:: coaching

Choirs as Ensembles

Saturday, June 18th, 2011


Some years ago I was asked to contribute a chapter to a choral yearbook in Finland. The project didn’t actually materialise and I came across an old draft of it a few days ago. It’s about choir singers taking more responsibility, rather than relying on the conductor too much.  Post-Tampere seems a good time to re-consider this sort of thing, so here are some edited bits of it…

Choirs and ensembles

As an ensemble singer I’m used to the subtle nuances that are possible when you work with the same people over a long period of time, or with musicians who have a similar background and experience: Red Byrd has always works on the principle of equal creative responsibility from everyone taking part, and the Sound & the Fury works in a similar way (as does the Dowland Project). For me it goes back to my time with the Hilliard Ensemble, which evolved an intuitive way of doing things and would make a point of singing even quite large-scale works such as Arvo Pärt’s Passio with no one out front. This was a liberating experience and while I sang with the Hilliards I certainly didn’t envisage becoming a conductor myself; ensemble singing had become so sophisticated that it was hard to imagine handing over creative responsibility to one person.   Over the years I began to put my thoughts together on how ensemble singing actually works, some of which found their way into the ‘Ensemble Singing’ chapter in my Cambridge Companion to Singing, and when I went to work at the University of York I began to apply some basic rules to student ensembles, trying to equip them with the means to work on their own without outside input. I ran an MA in Ensemble Singing and a number of excellent ensembles came to work with me over the twelve years I was there.  Eventually I also found myself conducting various chamber choirs, beginning with a small women’s choir (there was the usual excess of women singers at the university). I had done some coaching sessions with the Finnish Radio Choir in the past and more recently with the Latvian Radio Choir, and it was understood that my role then was to give them an idea of how to sing without a conductor or at least to encourage them to be more responsive and pro-active, to be active participants in the creative process in partnership with the conductor. My only experience of actual conducting was a very long time ago when I conducted a concert by the Worcester Police Male Voice Choir as a favour to a friend (Henry Sandon, he of the Antiques Road Show; we were both Lay Clerks at Worcester Cathedral at the time). I was able to agree to this because it was made clear to me by the police chief that whatever I did in the way of gestures, the choir would sing the pieces the same way they did them last time and the time before that; all I had to do was put on the uniform and wave (and a certain leniency with regard to future parking fines was hinted at). So when I (reluctantly) came to conduct at York, with virtually no experience of conducting and no recent experience of singing in a choir, my ensemble singing experience was all I had to fall back on; the logical approach was to make the choir as much like an ensemble as possible.

Channels of communication

From my perspective as a singer it has always seemed a bit odd that the choir seems to do all the work and the conductor gets all the credit, so one of my first concerns was to establish a way of working that made it quite clear that the choir was an organic entity, capable of performing by itself. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to take the credit for my part in the proceedings – I have a performer’s ego just like anyone else – but rather that my role was defined a little differently from that of a traditional conductor.  The first thing to do was to convince the choir that they didn’t need me standing out in front, provided we could agree on a number of basic performance conventions that would, in effect, replace some of the actions that they might expect a conductor to take. I have found that the way to do this is to go right back to basics and discuss the question of communication: who is communicating with whom and what is it that they are communicating. Of course, singers communicate with audiences; we all understand that. But perhaps even more important is the communication that singers have with their fellow performers. As an image, I’ve found it helpful to suggest to singers that these two types of communication are conceptualised in two directions. Their voices, faces and body language, communicate directly with the audience but their ears are operating at right angles to this, starting with the singers standing next to them and continuing along the line as far as they can hear. Once the idea of this two-element model of communication is established we can begin to analyse what actually happens in performance.

Communicative value

The dynamics of such a model are much more complicated than this simple strategy appears to imply. Communication with the audience is not usually a problem: choirs are used to looking up from the music and demonstrating their own enthusiasm or emotional commitment to the music. The listener constructs his or her interpretation of the performance and this is only partly determined by anything the performers might do: the meanings transmitted by the singers will be modified by the listeners in the light of their own knowledge and experience.  Communication between voices in the choir is a different matter and has to be learned. The first thing to demonstrate is that everything has communicative value, whether it is a gesture, a note or even a breath, and unlike the broader relationship with the audience, communicative acts between singers contain specific information.   This is the first and most important principle that will enable the choir to work as a thinking creative entity. Everything else flows from the understanding that everything a singer does contains information useful to his or her fellow singers.  We can elaborate on the basic model by thinking of audience communication as visual and vocal and essentially one-way, whereas internal choir communication involves a two-way channel that is both vocal and auditory. Essentially, singers transmit and receive information among themselves with every gesture they make, whether vocal or physical.

Auditory awareness: tempo and breath

Once we know that we can communicate with each other, we then have to think about what sort of information we are giving and receiving.  Much of the useful information is to do with tempo, and almost all communicative acts between singers contain information that either confirms the tempo or offers the possibility of modifying it. The process begins before a piece starts with the first breath that the singers take. If, for example, a piece starts on a downbeat, then the first breath will act as an upbeat.  Everyone will have an idea of what the tempo should be, and roughly when the piece is going to start. An alert choir should be able to negotiate a tempo within the space of that upbeat breath, leaving only one place where the downbeat will inevitably come. It may take a bit of getting used to in rehearsals if the choir has always relied on being brought in by the conductor, but I found with my York choirs that the singers very quickly got used to starting themselves and it became routine (I just told them where to start from and they would automatically set off in a unanimous tempo). Giving singers the responsibility for their own music causes a rise in energy level: they know they have to be awake and listening in order to make it work. In concert this frees their eyes to be looking directly at the audience, rather than focusing on the conductor. The effect of a large body of singers starting simultaneously and in tempo without any visible means of support can be breathtaking for audiences, especially those who have previously thought of the conductor as the prime source of inspiration. The whole process seems to happen by magic. The ‘magic’ element is an important part of ensemble singing, and it’s at this point that my previous witterings about note-giving come into play…

More ramblings to follow…


Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Most people seemed to have appreciated my thoughts about note giving, but I did have one email from someone who clearly didn’t understand what I meant. Of  course you can’t just start without any note at all – my main point is that you shouldn’t be sharing the note-giving with the audience.  This means that for the first piece, you get the note before you come on stage (and similarly with the second half) – and you don’t come  on stage till you’ve really got it! Then going from piece to piece you take the note for the next piece from the last chord of the previous one.

Going for it

The difficult bit is sometimes having the confidence to try it in the first place, but it’s not something you do without preparation and thought. You have to practice it, just like anything else. But once you’ve tried it a few times you eventually discover that the ground doesn’t open up and swallow you, and your audience thinks you’re miracle workers.


There may well be times when you still need to take a new note between pieces – if there’s been lots of applause or if you need a bit of a rest and may forget the previous chord, for instance. That’s fine of course, and you just need to make sure you leave a long enough gap for the audience to forget the last chord too, in case you’ve gone out of tune.  That’s one of the reasons to try to avoid a new note when you can: if you’ve started a piece in G and you’ve sunk to G flat, taking a new note will tell the audience you’ve gone out of tune. It not only breaks the atmosphere, but it makes them conscious of the pitch.  You don’t really want the audience to be thinking about the mechanics of the performance at all – just about how wonderful and mysterious it is.  If you’ve sunk in pitch it could be for all sorts of perfectly understandable reasons – sometimes pieces just won’t stay up. In that case, what often happens is that you sink into a new ‘slot’ – a pitch that’s consist with itself but a bit lower than the concert pitch you were aiming for. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s much better to sing at a comfortable pitch that you can maintain more easily – there’s nothing absolute about a 440 A.  So you don’t need to correct the pitch between pieces, just stay in the slot. Of course there will be times when this won’t work either – if you’ve sunk so low that the basses can’t manage the next piece… But then you just take a new note.

The Note itself…

When you do have to give a note, be careful that it doesn’t become a performance in itself. Be discreet…Singers don’t need to tune every single string like a violinist does (or worse still, early music ensembles some of whom are notorious for the amount of time they spend tuning). We also don’t want to give away the start of the piece to the audience, so try if possible to give only the key note. This again is just a matter of practice and familiarity. It might take a little longer to work out your own note within the chord, but that’s just part of your own personal responsibility: it’s not something you need to rely on a conductor or leader to do for you.

None of this is very complicated or difficult – it just needs a bit of thought, but sometimes quite a bit of courage…


writing singing writing coaching writing listening writing

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

February was a great month, though CUP called our bluff with the singing history book and want it by about now, so I’ve been too busy to update the diary and have been frantically writing between gigs. I did a lovely concert in Orleans with Gavin Bryars, with Anna Friman doing her first gig with the group since giving birth to Max and Filip (and getting her doctorate). Ambrose Field and I had a terrific time in Rome, and even managed an improvised encore which the audience insisted on when we came out to take down the gear after the show had finished. There are reviews from Online Jazz and Giornale della Musica here and  here. Ambrose has some sound clips on his blog, in front of the mother ship(including our encore) and the pic shows us standing in front of the mother ship before it left for Mars. I also recorded Josquin and Victoria at St Gerold for ECM with my lovely vihuela players. Fabulous musicans. There was no snow, but it was great to see the horses enjoying the sun.

Liz Haddon and I have finished our IMP chapter. Or rather Liz has. My contribution didn’t extend to much more than writing my name. And I had a lovely time coaching Enkelit. No English singers ever sounded more like Finns.  There was a strange historical conjunction when the Hilliard Ensemble did a concert in the York university concert series. Two slices of history that I’ve left behind. And FabCab had another purely social reunion in Bewdley. More history. Now back to the book – the next post will triumphantly  announce its completion…

Early Music’s Lost Generation?

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Bernhard Trebuch is Mr Austria Early Music, a broadcaster and producer, and early music entrepreneur extraordinaire whose energy, enthusiasm and scholarship are legendary throughout Europe,  especially in the Alpine countries. Only Bernhard would record a 24 CD box set of Richard Wistreich reading  Mainwaring’s Life of Handel (complete with footnotes) or  the prose writings of Erasmus in Latin, not to mention the 100 or so complete works of the Tyrol’s greatest composer, the one-eyed Oswald von Wolkenstein. A while ago, after a grappa or two, we got on to the present state of early music, and Bernard handed over a copy of his new Messiah recording. It’s a typical Trebuch/ORF production: you don’t just get the music, but a couple of supplementary discs as well, this time a conversation with the 93 year old Handel scholar Winton Dean interspersed with historic Handel recordings going back to Malcolm Sargent and beyond. What draws all these elements together is Bernhard’s passion for the music. It’s a live recording, with young musicians who play and sing their hearts out. As he says in his liner note:

We are familiar with all the treatises, know how to play the trills, have complete mastery over the whole range of historic instruments. We have almost limitless possibilities to edit, rework and technically enhance recordings. Yet often the most important factor of the music seems to be missing: the ability to feel and communicate emotion, to live this passion.

Bernhard’s interest in early music was fired by, among other things, the LPs of  David Munrow which he discovered when he was a teenager. Munrow, like his near contemporaries Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood,  Emma Kirkby, the Hilliard Ensemble, Gothic Voices –  everyone before early music entered the mainstream in fact –  managed to do what they did without benefit of institutional instruction. The fact is, we all made it up. The next generation or two complained that it wasn’t possible to study early music at conservatoires or universities, and gradually it found its way into higher education syllabuses where it got stuck, eventually becoming part of the mainstream, just one of a number of centrally administered modules.

The effect of this revolution was to rejuvenate much of the canonic repertoire, which had the varnish scraped off it, and to introduce a few new candidates for composerly sainthood. All well and good. The downside is that the music also became rule-bound, driven by the ideology of academia which is obsessed with assessment and abstract excellence.  We made sure you know how to play the trills the way the composer wanted them, and ignore the stupid people who did it differently (those idiots the treatises complain about, and who were sadly all too often in the majority).  The early music movement became like a property of the National Trust – beautifully restored to the condition it was in before anyone lived in it.

Many of my contemporaries went into teaching. They had to make that up too, but inevitably went on to become part of the establishment that their own success had helped to create. There is now an entire industry of early music pedagogy, with its own teaching and performing logic that often has only a tenuous connection to the awkward, dirty, unpredictable world of professional performance. It’s moved a very long way from the charismatic musical pirates who started the movement, and in the process has moved even further from the past, presenting the music in its sanitised 21st century perfection, ignoring all the bits we didn’t want to reclaim from history. The stuff we leave behind – effects such as portamento, rubato, the para-linguistic rhetoric and so on – are what made it human and individual. They’re the bits that aren’t really amenable to teaching or measurement.  If you sing your conservatoire Purcell following Tosi’s Opinioni in all their bizarre detail you will fail. Don’t try singing Bach and Mozart following Agricola or Hiller, or people will think you’re mad. After all, we all know that portamento has no place in Bach. It’s just that Bach and his contemporaries didn’t realise it at the time.

Bernhard’s right to point to the lack of passion. The two of us whinged away about the black hole in early music performance, the perfect but predictable excellence of the properly certificated early musician, the lost generations of inspired risk-takers who do it because they love it.  But if you don’t give students the tools to create  their own performing persona they can only fall back on what they know, and it’s not enough to know only that which is easy to teach. The most important task of the teacher is surely to liberate students from the pedagogy so they can discover the real music for themselves. Singers in particular tend to be way too dependent on their singing teacher prop. As I’ve mentioned before, some of the most successful singers of all time acknowledged no teacher at all. I found that one of the hardest things at the university I used to work at was to persuade students to trust their own instincts rather than those of their teacher. It seemed like a kind of trick really – the more dependent on the teacher they were, the less likely they ever were to make a success of singing as a career. It might get them kudos on their course, but their short-term success rarely prepared them for the shock of the real world they hoped to enter.

For the second year running, one of Bernhard’s Sound & Fury recordings has been CD of the Year on the Medieval Music & Arts Foundation website. This time it’s Pierre de la Rue.  Todd McComb appreciates the passion too. We’ll be recording masses by Caron and Prioris (new to me) next month.

Coaching Vocal Ensembles

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

When the Hilliard Ensemble became internationally successful in the 80s the group was increasingly asked to coach young ensembles. For a while we had a regular week in Kangasniemi (Finland) organised by the Sibelius Academy, coaching mainly Finnish groups and discovering smoke saunas, midnight barbecues, swimming in the lake and that Finnish beer made of French rabbits. We got the coaching bug and Paul Hillier suggested we start a Summer School in Lewes, close to where he lived. We had a visiting star each year, and Jordi Savall, Roger Norrington, Arvo Part and Bill Christie were among our first guests. It was a huge success and an administrative nightmare, initially taken on by Paul and his wife Lena, and subsequently shouldered by David James, catering to groups from all over the world. When Paul left the group we started again in Hertfordshire where we first met Selene Mills, and we followed her to Trinity Hall Cambridge where she set up a series of early music summer schools. Our guests there included Paul Robinson, Ivan Moody, Piers Hellawell and Gavin Bryars; several of our protégés, Singer Pur, Amarcord, Trio Mediaeval, went on to international success themselves. From the start we’d had many more groups from the European mainland, especially Germany, as well as singers from the USA and Japan. Costs eventually became prohibitive, and largely through the good offices of Werner Schüssler we were able to move to Schloss Engers on the Rhine, where the composers included Roger Marsh (whose Pierrot Lunaire was a summer school commission) and the jazz drummer Peter Erskine. Eventually Engers too succumbed to rising costs and soon after I left the group the Hilliards stopped the annual summer school, though I think they still coach from time to time. Looking back on it, the HE Summer School was a great thing: a galaxy of star composers and performers interacting with some exciting groups, many of which found inspiration and subsequent success, and many of whom are still firm friends.

Around the time I left the Hilliards I was editing the Cambridge Companion to Singing, and I decided to include an ensemble singing chapter as it was a topic I really felt confident to write about (unlike jazz, which I also found myself rambling about in the same volume when the original contributor disappeared). It was a good opportunity to summarise how I thought the whole process worked. We had mostly coached instinctively, had never been taught anything, and only gradually came to understand how we did what we did. It also seemed mad to me that there were so many successful professional ensembles and yet none of the conservatoires offered courses in ensemble singing (this is more complicated that it appears – one of the reasons so many ensembles are successful may be because they don’t start in conservatoires, but that’s another story). When I got to York I decided to run an ensemble singing MA, inspired by 5 graduates who wanted to stay on and work together as a group. They called themselves e-tone (for reasons I never fully understood) and under the Yorvox name gave the first UK performance of Gavin Bryars’ 3rd Book of Madrigals (recently recorded by the Italian Vox Altera Ensemble). They are all still involved in music (Anna Snow is a third of the vocal trio Juice). It was obviously going to be difficult for whole ensembles to come as a group, but there were successes in the form of the American groups UnCloistered and Bright Cecilia among many other ad hoc ensembles. It sometimes wasn’t easy to maintain the liberalising agenda in the more traditional academic environment, but I like to think that there are ensemble singers out there who transcended the ethos.

Almost since it started some 20 years ago, I’ve chaired the jury for the ensemble singing contest at the Tampere International Vocal Festival (Finland). This is a biennial event and has produced some stunning groups across the whole field of acappella singing, perhaps the most famous being Rajaton (one of the world’s most exciting and inventive ensembles). The Tampere week is one that I look forward to most, and the 2011 event, masterminded by Jussi Chydenius, promises to be one of the best yet. I now coach all over the place, not often in Britain  – though I did have the pleasure of working with the Finnish ensemble Versio during their recent UK tour. They are a wonderful 12 strong group – a large number to manage as a ‘small ensemble’ – very creative and receptive to new ideas. We hope to meet again in Tampere next year.

When I proposed writing a history of singing for Cambridge University Press I was also intending to write a book on ensemble singing. The plan was to cover the whole acappella spectrum, much of which I’m not really qualified to write about; so I enlisted the aid of The Real Group’s Anders Jalkeus. Anders also sits on the Tampere jury and each time we meet we ask each other how our book is coming on. Trouble is, we’re too busy doing it, so it’s probably going to take a while yet…