Choral Holidays - Singing in wonderful locations

Posted under: "General Blog Post"

Nov 16, 10:57 AM

Singing from the soul

So what is it that makes the approach of Choral Holidays different and what exactly is it that we are trying to achieve?

I’ll give you a couple of examples. I went to take a rehearsal this week for a very good choir who are conducted by an excellent conductor and musician. The choir were singing parts of Handel’s Messiah. We were working on, “And he shall purify the sons of Levi”. I asked the choir (about 120 people) why the sons of Levi needed to be purified? Not one hand went up.

This isn’t a bad reflection on this choir or its choirmaster. It’s just the way things are. I suspect the result would be the same in most other choirs. But why do we think that we’re going to produce a good performance of a piece if we don’t know what we’re singing about?

Another example. I was working on the popular Charles Wood anthem “O Thou, the central Orb” with my Bledlow choir a few weeks ago, and we started to discuss the words. There’s a big gap between “As thy sight gives measured grace to each” and “Thy power to prove” and consequently they are often sung with no thought for the fact that the second part of the phrase, irrespective of the interlude between, is linked to and explains the first.

Central orb is an anthem I have sung, as a chorister more times Than I care to think about but, although the choirs in which I have been singing have been encouraged to sing with a nice blend and come off notes together and sing the dynamics written, nobody has ever sought to make me understand the very slightly obscure text. It isn’t obvious, especially not to a bunch of choirboys. Nobody taught me to sing the phrase “Hope soars above” whilst feeling that I was indeed soaring” and nobody taught me to sing the climactic phrase “Now pure with in” with a sense of unbridled joy of my soul finally being clean and full of light as the music suggests.

This lack of attention to the words and to their meaning has a hugely limiting effect on the impact of the music. Of course, a choir can make a nice sound and even move people but, if the singer fails to grasp this basic point then the music ceases to be an expression and that is exactly what singing is meant to be; a means of expressing oneself.

It goes deeper than that with Hymns in church and psalm singing. How many times do we stand in church and sing hymns without any thought for the sentences we are forming and for how the composer of the tune has been inspired to write phrases in certain ways to express his/her feelings for them? We do so, surrounded by others who do the same. Is it any wonder that people consider traditional church music boring?

Psalm singing is worse. People find chanting psalms so tricky, but it needn’t be. If one sings the words as one would if one was speaking them in a drama, the changes of note become obvious as they are linked to the stress of the sentence.

I am frequently asked by visitors to my choir, when we are singing psalms, “Can you give us the dynamics that you want for the verses”. The answer is “No”. Why? Well firstly, if you understand the meaning of the words and how you would say them, then the dynamic takes care of itself; one wouldn’t sing “My God, My God look upon me. Why hast Thou forsaken me” the same way as “O praise God in His holiness. Praise Him in the firmament of his power”. If I tell you to feel the words you will sing it with meaning, expression the right dynamic and, above all, honesty. If I told you to sing the first one quiet and the second one loud, the first will come out weak and fake, the second loud and boring.

Perhaps it sounds as if I’m blowing my own trumpet, but that is not the intention here. I don’t consider that what we are doing is rocket science; I just don’t understand why this approach isn’t the foundation of all choral singing.

As a solo singer, it is taken as read that the first thing you need, when learning a new piece, is a thorough understanding of the words. Without this one can not expect to perform a piece convincingly and with nuance. The same should apply to choral singing.

A few weeks ago I found myself in a discussion on Facebook with a potential client who had looked at Choral Holidays but was worried by the idea that we focus on the individual learning to express themselves and not on getting the notes right and blending into a beautiful sound.

As I pointed out to her, of course we want to get the notes right and make a beautiful sound and blend, but, if that is what you are concentrating on, then you are manufacturing a sound and not being entirely honest. If everybody feels the words and understands the way in which we want to try to express them, then each individual voice becomes part of a jigsaw that naturally blends into a beautiful picture. To be philosophical about it, as humans, we are all part of one whole, if we are ourselves, the blend of us all is right and harmonious whereas, if we try to alter our shape, or in this case sound, to fit in with what we think is required, the blend is then not of real people/souls but of people trying to be what they think they are supposed to be, and it’s never as good.

A client who joined in that Facebook conversation said this. “I was on the last Gloucester one, and over half the repertoire was familiar to me …….. I found myself singing it totally differently! We began the weekend as a group of individuals, but by the end, we were definitely a Choir. As we thought about what we were singing, and actively listened to each other producing the sound, we achieved a blend that my choir director would kill for!”

This isn’t a problem that applies only to choirs, one sees it with solo singers as well. Many many soloists spend years trying to perfect what they think of as the right sound with which to sing certain repertoire, shoehorning their voice into a sound which is not natural, only to find, years later, that their natural sound would have been better and that it would have moved people with it’s honesty, whereas the sound they have sought to create lacks something which an audience can never quite put their finger on, and, whilst beautiful, never quite reaches their heart. It can also be physically damaging to the voice, but that’s another subject.

Can we really apply this to choirs? Of course. Look at Gospel choirs. Have you ever heard one which doesn’t have a fantastic blend? Generally speaking, in a gospel choir you have a load of people who just enjoy letting their soul shine out through their voice. Each individual sings with their heart and the result is a sound which nobody can fail to be excited by.

Of course, we are not looking to make a Choral Holidays choir sound like a gospel choir, the music is totally different,but the same principle applies. If you get people to sing it from the soul, the effect on the singers and on the listeners can be staggering.

Come along to one of our trips and find out just what that feels like.




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