22 July 2020

Pragmatising, NOT Patronising! Our Introduction to the Junior and Training Choirs

Clicking a Zoom link at 10am to be greeted by smiling members of the NYCGB family has become such a wonderful habit to have been able to adopt during lockdown, for which I feel incredibly fortunate. The slight apprehension we may have felt about this new way of being together during our first NYCGB Digital Activity week in April, had long since passed by the time we met on the 5th June for the Principal Conductors Composition Workshop. This time the smiling NYCGB family members who popped onto my screen from all over the UK were the NYCGB principal conductors, Joanna Tomlinson, Lucy Joy Morris and Greg Beardsell, along with the Young Composer gang and the Fellows.

We had all been curious about the possibility of writing for the junior choirs during the course of this year having heard such great things about their sense of fun and enthusiasm. We would, in the absence of Covid, have been due to visit the Girls’, Boys’ and Training Choirs on their residential courses to observe and learn about them, so in place of this experience, an idea was sparked to have each of the conductors give us an introduction to their choir. Joanna, Lucy Joy and Greg gave us an introduction to their own backgrounds, presentations of each of their choirs and advice on what we should consider if we were to write a piece for them.

At this point, I have to say that my pen failed to keep up with the words I was hearing as I desperately scribbled down the incredibly useful and interesting information at the rate of knots! Two themes really stood out from this session: Understanding practicalities. Understanding personalities. Lucy Joy began by introducing the Boys’ Choir, perhaps the most complex choir in terms of practicality, explaining the breakdown of the choir into Trebles and Cambiata and the ranges and technical characteristics of each voice type within these. Greg gave a similar breakdown of the Training Choir and Joanna of the Girls’ Choir, introducing the theme of personality-they don’t like to be patronised! These young people want ‘proper music’ and not ‘kids’ music’.

Some aspects, like text and subject matter choice seem to balance on the line between practicality and personality. For instance, the enthusiastic curiosity of choir members to explore new cultures and languages, being balanced against the technical challenges this might bring. It seems there is also a great balancing act in simultaneously pleasing singers at both end of the age spectrum.

We received some fantastic practical, pragmatic advice - comparing certain technical things which would be hard and unsatisfying for the singers with alternative aspects which would be really rewarding, despite still stretching them. Considering a piece within the context of an NYCGB course, would make stamina and rehearsal logistics vital parameters to work within. We left the session with a very long list of Do’s and Don’ts which was phenomenally helpful, if daunting and a little terrifying! We also heard a great deal more about the personalities of the choirs and some things we should consider about the emotional implications a piece might have on the singers. As well as text and subject matter, reminders like – give the tune to the altos sometimes! – captured the overarching message of the day. The enjoyment of each and every young singer in the choir must be our most important consideration when writing for them.

In so many ways this was an inspiring and also a humbling session. I re-assessed my role as a composer in this, junior choir context; re-balancing priorities, side-lining the composer’s ego, and witnessing the complete cycle which leads from the young singers’ satisfaction, to audience satisfaction, to a satisfying performance and, ultimately, to a satisfied composer. It was really refreshing to be given this wake-up reminder.

The principal conductors spoke so passionately about their choirs and both the fun and the moving nature of seeing children and teenagers singing together. My overall impression of these singers is of a wonderful bunch of interesting, enthusiastic and fun young people with a mature musical curiosity, who would be incredibly exciting to write for!


Programme Digital Partner: NMC Recordings

 

Programme Innovation Grant Sponsors:

Steinberg Media Technologies (Technology Partner) and Stainer & Bell (Publishing Partner)

             

Supported by The Garrick Charitable Trust, RVW Trust, The Michael Tippett Musical Foundation, Lord and Lady Lurgan Trust and PRS Foundation's The Open Fund for Organisations.