to Go, on any subject requested, and Linda has produced this lovely tribute to the choir..

Merely Voices

for Liz Nicholas and Carfield Community Choir
A voice can be a whisper in the night
A murmur of intriguing titbits on the bus
An angry joust of hot opinions
Or a demanding question -rise and fall,
But in our neighbourhood, in our school hall
We warm our voices in their fullest ranges
We stretch our voices and our knees,
We form a circle of our highs, our lows
We sing in tongues from many lands, some understood,
We sing in rounds, for we’re not squares.
And then our MD brings our glory out-
With wit of her arrangements
The beauty of our four or even six parts
And we tell stories with our harmonies,
And sing the world, and each of us to rights.
I’m not going to analyse it to death, but I particularly love “We form a circle of our highs, our lows” and “sing the world, and each of us to rights” which capture the healing quality of singing with others.


Every so often somebody asks us to perform somewhere and it requires a certain repertoire.  We generally have a repertoire that rolls around, a mixture of songs old and new – I mean this in both senses, things we’ve sung for ages and things we are learning for the first time, and songs that were written last year or hundreds of years ago.  Learning from a couple of experiences, I am now reluctant to learn a particular song for a particular event or even one particular person if I don’t feel we’ll use it again – because that means 30+ people putting in a great deal of time and effort over weeks or months.

However, when we were singing at the Walled Garden in May, someone came along from the volunteers at Bishops’ House, a brilliantly preserved half-timbered house at the top of our park. (See the photo above.)   She asked us if we could sing some Tudor songs for their Autumn Fayre in October, and I thought, why not?

appleIt falls on the same day as Apple Day, which is celebrated across the park in the Walled Garden. This year we had a BIG concert on 3rd September, and then this little window of 5 rehearsals before the twin feasts of Apple Day, at the bottom north-east corner of the park, and the Tudor fair at the top south-west corner.  What could we do in five weeks?

First of all, what have we got in the back catalogue? We learnt Greensleeves four years ago when other people were getting giddy about the Diamond Jubilee, so that’s on the list.

Many people believe Greensleeves was written by Henry VIIi, but apparently it is definitely after his time – though it is still Tudor.  And then there is Non Nobis Domine, a lovely chant we learnt in the very early days of choir and it sounds ancient. I re-scored it for three parts when we had no reliable men in the choir but we had not sung it for years and it would be nice to go back to the four-part version now that we have a strong bass section. With a minimal amount of Googling I found that this was as Tudor as 1988, written for the Kenneth Branagh film of Henry V.  Still, on the list it goes.  (The battlefield scene where it is played is utterly heartbreaking- have a look on Youtube).

What is quintessentially Tudor? Why, Shakespeare! Let’s find a traditional setting of a Shakespeare song.  “When that I was an a little tiny boy” from Twelfth Night, for instance.  There is an old tune to this which is used in all the “authentic” performances – but I now discover the tune is  by Joseph Vernon, 1738-1782.  Not Tudor. Not even Stuart. Definitely Georgian. But it’s very Shakespearean, so we will add that to the set.

We are adding in a couple of rounds which were definitely a-round in Shakespeare’s day (Hey Ho, Come Follow, and Gaudeamus Hodie) and also Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, without which no Apple Day would be complete.

And finally, Henry VIII was a real musician, and did write songs, probably the most famous being Pastime with Good Company, which we are singing in three parts. It is not hard to believe the words were written by a famously wilful and high-living king; a brief paraphrase would be, “Having a good time is good for me, and anyway, who’s going to stop me?”

So our Tudor set is a mixture of real and fake, but overall I think it conveys a historical atmosphere and is, crucially, both fun to listen to and to sing.


Bread and Roses

BreadRosesToo-hardcoverI’m going to tell you a story now. It’s about a tall factory where too many people, mostly young women, worked long hours making clothes they couldn’t afford to wear.

The owners of the factory were so afraid that their poor workers might cheat them, by taking breaks, or by stealing materials, that they kept the doors locked during working hours.

So when a fire broke out among the scraps of cloth, there was no way out. The factory was on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the building and the workers could either burn to death inside or jump out of the windows to certain death below.

146 people died that day, 123 women and 23 men. The youngest two were 14 years old. A few people including the owners of the factory escaped by fleeing to the roof of the building. The owners were eventually fined 75 dollars for each victim. Their insurance company paid out the equivalent of 400 dollars for each casualty.

This was in New York in 1911. Something very similar happened in Bangladesh in 2012, and just because they are in far-away countries doesn’t mean those lives don’t matter.

In the heart of this industry was Rose Schneidermann, a young women who stitched cap linings, and she was speaking out about the conditions women worked in. Many of her recorded speeches are those to middle-class women who were sympathetic, and gave money and held meetings. After this fire she spoke bitterly to them: “I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

Later she expanded on this:

“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”

The phrase was picked up by a male activist, James Oppenheim, who only a year later, in 1912, turned it into a poem.


The words have been set to music more than once but we are singing my favourite, written by Mimi Fariña. You may not have heard of her but you will probably have heard of her older sister, Joan Baez. Mimi was as musical and beautiful as Joan but her musical career took a detour when on her 21st birthday her husband died in a motorbike accident.

Mimi took the words of the poem and created not just a song but a movement – an organisation called Bread and Roses, which still takes music into institutions – hospital, care homes, juvenile detention centres and prisons. She died in 2001 aged 56.


The shape of things… (particularly tunes)

In music, the gaps between the notes are more important than the notes themselves.

This sounds like a quotation from a handbook on either philosophy or the obscure end of nuclear physics – but it’s true.

You can start a tune on any note you like, to suit your voice or your instrument.  Whether the tune sounds like what you intended, or not, depends on you getting the right gaps between the first and second, second and third note, and so on.

sonnez les matines
Midi screenshot

This is a picture of a melody in midi format, a very neat way of showing sounds on a computer.

Each dash is a note. If you have good eyesight you will see that the black background is a grid of small rectangles. On the left, the piano keyboard shows which note the horizontal dashes represent.  Up and down = pitch.

The columns represent time: how long each note is and how soon the next one is played. Short and long = rhythm.

As long as the pattern of dashes stays the same, the tune will always be the “Sonnez les matines” line from Frere Jacques.  The first note is the end of the previous line, by the way.

Midi graphics are helpful because they are very, very logical, in a way that standard music notation is not.  It is entirely obvious in midi, for instance, that the vertical (pitch) gap between notes 5 and 6 is smaller than the gap between notes 4 and 5.  Those notes (and the repeated ones, 11 and 12) are right next door to each other.

If you sing that line it feels as though all the notes for
Sonnez les mati-” are next door to each other. The midi shows you that some next-door neighbours are closer than others, and that it’s only that last pair of notes that are only one step apart.

This is a very long introduction to the latest “Term of the Week”, which is semitone.  It is so long that I’ve made it a post in its own right but we have finally got to the point.  That gap between notes 5 and 6, one step on the midi grid, that’s a semitone.


Musing About Music (the printed kind)

Musing About Music (the printed kind)

We had an interesting debate at our last meeting because one of our singers had asked for more help finding their way around the printed music.Modern_Musical_Notation

I need a printed score for the songs I teach to make sure I sing them the same way every time.  I know for a fact that if I just taught them from memory the rhythms would slip, maybe one note would go down instead of up – and before long we would have a new version of a song. Some songs, in folk and jazz particularly, do evolve with different singers over time – but for a choir there has to be one version that everybody sings.  If I taught “Gaudete” slightly differently every Christmas because I didn’t have it written down the singers would soon feel insecure about what they were supposed to be singing.

I don’t subscribe to the ethos of not sharing the printed music with my singers. Even if you don’t read music I think the score shows you how your part fits together with the whole, better than words alone.   I don’t like the implication, when you don’t share it,  that the written music is a special secret that only extraordinary people can read.  One of my missions is to persuade musicians* that reading and writing musical notation is a) helpful and b) not rocket science.

So, for most songs, I give the singers the score.  Not if they are very short (the songs, not the singers!) and can be learnt and remembered in a few minutes.

We decided to take two practical steps – one, to have a stock of highlighters so that each singer can mark the line they sing on the music; and two, that I will do a very very short mini-teacher-feature every week on a feature of printed music.

Rather than starting with the note names and the way different rhythms are shown, I am going to concentrate on the signs and symbols that tell you how to navigate around a song.

I’ll be publishing these little segments on a separate page here – let me know if they are at all helpful.

*Musicians – people who make music

Bag It Don’t Bin It!

Mini-clogs add colour-co-ordinated charm

We love our new choir bags, which arrived in time for Christmas! They are printed with the front page of our
leaflet, created by one of our members, and fairly traded from India by BIDBI, a lovely young Sheffield company.   Now we will have even more of a choir identity when we go out to perform as well as somewhere to keep our folders. Already individual members are finding creative ways of identifying their bags.

Earrings adorning a bag from the tenor section

BIDBI stands for Bag It Don’t Bin It and the bags are good quality and very reasonably priced too with lots of choice of colour, type etc. We were shown round where the bags are printed and everyone was very friendly. So our bags tick all our boxes!

Video (fun and) games

I’ve been wrestling with the video footage we took at our gig at the museum. It seemed such a simple idea, putting a little film on the site to give an idea of the performance.

It’s great, the video – but not ideal.  It was shot on a tablet and we were too loud for the microphone so I had to enhance the sound to make it sound like the choir. The full set is half an hour – it’s a daunting amount of video to edit and would be a huge file so I had to search for the best bits.

I’ve finally got the best bits of four songs (our favourites, the real belters, did not do themselves justice) and you can see the video here.

I made some interesting discoveries watching the footage – first of all I realised that I don’t stand as straight as I thought.  I bend my knees and wander about a bit so that I look as though I’m herding cats.

My beat is not as clear, as vertical as I would like.  It could be better. We’re about to embark on something rhythmically demanding so I am practising in front of a camera!

The other important thing that emerged was that my highlights included the second or third verse of every song.   None of the actual beginnings were spot on. Words and notes took a while to become clear.  In the worst, it took half a line before it was clear what key the song was in, and even the best were not as good as subsequent verses.

Terry Pratchett once described the difference between European and American people as this:
A European says: I can’t understand this person, what’s wrong with me? An American says: I can’t understand this person, what’s wrong with him?
The choral American is the choir leader who belabours the choir and itemises their failings without helping them to do better. I watch that video and know that it’s my responsibility to give clear, quick, signals that everyone understands and responds confidently.  It’s my job to rehearse in a way that means the start of every song is as good as the ending.

So that’s something to work on this year. Here’s to new beginnings!