Author Archives: Liz Nicholas

About Liz Nicholas

Liz is a passionate community music leader, working primarily with adults in different settings. She believes everyone can sing and make music to a level that gives them pleasure and a way of expressing themselves.

Starting Again

Tonight is our first live choir rehearsal for 448 days.  That’s extraordinary.  I am very excited and very nervous.  What if I’ve completely forgotten how to conduct?

I know some of my singers are nervous too, worrying that they have forgotten how to sing. Those of us who have sung during the pandemic have done so on our own. We have got out of the habit of adjusting to singers around us, and watching a conductor in real time.  I’m going to put an emphasis on listening and looking tonight, staying responsive to what is happening around us, because the physical fact of being together with 30 people is going to feel very unusual.

I have no idea how the choir will sound.  You cannot get a lovely blended sound when each voice is 2m away from their closest neighbours.  Will the sound just fly away in the open air? I am going to try singing at a wall, so that we get some reverb back from it.  It is always difficult, we have found, for each singing part to hear the others properly when we are performing outside.  Now that will be even harder, since they will be spread so thinly and the two sides of the choir will be 9m away from each other.  I’m going to amplify my voice, which I’ve never been comfortable with before, but I think it will help me to feel that I’m not shouting.  I need to talk to the singers gently and support them as they take their first steps into singing together again.

I am prepared for the sound to be different – I think it’s going to be very moving and exciting just to hear the singers’ voices again after the Zoom-on-mute experience.  I hope everyone will be able to relax and sing naturally – at least by the end of the session.

I attended a fantastic conference run by the Association of British Choral Directors a couple of weeks ago, talking about the emotional aspect of starting to sing together again.  One of the speakers, Liz Garnett, talked about how our nervous systems behave when much-anticipated events happen.  There is a rush of adrenaline and everyone is in a fight/flight mood.  This is not just any choir rehearsal, this is an M&S… oh sorry, no, this is our First Rehearsal After Covid.  It is much more like a performance than a practice, because we’ve all been longing for it for so long. There is great potential for people to be overwhelmed, and it’s helpful just to acknowledge this and be prepared for it. As the leader of the choir, I’ve decided not to sing our “Banging Greatest Hits” tonight but some gentler, more meditative songs to try to counteract all the excitement.

I have many new props for this rehearsal.  My old simple kit list was music, music stand, register, tuning fork.  The new list adds in keys for the walled garden, microphone and amplifier, mini PE cones, 2m measuring stick, clipboard, sanitiser, mask, spare mask, labelled copies of music for singers, and tissues.  Because whatever happens tonight, I think it might be emotional.

WARNING – RANT APPROACHING

This blog is always my personal opinion, but I don’t usually get emotional.  I have not used this platform before to have a full-on red-in-the-face rant.

However, there’s a first time for everything. There is only one thing on my mind to write about this week, and I am furious.

Ever since the road map was announced in February, choir leaders have believed that from May 17th, with risk assessments in place, Covid-secure venues, physical distancing and good ventilation, we would at last be able to sing in the same room as each other.  All the leaders I know have been working hard to get everything organised for a return to hearing each others’ voices.  We have prepared our singers for limited numbers and a strict booking system. We are responsible people who like to get things right.

On Monday 10th May, Mr Johnson announced that easements planned for Step 3 would go ahead on May 17th.

On Tuesday 18th May, without any hint of this in advance, we were told that non-professional singing could only take place indoors in one group of six.

That’s the DAY AFTER Step 3 came into force. The timing of the announcement, together with it being completely out of the blue, adds insult to injury.

This delayed announcement makes me feel simultaneously that singing is a Cinderella activity that is only thought about at the last minute, and that we have been singled out for an undeserved punishment.  Indoor sports are allowed, as long as they are organised by a charity or official group.  Brass bands can play indoors again.  Compared to a dozen sweaty people running about in a sports hall, I think our plan for 19 people to stand still and breathe in and out in a large church is reasonable.

Is it that we don’t generate enough income for the economy?  The money involved in community music is paltry compared to pubs and football matches, but not insignificant to me and my fellow choir directors.  Nor, in fact, to many professional singers, who rely on paid engagements with amateur choruses. This feeds into my suspicion that too many people think that anyone who can bash out a tune can lead a choir, and that running music groups mostly done by volunteers.  

There is no good reason for this change in the rules.  Government-funded research was undertaken last summer, and as a result, singing was allowed again in August. Many choirs rehearsed safely in the autumn, following strict guidelines.  We never managed it: by the time we had a venue and had done all the risk assessments, infection numbers were on the rise and we felt it unwise to go ahead.

Singing in a choir is the most wonderful remedy for depression and isolation.  It brings people together across political and social divides, bringing proven benefits both physically and psychologically.  Creating beautiful music with others brings an unbeatable sense of joy and belonging.  It means a great deal to the people who take part.

We have all been longing to sing together again. The sense of disappointment and betrayal is palpable. Keep the faith, singers.  Write to your MP. When we raise our voices in song at last, it will be very sweet indeed.

Breaking the Rules

Music in four-part harmony, for four voices of different pitch, has been written since the sixteenth century.  When I was at school, I was required to write music according to the rules. It made composing very hard work, and I always felt I was creeping through an obstacle course trying to avoid all the pitfalls.  There are so many things you have to avoid. Parallel fifths and octaves, doubling the leading note, and omitting the third are all capital crimes. “Unsuitable leaps” are also a no-no.  

These rules of harmony, as I understand it, were developed in the 1800s based on the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, who had already been dead for over 50 years.  Let’s make this clear: Bach wrote sublime music, and he did not write any rules for other people to follow.  The rules were reverse-engineered. People who like rules and instructions dissected his work and from it extracted patterns which shaped the lovely harmonies he created.  These have been fossilised as “the rules for harmony” ever since.  This is an interesting sentence from a current A-level textbook:

Overlaps (where the bass leaps higher than the tenor’s last note) and part-crossing (when, for instance, the tenor sings higher than the alto) are best avoided, although they were used fairly frequently by Bach. 

This makes it explicit: Bach did not follow the rules of harmonising like Bach. 

Generations of musicians have now learnt to harmonise in the style of Bach. Examinations – both A Levels and practical Associated Board exams – still require this rigorous exercise. 

Nowadays I love writing and arranging in four-part harmony. The big difference is that I am writing something to be sung, and it is not going to be marked.  The official rules are in my head, but I choose not to follow them.

My priority must be that the song is singable, which has two factors to it.  First of all, each part must be in a comfortable range for the person singing it – not too low, and not too high.  My community choir singers are not professionals and we don’t like squeaky voices, so the top note for the soprano line is five or six notes lower than you would find in Bach’s choral works.

If the soprano does not go very high, and the bass does not go very low, we will be left with plenty of potential for voices overlapping. All our tenor singers are female, so the alto and tenor lines are in much the same range. If they don’t overlap, they end up very monotonous.    

This leads us to the other aspect of singability: a singable line has to feel good in the mouth and appeal to the ear. The notes must move up and down, otherwise it’s boring and difficult to learn. When the voice jumps from note to note, it should not be too surprising. I’ve taught a couple of songs with awkward jumps and often people leave them out, make up something they like better, or sing that section very loudly to show they’ve got it right and throw the balance off.  There are good reasons, then, for avoiding “unsuitable leaps”.

Sometimes, though, when I’ve written a section and played it back, it doesn’t sound quite right. That’s when it’s worth dusting off the rule-book – if I fix the crimes against Bach, it often sounds better!

Singers with feathers

At this time of year, birds are singing industriously from dawn till dusk. It’s sound that lifts the heart – for me, anyway.  I once spent a May night in a lodge at the Glencoe ski resort, and they had a notice pinned up which said, “Sorry about the cuckoo”.  I loved him cuckooing his heart out till 11pm in the light evening, but I guess some guests found it irksome. 

Birds don’t sing for us, they sing for each other. Why do humans find the sound so appealing?

Birdsong includes squeaks that are harsh and metallic like a train braking, rasping croaks like frogs, hollow woody sounds and sliding whistles. They rarely sing what we might call actual tunes.  Their notes change pitch and don’t use our human-invented scales. They have rhythms but rarely a sense of pulse. This means they fit the definition of “noise” rather than “music”. Nevertheless, birdsong appeals to our human ears and can fill us with joy.

Birds’ voices work differently to ours.  Their amazing anatomy means that they can not only sing while breathing in, but make two noises simultaneously.  Birdsong can be incredibly loud compared to the size of the creature – particularly the diminutive wren.  Luckily emus and ostriches don’t have the same volume to mass ratio, otherwise they would deafen everything within earshot.

Learning birdsongs is something I’ve said I’d like to do many times.  It’s only in the last 10 years or so that I could reliably identify a blackbird singing and my progress is slow.  There’s a lovely bit in one of Simon Barnes’s books – it might be How to be a Bad Birdwatcher – where he and some friends are outside a bar in Slovenia naming the birds they can hear, and the waitress says, “And so you can tell which bird it is just by listening?” in the same awed tone of voice as she might say, “And so you just turn the water into wine?”

Lucy Lapwing is a birder who does lovely social media and she has put up some Youtube videos teaching birdsongs.  She takes them one by one, and she says this is how she learnt, listening repeatedly to one song – for instance, using a recording of the song as a ringtone.  She had the song of the blackcap as her ringtone for so long that she still can’t hear a blackcap without putting her hand to her phone.

I am very much enjoying my journey from all birdsong sounding like generic “birdsong” to it being a collage of many individual voices – ooh, there’s a nuthatch.  Sometimes I even say out loud, “Who are YOU?” when I hear a bird I don’t know.  But I don’t think it matters whether you can attach a name to what you hear – it is still a delight to know we are sharing our space with other, non-human singers. 

Getting Down to Basics

It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? Getting rid of all the fol-de-rol and the bells and whistles, so that you can concentrate on the essential things.  

I’m thinking about this particularly with regard to music, and the teaching of music.  A year ago, I thought all my face-to-face work would disappear and I’d be destitute.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen and I managed to maintain a high percentage of my work, keeping many people engaged with music in their own homes.  But at the beginning of the pandemic, I came up with a project I could do – not to make money, but to connect with people and help them learn about music.

I thought my idea was a simple one: make a series of YouTube videos explaining and illustrating the basic principles of music.  There are plenty of tutorial videos out there, some of them very good, but many more are too complicated, too simplistic, too excitable, too dull, too confusing, too American, or just plain wrong. I wasn’t aiming to be an influencer, just to find a way of doing what I do in Covid times.

This project has been on my “To do” list for a year now and it has not progressed very far.  I tried making a couple of videos and I discovered several things. Firstly, that I look really grumpy if I’m not actively smiling.  Secondly, that I say Um quite a lot.  And also that even when I understand things well, off the cuff I don’t always describe them clearly.  There were technical things too: the microphone I bought didn’t work and getting the lighting right was tricky.

I was aiming to keep each video short – five minutes or less, to suit the medium.  This was why I was trying to really pare back to the essentials.

I started off with what I thought was a basic building block of music.  Easy, I thought, I will just introduce this one concept.  Soon, though, I realised I’d used another word that had a specific musicky meaning which needed to be explained.  So maybe THAT should be part one and this other thing should be part two?

There are many terms in music that are words we use in everyday life.  Words like bar, note, pulse, beat, even high and low – when you use them in a musical context they have a specific meaning.  In addition, some words like note* and beat have more than one meaning, and it’s worth spending some time on precisely what is meant.

*Just to elaborate on this one: This can mean 1. the sound you hear, 2. the symbol on the page or 3.the physical thing you press down on a keyboard.  These are three quite different things.

I’m glad I had this idea. I haven’t scratched it off my list yet and it has really helped clarify my thinking about the fundamental elements of music. Even if I don’t upload videos, it will inform my teaching.

I am now filled with admiration for everyone who makes a half-way decent video on YouTube about anything. Especially music.

Knowing a piece in your bones

Today I am going to talk about the physicality of music.  It is sometimes seen as an intellectual pursuit, but we make music with our bodies.

This is, of course, true of everything we do. We can only live our lives through this one body we have been issued with.  Changes in your body – whether that’s through the passage of time, hormones, an accident or illness, even gaining or losing weight – will affect many of your daily activities, including making music.

Last week I talked about ageing and how it affects the voice.  We all know having a cold affects the way you sing, and if you have burnt your left index finger on the oven it will affect your piano playing.  That index finger might affect your singing, too, because it will take a bit of your attention away from your focus on your voice, and there might be some tension in your left shoulder because you keep fiddling with the little burn.

Learning to make music, whether with the inbuilt instrument of your voice, or another instrument, is a process of physical training just as much as learning to run or do keepie-uppies with a football.  Improving your scales or learning the bass part of “Hail, Smiling Morn” are not things you do purely by mental effort.  You embody the learning and develop the physical habit of getting the music as you want it to sound. 

It may be more obvious with an instrument like the piano, because you can see your fingers on the keyboard in a way you cannot see the physicality of singing.  You cannot see your vocal cords, or as they are called more accurately these days, vocal folds. Your breath is invisible.  But look at all the physical structures that enable you to make a sound:

For every instrument the music works better when you involve your whole body.  Breathe deeply, stand or sit in a balanced way, and don’t let anything be tense that could be relaxed. Engage your core muscles.  Then you need to practise the music.  Using your ears to know when it’s right, go over it in sections until it’s right all the time.  The messages received by your ears – and if you are reading music, by your eyes – start making neural pathways to your fingers or your larynx.

The wonderful thing that happens when you have spent the hours going over and over whatever it is you are learning, is that your body remembers it without your brain having to get involved at all.  Thinking too much, in fact, can put you off your stroke. If you consciously prepare your body to get in the right position for the beginning, hands on the keyboard or feeling where the first note sits in your voice, your body will perform the music and you will experience a wonderful sense of flow.

This really struck me when we sang before Christmas on the hill in Meersbrook Park.  Someone suggested we should sing “Hail, Smiling Morn” and we just went for it.  None of us had sung it for roughly 360 days, and it was marvellous.  We knew it in our bones.  Each of these songs we learn is an invisible gift we carry around with us and they are priceless.

The Voice as We Age

It always makes me sad when people choose to leave the choir, but the reason that makes my heart hurt the most is when people say, “I’m too old. My voice is going.”

I always try to talk them out of it, but usually they don’t tell me until they have thoroughly made up their mind to leave.  I’ve always felt that singing together is tremendously good for us and that we should keep it in our lives as long as possible.

It is a universal challenge: we are all getting older, and the modish hair colour in most choirs is grey or vibrantly dyed.  So I have been looking into this and I have great news – science is on my side.

The British Voice Association lists all the physiological changes that can affect our voice, and some of them are surprising.

  • muscles weaken, including those in the face, the neck, and between the ribs
  • joints stiffen and the spine loses some of its flexibility
  • hearing deteriorates
  • tooth loss affects articulation
  • lung capacity diminishes
  • digestive system is less efficient – acid reflux often causes hoarseness
  • neurological input becomes less effective, affecting balance and coordination
  • forgetfulness means remembering words (and learning new lyrics) is harder

I know, it’s a daunting list.  Not everyone will experience all of these things, but it’s interesting how the voice is intrinsically linked to our whole body.  Voice problems can be a symptom of something systemic, and a weakness in an area we think of as unrelated can affect our voice, both in speech and singing.

Now for the good news.  One of the best things to do to keep your voice strong is to join a choir

The best way to maintain – or improve – the quality of your voice is to keep using it.  Talk, do vocal warmups and exercises, and sing!

Singing keeps the voice working well, improving breathing and wellbeing.  Singing requires you to breathe a little deeper, stand a little taller, and project your voice more.  It can actively improve your speech in terms of volume, articulation and confidence.  Doing breathing exercises will help you control your breath, use more of your lungs and tone up the intercostal muscles and the diaphragm.

If you feel your voice is becoming weaker, you could try improving your general health:

  • Regular exercise helps your muscles, your breathing, and your balance.
  • Keep hydrated (pee pale – your pee should never be darker than straw-coloured)
  • Have a healthy varied diet
  • Don’t smoke
  • Reduce alcohol consumption – for the acid reflux and neurological impact
  • Keep mentally active (choir is good for this one too)
  • Have your hearing checked and consider a hearing aid sooner rather than later.

Yes, our voices change as we age, and you may mourn the fact that your singing voice is not the same as it used to be.  Try to observe and accept this. Sing more often – not just on choir day. When it comes to choir, maybe try singing a different part. Swap to soprano so that you can hear the tune better, or move to tenor if you feel uncomfortable singing the high notes.  As always, let your director know if you need to hear something again.  As a choir we value our members’ unique voices and we want people to keep feeling that they belong. 

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.”

Learning to Listen

Recently I’ve been trying to learn bird songs with Lucy Lapwing, and it’s delightful to be able to pick out individual voices, rather than hearing a general noise that is all “birdsong”. She recommends using a recording of the song you are currently learning as your ringtone.

You hear people say, “Classical music is boring,” which shows that to them, it all sounds the same.  This is a shame, because there is so much variety to enjoy. Listening more, picking out small pieces and repeating them until you can identify them, is the way to go.

In the first week of Music A-level, our teacher Mr White gave us a test.  There were ten opening phrases of famous classical pieces and we had to identify them. Luckily, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was there but it was the only one I knew.  I could read music well enough to sing the tunes in my head but naming the pieces? Nope.   I felt stupid and hopeless. What was I doing studying Music A-level when I knew nothing?

There was one where the second half sounded a bit like Star Wars.  I wrote down “Star Wars”.  I didn’t like to leave an answer space blank, so I filled in something for all of them.  (It was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, and I still think of Star Wars when I hear the second phrase.)  

The result of us all doing so badly in this test was a wonderful lesson called General Listening.  Every Thursday morning we would spend an hour listening to music and talk about its features. What makes Beethoven so Beethoven-y? What gives you a clue that this is Brahms?  It might be the choice of instruments, how long the phrases are, a particular pattern in the bass line. The harmonies and how they are used often give you a pointer about what era the piece was written in.  We talked at the end, or when the music was off, and he didn’t like us writing notes. Mostly we just had to listen.

These hours on a Thursday were absolute magic. Rather than a lesson, it was like a banquet. I couldn’t believe we were allowed to do this.  Mr White inspired me to take records out of the library and to monopolise the sitting-room while I listened to little sections repeatedly to try and remember them.  Because it was a school lesson it gave me authority to do this – I would not have listened so intensely or methodically without it, and I have not done so since.

There is no great secret, beyond listening many times. Some specific vocabulary helps to categorise what you hear, and singing melodies somehow takes the knowledge from your brain into your body, deepening the learning.

I’m eternally grateful for those lessons, and not just when watching University Challenge.  There is still a whole ocean of music – even within the mainstream classical back catalogue – that I don’t know. But I have pegs I can hang things on – composers and pieces I know that provide reference points. My ears can pick out the difference between a clarinet and an oboe.  It’s accessible to me because I learnt how to listen.

MUSICAL DIRECTOR’S REPORT 2019-20

Next week we are having a choir get-together which will act as an AGM. Usually we’d have this in the autumn term but, well, it was 2020. 

This is my report looking back on our choir year of 2019-20, which runs from September to August.  This means that we had just over half the year before the Covid lockdown, and I want to make sure that we don’t ignore the first half of the year because the second half was so unusual.

We started the year with our annual visit to Apple Day in the Walled Garden at Meersbrook Park – we sang Singing in the Rain in the rain.  We sang Together in Electric Dreams particularly well and despite the weather it was a lovely community event.

At Christmas we revived A La Nanita and learnt I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. We sang a set in the beautiful setting of the Upper Chapel one Saturday morning, and then sang it again to three men and a dog (and a few choir family members) in Leopold Square, before venturing onto Fargate, which was heaving.  We sang at the atmospheric St Paul’s carol service and in the streets of Meersbrook, squashed together, quaffing mulled wine, finishing with a party at Chris and Jan’s.  We took it all for granted!

The new year started with enthusiasm – we had 47 people at the rehearsal on January 20th, which is a record. Quite unexpectedly, we were asked to do a performance at the beginning of March, at The Light cinema to celebrate the film Military Wives. This was a new venue for us, bringing our songs to a new audience, it was under cover and we got free tickets for the film – a success all round! I’m so glad we decided to do it, little realising it would be our last performance for over a year.

I’ve been re-reading my email updates to remember what life was like immediately before lockdown. We were excitedly planning for our weekend at Unstone Grange, our fourth residential there, and feeling disappointed that Street Choirs was not going ahead when we’d booked our accommodation 360 days in advance.  

Then Covid-19 stopped being something that was happening on the other side of the world and we had to stop singing together. It was such a shock.  I decided to set up Zoom rehearsals as soon as possible, and we started well, with over 20 people attending quite regularly.  Over the months though, the numbers dwindled. People were zoomed-out after hours on screen for work, they got fed up with only hearing their own voice, or they found other things they enjoyed more.  

We thought we would only be locked down for six weeks, or maybe twelve.  I read articles by choir leaders who were saying “No singing together until we have a vaccine”, which seemed impossible and alarmist at that time. 

As we reached the end of the school year it seemed we might be able to think about singing together in the autumn – sadly, it wasn’t to be, but I’m glad we did the risk assessment and the planning, because it will help us as we return later this year.  

I started lockdown worried that I would have no work and no income at all, but I’ve been very busy throughout. I have tried my best to deliver entertaining musical sessions online, and to keep the blogs and emails positive and musical.  I worry that I should have done more, that somehow I could have kept more people engaged for longer.  But it’s impossible to replicate the choir experience – the feel of your voice in a space, mingling with other voices – and I am grateful that so many people do still feel like they are part of our choir.