Thursday, 12 September 2019

An introduction to folk song for singing teachers

I wrote this for a newsletter for the Association of Teachers of Singing (if you're a singing teacher and haven't heard of them, you should have (I'm their freelance administrator)) so it focuses on what I think you need to know if you're teaching students a folk song, but that also means that it covers the basics as I understand them; it also includes links to some of the singers I like the most, to give you somewhere to start...

Folk song is a rich and varied genre, but it does sit in its own niche, so it’s possible to know a lot of music but never encounter a real folk song. The differences between folk song and art song are what make folk particularly interesting to sing, so I was impressed when I discovered that singing an unaccompanied folk song is compulsory in ABRSM singing exams, and that you choose your own song. In Trinity, it's an option but each grade has the choice of just two songs.

ABRSM use the term 'traditional song', then define this as a folk song. 'Traditional' is a more nebulous term, so I prefer to use 'folk song', but the ABRSM definition is a good one: "colloquial and [has] no traceable composer." A folk song is essentially a song that has been passed around for so long that everyone has forgotten who made it up in the first place. If an art song is a crystal goblet with sharply defined facets, a folk song is like one of those bits of glass you find on the beach, battered by waves and pebbles. The power of traditional song lies not in precise effects but in having passed through many people.

Traditionally, folk songs were oral not literal – they were shared by being heard, not be being written down. The nearest analogy these days is a joke: you hear it at the pub and retell it later in your own words. Most songs exist in many different versions, and most folk singers will change the songs as they sing them. There is no reason not to combine different versions, or leave out some parts – there is no ‘correct’ version of any song, as long as the story makes sense. This means that you can easily adapt a song to fit the timing requirements: for grades 1 to 4, the song must be between one minute long and two minutes long; for grade 5 to 8, between one minute long and three minutes long. If you’ve found a song you like, a good place to find out about alternative versions is the Mudcat CafĂ©, a community of enthusiasts who collect and discuss traditional folk and blues songs.

Folk tunes tend to be based on modes (Ionian, Dorian and so on). If you haven’t encountered these, watch out when you are learning or teaching folk songs that you don’t ‘correct’ the tunes into what you might expect if you’re more familiar with major and minor scales.

Songs tend to have a strong pulse, but singers generally don’t worry about adding an extra couple of beats to accommodate the words, and when songs are written down they often have irregular bars. An example of this that you might know is Johnny Todd (if you’re as old as me you might remember this arrangement).

Singers generally add ornaments and vary the tempo rather than using vocal timbre to characterise the songs – the freedom of singing unaccompanied is hugely liberating as well as terrifying. Folk is all about telling a story, and putting the words across is the primary aim, taking precedence over beauty of tone. Folk singers tend to use their natural accents, with pronunciation as close to speech as possible, and comfortable keys to allow that. The ABRSM allows any key, and lets your pupil get a starting note or key-chord from the piano, so make sure they know what it should be.

It would be odd to sing in a language or dialect not your own, which is why I find the Trinity selection too limited. If you have a pupil whose first language is not covered by the syllabus, this can be a real opportunity: the ABRSM let you sing in any language, as long as you provide a translation or summary: at a recent area day, AOTOS members commented that some pupils were really liberated by being able to sing in their native tongue.

All the above characteristics mean that the best way to learn a folk song is not to read it from sheet music but to hear it. So I'd like to encourage you to seek out recordings rather than using books.

If you or a pupil have found a song you like, a bit of Googling will establish whether it’s really a folk song – generally, if it has a named author, it’s not, but Trad. arr is fine. Once you have a title (and have checked what other names the song might go by), explore YouTube. Recorded versions will often have accompaniment, but the songs will be fine without: folk was traditionally sung unaccompanied. Your pupils can find lots of versions of a song they like and take different bits from them to make their own version. They can change the tune and add their own ornaments; if the words don’t make sense, they can find out what they mean, or they can change them. There are no rules in folk!


Don't know where to start? Here are a few of my favourite singers, with a wide range of styles and voices.  

I've just discovered Bill Jones, who has a lovely effortless style – and what a great song.

Maddy Prior has one of the most distinctive voices around, and folk-rock band Steeleye Span have been part of the folk scene for nearly fifty years…

Martin Carthy is a giant of the folk revival, with a typical slightly nasal voice. This is a live recording and you can hear the audience joining in for the chorus and improvising harmonies – folk clubs are some of the only places I know where this happens.

Here’s singer Anne Briggs singing a traditional song in the early days of the 1960s folk revival.

June Tabor is a rare alto, and has a knack for finding terrific material (though she also sings contemporary music, so check carefully). Do explore the big ballads too, though you would have to think about what to leave out to keep them within the time limit.

Frankie Armstrong is a remarkable singer, another key figure in the folk revival; she’s recently become president of the Natural Voice Network, which some AOTOS members are also part of. ‘The Brown Girl’ is a song with lots of different versions, which Armstrong sings in a truly distinctive style.

Finally, even an unknown singer can be lovely. This is a good example of a song that's easy to pick up but would be fussy written down. I tried to teach it to a friend who's very classically orientated, and she just panicked... 

Beck back

Last time I tried to log in I couldn't work out how to, and as so often happens the struggle with technology made me so cross that I had to go off somewhere else for a bit. But it was one of those times when I had an article all written in my head, so it was REALLY annoying not to be able to decant it.

Anyway, here I am back. What a lot has happened since I stopped... Most immediately, I've been back to the twelfth century at Medieval Music in the Dales, playing some music of the period with a friend who I was a medieval troubadour with thirty years ago. Crikey! Picture thanks to Pam Ferris. I'd always meant to try to sing some Hildegard, and now I have... and in a wimple too (but everyone wore them back then, they weren't just for nuns).

Friday, 21 October 2016

Silence and slow time

I hope this doesn’t sound too poncey for words, but I spent last week singing music written by the Scottish composer Robert Carver. He was born around 1485, the year the Wars of the Roses ended with the Battle of Bosworth, and seems to have written some works when he was only about twenty-two. There were twenty of us singing a mass setting for ten voice parts.

This was an amazing experience for many reasons. The music was immense, overwhelming, magnificent: both huge and detailed, like the fan vaulting of King’s College Chapel. If you’re at all tempted to think of the fifteenth century as lacking in culture or sophistication, you hear instantly how wrong you are. And the harmonies Carver uses are more unconventional than what came later: there are chords you won’t hear in Bach of Handel, and would never encounter in pop songs or contemporary classical music.

The music also had a slow, intense pulse, called the tactus because it is the beat you would tap time to, and to sing it well you had to feel this, surrender to it. In later music it is quicker, but in Tudor music it is about 60 beats a minute – the same as a resting human pulse. To sing this music, we had to relax, slow down.

This has been a common theme for me, of late: I’ve been re-enacting, which means dressing up as a Tudor and attempting to talk like one, at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. To speak sixteenth-century English, the first thing you have to do is slow down. The words are shorter and the constructions simpler: if you gabble at modern speed it sounds ridiculous. But slow down, and you start to feel how it works.

Tudor shoes have leather soles. You can’t rush in them, or you’ll go head over heels. Tudor clothes are made of linen and wool and fasten with laces and buttons. You can’t dress in a hurry: you have to take your time. These are not modern clothes that you drag over your head: they are made to fit you exactly, and many re-enactors, including me, sew every stitch by hand.

Modern life has many advantages: unlike many Tudor women, I’ve been taught to read and write, and I’ve survived childbirth. But by golly we’ve made our lives complicated, and the rate of change seems to go on accelerating­. If I’ve learned one thing from my time in the sixteenth century, it’s the wisdom of slowing down.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

God's property

I went to the Soho Theatre last night to see a new play – God's Property, by Arinze Kene. Nigel, who's one of my regular culture companions, and I had realised we were seeing a lot of Shakespeare and opera, but nothing much that was new, so our visit was the result of that. (In fact, it all started when I read Peter Hall's autobiography a couple of weeks ago. Really interesting, and he was somehow breathtakingly ambitious but low on ego. A local boy, too – when Hall was at Cambridge, his father was station master at Whittlesford, the nearest rail station to here. Anyway, there's a great moment when he's about six weeks into his first job as a director of a London theatre, and the script of Waiting For Godot lands on his desk. His experience with that, and his willingness to innovate, made me realise that my theatre experience had got rather fossilised.)

Last night was remarkable. The theatre is a great space, very like the Young Vic and the Donmar, with long benches and no prescenium arch. Below us was an eighties kitchen, and the first thing that happens is that a black guy comes through the door carrying a bag and some groceries. He goes upstairs to see if his Mum is at home. The door opens again for a younger guy with a guitar, and when he sees the first he pulls out a knife. From that moment, the drama never lets up.

There are some lovely moments of humour, but where the play really works well is in ratcheting up the tension. What struck me most is how beautifully it's constructed; the entry of new characters and the revelations of the plot are perfectly paced. There are no lulls, and no false steps. The dialogue is batted to and fro like a ping-pong ball, and the humour feeds into the drama. We were on the edge of our seats for most of the ninety minutes, and I spent the last ten minutes at least in tears.

None of the actors seemed to miss a beat at any point – all four were utterly believable. The lighter scenes also had me almost in tears, remembering what it was like to be sixteen and in love. Ach.

I'm going to be a regular customer of this place, I think. In the bar afterwards, I heard about at least two other plays and one cabaret act that I've just got to see!

More info at the Soho Theatre site.

Also this week.... I read J K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, and enjoyed it more than I expected to. I don't get on with Harry Potter: Rowling's world never strikes me as fully realised, and the way some characters are realistic and some farcical, so you can't tell who you're meant to take seriously, makes me uncomfortable. This novel avoided those pitfalls, and made the most of her ability to wind a lot of plot strands together. I thought her range was impressive, too: it's the characters at the bottom of the hierarchy who have stayed with me, and they're the ones who don't get to be in many novels.

Oh, and lastly: go and see Medea at English National Opera: it is bloody amazing. 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A moderate feast, and a silent opera

To the Young Vic last night, to see Feast - reflecting a resolution I made after seeing A Doll's House and Three Sisters there, to go more often. They seem to be doing some great work at the moment.

Feast was a slight disappointment, partly because it seemed a little over-hyped in the reviews. I went expecting to be exhilarated and was only really charmed.

The reviews had somehow led me to expect swirling costumes and beating drums, a whirl of colour - African cliches, perhaps? What was on offer was more thoughtful and measured, but sometimes lost its momentum. Ideas floated - the first actor on stage encouraged audience participation, but this didn't happen again - but then sank.

The evening was a sequence of playlets moving through history. The stage effects were great, the acting convincing, and the dancing excellent, and there were a couple of charismatic narrators, but what it lacked, for me, was a really strong narrative or any really dramatic moments. There was a little bit of everything, but not quite enough to bowl you over. Would I have minded, if I hadn't expected to be overwhelmed? I'm not sure....

Feast reviewed in the Telegraph.

Feast reviewed in the Independent.

And even Michael Billington in the Guardian liked it - which should perhaps have worried me, as he doesn't generally share my taste (he seems to loathe the Globe, for instance).

The friend I went with agreed with all this - but, as he pointed out afterwards, we haven't actually seen anything we disagreed about yet.

Last week I went to see the Silent Opera doing Monteverdi's Orfeo. That was fun as I went along with an acquaintance who's an opera director, so applied a critical, professional eye to the production. He was less than impressed, I'm afraid. For me, it was interesting to see how the gimmick had run away with things. In this case, they had continuo instruments - harpsichord, theorbos, harp - but no strings, brass or wind. The audience were all issued with wireless headphones, and the singers and instruments were miked up, but you only got the effect of the full orchestra if you wore the phones.

But there's something about having headphones clamped on that really distances you from the action - my friend and I spent the production taking them off at every opportunity. Suspicious minds might have seen it as a ruse to save money, since all those sackbuts didn't have to be paid to be there. But the other snag was that if you'd have taken out that element, what was left wasn't quite good enough. The staging was okay but could have done so much more: we'd expected to crawl through tunnels and get trapped in Hades; in the event we simply shuffled into the next room and went up some stairs and then down again – more like being on the tube than anything else. Not knowing the plot, I had no idea at what point we – or Orfeo – were crossing the Styx, and so a lot of the drama passed me by. This seemed a rather basic point not to have made.

It also meant that the chap I thought was Pluto was really Charon, though he did get the lion's share of the music - which was a shame as the singer wasn't up to it, simply ghosting the low notes. I happened to know the bass who sang Pluto, but my friend (who didn't) agreed that he'd have swapped the two singers. Pluto had a lot of groping, snogging and fumbling to do; there was rather a lot of That Kind of Thing, in fact, with a whole lot of dancers whose only function was to writhe on scaffolding. Which is fine if you want set-dressing, but you could have paid to have the sackbuts there instead. Not just for the ethics of it – having recorded musicians when you could have live isn't polite - but for the energy they bring: I really missed the visual aspect you get from string playing: the energy and rhythm of all those bowing arms, and the visual drama of sackbuts, which are beautiful things.

What I assumed should have been the pivotal moment – when Orfeo loses everything in a moment by looking back at Eurydice – was also oddly fudged. I thought I'd missed it: then Eurydice didn't seem terribly keen to stay anyway. It was all a little odd - whether it didn't go as planned or the effects were misjudged, I wasn't quite sure. The moments of really effective drama were mostly driven, come to think of it, by the quality of the music and the singing. The messenger who brings news of Eurydice's death to the wedding party sang her part beautifully: that was the one moment that brought tears to my eyes. And Orfeo's final raging, right across the audience, was very effective. A word for Musica, too, who had a lovely voice that rang out in her solos and also shone through the choruses.

On reflection, losing the mikes, the headphones and the ranks of mixing desks, and focusing on using the space effectively (considering what a schlep it was to find the place, we'd expected something more unusual), might have paid off better. I wondered if the problem with this kind of endeavour is that it's easy, once they're completed, to watch the finished product and point out exactly how they could have been improved. But there were a few terribly trendy elements to the  production which seemed to demonstrate that the gimmick was rather the point, and that the desire to be fashionable might have taken precedence anyway.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

What happened to feminism?

We had a very interesting week a month or two ago: in the same week we went to see 'The Taming of the Shrew' at the Globe, and 'A Doll's House' at the Young Vic. 

They were both terrific productions, I thought. I've always liked the idea of playing Petruchio as a clown, someone who's unconventional but has worked out how to do it within the boudaries of society, and wants to teach Katherina how to do the same. The BBC production years ago cast John Cleese in the part, and it worked very well. The Globe's actor went rather further, and the shock value was great. Their Katherina was what's always called 'feisty' so it was interesting to see what they'd do about her final speech. You can play it as Kate taking the piss rather to win the bet, but that's a bit of a cop-out; instead they played it pretty much straight.

What was interesting, at the Globe, was to feel - physically feel - how uncomfortable this made the audience. At first it felt like disbelief - was Kate really saying this stuff? How could she possibly mean it? Wasn't anyone going to stop her? And then it slowly turned into shock - she really was going to say it, and apparently without irony, and actually all the people on stage were in agreement with her. The sense I got from the audience was that, despite everything that they'd seen in the play, they hadn't really realised that this was, once, how some people thought. It made me want to look really closely at the text to decide whether it's possible to deduce if Shakespeare is actually over-egging it at this point, or whether you can read it as a statement of his values.

What clinched it was that we had much the same experience watching Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' at the Young Vic.At the point where Torvald, the husband, talks about how he's always seen Nora as the child that he took over protection of from her father, there were gasps from the audience. How sexist! How could he say that! What was Ibsen thinking of.... I wanted to stand up and shout - "This is how it was! This is what decent people thought in 1879! THIS IS WHY WE HAD FEMINISM!"

Both were very strange experiences. Have people somehow forgotten that things were once different? Do play audiences not know that the position of women in society has changed dramatically in the last hundred years?

I suppose there's a side point too, that it's crazy to expect the work of the past to conform to the orthodoxies of the present. I've always strongly disliked the tendency of feminist criticism to accuse the works of the past of not being feminist enough – how could they have been? And you can't demand of all writers that they be politically aware. Gah!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Henry V at the Globe

Saw a terrific production of Henry V at the Globe on Wednesday. Unusual - but really no reason - to have a female chorus. And when she said 'this wooden O' (about thirty seconds in) my eyes filled with tears to think that once again it was literally true.

I didn't know the actor - we don't really watch television apart from the odd thing on iPlayer - but Henry himself was terrific. He was very good at conveying the physical effort: lots of wiping of brow, wincing at bruised hands, and so on. And good at doing the thinking between scenes, so they developed without words. And those tricks like coming in before the other person has stopped - because you're not meant to know exactly how much the other person is going to say. But more importantly, he brought the words to life and said them as though he understood them, and they were relevant, without losing the poetry. The set pieces were truly inspiring - I felt moved to cheer louder than I ever have at the Globe, and standing in the yard is a great inducement to cheering. I wanted to boo the French, too, but nobody else did. (I also laughed at a few jokes that nobody else did - not use whether that betokens great subtelty in my understanding of Shakespeare's lanugage, or simply reflects how many of the audience don't have English as a first language.)

The actor playing Katherine was lovely in her first scene, but almost the only quibble I had with the production was that she didn't yield enough to Henry's courting. I'm sure you could make a strong case that the character wouldn't; but dramatically, I felt it needed her surrender as a princess to reflect the surrender of the country. But I like the way that the concluding dance often supplies a consummation that hasn't had quite enough time to play out in the drama. That's one of the many things I like about the Globe.

Another is the interval treats. They've always done nice nibbles and things. This time there were very classy burgers, and some good-looking frankfurters. Cider at £5.90 a bottle seemed a bit much, though.

What I don't like is the website, which in the many years I've been using it has never had some fundamental usability flaws fixed. Find the play you want to see, find the date you can go, click Book tickets.... and start again from scratch. Do you want the Theatre, Education, Globe on tour? Oh, come *on*! It's as rubbish a user journey as you could hope for.. What could be worse than taking a user who's made a decision to buy, and forcing them two steps back in the process?

Get over that hump and you face a larger one. Your £5 ticket has a £2.50 transaction fee. Splutter! Some theatres - such as Cambridge Arts Theatre - host outside productions, and the booking fee is the only way to get their percentage - apparently, though it's another one of those things that you'd have thought they could equally just bloody well sort out among themselves, frankly. But the Globe has its own company and does its own productions. It has the same layout and ticket prices for every single play, so far as I know, so there's no reason why the ticketing process should be so frightfully complicated that it has to be subcontracted to an outside agency who'd have to take their rake-off. So why the fifty percent surcharge?

I asked at the box office when I collected my ticket, and the person there said "It's a transaction fee." For what transaction, I asked - using a credit card? That's only ten percent. "It's a transaction fee."But you don't have a ticket agency - "It's a transaction fee." (At this point the person next to me said "It's not worth it, they're just robots.") The staff member said "You don't pay it if you book by phone." And I said "WHAT??? I phone you up and use up your time and I don't pay, or I do it all by myself and you charge me a whacking great fee? What the hell are you doing?" "It's a transaction fee."

So there you are. Don't use their website: it costs fifty percent more than talking to a human being. Insane. And how stupid, that such a great institution should have one big fat lump of idiocy that sours the whole experience - which, apart from that, is stupendous.