Young singers receive a lot of advice about technique and interpretation - but what about the 'human factor'? Roland Wood had plenty to say about it in his masterclasses with the Fellowship, and some unusual ways of drawing it out...


One of the most notable aspects of the Fellowship Programme is the enormous variety within the musical profession that we are fortunate enough to experience over the course of the year. Our latest training day was with NYCGB alumnus and baritone Roland Wood, fresh from performing Golaud in 'Pelléas et Mélisande' for Scottish Opera.

Our primary focus so far has been training and working as an ensemble, and further using this to complement our teaching. In working with the NYCGB staff, and other musicians and conductors, we have spent a lot of time approaching our singing from a predominantly musical perspective. This might be from a technical point of view, addressing aspects specific to the written score or interpretation. This may seem obviously important, and of course it is. However, the academic or technical points taken in isolation can lead to neglecting the human side of performance.

Roland very quickly turned all of this on itas head. We started the session with a standard performance of one of our group pieces, 'It was a lover and his lass', the aim of which was to see how we communicate and ‘perform’ together as a consort. Within a few minutes he had moved us from the comfort of our Fellows’ semi-circle into our first scene. Having been given the assorted roles of, "you’re a grumpy teenager who is only interested in your phone", "you really fancy this waitress", and "you are more interested in your nine cats than this customer who clearly likes you." we began our first exercise, applying these characters, completely un-directed, to a second performance of the piece. This very quickly made us decide at which points in our individual parts we were important, and therefore should be the audience’s focus, and when to be part a lesser part of the scene.

After a short lunch we started the next exercise. Placed in the centre of the church was a single upturned plastic cup. Our instruction was very simple.

Pick it up, with your eyes closed, from three metres away. After a few slightly confused looks amongst the fellows later we started.

Some succeeded, some completely missed, others went on their own little walking tour in the dark. The cup was put away. Next, Roland indicated an (invisible) door centre stage, and asked us to very simply walk through it. Some heavy oak, rotating and automatic doors later we were all still feeling mildly bemused.

The point of all of this was a very valuable one, and one which Roland also touched on in the individual sessions that followed. When we are ourselves unsure of something, what then follows lacks the conviction needed to be truly convincing. He asked us to repeat each individual exercise with complete commitment to our decision, not considering whether it is right or wrong, or good or bad (where is the cup? What sort of door is it?). What resulted was much more believable and left us (the audience) convinced by the performer's decision. While this would seem another obvious thinking point when it comes to performance, there can be a tendency to give this less priority when there is not a specific character involved (as there is in opera). What Roland had so successfully demonstrated was that if we can give the same conviction to any decision we make, whether that is in an ensemble, oratorio, or an operatic performance, it can elevate the music off the page and give that extra level of shine needed to really engage an audience successfully.

Having spent two years at the Royal Academy of Music, one particular difficulty I have gone through (and I’m sure this is shared with a lot of other young singers!) is being particularly neurotic about the technical side of singing. In an intense environment in which many individual practice hours are accrued (and indeed expected) every week, it can become very easy to focus on being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ rather than focus on telling an engaging story. While of course the technical side is only a small part of what goes on at conservatoire, it can often feel safe to focus on the technique of performing, rather than allowing ourselves to feel the vulnerability that can come with an honest and engaging performance. Having Roland to remind us of the purpose of performing as a storyteller and helping us commit to our decisions, for better or worse, was a hugely satisfying way to approach our repertoire.