Thursday, 21 April 2016

HYC, CBSO and BBC Philharmonic - Bernstein and Chichester Psalms

Every time I work on a project with the Halle Youth Choir, I just remember how lucky I am to be involved in something which is simply extraordinary. The amount of work I have covered with them in the past two years alone has been immense - from Beethoven with the Kinshasa Symphonique (which was my very first project with them in London) to premiering O'Reagans work for the Manchester grammar school centenary, to re-opening the Whitworth art gallery with pieces based on Blake and then of course, the crème de la crème of performing at the BBC proms last summer!

Our most recent project has been a while in the making due to our preparation previously of the Vaughan William's Serenade to music. This project has meant working with the CBSO which resulted in a massive choral sound that was like ... a wall of texture and colour and, for want of a better word, awesome-ness!!!

As a fan of more traditional choral singing, because early music has become a thing for me recently the more I study it, it was great to really engage with some music nearer to my own time - from the 20th century. The programme featured orchestral renditions of the music from West side story too (which we got to see in the first half before the exhausting second half which was all us) and our renditions of Bernstein's Chichester psalms and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms.

A few weeks ago, we rehearsed the works in Birmingham for the first time and though a long rehearsal, it was one of the most exciting I have ever been involved in. Mainly because the Bernstein is written in Hebrew which meant working a lot with text and translation. Though containing much of the original the Lord is my shepherd, this is sung by a solo counter tenor and choir. My favourite marking for this piece was when there were some polyrhythms going and the tenor and basses had a really complex line whilst the sopranos carried on with the main gentle melody with the marking of Blissfully unaware of threat. Who else but the genius that is Bernstein could have thought something like this up? Like his requiem, this is work I enjoy a lot but it's quite controversial still - some people refuse to take it seriously. But it is definitely worthwhile too because although there are sections which might sound strange or silly at first, they are incredibly difficult to master.

Any way, I digress. The rehearsal was also exciting because we got to work with a Hebrew translator/interpreter so that our Hebrew was sounding as clear and natural as possible. The number of pencil markings in my score... although I lost count, they were the most useful resource of the whole project as it meant when focusing on the more complex sections I didn't have to worry about the Hebrew pronunciation too much because it was all right there in front of me and I could just read through it a few bars before the entry and then focus on the notes and the conductor.

When we went to the Bridgewater hall for the concert, we rehearsed everything several times over both with our choral directors and with the orchestra and their conductor. The BBC philharmonic are an extremely precise orchestra despite their creativity - every note was in just the right place so you never lost count. As someone who gets frustrated with scores which don't match up on occasion, this made me even more excited to perform these works.

The concert was even broadcast live on BBC radio 3, which makes it all the more exciting! If you would like to listen to the concert, you can click on the image below. We begin with our pieces at around 1 hour 15 minutes.

All in all, I think that (for a youth choir or an adult choir) we made a pretty impressive sound - but like I mentioned, it wasn't without hard work, not at all! In fact it was often the hard work that allowed us to get through the most difficult sections because there was just so much rhythm. The rhythm in these pieces was in fact more important than the pitches themselves, so at first when I was practicing at home, I would just practice the rhythms on a vowel before adding the text.

Thank you for all your support and comments, it is so wonderful to be able to answer or help with any questions you have, and to share this adventure with all of you. It makes my day every day!

If you like, you can click Here to vote for me as Blogger of the Month. Thank you

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Music in 2016

The other day when I was walking through college, I heard someone discussing this:

The symphony is dead!
Now, that is quite the claim. My initial response was not to think much of it but then on the train ride home, I remembered hearing this sentence and it got me thinking a lot about music and the role it plays in our modern day culture. In the present day, popular music seems to be the trend that everyone wants to stay updated on. However, there are equally as many people interested in the counterpart - in classical music or '20th century' music, so to speak. So even though there are mass performances and premieres of new compositions of all genres pretty much every day in every part of the world, people are still claiming that the symphony is dead.
This wasn't the first time I had heard this statement, which is probably why I remembered it so well. A few years back in 2012, there was a discussion of the BBC proms in a newspaper which claimed that the viewings were not as high as usual for certain events, including works by lesser known composers. This was considered odd because the BBC proms is one of the biggest musical festivals of them all, particularly for classical, and is largely about not only getting to see our old friends like Beethoven symphony 7, but also getting to celebrate the works of new and upcoming composers, or lesser known musicians from around the time when Mozart or Butterworth walked on to the scene.
But it is rather poignant that, although symphonies are composed, the sonata style that was predominant throughout music history is no longer the focus of the composers pen. Instead there is now the freedom to perhaps write a jazz waltz as Chopin did, and the role of religion in society has changed - being a Kapellmeister is no longer the only way to get a job in music. And yet the works seem to defy the sonata style through more than just dissonance and atonalism. Through the example of Reich, these works now push against the traditional structure in the hope of finding something revolutionary that will lead people to be creative instead of following a symphony rule book. Which is probably why we think of these people as the writers of symphony instead of anyone here today:

 So who is there today that is continuing to write, if not symphonies, then works which are considered classical? Well that's the wonderful thing - no one thing is currently dubbed classical. For the first time in all of history there is space to build around the rules and restrictions that cultures built to enforce music to be a slave of. Instead we have the internet, where at any time I can go from listening to songs from the book of Anna Magdalena Bach to listening to Shostakovich 5 symphony to listening to something by Glass or Chopin or Elgar or Reich or Scarlatti. Or even, though unlikely, the Spice Girls.
For the past 100 years we have had the development of jazz, of musical theatre veering away from operetta and of course, the rise of technology implementing the need for music for games and music for movies. One a project presenting Salford radio a few years ago, the presenter said to me that if Mozart were alive today, then that is what he would be doing - composing film music. And I can see this being true principally because:
A. Remember the Gadfly? Shostakovich composed that for a movie. In fact he wrote much of his early stuff for movies because that was the only means of getting money and approval from the state in the USSR.
B. Remember the popular movie The Kings speech? Beethoven pieces were featured in this a lot, as was the music of Schubert in The young Victoria. And despite being written in a classical/traditional way, people not accustomed with classical music and not recognising it (though dubbing it classical because of it's sound) did not even realise that this music was not hot off the press solely for this particular film.
And not only are the people listening to centuries worth of music with the click of a mouse or with the purchase of a CD, but there are people fusing music to create new sounds. Take for example the music of Birdy or Aurora. This music is used frequently in advertising and consists of a line up featuring traditional line ups, such as cello, piano, voice, despite also featuring newer instruments, such as synths and a wide range of percussion.
To encourage people to listen further to classical music, popular music from the past and present is updated in to orchestral arrangement and performed by many famous orchestras. Obviously the infamous John Williams is covered everywhere, but did you realise that those such as the Beatles also are?
Some of my favourite artists at the moment fuse lots of different styles together to get a new and exciting outcome. Heard of Snarky Puppy? They fuse Jazz with pretty much anything and everything, with hundred of instruments, classical and electronic alike, and the effect is something which you can easily dance to at a party or listen to at home. Thing of Gold is a permanent favourite.
But classical wise, there are still lots of composers I enjoy listening to. It is especially exciting if someone recommends someone's work to me and then I can go away for the evening and just listen to all of it in one and then listen to it more until there is something within the content which I want to take to work with something else or which clarifies something to me about my own work and what direction I would like to take that in. These composers include Birtwhistle and Tarik O'Reagan, who myself and the Halle Youth Choir worked with last year to premiere a new piece of his. And with the proms coming up, I have no doubt that there will be lots of Birtwhistle content, and hopefully something new!
Music in 2016 is looking to be an exciting time, with upcoming content and old content all there for the listening! So next time you think of listening to a song again, look for a new interpretation and see what comparisons you draw - anyone can be a music student!
Thank you for all your support and comments, it is so wonderful to be able to answer or help with any questions you have, and to share this adventure with all of you. It makes my day every day!

If you like, you can click Here to vote for me as Blogger of the Month. Thank you

Being a student - What does it mean?

Nearing the end of the year, it is difficult to comprehend that a whole year has passed and that my first academic year here is only two weeks and two exams away from being officially over. Naturally, it feels like time has gone far too quickly and that little to none of the time set out in the original plan has passed yet. But when we pause for a moment, we can feel how much has occurred in this small space of time and in that moment, the panic over deadlines subsides and in it's place, is pride at the huge amount of progress and development that has occurred.

When I first applied for university, over a year and half ago now, I don't think I ever would have guessed how things would have turned out. Of course, the goal to learn about music and to develop my performance standard never changed, but the way I want to go about doing that and such has changed quite a great amount. It's actually quite intimidating to see how my own progress has surpassed my capability to keep up with where that progress is going in my train of thought and it means working harder than ever to think about what I have done in order to locate the subtle things that reveal to me where I should aim to aim next.

Being a student means many things: As Marina Keegan said in her essay The opposite of loneliness being in things together and working hard for all of those things that you want to achieve in your life. Because all of that work and all that progress can only ever begin with being the student. If figures famous for their thinking such as Aristotle, Copland and Stephen Hawking teach us anything, let it be that masterpieces and works of genius do not occur in one sitting (the book Bounce and the 10,000 hour practice rule teach us this too - talent alone is not enough to make an impact on anything, not even if you're Mozart, no exceptions!)

Also, I answered a few questions about my own experience with applying and a bit of advice on how to handle the application process if you are a bit nervous or unsure about the conservatoire path. It's featured on the other UCAS blog and you can read it by clicking on the link below if that's something you'd be interested in:

Conservatoire experience interview on the UCAS Blog

Many of my friends talk about their experiences with education in a format that makes use of grammatical tense very important. For example, they are proud of their past achievements and forget how much stress and hard work those achievements involved, yet they cannot wait for their next greatest achievement, such as their performance exams, to be over so that they can be free of this and enter into the open prairie that is summer. Notice anything about this? The rose coloured glasses that surround things are only accessible to us once we enter into the phase of hindsight; but then it is a curious thing that we are never truly in hindsight. We realise the adventure to our qualification is usually what we miss over the destination once we have passed by it.

We are all students, no matter what our age - we all have something to teach yes, but we also always have something to learn. In the Oxford education series, many people who entered into music tuition spoke of how they ended up learning just as much from their students as they taught them. I myself have seen and experienced this first hand when a teacher or a fellow student has not heard of a piece of repertoire which maybe I found by my own research. or from another previous teacher. In this way, every day is a complete cycle all of it's own in which we have time to develop our new thoughts and to process new information. Some of it we retain and some of it we do not, which is why the word 'student' applies to all of us - being in flux, how can it ever be truly over? Much as I wish there was, there is not enough time in one life to get a PhD in everything.

And being a student in the time when we mostly think of people as being students (stereotype = early twenties + full time university degree path) is one of the best times to play the part of a student because we have access at this time to more information than you would believe. We have each other! From my peers I have learnt about everything from good recipes for aubergines and sweet potatoes, to how to write a Phrygian dominant in the style of Bartok - the scale is endless.

I think that that is the note I will leave you on - that permanent student situation, just as a little food for thought. I know that this content is but a snippet of what has been whirring around in my mind for the past few days/weeks the nearer my recitals get. Thinking is surprisingly a fantastic way to procrastinate! Some of my best ideas occur when I procrastinate, which was thankfully confirmed as sane in this TED talk:

This world of ours is the most incredible thing. The fact that every day we have access to new information on Dinosaurs, and the pyramids, and the politics of Tudor England, and how all the land on earth started off in one place... we never run out of new things to interest us.

New years resolutions so far:

Books read out of 100 - 76/100
Currently reading: Sapiens, a clockwork orange and Sherlock Holmes
Films watched out of 100 - 49/100
Last watched: The new jungle book (which was incredible!)
Instruments learnt out of 10 - Still 3

Thank you for all your support and comments, it is so wonderful to be able to answer or help with any questions you have, and to share this adventure with all of you. It makes my day every day!

If you like, you can click Here to vote for me as Blogger of the Month. Thank you

Friday, 15 April 2016

Values of Volunteering - Working at Oxfam

These days I don't have much free time, what with travelling to and from Leeds, deadlines, my two final performance exams and sleep! But we all need a break and I find that doing something useful during this time makes me feel a lot better than feeling guilty about having an hour off from university work (even though I know I am working the hardest I possibly could!) Currently this has been through working at Oxfam.

Volunteer work is completely open to the individual and what works for them - and for me, this work has come about as part of two factors:

1. I wanted to work a little more with giving something back to my wonderful community and to a charity that impacts the world in a positive way globally as well.

2. It meant getting to do something fantastic and exciting which I wanted to do as part of my DoE.

Although I do not get paid for my work as Oxfam, I find that as well as rewarding it offers a lot of training which can be used later in life with jobs which will require similar skill. In my weekly shift I get to do lots of varying tasks - from cleaning, to sorting through donations to working at the till. It can be quite tiring some days, but it's a lot of fun too because the people I work with are friendly and equally as interested in the same things as me. So sometimes it doesn't feel like work at all.

With summer coming up and students looking for part time jobs, I just wanted to take this quick opportunity to say that volunteer work is definitely something you should consider even if you only donate half of one day to working at a place like your local charity shop or doing some fundraising - it can be really useful and rewarding, Plus on top of all that, it enhances your CV too!

So make sure that this summer you find the right working opportunities for you!

Thank you for all your support and comments, it is so wonderful to be able to answer or help with any questions you have, and to share this adventure with all of you. It makes my day every day!

If you like, you can click Here to vote for me as Blogger of the Month. Thank you!

Preparing for your final recital

The past few weeks may have been the Easter holidays, but for us as music students (especially as singers) this time has been about getting as many pieces into our twenty minute slot which fits the criteria as we can. It sounds easy enough to do this, but when you have to know the melody, key, rhythm, translation into English as well as the original language itself, it can be quite a difficult process. Personally, I have found it quite useful to go about making sure I know pieces through the following information:

1. Playing the piece through on the piano to hear it properly.
2. Singing along with the piano line on my favourite vowel.
3. Speaking the language through with the piano part (just the rhythm, no pitch)
4. Adding in the language.

This is my approach to securing my knowledge of all music, not just learning new pieces as sometimes (especially if you haven't worked on a particular piece in a long time) it can mean that you have the opportunity to get back to grips with what it is you are producing and hear more easily where it is things need fixing/working on.

But I also find that the recital is about preparation. Having been ill my voice is not damaged (which is a relief) but there is a lot of time that needs to be put into getting me back to my former standard as I am finding it more difficult to reach higher notes that only weeks ago were easier for me to reach. It is kind of like when a professional ballet dancer gets back to work after undergoing an injury - if they aren't able to get back to ballet within two days, the muscle memory forgets practically everything learnt: so it becomes apparent through this example that, just like Dory says, it is important to 'just keep swimming'.

1. Make sure you are properly warmed up

With the amount of time you are going to be spending practicing, it is absolutely crucial that you keep yourself in the best health you possibly can. It is all well and good belting out that really high piece in a singing lesson, but would you rather be able to sing it well in the exam or have no voice then? This can be frustrating, as obviously we all want to produce quality work in as short a time as we are capable of. But in order to do this we need to be patient with ourselves. To do this, I make sure to do at least half an hour of warm ups outside of my singing practice each day. This includes:

- Breathing exercises - to make sure my support system is still there and hasn't gone anywhere.
- Vowels on ornaments and scales etc - to enhance my coloratura
- Space awareness - using vowels and their bright placement to make clear where the space I need to      use when singing is.

2. Start with the pieces you find difficult 

This I consider the hardest part of every singing lesson and practice hour because, it is our natural response to react to this with 'but I find it scary to start at the hardest place and work my way back'

To the best extent you can, try and welcome this challenge because it is one that will allow you to break the ice and realise that the scary pieces are only as hard as you imagine they are. Once you start work on them, it will become apparent that although there are sections you struggle with, time and practice will soon amend this.

In my incident, the Bach is the work I find scariest for my solo recital and a contemporary piece for my ensemble in that incident. But using the practice rules I listed earlier, it has allowed me to make a lot of progress over the past few weeks and I feel like I have overcome a few demons (definitely!) in the process of doing so. It is also quite rewarding to realise what we are capable of through self teaching and practice, particularly when you return to the simpler pieces at the end of your practice and realise how close to your end goal you truly are because of the time you have put in.

3. Research

Just as in academic research and essay production you would put together a bibliography of all the texts you have used, so you should keep a log of all the research that you do on your pieces. This means keeping a play list perhaps, of all the different versions of one piece you have listened to or writing a short paragraph of your ideas on how the two performers you just listened to sang something differently and what his effect was.

Good research is like the breath support - your piece cannot fly off the ground successfully without it. If you have a back up plan because you know an area is difficult (such as a cadenza) make sure you have the back up option and that you have explored every option. It is surprising what you can find on vocal success in a book and not in the voice itself. But researching does also mean experimenting, so let yourself explore at first what is you want to do before you set things in stone.

Besides, music is all about expression on top of that reseach, so just remember that nothing is ever truly set in stone in this incident.

4. Translation

Added to your research, other than anything you already understand in English, make sure you have the best possible translation you can of any pieces in German, Italian etc. If you get quizzed by your examiner on what you were just singing about and your response is 'I don't know' you are quite likely to lose marks due to this.

To get a good translation, do not rely on the English printed below the language itself in your edition. Make sure you go through it either with a Lieder translation book (there are plenty online for a relatively small price or in your local library) or a dictionary (never google translate!) translating it word for word can prove far more valuable than you might think because it allows space for thought on how to perform every single work and how they can be performed differently to add more expression.

5. Interpretation and story telling

Finally, and I think most importantly, don't try and dictate too much how you want to tell the story of each of your pieces. As performers, this is our bread and butter and this is just the cherry on top of all that hard work. This is when we have all the back up, the stabilisers on the bicycle so to speak, and we can just let everything fly because this is the moment we have been waiting for.

Definitely think about your interpretation and how you want to tell the story you are about to, but also don't push it. I think you will find that in that moment, on that stage, with only a few people in the room to examine your performance, the pressure will alleviate and you will be focused only on what you are singing. So let it be expressive and daringly, let it feel a little improvised because then it will be much more natural than if you fix a gesture to each word.

Be you, interpret it your way and you are bound to be a success.


My recital is in a few weeks time at the beginning of May so we will see how it goes then! My current pieces are 2 Schubert songs, 2 Bach pieces, 2 English songs and 2 Italian pieces. I'm sure you'll be hearing more on this soon.

Update on new years resolutions: 
Films out of 100 - 45
Books out of 100 - 73

Thank you for all your support and comments, it is so wonderful to be able to answer or help with any questions you have, and to share this adventure with all of you. It makes my day every day!

If you like, you can click Here to vote for me as Blogger of the Month. Thank you!

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Update: Shakespeare - Heroes, King Lear, and Stratford upon Avon

So the past two weeks, very fittingly, have been very Shakespeare filled which has been simply the best thing as there is no better way to recover from tonsillitis than to get back to your feet reading and living/ breathing all things Shakespeare.

As I mentioned last time, on the 2nd of April I went to see my first ever live version of one of the famous plays which was in this incident King Lear. Not my favourite of the plays (probably Twelfth night or Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet... or all of them because I just can't decide!) I was still looking forward to seeing how the play would be presented and whether there would be music and if so how they would handle this. This was mainly because there is no notated musical score for any of the plays but there is often a scene or two where characters, especially if they are comical characters, will sing a short phrase or two.

Without full knowledge of the Shakesperian theatre and how the actors train, I have always presumed that the songs are written and improvised by the actors to fit the mood of the scene and each individual performance so this was one of the things I was most looking forward to experiencing. The music here did feel so natural and improvised that I didn't even remember that it was something that wasn't well known or notated.

One of  the first things that I wasn't expecting was that everything was in the round - As a musical theatre geek of sorts, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter this form of theatre for the second time (the previous being for J. B. Priestly's An inspector calls) and this allowed much more interaction between the audience and the characters themselves - there is being drawn into a play and there is this. I've never felt so sucked into and part of a fictional world - paired with the fantastic acting (especially on behalf of Gloucester, Kent and the Fool) and the special effects (they used real fire and had real water to create the rain effect!) this was definitely a fantastic way to begin encountering Shakespeare in reality - I cannot wait to see more, hopefully similar projects at the Royal Exchange.

Then, as a birthday treat, mum transported us to the magical land of all things Shakespeare to start off April (which marks the 400th month since his death!) Aside from the hysterical car journey, encountering everything first hand was just a little surreal and hasn't quite set in yet.
Because I know a fair amount about Shakespeare I think I found it quite disheartening to not find all the answers I wanted - everything there was what I had already read about and researched which was great, but there was not really any new information which would provide me with the answers I wanted. It made me more frustrated about that big gap in his life where we know and probably will never know anything about him because so little has survived from the c.17th - I'm surprised, to be perfectly honest, that so much survived in the amazing condition it has.
The first place we went to was Anne Hathaway's cottage which was very small but also bigger than my entire house! The second best bed, which was all that Shakespeare left to her in his will, was in there in it's original state and the stairs were really steep and the wood was so old you could feel with your feet where they had been worn away in particular spots by other people walking up and wearing them away so much. The floor boards had gaps in them so from upstairs you could see through to down stairs and it felt like the whole house was moving in the wind.

^This is Anne Hathaway's room and what historians believe to be the second best bed which Shakespeare left his wife in his will

The gardens were beautiful and we are going to see them in summer properly when we go back to see more of the houses (there are several but we did not get chance to see them all - but our passes allow us everywhere and are valid for a year) I sat in this wicker sculpture and read some of the sonnets to mum and wrote a poem or two which I will send you. Then we walked along by the river through the woods and got tea at the cafe named after her, before looking around the town.
^More from Anne Hathaway's cottage gardens and cafe
It was not all in the countryside much to my surprise but the areas were preserved as country side. The birth place was mainly preserved but part of it has been demolished. There was part of the original window covered in signatures because people used to visit and sign it. There were some famous actors and writers, but I didn't manage to spot them all.
In the garden of the birth place there was a book shop called the Shakespeare book shop which I got a few things from and got my books stamped, naturally, and there was a small station where actors were doing random scenes. We got to see some Cleopatra!
^ A few photos from the birth place which was saved, largely, from complete destruction by the one and only Mr. Charles Dickens!
It felt fitting to visit the grave before we left so we drove down to the church and just stared a while at the place on the earth where he is buried and at the curse. Apparently his skull was stolen but we don't actually currently know all the facts because it hasn't been looked into fully.
It was just so.... surreal to think that the bones of this genius were literally meters away from me. And it just made me feel a bit dizzy and overwhelmed that all of this... incredible world building and writing and history and living all came from just one ordinary man.

^Some photos of Shakespeare's resting place (it is a really beautiful place and I am actually quite proud of these photographs!)
Then we got stuck in traffic on the way home... really bad traffic so it took forever to get back but we did eventually and had a laugh on the way - we laughed pretty much all the way home which meant that by the time we got home coupled with the morning journey we had hiccups (which were in time with the Beethoven symphony 7 we were singing along to on the way home!)
There was plenty more to the day but way too much to go into detail about everything. It did include attending a glove making work shop (because his father did this for a living) It is definitely something I will never forget as my first hand experience of this incredible world and how well preserved it all is - I can't wait to go back to experience even more of it this summer - but for now, I'll settle with being happy surprising friends with Shakespeare cookies - hooray!

^Me, looking extra forlorn walking to Anne Hathaway's cottage - definitely inspired a lot of poetry and compositions!

Thank you for all your support and comments, it is so wonderful to be able to answer or help with any questions you have, and to share this adventure with all of you. It makes my day every day!

If you like, you can click  Here to vote for me as Blogger of the Month. Thank you!