Thursday 18 March 2021

My life as an amateur singer

(in seven tweets)

Stephen Cleobury, CUMS chorus, Spem in alium rehearsal, 1985-ish:
"Girl in the yellow shirt, you are singing *too* *loud*."

Tim Brown, Fairhaven Singers rehearsal, 1988-ish:
"You're sticking your head forward like a chicken."

Martin Freke, Fairhaven Singers post-rehearsal pub session:
"Your voice has an almost tactile quality."

Francis Steele, consort singing course, 2005-ish:
"Beck, we can always hear you. You don't need to worry."

Robert Hollingworth, Company of Musicians workshop on Peter Phillips, 2008-ish:
"You sang an absolutely straight note that blossomed into something rather lovely."

Eamonn Dougan, chamber choir course, first sing-through of Gombert's Media vita, Poitiers, 2011
"What a nice voice you've got, Beck."

Robert Rice, strolling through Kensington and responding to one of my wilder suggestions:
"As your singing teacher I advise against it."

Oooh, and Edmund, who told me that my Victorian drag performance of 'Burlington Bertie from Bow' was better than the Julie Andrews one. I thought so too!

My lifelong thanks to:

Dave Howells, who founded Yateley Choral Society in 1979 with me as an alto, my dad as a bass, and later my mum as another alto (and changed my life – my first choir (my school was crap)).

Ian De Massini, who founded Cambridge Voices with me as a soprano, and enriched my life for thirteen years.

Anne Roberts and Francis Steele, who started Verte Musique music courses and invited me to the first one (a week that changed my life – I was that marketing quote).

Berty, who took me on as a pupil. And, uniquely, isn't fazed by *any* genre of music.

Wednesday 10 March 2021

Singing to sleep

Someone on Twitter asked what lullabies we sang to our children, and I thought I'd copy my answers here for posterity. I deliberately chose songs that I liked very much, started singing them to my bump before Sasha was born, and kept to a limited number of songs, in the hopes of creating a Pavlovian response. 

My songs were: 'Grey Funnel Line' by Cyril Tawney, learned from the 'Silly Sisters' record made by Maddy Prior and June Tabor (I used to swing this in an abridged version at baby and toddler group, and Sasha was especially chuffed to always get the extended remix version with two extra verses).

And 'Morningtown Ride' by the Seekers. Learned from my grandmother's record. She had three singles: the Seekers with that and Georgy Girl, I think; Edith Piaf singing Exodus / Milord; and Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini (what was the B side??). All her LPs were Slim Whitman albums. She was a strange woman. 

One of my fondest memories is of singing a carload of children to sleep. It's a powerful thing to do, isn't it? And sleeping children smell so lovely. 

Sasha, now 14, starts crying if I sing just the first four notes. "Don't mind the rain..." Actually, so do I. Sniff.

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Giving up the Holy Ghost

Hilary Mantel's autobiography 'Giving up the Ghost' is one of the most interesting books I have read for a long time. This is possibly one of the more mundane bits, but I have lots of friends I think will appreciate it. 

" 'When the last tear, the forerunner of my dissolution, shall drop from mine eyes, receive it as a sacrifice of expiation for my sins; grant that I may expire the victim of penance, and in that dreadful moment, Merciful Jesus, have mercy on me.' 

Note that excellent semicolon. People ask how I learned to write. That's where I learned it." 

Mantel was born in 1952; I was born in 1965, and like her brought up as a Catholic: I went to a Catholic comprehensive for my secondary years. But by that time, post-Vatican II, there was no poetry in the religion at all. I don't think I ever heard a phrase that captured my imagination. 

Possibly the beginning of John's gospel, but I remember my father (C of E) talking to our priest and being very appreciative that he'd read the older translation in mass, because the new version was so awful. At the last church service I went to, at Christmas (C of E: I was there to sing), it was misquoted, and I came home to check I'd got it right: I had. 

Even if it I'd been born early enough for the Catholic services all to be in Latin, I doubt I'd have been seduced for very long: words have always been the thing I care most about, and you can't care about words without caring about their meaning. 

I was an agnostic by thirteen years old, and an atheist by fifteen. But it would have been good to have got something out of the experience other than a huge burden of guilt. It was only a few years ago, learning about Buddhism, that I realised what a foul black stain it leaves. 

As for me, I learned my semi-colons from H G Wells, along with a hefty dose of science.

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 Café, 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.