LSO Communications Manager Fabienne Morris went along to the recent A Taste of America Community Singing Day at LSO St Luke's to stretch her vocal cords and find out if singing really is for everyone.
The other LSO
You’ve heard of the LSO right? No, no – the OTHER LSO. London’s Singing Office.
This merry little choir comprises 15 or so staff from the LSO administration team who, not to be outdone by our more famous (and vastly more talented) colleagues in the Orchestra, rehearses every Thursday lunchtime and occasionally performs at staff leaving parties and the suchlike.
The kind of leaving parties which deprive us of sopranos, in fact. And so it was that I was bumped from my safe spot in the altos to a club from which I’d been trying to run since the age of 13, when I’d discovered it kind of hurts to sing that high.
I had a choice. I could either keep trying to run or I could face the (high-pitched) music. Coincidentally, LSO Sing, the Orchestra’s singing programme founded in 2012 and going from strength to strength under the leadership of Choral Director Simon Halsey, had an event coming up which offered hope: a Singing Day with charismatic, fun LSO Community Choir Director David Lawrence and esteemed vocal coach Ghislaine Morgan. Even better, the repertoire was an all-American fest of juicy works by Barber, Copland, Bernstein, Gershwin and Lauridsen, running the gamut from folk and musical theatre to 20th-century choral classics.
I had nothing to do that Sunday, so, on the pretext of writing this blog (and with the secret mission to learn how to sing higher than the D above middle C), I journeyed to LSO St Luke’s on my day off.
'Where are your knees?'
Despite my best efforts, I arrived late and these were the first words which greeted me upon entering Jerwood Hall. It took me a moment to realise that Ghislaine wasn’t singling me out for a scolding (albeit a bizarre one) but was in fact taking the whole room through some body awareness exercises. Tail-bone, knees, spine – apparently it really matters where these things are in relation to each other. Then it was on to breathing exercises and intoning syllables. It was when she instructed us to laugh, cry and pant that I realised I’d have to shed all inhibitions. David was just as enthusiastic: 'Wrong notes over no notes! Carry on regardless – just don’t be silent!'
This was a particular relief to those in the room who didn’t read music, or whose sight-reading ability was limited. I played two instruments to Grade 8 standard in my youth and even I occasionally forget what all the Italian terminology means. As with most things, reading and performing music is like a muscle – use it or risk losing it. Happily it’s also akin to riding a bike, in that you never really forget the basics. Dim memories from primary school recorder lessons have a way of bursting out to help when you least expect it.
Aristocratic Minnie Mouse
Now: the elusive tone quality. Ghislaine explained the basic physiology of the throat and vocal cords, and asked us to put our finger on our Adams apples’ to see what happens when we yawn and swallow, respectively. I won’t go into the science, partly because I’m not sure I understood it all and partly because there are plenty of websites with that sort of detail (usually accompanied by graphic photos of the inside of someone’s mouth – you have been warned). Suffice it to say that Ghislaine’s advice to the sopranos and tenors to sound 'Very posh and slightly miserable’ to create resonant high notes and to the altos and basses to sound 'Drunk and happy’ for rich-sounding low notes worked incredibly well. The sopranos were asked to talk in very high, Minnie Mouse-esque voices to get used to being up high – as simple as it sounds, the voice needs practice at being at a register unlike the normal speaking voice. Ghislaine also explained that projection is about resonance, not volume or amount of air. No yelling or puffing here, please.
(Not so) Simple Gifts
The first piece we tackled was Copland’s Simple Gifts, better known to most in the room as 'The Lord of the Dance’. David provided a brief introduction to the piece in terms of when and why it was composed, and accompanist Liz Burley gave us our starting notes in the form of a polite arpeggio.
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…
We run the whole thing through. We don’t sound too bad as it happens – everyone can sing in tune (even if the sight-reading needs work) and it’s clear that the 100 or so participants have the most important quality of all: enthusiasm.
Immediately David zooms in on a passage for the tenors, and they get to work. I get a warm glow. This is what I miss about music-making. Working with professionals who see instantly where a problem lies and get right to work in untangling it. No fuss, no shame – let’s just make it better. It’s an incisive approach that flies in the face of what many of us are guilty of when practising alone: rehearsing the same passages over and over again without really facing up to what’s causing the issue, or (still worse) repeating the bits you can already play to make yourself feel better... not that I ever did that of course.
Bernstein’s feisty West Side Story number contains a lot of fast words ('Automobile in America, chromium steel in America, wire spoke wheel in America, very big deal in America' – that sort of thing) and David and Ghislaine try a number of tactics to improve our pronunciation. Firstly, we’re instructed to put a finger (our own, hopefully) between our teeth and then sing the words, the aim being to keep the jaw still and let the lips and tongue do the work. Counterintuitively, we’re told to lengthen the notes rather than make them short and spiky as this literally gives the listener more time to hear what’s being said.
In Barber’s Sure on this Shining Night (my favourite – have a listen), David urges us to consider tempo over pitch. This issue crops up a lot when choirs are learning music – it’s natural that people slow down as they look for the right notes, or nervously wait for their neighbour to make the move to the next interval. It doesn’t take long for a flowing work to become a dirge but David has an easy tip to address this: move. Move in time with music so the pulse is literally in your body. We all like this so much that we continue to bob around in our chairs even when the exercise is over. David points out that many musicians in other countries and cultures sway in this way – gospel choirs, European orchestras. How very British of us to stay so still.
Blend = bland, and other myths
Speaking of hiding behind one’s neighbour, have you ever been told that in order to sing in a choir you need to blend in? Well, I was pleased to hear that this is rubbish. A great choir, David and Ghislaine assure us, is made up of great individual voices, each giving their all as if they bore the responsibility of a soloist. Or, to put it in a more catchy way, blend does not mean bland.
What about this one: you must have superhuman breath control and reach the end of phrases and/or long notes without having taken another gulp of air. Wrong again! Great singers use a lot of breath and take as much breath as they need, when they need it. The beauty of singing in a choir, and as part of a section, is that you can rely on your colleagues to cover for you. So breathe when you need to breathe and re-enter subtly. That way the sound is never strangled.
A particular highlight was when the tenors – that beleaguered group who never have enough representation at days like these; the violas of the singing world if you will – were asked, as an experiment, to pretend that they were opera singers. They’d been going round and round on a passage and for some reason, the sound just wasn’t big enough.
The result was staggering: 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds.
Everyone burst into a spontaneous round of applause.
'You see?' exclaimed Ghislaine, hopping around in glee, 'You think it sounds hammy and over the top but THAT’S what you need to do!'
Fake it to make it
As the day comes to a close, and we perform the pieces we’ve been working on to a small appreciative audience of family and friends, I ponder how interesting it has all been. The overriding message, apart from the obvious (practice, do your warm-ups, don’t be shy) was, in a way, to fake it until you make it. If you want to sound like an opera singer, just pretend you are one. Act 'as if’, and one day you’ll be right.
The American Dream? I don’t know about that. But it’s a simple, uplifting philosophy that we can transfer to almost any sphere in life. I for one will be going back to London’s Singing Office with a newfound sense of confidence.
At the next LSO Community Singing Day Jazzmatazz! on 14 May 2016, you can explore vocal arrangements of jazz favourites including 'It don't mean a thing (if it a'int got that swing)' and 'Just the way you look tonight' under the guidance of conductor David Lawrence and vocal coach Ghislaine Morgan.
LSO Singing Days are part of the LSO and LSC Choral Development programme LSO Sing, which is generously supported by the Creative Europe, J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust, and Sir Siegmund Warburg's Voluntary Settlement.