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.

Nature, sound and silence

I was sent a survey by email today, about music and how the score of wildlife documentaries affect the viewer’s perception of the creatures they are watching.  I almost shouted “Yes!” out loud.  Almost all the wildlife and nature programmes we watch have a human-created soundtrack on top of them and it really affects how we think about the pictures we are seeing.

The survey used out-of-copyright pieces of classical music, which was distracting because they are familiar, unlike the scores we usually hear in these programmes.  However, it certainly highlighted the fact that if you see a shark swimming elegantly along with menacing low strings playing, you think, “Killing machine”, whereas if it had ripply harp arpeggios, you might just enjoy its sinuous beauty.  We are so used to having background music, though, that we don’t always notice it – or that our responses are being affected by it.

I have particularly enjoyed a segment that’s been introduced in Springwatch and Autumnwatch during lockdown – the Mindful Moment.  These are 90-second-long pieces, all exquisitely filmed, but I think they are especially meditative because they only use the sounds of nature rather than imposing a human soundtrack.  The audio is, of course, collected and edited by a human and I’m sure the fish we see jumping may not always be the fish we hear, but the intention is for us to value the sounds that belong to the natural world.  

At the beginning of lockdown, last March, there was an audible reduction in human-made noise.  The natural sounds of birdsong, woodpeckers drumming, and water running were easier to hear and carried further, even in the heart of town.  The qualitative difference in background noise was something to savour on every walk around the park.  I think it’s encouraged me to listen more closely to natural sounds, so that I hear them better even now the background is noisier again.  When you first hear hidden noises, you start to listen out for them, and then they become more obvious.

Much as I love music – and I do – there are times when I do not want to listen to it. If I am outside I like to hear what I am seeing. I like the wind in the trees, the rain on leaves, whether the stream is rushing along full or trickling quietly.  If you look at apps or recordings for relaxation, most of them involve natural sounds.  The sounds themselves are soothing, but if we listen to them while looking and paying attention to whatever makes them the effect is amplified.  Our eyes and ears work together creating sensations that connect us to the natural world;  it takes us out of ourselves and away from our own concerns.

Listening to nature, we have to create a silence and be comfortable in it – no chatting, no rushing, no music. This is not always easy, but it always helps to find a little calm and mental space.

Accessibility and Musical Excellence

There is a big decision to make at the beginning of any group musical activity.  Are you going to audition, or are you going to welcome everyone who feels like coming along?

I’m going to talk about choirs specifically here, though the same values hold for instrumentalists, whether violinists or drummers.

If you audition, you can choose the people who already know what they are doing to some extent.  You get a chance to hear them singing on their own and make a judgment about their voice.  You might want to choose people who can read music, which might open up more complex repertoire.  You can choose people who have sung in a choir before, so they are used to following a conductor, and singing a part that is different from the group two feet away. You run the risk of not attracting enough people who meet your standards, but sometimes people like the challenge of an audition, and the feeling of achievement if they are one of the chosen ones.

However, if you welcome everybody, you will get more people coming along, and you are automatically going to get a more diverse bunch of people.  You are sending the message that singing is for everyone – anyone can do it – and it brings us together. 

There is a risk that by emphasising that there is no audition, and no need to read music, that you will put off people with musical experience.  Some people worry that this means you are not serious about the music, that if a choir allows people with less experience to take part, the quality of what is achieved must be low.

This is simply not true – an audition only tells you what people can do now, and not what they are capable of doing. A choir learning a song together develops every member’s singing.

The skills of being able to remember and sing back a melody, and hold a tune while other people sing a harmony, are learnt by doing. You learn them by being in a choir.  The quality of each person’s voice is unique, and the blend of different voices produces the choral texture we enjoy.  In an “everyone welcome” choir, songs are learnt partly or wholly by ear, although we also use printed music as part of our learning. Interestingly, most auditioned choral societies and chamber choirs offer sound files as well as sheet music these days. These are just means to an end, steps on the journey to making music.

I know for a fact that our choir, with our all-inclusive policy, sings beautifully, with good tone, expression and musicality.  A friend who has only ever sung in auditioned choral societies literally couldn’t believe how good we sounded when she heard our performance at the City Hall in May 2018.  Those results do not come from people being able to read music, or sing a solo. They come from singing, over and over again, listening, refining, and thinking.  It takes time and dedication, and the more each individual sings, the better we sound.

The wonderful Frankie Armstrong said it best, when talking about choirs that welcome everybody,

“It’s not that we don’t have high standards, but we have deep standards.”

SINGING TOGETHER

Last week I mentioned the radio programme Singing Together, and in the BBC Archive I discovered a feature Jarvis Cocker made about it.  With apologies to Jarvis, much of this post is stolen directly from his broadcast. 

Singing Together started in 1939.  It was put together as the evacuation of schoolchildren started on the 1st of September and the first programme aired on the 25th of September. I found the wartime accounts very touching.

Here’s a quote from Brenda Jenkins, a young teacher from Ilford who was sent to teach evacuees in Mansfield.  

“Some of them, I’m afraid, were very sad. They had contagious diseases, I would have to take them to the doctors, and they were very little to be away from their parents…  Singing Always Helps… It didn’t matter if you sang well or not, nobody cared, nobody noticed, because you were singing together.  Boys could sing as loudly as they liked.”

The selection of songs followed simple rules: each programme should have a song with a beautiful melody, a song with a rousing chorus, and a nonsense song.  I love this precise definition of songs that are fun to sing.

The first presenter was Herbert Wiseman, a Scot. 

“From 1939-1946 I was privileged to teach new songs, not just to children but to mothers. Mothers, I’m afraid, deserted their Monday morning washtubs to join us. I’m still touched to meet, from Caithness to the Isle of Wight, from Newcastle to Ballymena, some of these mothers who remember singing with us.”

The war disrupted social groups and families.  Schools would suddenly have people missing, or new people arriving. You can feel alone in a group, but even when you don’t know the other people, singing together creates a team spirit. Ask any football crowd.

The programmes were very popular but the BBC top brass were snooty about them:

“A very jolly social occasion but can hardly be considered musical training”.  They were even described as “an obstacle to more extensive musical training”.

The aims of the programme were not to learn formal musical terminology (which is often what people mean by musical education) but to encourage children to sing together and increase their repertory of songs.  Musical instructions were very simple (try not to shout). 

Teachers noted that “children developed rapidly in the art of picking up a tune.”  What is that if it’s not musical education?  The more you listen and sing along, the better you get at remembering the shape of a tune, and the faster you will learn new tunes.  Generations of children learned songs they remembered for the rest of their lives.

Singing together is a powerful shared experience and we are missing it greatly at the moment.  We are all isolated in our own houses. We are fortunate to have access to a huge variety of recorded music on our different devices.  It’s very easy to sing along to music as an individual in 2021, but it’s nothing like singing with other people.

Projects like our own Indoorus Chorus and Opera North’s Couch to Chorus offer the nearest thing we can to singing together.  It’s a live event. We are all singing the same songs at the same time, joining in with recorded voices.  Perhaps it’s not that different from those little evacuees sitting in a school hall far away from home, with dozens of strangers. Or their mothers, back in the city, neglecting their Monday wash to sing along with their faraway child.

Singing Always Helps.