Monthly Archives: November 2016

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.