Category Archives: Repertoire

The Art of Choosing Songs

It’s time to think about songs for summer.  (I’ve pinched this image, these are not my songs – but I really must check out “My Friend, the Dictionary!)

What do I think about when choosing what we are going to sing?  When we were first setting up the choir’s current structure, the idea of a song choice committee was mooted, and I confess I vetoed it.  I know there are choirs where this works, but not for me. I’m very happy for people to suggest a song, but as Musical Director I need to have the last word.  I may have used the phrase “benign dictatorship”.

Musically, a song needs to be appealing.  I like interesting harmonies, and each part should be fun to sing – no arrangements where the altos sing the same three notes.  A good choir song will be complex enough to be interesting, but simple enough to learn by ear, by heart. (Actually, those boring alto lines that only ever use three notes are really difficult to learn: the brain likes a melody.)

When it comes to lyrics, we need to be able to sing the words happily standing next to people we don’t know well – no Afternoon Delight or Nobody Does it Better. We’re not going to sing Delilah. I don’t choose many love songs and when I do, I like a refrain like “We’ll always be together, together in electric dreams.”  Overall, I like a song that makes sense when it is sung as a group, as “we” as well as “I”. 

We state in our constitution: 

The choir is not aligned to any political party or religious denomination. The committee and the choir performances reflect the commitment of the choir to issues … concerned with equality, humanity and respect and which celebrate the rich diversity of our local and national community. 

(A side note: I’d forgotten we used the phrase “national community” and I feel unsure whether there is such a thing – but I can see we thought “local community” was too limiting. I hope we have the capability to reach beyond national boundaries as well.)

I do seek out songs which chime with our values. Every time we say the lyrics together we express something about our identity, and it strengthens the group spirit. I like to sing songs in other languages to find kinship with people across the world.  They have to have musical worth, too. Worthy sentiments without musical interest won’t make the cut.

Not every song we choose is deep and meaningful.  There is always room for songs that are just fun to sing – The Sloop John B, Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree, Time after Time.

Over the past year, the over-riding theme of our songs has been togetherness and resilience.  We are all experiencing our lives separately and everyone has their own difficulties. It seemed important to get by with a little help from our friends, to keep our hearts good in the bad times, to put a little love in our hearts, accentuate the positive and to know that better times will come.   Most of these songs were in our repertoire already, because these values are exactly the sort of thing we like to sing about.

As we sing in Unison in Harmony, “What we sing is what we are.”

Marvellous Millennium Gallery

On Saturday we sang at Sheffield’s iconic Millennium Gallery, to support and raise awareness of the Refuge/e installation. AMP-Art have transported a real shelter, one of those issued to Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon, and erected it in the gallery space.  They give us a chance to walk through a real space, listen to people’s voices, look at their stuff.

Everyday things – shirts, plates, baby’s bottles, boots – have been frozen in time by being cast in plaster and brass. I liked this touch, and I liked knowing that it had taken quite a time.  It seemed to add a layer of distance and respect, this transformation of the ordinary into artefact, so that when as a visitor you walk through the space it is not just walking through someone’s home and staring.

The outside of the shelter is insulated with discarded advertisements – giant photographs incongruous and colourful. The two images on the Refuge/e shelter are a model wearing an elaborate wedding dress, and the president of Lebanon (upside-down).  The value of the advertisements is purely practical, in that they add vital insulation.

What should we sing to complement the exhibition? We had already embarked on learning a couple of songs before we were asked to perform and I decided to leave them in the set.

I ended up with a list of nine songs. Two were specifically written in response to the plight of refugees: Alison Burns’ haunting When Death was Behind Me and Kirsty Martin’s resolute Different Ships. We sang the lovely round By the Waters of Babylon (Philip Hayes via Don McLean), about missing one’s homeland, and we revived Ain’t Gonna Study War (Roxane Smith), an upbeat six-part anthem for peace.

We opened with Bambelela (Zulu for “Never Give Up”), and also brought in E Malama (A Hawaiian song calling for love and respect for the earth and sea.

And then we threw our other songs in – Aida Idem Jano, where we sing in the voice of a Bulgarian youth persuading his girl to come to the fair, and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More,  which went down well with the audience and had a poignant edge in the context. (“Emptiness is the place you’re in, Nothing to lose, and no more to win…”)  I have name-checked the other songwriters so here’s to Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, who wrote this beauty along with many other classics – most of the Four Seasons’ songs and the wonderful “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”.

We finished the set with a new addition – I’m Gonna Lift My Sister Up,  by Faya Rose Toure, who as well as writing a great song, was the first female African-American judge in Alabama. It’s simple to learn, easy to improvise harmonies to, and can be rousing or gentle. I love the simple twist in the lyric – not just saying that your loved one is not heavy, but “If I don’t lift her up, I will fall down.”  Sometimes being strong for other people is what keeps you going.


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 happened in New York in 1911. Something very similar happened in Bangladesh in 2012. A hundred years on, and the clothes bought cheaply by relatively rich people are still costing the lives of very poor people.  They are just an ocean away now.

In the heart of this industry in 1911 was Rose Schneidermann, a young woman 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.