2016-17 Fellowship Blog: Episode 9

Episode 9 is a special vlog edition, filmed at a day of ensemble performance and conducting masterclasses with The Sixteen's founder and director (and NYCGB Vice President) Harry Christophers. Click below to watch it on the NYCGB YouTube channel.

 

2016-17 Fellowship Blog: Episode 8

We're delighted to welcome baritone, conductor and teacher Sam Evans as the Fellowship blog's first ever guest contributor. Here he recounts a weekend of professional development classes which he devised and led for the octet in February. 

Having secured hotly contested places on the Fellowship scheme, the eight young singers are about to take their first steps into the world of professional singing. Day one of the weekend was designed to prepare them to compete for work in an audition scenario. At some point soon, they are likely to find themselves in a rehearsal room for a staged opera or performance. Day two was about giving them the tools to be able handle whatever a director might throw at them.

To help guide them in this intensive weekend, I engaged two leaders in these fields. Professor Mark Wildman has been Head of Vocal Studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London for 27 years. In that time, he has auditioned thousands of aspiring professional singers, and has seen and heard it all – both good and bad. Tom Guthrie enjoys a successful career as a singer, both soloist and choral specialist; but he also trained as a director on the Jette Parker programme at the Royal Opera House, and now has a busy career as an opera director.

During day one, Mark Wildman put the Fellows through their paces in a practice audition, run exactly as it would happen in a real audition situation. They entered the room, greeted the panel and the accompanist, indicated their preferred tempi to the accompanist (Jo Ramadan), and did their best to perform their audition piece as well as they possibly could. Once everyone had ‘auditioned’, Mark and I got the group back together and gave feedback on their performance. After a well-earned lunch, the Fellows auditioned again. However, this time they formed a panel for each other, and gave feedback on each other’s performance under Mark’s watchful gaze. All the young singers grew in confidence in their performances over the course of the day, and Mark was delighted with the insightful and constructive feedback they gave to each to each other in the afternoon session.

On day two, the focus changed to the physical nature of using the body as an expressive tool. Tom defines stagecraft as “the technique of using your body to communicate stories and characters, in a space.” Tom drew on his many years of experience of working with opera singers at the highest international level, to help the Fellows learn some of these techniques. He then put them into practice by getting them to perform a song or aria, and encouraged them to use what they had learned to find new depths of expression in their singing.

Young singers beginning a professional career today are entering an intensely competitive world. The economic pressures on the Arts are well known, and yet the standards of singing seem to go up all the time. Throughout the weekend, the 2016/17 NYCGB Fellows demonstrated their vocal quality and impressive performance skills. But they also showed their dedication to the art and craft of singing, through their hard work, concentration and perseverance. And they all demonstrated that they have the one thing that young singers need above all else: grit.

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Sam has also written about his experience of leading the weekend on his own blog, and filmed a discussion covering various aspects of the weekend and more with Tom Guthrie.

CLICK HERE to read Sam's blog post on his own site.

Click below to watch the video.

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2016-17 Fellowship Blog: Episode 7

New year, new focus for the 2016-17 Fellows, who acquired some valuable experience of learning to lead through workshops and activities in London and Durham.

ANA BEARD FERNANDEZ (SOPRANO)

It was a damp Friday morning that the eight Fellows assembled for a short rehearsal in the underbelly of Cecil Sharp House, to take part in a day of awareness classes and intensive teacher training. Spider-Man followed by Monteverdi probably aren't the most obvious of bedfellows, but for our short lunchtime recital, we thought they'd hit the spot.

Though not directly a part of 'Live Music Now' - a charity dedicated to providing schools and care homes with specialist music therapy and teaching - through NYC's partnership with LMN we were extended an invitation to attend their training programme. Lectures ranged from classroom technique, to academic iPad use, strategies for teaching children with severe learning difficulties, and mental health awareness.

Most useful for me was the hands-on 'iPad as an instrument' session - the manifold applications in the classroom and implications of its use as an inclusive instrument are wide-ranging. Also enlightening was the Dementia Friends talk; the discourse centred around highlighting misconceptions of the disease, and exploring what we as individuals, as well as music practitioners, can do to spread awareness and adapt our work.

The classroom workshops centred around teaching with percussion and using macaron, a music sign-language, to control dynamics and tempo - this was tiered into five levels and adaptable to various kinds of learning difficulties, including autism and physical disabilities.

All eight Fellows took valuable lessons away from this day, and it was wonderful to meet so many exceptional music educators.

The following morning, after a late train the night before to Durham, found us in the chilly surroundings of Ushaw College Chapel, thrust in front of 200 excited primary school children, to whom we were to deliver a 'Ready Steady Sing!' singing workshop. To begin, each Fellow led a warm-up with exercises ranging from call-answer songs, to running on the spot, marching chants and rounds. It was astonishing how quickly the children learned each song - some more quickly than us, and their teachers - and they were marvellously enthusiastic when Hannah (pictured) introduced a daring four-song mash-up, delivering the final product with panache and vim.

Following a quick break, we rehearsed for our evening recital, covered some wonderful new music by Owain Park, lush motets, and a cappella gems and arrangements. I really love working with the Fellows - we have developed an openness and camaraderie that leads to really special music-making and relaxed yet focussed rehearsals.

Our rehearsal led straight into a conducting workshop for music teachers from local schools and sixth forms. Ben Parry took the lead here, and we became (impeccably behaved) guinea pigs for the duration. For those of us with conducting experience, this was a nice opportunity to pass on some of our training, and for those of us without, a opening to learn new things.

A quick dinner and diary session took us through to our evening recital, which was part of the inaugural Durham Vocal Festival. The audience was full of familiar faces from our day, and the concert was made particularly touching by Ben Inman's dedication to his late grandfather who had passed that morning - I think we all took a moment to really find the emotional content in each piece throughout the concert to pay tribute.

Post-recital festivities included beer, a wander up the hill to Durham Cathedral and very wet feet.

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2016-17 Fellowship Blog: Episode 6

As Christmas approached, the Fellowship headed to Aldeburgh and Snape for an intensive residential week of rehearsals, masterclasses and concerts.

HELENA COOKE (ALTO)

Our residency at Snape Maltings was one of the projects I had been most looking forward to in this year, particularly the chance to spend a few days in one of my favourite places with this wonderful group of people and to have the opportunity to take part in masterclasses with renowned mezzo soprano Kitty Whately. We were met at Saxmundham station by our driver for the week, Karen, who would prove to be the best taxi driver ever, putting up with Will and Ben in the front seats all week, making an extra trip to pick up the boys when they were stranded at Snape after ‘Messiah’, and generally being an absolute legend. As a huge fan of Benjamin Britten, both Snape Maltings and Aldeburgh are very special to me and so spending the week in these two places was pretty ideal. We were staying in two lovely cottages on Aldeburgh High Street, though the girls were incredulous to find out that the boys’ house was much bigger than ours! Many of us made beach trips in the mornings, which for me included singing excerpts from ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ with Ana and Hannah, and listening to the ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from ‘Peter Grimes’.

Our musical work began with a sing through ‘Messiah’ choruses with Ben, as we would be augmenting Aldeburgh Voices for the performance, as well as doing step-out solos – no small ask! We then moved on to the masterclasses with Kitty Whately and accompanist Nathan. Each of us had brought a solo song or two, as well as our ‘Messiah’ arias. It was incredibly exciting to hear people singing solo for the first time, or in the case of the York alumni, the first time in a few years! Occasionally choral singing can be slightly constricting and people don't always sing with their full sound, so it was liberating to hear everyone opening up and building in confidence. I think we all learned a huge amount from the masterclasses. Kitty was very good at making us all feel at ease and in many cases, really helped us with opening up the sound. There was a wonderful wide range of music too, from Mozart (including stratospheric top Es), to Copland, to Rob's Rossini. Kitty also had a range of tricks and ideas to help with the performance side of things, including 'imagine you're talking to your friends in the pub', which proved a particular struggle given how infrequently musicians are found in such places… To round off the day, we rehearsed with Aldeburgh Voices. The standard was very high, and the members extremely welcoming.

The next day mostly consisted of prepping for the performance, and running through our solos with the wonderful and unfailingly sensitive orchestra. We were concerned that our voices would struggle to carry in the hall, as we were all standing behind the band, but the Maltings has a really generous acoustic for singers, and our fears were allayed when we sat out in the auditorium to listen to each other. Fuelled by Aldeburgh's unsurpassable fish & chips that lunchtime, the concert went really well - solos were adrenaline-filled and everyone had clearly saved their best for the performances (particular mention to Ben Inman’s spontaneous top Bs!) I was nervous for my first aria but hugely enjoyed the rest. It was extremely gratifying to get a standing ovation from a large proportion of the audience at the end, and lovely to see the customary standing-up in the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ (and even some joining-in from a few audience members!). Every time I sing ‘Messiah’ I notice new magic moments and appreciate it more and more, and this performance was no exception.

The Christmas concert on Sunday was hugely enjoyable too, with lots of different groups taking part, including Group A (a youth choir from nearby Lowestoft, Benjamin Britten’s birthplace), Aldeburgh Brass (a professional brass quintet), and Aldeburgh Voices, all expertly conducted and compered by Ben Parry. Highlights for me included the Aldeburgh Brass performance of ‘Let it Go’, and Ben's ‘Aldeburgh Carol’. The Fellow also performed a fiendish (and luckily very thoroughly rehearsed) arrangement of ‘Sleigh Ride’ by Ben, and our YouTube viral sensation, ‘Wexford Carol’, in its new arrangement by James Rose. It was lovely to perform as an octet again, especially having become even closer during the week together. It is fantastic to get to sing with such a lovely and talented group of people so regularly, and I miss them all already!

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2016-17 Fellowship Blog: Episode 5

Ben Inman deputised for the 2015-16 Fellowship when they helped launch NYCGB's partnership with Nottinghamshire Music Hub in May. Six months later, he returned as a full member of the 2016-17 octet... 

BEN INMAN (TENOR)

The partnership between NYCGB and Nottinghamshire Music Hub was launched in May with a performance by local school students and the 2015-16 Fellowship octet at the Royal Concert Hall. I actually took part in this event as a deputy, and it felt as though I had only been away for a short while. Six months on, it was inspiring to see once again how vibrant the arts are in Nottingham, and despite the RCH staff’s hugely busy schedule amidst dress rehearsals for their Christmas panto (featuring star turns from Chico and The Chuckle Brothers), we were immediately made to feel comfortable with a rehearsal space of our own on the upper floor.

Today’s event was ‘An Inspired Christmas’ – a seasonal showcase for schools partnered with NYCGB and Nottinghamshire Music Hub to show off the work they’ve created since September. The Fellows’ role was to provide a set of schmaltzy Christmas favourites in between offerings from the partner schools, to lead audience members and the schools in a mash-up of carols, and to join forces with the schools to sing two final pieces.

Rehearsals were fun but intense because it was the first time the Fellows had sung together since our workshop and recital at RHS Holbrook on the 22nd November and there were only six of us for this particular gig. There was a real learning curve for us here; with under two hours before our sound check on the concert hall stage it was important to balance our rehearsal time, and to find complete note accuracy for such dense close harmony whilst also aiming to apply stylistic interpretations to each piece. Covering four fiddly pieces, one-to-a-part, in limited rehearsal time was, therefore, pretty challenging. Sound-checking also provided valuable experience. The acoustic in the RCH is tricky because the space is so vast and therefore it is easy to sing louder than needed and not get much back. We spent our time wisely and made an effort to conserve as much voice as possible for the gig later in the evening.

Just after 7pm we emerged from our dressing rooms to prepare for our set and decided to wait in the wings of the concert hall. We were all bowled over by the complexity of the arrangements being performed by the partner schools and it was a real testament to the partnership with NYCGB that, on the vast RCH stage, the very talented pupils were demonstrating complex extended vocal techniques with such ease. I think it's fair to say we were all pleased with how our solo set went. The arrangements were very exposed for all voice parts, there were lots of words to tackle and several harmonically challenging sections in each of the pieces. It's testament to our development on this scheme that we remained calm and collected and trusted each other to perform with the levels of consistency and finesse we know we're all capable of.

For me, the highlight of the performance was Rob Brooks’ expert leadership of the carols mash-up. Taking the first line of four carols and piecing them together to make a round, Rob effortlessly captivated the entire audience and all of the performers. At its climax there were four groups, two made up of adults and two made up of partner school classes, each aided by a Fellow or two, serenading each other with their individual round. A fantastic feat of music-making and a really impressive bit of leadership from Rob. -

Having spent the majority of my school education in Nottinghamshire, I was delighted to be back as part of NYCGB engaging musically with the Nottinghamshire Music Hub and the talented pupils of the partner schools. I hope that future Fellows will find similar rewards in future years when collaborating with local organisations that provide young people a platform to be creative and to engage in music making.

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2016-17 Fellowship Blog: Episode 4

November's assignment gave the Fellows a concentrated burst of wide-ranging challenges and opportunities.

HANNAH KING (SOPRANO)

Our sessions in late November gave us the full scope of the Fellowship programme - we had the opportunity to learn from a fantastic industry professional, gave a workshop for some young musicians, and sang our first recital as a group together.

Rehearsals in London (bolstered by Jaffa cakes and many cups of tea) were a chance to refresh the repertoire we’d tackled for our first appearance together on BBC Radio 3 'In Tune', and to knuckle down to work on new rep for our forthcoming recitals. It was a privilege to have Joanna Forbes-L’Estrange with us for our afternoon session to help us work on some close-harmony arrangements. As a former Swingle Singer, Joanna was able to impart her extensive knowledge and effortless cool-ness on our performances, including Ward Swingle’s ‘It was a lover and his lass’, and an arrangement of 'Sleigh Ride' by Mr Ben Parry. It’s a genre that not everyone had much experience in so Jo’s input was really invaluable.

A few days later we arrived at the Royal Hospital School in Holbrook for a composition workshop day with year 10 and 12 music students. Due to a delayed train we were thrown straight into an immersive demo of choral music from Tallis to Tavener to give the students some ideas for their own GCSE and A-Level compositions - props must go to Elspeth and Ben for popping out some serious high notes on very little warm-up time! Armed with Ben Parry’s quick and easy guide to choral composition, we split into pairs to help guide groups of students towards their goal of creating a short piece. The day presented some challenges - though there are a few composers within the group, plenty of us have no compositional experience post-uni, so having to teach it was quite daunting, but Ben’s breakdown made it simpler for both them and us. Rob and I and our group of year 10s set the first verse of 'The Owl and the Pussycat', and as we had a few saxophonists in our class the final product was a study in jazz. All four groups came together at the end of the sessions to hear the Fellowship perform these brand new works, which ranged from our jazz-inspired ditty to a graphic score(!) on the theme of water.

There was time for a quick rehearsal in the afternoon to make the final touch-ups to our concert programme and rehearse with graduate Fellow Beth, who was stepping in for Ana. By the time the evening came round we were exhausted but excited to give our first recital together as a group. It’s a delight to work with such fantastic musicians - particular highlights for me were Monteverdi’s ‘O primavera’ and being able to put our session with Jo to work in ‘It was a lover’. Overall the day was a huge learning experience for many of us, teaching and working with secondary-age students for the first time, but it’s rewarding to know that they were gaining from it too.

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2016-17 Fellowship Blog: Episode 3

The 2016-17 Fellowship's third assignment saw them working alongside one of the world's top vocal consorts on new music by British composer Owain Park.

WILLIAM SEARLE (TENOR) -

At the start of November, we were thrilled to be invited to join Tenebrae in recording a new commission by Owain Park. The piece is written with the potential to be performed by one, two or three choirs, with sections for children’s chorus and another chamber choir, allowing Tenebrae plenty of opportunities to work with other ensembles during their subsequent touring. It was a real privilege to be invited to put down the ‘other’ chamber choir parts on record, knowing that this is going to be part of a much larger education scheme. We have had many conversations about what we can do in schools and workshops, but so far we have not had many chances to be part of a wider-ranging project.

Owain’s piece was a combination of six different poems, loosely themed around metaphors for death, or perhaps the passage of time, like a sort of sung-through 'Songs of Farewell'. At approximately thirteen minutes long, sections ranged from contrapuntal sea shanty to spellbinding homophony. It was somewhat strange to break it down for the recording, as the cumulative emotion of running the full work became a bit fragmented, but even so, there were some gorgeous sections that I never wanted to stop singing,  which was lucky considering that Nigel took us through nearly twenty takes of one particular eight bar section to get it just right!

The ‘other’ choir parts were not particularly challenging in terms of notes or rhythm (particularly compared to the rapid, compound meter, key-shifting fugato in Tenebrae’s parts) but nonetheless, the reasons for Tenebrae’s reputation and stunning catalogue of recordings soon became clear. Nigel was meticulous in looking for our every word to carry the same tone quality, focussing on each vowel, consonant and dipthong. As Elspeth mentions in Episode 2 of this blog, our last recording with James Rose had been unusual, with space and time to experiment, make mistakes and, unsurprisingly in the video recording, corpse just a little. Here we were back to more like 'choral normal'; a chilly church with industrial heaters glowing, coats and scarves on, having to maintain total focus while we waited for cars to rush through the swelling puddles around the church, before breathing straight into another meticulous take.

It was exhilarating to make choral music at this standard and under such pressure. Even though we have all been lucky enough to sing in university choirs and schemes such as the Genesis Sixteen, where no quarter is given on artistic detail and technical rigour, those rehearsals are often spread over a longer period of time. Here the end goal was in sight from the moment we began, rehearsing for three hours and then entering straight into a three hour recording session. There was no time to make a mistake, miss an entry or take one’s eyes off Nigel, and I think that we really enjoyed testing ourselves in that high-intensity environment.

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2016-17 Fellowship Blog: Episode 2

For their second outing, the 2016-17 Fellowship octet were once again singing to the microphone - but everything else was very new indeed...

ELSPETH PIGGOTT (SOPRANO) -

This week we were working with musician, composer and producer James Rose on a recording of his new arrangement of the Wexford Carol. This, however, was not you run-of-the-mill-resonant-accoustic-freeze-your-amen-off-in-a-church choral recording. I was directed to a private residence in central London, and was greeted in the open plan living/dining room by NYCGB Marketing Manager Julian Forbes and artist and techy-in-training Sereta Baldwin. Surrounded by used mugs, camera lighting equipment and a vast quantity of stage make up, they were in the middle of a discussion about John Gray and Schopenhauer. This was James’s studio/ apartment.

We recorded our parts individually, close miked, with a click track and midi files of the other parts playing through headphones. Ana and Will had been in before me, so I had them in my ear too, and by the time Jamie’s turn came around he had all of us. He might have had the easiest time, except for the untimely hammering that started outside and obliged James to shove him into an acoustically-isolated wardrobe where his Mongolian low notes could be picked up. James wanted an a cappella sound for the song, senza vibrato, which was harder for some than others. It was a challenge for me, at least, because it felt like I had to undo six years of classical training in 60 seconds. But James was relaxed and encouraging, and had magic tools to adjust the pitch when my confusion over placement resulted in dodgy tuning. The session environment also brought to light technique issues I hadn’t previously noticed. Live performances in spacious buildings apparently hide a multitude of sins which a microphone does not, and I gave a number of false starts before we were happy with the start of each phrase. Clearly, I need to work on my onset. The next stage was filming, and we all returned the following day to finish the job. It was a surprise to feel relief at being reunited, after having to stray beyond my comfort zone alone. Suddenly, we had comrades in arms to support by page turning and lipstick lending, partners in crime to tease those in the spotlight attempting to mime while keeping a straight face.

Now, I absolutely love groups like GQ (Girls Quartet) and the Puppini Sisters, not to mention the Sons of Pitches and Pitch Perfect, but for some reason or other we in this year’s NYCGB Fellowship octet have all chosen to study classical singing; and if I’m honest, I'm concerned that the end result of our work may be a little unconvincing. To spend just five hours on this project perhaps does a disservice to the a cappella community, whose groups spend their performing lifetimes perfecting their art form. That being said, it was a privilege to be given a glimpse into this world, to experience a completely different way of music making. The lessons James gave us on matching tones and colours (have a look at Acapella Equalizer on YouTube) will be ones which we will carry through to everything we do together throughout the year, and most likely beyond. It’s so rare to be given the opportunity to work with professionals of a different area from your own, which is one reason why this program is so unique. That being said, I am also looking forward to seeing what we are capable of on home territory. On this score, our mettle is yet to be tested.

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2016-17 Fellowship Blog: Episode 1

The 2016-17 Fellowship octet met to rehearse as an ensemble for the first time on Friday 23 September 2016. Four days later, they were broadcasting live on BBC Radio 3...

ROBERT BROOKS (Bass) -

In some ways, going into this first project with the Fellowship felt similar to the last round of our audition. I still didn't really know my fellow Fellows (can't believe I've succumbed to that already), or Ben, and there was the same cocktail of expectations/not knowing at all what to expect. As with the third round of auditions, I would be rehearsing with a group of very good singers, who therefore (and I include myself) probably had strong opinions (read egos) on both singing and choral technique. But not necessarily ones that would match. This uncertainty and excitement was intensified by the knowledge of how good this group could be, if it did all work.

The first rehearsal was extremely liberating. Very rarely have I had the opportunity to sing all day with an ensemble as talented as the other Fellows are. Yes there were odd mistakes, tuning and ensemble tweaks, etc., but essentially the nuts and bolts of the music/vocal production could be taken as read. It felt fantastic to bypass the mundane and go straight into music making, often in the first read-through. For me, the excitement of singing in a group like this - close knit, one or two per part - is the vocal freedom it can grant, and I think something that became quickly important to us was the discovery/ownership of our cumulative sound. We weren't that interested in emulating other choirs or groups, but instead in exploring the range of colours that our own soloistic abilities could produce in consort. The continuing struggle to achieve great overall cohesion without limiting individual expression/technique is obviously one that all ensembles face, but I think it is particularly prevalent amongst choral groups. We'll probably be starting to crack it just as our Fellowship comes to an end.

We were put to the test quite quickly. After spending two days rehearsing and getting to know each other (I couldn't spot the trouble-maker so it's probably me...) we were due to appear on BBC Radio 3's In Tune. On the one hand it was astonishing to stand less than ten meters away from Nicola Benedetti playing the violin, on the other it was ridiculous to think that we were supposed to be performing on the same show, with something even approaching that standard. Another slightly surreal element was the presence of a live audience, but the reality that we were actually performing to a set of microphones stood in front of us, and should largely ignore the people there. Having said all that, Sean Rafferty at Radio 3 and the NYCGB staff with us made everything as easy and comfortable as was possible.

After a nervy start, where I think the temptation was to sink back into a style and sound that we thought we should inhabit, we quickly relaxed, and were able to produce music that was more and more of ourselves, which is surely the point of a programme as ground-breaking and supportive as the Fellowship. I hope we can take that much further as our year progresses. I've already learned and enjoyed so much, and it feels as though we are already good friends. Cringe but true. I can't wait for the next gig.

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