Choral Holidays - Singing in wonderful locations

Posted under: "General Blog Post"

Mar 3, 01:49 PM

Basses In Ballet Shoes

I’ve just returned from Denmark where I completed my first overseas engagement at a choral director outside of Choral Holidays.

There are several church music schools in Denmark which teach people to become organists or church singers. These church singers, whilst they may have good voices, are not generally trained musicians and most have never sung in a choir. But these singers and organists are expected to complete a choral course as part of their diploma. For most, I think this course is a part of their training that they dread.

I had been invited to lead the course this year in the lovely village of Vestervig, in Jutland, a small but important location as it is the place from which the Vikings set sail to get to Britain. As a result it has an unusually large church, in fact, the largest village church in all of Denmark.

My knowledge of  Danish church choral music is sketchy, to say the least, and it seemed unfair to ask these people to sing in English to suit me (They already had to cope with me running the course in English), so I chose six pieces in Latin: Scarlatti – Exaltabo Te Domine,  Byrd – Ave Verum Corpus, Diabelli – Domine Exaudi, Pitoni – Cantate Domino, Ley – Prayer of King Henry VI and the Benedictus from the St. Cecilia Mass by Gounod.

We sent them the music in advance along with a learning CD but we got a few complaints from participants who, in the past have only been asked to do a few very simple Danish pieces: “We can’t possibly do these pieces. They’re far too complicated”.

My recent reading of books by Rhonda Byrne, amongst others, has taught me that, if you expect a magnificent outcome, that is exactly what you will get. Also,in my experience, if you make people comfortable and get them laughing, and if you get them to treat the music as a means of expressing themselves, it becomes intellectually much easier. If someone gets it wrong, that’s fine, we just work on that bit again.

The tremendous advantage which this group had is that those who are training to be Church singers had pretty strong voices and were used to the idea that they should use their voices to lead others. The sound they made, from a very early stage, was magnificent.

One slight fly in the ointment was that we had 14 bases, some of whom were quite strong and they sang with gusto and enthusiasm. That, in itself is great, but they tended to sing as if they were tramping through thick mud in enormous, heavy Wellies. “Sing as if you were wearing ballet shoes gents” I said. Suddenly, a beautiful, warm legato line was created. I’ll have to remember that in the future.

By the end of the first day, it was clear that, although we were working in some considerable depth on each peace, trying to get to the heart of the text and the composer’s interpretation of it, these people were up for a new challenge. At the end of the first day,  which had only really consisted of an evening session, we had already done considerable work on five of the six pieces. I suggested to Peter Frost, who was organising the course, that we might throw in the Hallelujah Chorus, just for the fun of it.

Few of the people on the course had expected to come this far in such a short time and they rose to the extra challenge with great enthusiasm, learning all the harmonies in record time: no mean achievement for people who were not used to this kind of thing.

At the end of the course we moved from the music school into the church. The acoustic here is good but odd and presented a few problems to them at first. The sopranos could not hear the altos until the sound returned from its travels down the length of the church, so they were suddenly all at sea both in pitch and timing. Part of the problem was that I had put the tenors and bases between the ladies voices as I find it helps the blend and prevents the men from hiding at the back.They soon got used to it though and before long it was time to begin our informal concert. 

I usually have a talk to choirs before a concert along the lines that some of them will get nervous and want to hesitate and hold back when there is an audience and that it is, strangely, much more difficult to make yourself do the things you know to be right when there is an audience there. I always say “ don’t be a follower, be bold. Don’t be the person who goes home wishing they had had the courage to give a little more or to come in on time. Express yourselves and enjoy the sensation of singing.” it usually works and this was no exception.

The choir sounded fabulous. I could tell they were excited when we had people asking if there was any possibility of recording the concert. “Nobody has ever asked for that before” Peter told me.

The concert went really well, topped off with possibly the most exuberant rendition of Hallelujah I have ever heard.

It’s been a wonderful weekend. We have achieved much more than many of these people thought possible and had a great deal of fun doing it. I hope to return in the not too distant future. Maybe a full mass setting next time!




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