:: ensemble singing


Wednesday, January 11th, 2017


It was in my early years with the Hilliard Ensemble that I learned about coaching. The group ran its own summer school and had been asked to coach in mainland Europe, particularly in Finland and Germany. Our annual visits to Kangasniemi at the invitation of the Sibelius Academy – intense coaching sessions followed by traditional wood-smoke saunas and swimming in the lake – were the ultimate in combining business with pleasure. None of us had coached before, and it took a while for us to figure out how to do it. We were going through a huge change of approach to our own music making, moving away from the conventional leader/led string quartet model to a cooperative venture that would eventually revolutionise our ideas about how the music worked. We didn’t really know how we did it. It was an instinctive process – something we rarely talked about – and as we got more and more into it we rehearsed less and less, increasingly aware that no amount of rehearsal would reveal more than a fraction of the musical possibilities, some of which we would only discover in performance.  We enjoyed testing each others’ listening to the limit whenever we could, and on the Hilliard Live recordings in particular you can almost feel the risk-taking as we pushed the music into one-off new shapes (and that’s exactly how Officium worked). We were incredibly fortunate to work with a number of groups who would go on to become hugely successful – Singer Pur and Amarcord from Germany, Köyhät Ritarit and Lumen Valo from Finland and the Scandinavian Trio Mediaeval were just the tip of an enlightened ensemble iceberg.  When I came to edit the Cambridge Companion to Singing some years later the ensemble singing chapter wrote itself – I’d had several years to contemplate how we actually did it.

It was very simple. Once you realise that every note you sing is communicating information to the others, and that you are similarly receiving information from them, all you have to do is listen. The person with the moving part effectively has control at any given moment, and in almost any piece of renaissance music the lead will pass from part to part. You negotiate in real time. It’s easy until someone tells you it‘s difficult, and it enables you to perform the music differently each time. You don’t expect a definitive performance and you don’t count the beats  – the text provides the rhythm. It’s endlessly creative, and was a far cry from the dull discipline we’d been brought up with – aim for a rehearsal close to perfection and reproduce it in performance; mark the score to make sure you got it exactly right, do as the director tells you.  I haven’t marked anything in a score for years – if something works I’ll remember it, if it doesn’t I’ll try something else next time. In the bad old days we used to mark exactly how long the final chords were. Why on earth would you want them to be the same every time?  The art of successful coaching is really to persuade your students that it really is that simple, and that they already possess the tools to make it work. So much more rewarding all round than simply telling them what to do.

Red Byrd, the Sound and the Fury and the Dowland project worked in much the same way; for me it’s the only way to work (it’s been a very long time since I worked with anyone who wanted to tell me what to do…).  I still coach some amazing groups (most recently Nobiles and Sjaella from Germany)and I’d certainly never dream of telling them what to do. Even the young musicians who did my ensemble singing MA at York (invented by the singers who would later become Juice) were given complete freedom to explore their collective creative personae once they‘d grasped the secret of how musical communication works.  In time the less courageous tend to revert to something more conventional and predictable, but I can always recognise those who really got it: you can never tell what they’re going to do next.

Coaching in Saulheim

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014


A big thankyou to Werner Schüßler for a great time in Saulheim last week. It was the 130th anniversary of the Saulheim Liederkranz and the 110th anniversary of the building of its concert hall, the magnificent Sängerhalle, by the American wood magnate Friedrich Weyerhäuser. The hall is home to a 50-strong men’s choir and two women’s choirs as well as the Singakademie started by Werner two years ago. Not bad for a community not much bigger than the area of York that I live in. The hall is comparable to the Wigmore in size and acoustic, but with several large additional rehearsal rooms and a well-equipped kitchen and dining room (complete with excellent resident chef. Only in Germany…).


Werner and I were coaching the same three groups we worked with at Schloss Engers two years ago (both schemes were generously supported by Kultursommer Rheinland-Pfalz): ensemble Nobiles, Trio Avijo and the Jubiladies.


Nobiles, from Leipzig and all former choir members of St Thomas’, are one of the most talented up and coming vocal groups, the Jubiladies (named after Jeremy Rawson’s Jubilate which they premiered last year) are four professional singers, and the trio is an outstandingly talented group of teenagers.



As before, Werner (seen warming up Nobiles above) focused on key aspects of vocal technique (which you’ll be able to discover for yourselves when his book is published) and I concentrated on the ensemble side of things. All three groups came together for Jeremy Rawson’s Rollright Stones, which the composer directed from the piano.


It was a terrific occasion – it can’t be easy for a composer to write for three groups that he’s only vaguely familiar with in advance, but it resulted in a stunning creation based on the legend of a mythical king of England and his knights being turned to stone (where they can still be seen near Long Compton in Oxfordshire).


Each group also sang pieces from their repertoire and Werner and I even joined Nobiles for a German folksong, the irrepressible German Geordie producing a guitar to accompany us.


The previous evening Werner’s group the Four Reasons, had sung Veljo Tormis’ Lullaby and then launched into a couple of Scottish reels, metamorphosing into an ensemble of guitars, accordion and fiddle. Nobiles treated us to their reinvention of Tallis as a cheerful fellow (could Dowland be next?) and a Leipzig Wonderful World, and there were great contributions from the female quartet and student trio. This was the celebration of the founding of the hall, and included powerful performances by all three of the Saulheim choirs. It was attended by a group of American descendants of Friedrich Weyerhäuser who still support the Sängerhalle and its activities, a moving example of musical friendships blossoming across the ocean and across the centuries. Great atmosphere, great music and wonderful people – what more could one want?



The end of one-to-one music teaching?

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

I suppose I’ve done five or six years of one-to-one teaching all told – early in my career when like lots of aspiring performers I was glad of the money as well as interested in it for its own sake. Like most of us, I’m sure I passed on the pearls of wisdom that had come my way from those who’d taught me (what else could you do when that’s all you know?). Mostly I taught only sporadically, except for a year at the Akademie in Bremen where I tried to do a whole day once a month. The Aka’s policy, like most conservatoires, was to employ recognised performers to teach – with the usual problem that many of them weren’t there half the time. I eventually realised I couldn’t make the kind of commitment the job really needed, so when they offered me a full professorship I turned it down and I haven’t taught one-to-one singing since.

The one-to-one is a complex relationship. There’s a social dimension and a kind of  intimacy that doesn’t happen in any other teaching context. For some students this can be very valuable, though it often leads to a kind of teacher-dependency that only benefits the teacher. It was refreshing to read that the RNCM is considering alternatives. In purely pedagogical terms – in other words if you ignore the social chemistry – there are very few advantages in one-to-one that you wouldn’t get with one-to-two (or three or four). Until the mid-twentieth century class teaching in big musical institutions was common place (and in the 19th century it was the norm). You could still get an individual lesson, but it would be in public. This has all sorts of advantages – other students can learn from your learning, and you are inevitably learning aspects of public performance at the same time. And, of course, the teacher has to behave himself. I had a plan for the Vocal Studies MA at York that would have worked in a very similar way – I’d teach all the singers in public on the course like a kind of seminar, and any one-to-one would happen on a consultancy basis as and when necessary (ie not very often). Obviously, that was a non-starter then, though one of the positives from the present scandals is that institutions might consider more enterprising teaching regimes.

Rather than teach singing (which I believe to be a simple process, most of which can be taught in a very small number of lessons) I do a lot of ensemble coaching. This is very different – dynamic, interactive, a process of creative learning where singers discover things for themselves with each other rather than have me telling them what to do. I was asked in the coaching sessions for the Cambridge verse anthems conference at the weekend why I didn’t demonstrate. Demonstrating invites imitation, and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else to do it like I do: much better to let them figure it out for themselves (and thanks to the brilliant guineapig singers, who, by and large, did).

Singing teaching could be like that too, but the drive to produce generic-sounding voices makes it all too easy for the student just to do as they’re told and absorb the magisterial wisdom on offer. There needs to be some creative thinking from students (who need to be more proactive), teachers (who need to be less possessive) and institutions (who just need to be a bit braver and less intimidated by their own past – and their singing teachers…).

Well, maybe one day…


Tuesday, August 9th, 2011


I’ve just been a guest at the Stimmwercktage at Adlersberg near Regensburg. Stimmwerck is one of the most enterprising and creative acappella groups around, and each year they devote the first  weekend in August to one particular composer or manuscript. This year it was the Schalreuter Handschrift, a huge collection of 16th century motets and psalms, many by composers who are otherwise unknown or whose works only survive in this manuscript. The music was collected from the Protestant cantorate all over southern Germany at a time when the Protestants were seeking to create a functioning liturgical music which would rival that of the Catholic establishment. It’s extraordinarily rich stuff (some of the motets are over ten minutes long) – shades of Josquin but in a parallel universe.


Prosslbrau Adlersberg is in an idyllic spot on a hill just outside Regensburg. It’s essentially a church (wonderful acoustic) with  a large inn, the Prösslbräu  attached. Instead of the nunnery that the church supported, there is now a small brewery which has been in the Prössl family for five generations. It’s the perfect venue for a small festival – music and sustenance  straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. In fact we shared our dressing room space with a horse and a goat, both of whom were very friendly. horse

As well as joining Stimmwerck for some stunning motets and doing the occasional lute version with Paul O’Dette, I was asked to give a workshop on singing renaissance music. It was bursting with people, and there were some very courageous and receptive singers. I talked for about half an hour first, beginning with the reasons why the modern singing of renaissance music is like it is, and contrasting it with instrumental practice. Early instrumentalists generally have a much closer relationship with actual history, having the benefit of a thriving community of practice with players and makers actually having to do research (as opposed to singers rarely being able to get round the singing teacher problem). I also talked about the real life of renaissance music – the actual use to which it was mostly put (as opposed to the surviving manuscripts which had relatively little use), and Paul O’Dette and I busked a version of one of the Schalreuter pieces. Using the original polyphony as source material for doing your own thing was standard 16th century practice; we did a different version in the evening concert and had the students trying to improve on the original too.  Sometimes workshop participants are bemused by my take on early music (they’ve usually been taught the difference between renaissance right and wrong) but times are definitely changing – and this was one of those wonderful occasions when you could see the lights going on  in people’s heads.

stimmwerckA big thankyou to the Stimmwerckers – Marcus, Klaus, Gerhard and Franz (seen here with yours truly, goat and horse).  It was a  privilege to be part of it.  Stimmwerck have many enthusiastic supporters of all ages, and there was a real sense of a musical community coming together to have a great time.    If anyone fancies rolling up next year, they’re doing music from the Trent Codices – some of the most amazing music ever written – so book early to be sure of a seat. Deutschland Radio are broadcasting some of this year’s music Sunday 21st at 7.00 if you’re near a computer.


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…