mental health in choirs

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and I have been thinking about how mental health issues can play out in choirs (under normal circumstances). Not so much mental health benefits to choir members in general, but to what extent choirs can include the mentally ill without serious disruption.

Years ago I was in a choir with someone who was said to have a bipolar condition and who frequently criticised other sections in the choir (and by implication their individual members) out of the hearing of the conductor. This didn’t actually harm the choir’s performances, though it may have driven away some singers over the years. I didn’t feel able to send any friends to dep in the choir, as I wanted them to stay my friends!

In the same choir there was another singer with a drink problem, who was thrown out when it became too apparent in rehearsal. The first singer was critical of this decision, as (perhaps because of the part the choir played in their own life) they felt the other was only more likely to turn to drink without choir to hold them together.

I don’t know what I’d have done about these two if I’d been in charge of the choir. There is some sort of balance to be struck between artistic standards, social benefits for all and therapy for some. It was relevant in this case that there were teenagers (and younger!) in the choir. And it was large enough that the first singer couldn’t do too much harm, especially as no one else seemed to share their often-expressed views, so their behaviour was tolerated. You just had to develop a thick skin.

Turning to the present, the theme of the week this year is ‘kindness’. Somehow I feel things have gone badly wrong if we need to state the obvious in this way. Surely all members of a choir should feel welcome and wanted? Choir committees, which I wrote about recently, have a part to play, and I think much that I wrote here, in regard to the workplace, also applies in a choral context.

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Some positives

There have been pessimistic reports about the prospects of relaxing lockdown for choirs. Mostly based on anecdotal evidence, so for this post I will put that aside and think about whether there are any benefits in not meeting others to sing.

Firstly, I can try to unlearn some of the bad technical habits that sneak in via choir rehearsals because I’m concentrating on other things.

Then, as I have no performances to prepare for, I can learn some of the unfamiliar repertoire on my shelves. My sight-singing is also getting better (particularly when it comes to singing in keys with many accidentals), thanks to Ida Carroll’s little book of exercises.

There are further benefits that have come from recording pieces on video for the church choir (and this is also planned for Bristol Choral Society). I am getting better at singing along to a backing track. Watching the results shows up more bad habits I’d been unaware of. The recordings can make instructive if uncomfortable listening too. When I’ve heard myself before, it’s been recorded at a distance with some sort of acoustic, often a flattering one. These recordings are made on a tablet resting on a music stand in front of me, and every little waver or flaw is shown up.

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the final of the Evensong World Cup

So my two favourite canticles settings made it to the semifinals, but then both lost and met one another in the third place playoff. Gibbons Second beat Howells St Paul’s in that match (not by a huge margin). I was pleased they did so well, though on the other hand it suggests my taste in canticles is not as distinctive and particular to me as I’d thought. Some, including the organiser, expressed surprise that the Gibbons got so far, seeing off opposition such as Stanford in A, Murrill in E and a setting by Judith Weir. I can think of one possible reason (other than that it is a stonkingly good setting): there was a known tendency for people to vote for settings where they’d sung a solo, and there are a lot of solo parts in the Gibbons Second Service.

Many of those who took part singled out particular moments in their favourite settings. I can’t do that for the Gibbons – the appeal to me derives from the way the verse and full sections simply flow on from one another.

Gloucester Cathedral, west elevation

Gloucester Cathedral, west elevation

My prediction of the final result was wrong and Howells Gloucester just held off Coll. Reg. I voted for it; when I first learnt Coll. Reg. I found it hard to sing because it lay in a tricky part of my voice and it’s never been a particular favourite of mie. Besides, Gloucester goes up to a top A, and I also have some loyalty to places I go to sing. During lockdown I have amused myself by constructing little models using a small set of architect’s blocks, and I duly built a tribute to the victor.

A sequel pitting anthems against one another is planned; this time I’ll be in at the group stages. [May 4th: it’s about to start! I sent in my suggestions: essentially this list minus Poulenc (Christmas period excluded) and with a second Purcell anthem to replace it.

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recording one’s own line

I recorded those two Easter hymns and our Director of Music stitched all the recordings together – a laborious task because they were large files with video – to enhance the webcast service on Easter Sunday. It was judged a success so we have repeated the exercise by recording our own line of Peter Nardone’s Mass of St Cedd (pronounced with ‘s’ not ‘ch’), one of the congregational settings we use.

Singing along to a backing track is a test of one’s sense of rhythm, and after a shaky start I am getting more practised at it. A further challenge is that the accompaniment has been recorded by a (distinguished) organist who doesn’t play for us normally, and who has his own interpretation of tempi which differ subtly from what I’m used to. Even in a straightforward congregational Mass setting there is quite a bit of latitude in this area.

As a bit of assistance there were also versions of the backing track with a video of our Musical Director conducting. The technology I’ve used is: for recording, an iPad on a music stand (so I can stand up and a little distance away from it); for playing the backing track, my phone attached to some headphones. But I found I ignored the video of the conductor as an unnecessary distraction – it was a bit like someone signing an event – except for changes of tempo. Perhaps this was because I knew that he too was following the tempo of the organist rather than setting it.

The results can be followed on the Sunday services on the Christ Church Bath YouTube channel.

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The Evening Canticles and me

Taking part in the ‘World Cup of Evensong Canticles’ has made me think about my personal history of singing them.* I didn’t start to sing evensongs until I was about 16, and for a few years after that I only knew a very limited number of settings. I think Gibbons ‘Short’ and Ireland in F were the first settings I learnt. As an undergraduate at Merton I only sang full settings there once a year on Shrove Tuesday (a College feast day), otherwise it was chants or faux-bordons. This astonishes Mertonians of a more recent vintage; normality had been restored there a few years later, after a new chaplain arrived. Some of us found the restriction frustrating and went moonlighting to sing at a weekday evensong at Lady Margaret Hall, where I was introduced to a number of the standard Mags and Nuncs. Later as a graduate student at Cambridge my canticle repertoire expanded considerably and has continued to do so ever since thanks to Cathedral visits. I even own a box set of the complete Priory Mag and Nunc series.

I think I’ve sung almost all the settings in widespread use; the gaps being either recently composed (such as the settings by Philip Moore) or early (I’ve sung only three Mags and two Nuncs of the many by Weelkes, and not yet sung Byrd’s ‘Great’ in a service). A significant omission, presumably because of difficulty, is the St John’s Service by Michael Tippett.

Turning to the World Cup, I’ve been enthusiastically casting my vote in the knockout stages. I have not been immune to a tendency, noticed by another participant, to prefer services where I’ve sung a solo part; so Stanford in G got my vote but Dyson in F didn’t. My ideal final would be for the smooth teamwork and discipline of the Gibbons Second Service to overcome the soaring long-range trajectories of Howells’ St. Paul’s, but I suspect that Coll. Reg. will lift the trophy.

If you need a change from real canticles, try a randomly generated description of a .

*I’m referring here to the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. I have never sung the alternatives for which provision is made in the BCP, and would be interested to do at least Purcell’s setting of them.

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in praise of … the filler

Why did Schubert never continue his Quartettsatz D703? Did he get distracted? Run out of inspiration? Or was he prescient enough to think ‘One day people will be able to preserve performances on a medium lasting about an hour, and they’ll need something to fill up the time after one of my other works’? Because that’s how it ended up being used.

Our collection of LPs includes no fewer than five recordings of this work (although the two by the Smetana Quartet are probably the same). It’s a filler for Death and the Maiden, the Trout Quintet, the Quartet D87, Dvořák’s quintet op. 81 and Dvořák’s Quartet op. 105/Terzetto op. 74.

Some works just lend themselves to being used as fillers. We have two accounts of Beethoven’s Leonore overture no. 3 (both on recordings of one of his symphonies). And two each of Dvořák’s Scherzo capriccioso and his overture ‘My Home’. The classic filler lasts about 10 minutes.

However, you don’t get the filler so much on CDs. It’s that extra 20 minutes on the disc. There are many more works that last just under the hour than just over it, and that leaves room for a more substantial piece lasting 20-25 minutes or so, which hardly counts as a filler.

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grounded over Easter

As I write this I’m listening to Bach’s St John Passion on Radio 3. I always try to hear the BBC National Chorus of Wales when they are broadcast (as they have been quite frequently recently), at least so if I am ever an ‘extra’ in one of their concerts there is a talking point with other singers. And my last performance in concert was of this very work.

Bristol Choral Society has had another ‘virtual’ rehearsal which I joined for the first part. We started work on autumn repertoire, using a digital recording of the notes as a backing track. Some of us have discovered one advantage of rehearsing this way – we can happily sing along to the solo parts in whatever voice with impunity. Unfortunately when the recording was relayed to us directly through Zoom rather than via the loudspeakers in our conductor’s home, I couldn’t both hear it and see the score on another application, so I had to drop out at that point. (I was standing at a music stand with a tablet balanced on it, so a second device wasn’t really an option).

Over at church, we in the choir are going to try to record a couple of hymns for Easter Day, one voice at a time over a backing track and then have them edited to sound simultaneously. I haven’t tried recording mine yet – somehow it didn’t seem right to do so before the evening of Good Friday.

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see you on the other side

Some kind of order is beginning to emerge out of the chaos. Bristol Choral Society has started having online rehearsals. Messages about ‘virtual choir pubs’ and ‘virtual pub choirs’ are dropping into my inbox, and social media is full of people posting recordings of themselves or others playing favourite pieces. On Twitter, I’m following the ‘World Cup of Evensong Canticles’, where canticles settings are pitted against one another for us to vote on. I’ve even dared to sign up to sing in a concert in the Cheltenham Festival in July. [which was cancelled the day after I wrote this]

The online rehearsal works by muting us all on Zoom, so we can see and hear our conductor but hear only ourselves. We do get some feedback from her because she can comment (for example) on posture and mouth shape in our warm ups. Just for fun we are sometimes unmuted in the final few bars of a piece so we can enjoy the variety of time lags. There are entire virtual choirs springing up but I’m content to keep on with my solo practice otherwise.

I wish I’d started following the World Cup for canticles earlier, because I’ve enjoyed weighing up the merits of one setting against another. Mostly I come to a decided preference quite easily, unless there’s been a setting completely unknown to me (and I only want to vote when I’ve sung both canticle settings – just listening to them isn’t enough). A few have been genuinely hard to decide. Surely Byrd ‘Great’ vs Howell’s St. Paul’s would go to penalties? As for Sumsion in G and Darke in F, that has what a local freesheet once described as ‘no-goal thriller’ written all over it.

Beyond this is the uncertainty of what happens when choirs restart. Any kind of hiatus in the usual pattern of concerts can be risky. People will be out of practice at singing with one another and possibly with singing generally (though the virtual choirs are trying to ensure that doesn’t happen). And there is the risk of what happened when the Brandon Hill Singers changed conductor; a loss of singers to other choirs.

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in praise of … choir committees

I’ve not spent a lot of time on choir committees, or ever had one of the more demanding posts. It’s a truism that they deserve lots of gratitude for what they do, and only if you’ve been behind the scenes on the preparations for a concert do you realise just how many and varied are the tasks needed to make it happen and how much effort they require.

But that isn’t all that’s good about these committees. In many choirs the musical director is answerable to them about non-musical matters and this ensures fair treatment, and a body to appeal to if things go wrong. Elsewhere, there are the committees which exist only to do the musical director’s bidding, or in extreme cases are even more closely associated with them. I once had an unsatisfactory audition with a (now recently deceased) conductor, was put on a waiting list and later tried to audition again. I rang the ‘choir secretary’ at home and ended up speaking to the conductor again! I hadn’t realised they were married to one another. No chance of complaining of an unfair audition procedure there.

I am sure that sometimes the committee can be taken over by a clique, and obviously people who have it in for specific other singers shouldn’t be allowed to abuse their powers. It is a sad and unhealthy thing when back-stabbing creeps into a choir; that is why I’m no longer singing with Priory Voices. But as far as I know no committee I currently deal with has these issues.

My first experience of being on a choir committee was that of the Kodály choir when I was an undergraduate; in those days the choir was about 150 strong. I started off with the most thankless post: that of membership secretary. There were two difficult aspects to this. One was telling people they could not sing in the concert, once they’d missed too many rehearsals. I had some pro forma notes to send out warning singers, then dismissing them and asking for the return of their score; but there was also a sheet of messages to tenors inviting them back even though they’d previously been sacked! The other hard task was collecting scores from people who had not returned them; inevitably they were living in digs at the far end of Iffley Road or somewhere equally inaccessible. (However dropping a note in at the digs if the former singer was out almost always resulted in the score coming apologetically back.) I graduated to choir secretary, a post I held for two years during what was a turbulent period in the choir’s history, which made for some interesting sets of minutes.

These days I’ve moved on to making venue bookings for one choir and doing some social media for another; close enough to the more responsible tasks to appreciate the work involved.

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a grounded singer

So I’ve temporarily lost all my choirs, including the church one. What do I do for singing?

I’d normally try to sing every day, which means individual practice on the days when I have no rehearsal or performance. Now that practice has to be daily and is the only singing I’m doing. Only I don’t have any choir repertoire to work on. I’m starting by brushing up some vocal exercises, which I usually tend to skip over in order to get to the juicy repertoire. I realise with one thing and another I’ve barely been required to sing above a G for several months (apart from the occasional descant in church) – not since the German Requiem in the autumn, which has left me a bit rusty in that area, and generally I mustn’t get out of practice. I’m digging out some of my old books of exercises – Vaccai, Herbert-Cesari, Lütgen’s Die Kunst der Kehlfertigkeit (don’t you just love that word) as well as some choice selections from choir warm-ups (one-one-two-one-one-two-three-two-one-one-two-three-four….) and ones used by past singing teachers which I keep either in my head or on tatty sheets of paper. I’m rather surprised at which ones are proving to be useful to me, but this is a personal thing so not likely to be of interest to my readership.

I’m also slowly working through Ida Carroll’s Advanced Sight-Singing Melodies, which are quite tricky as they were for diploma students – it’s gratifying if I get one right all the way through. Then I’m singing through the soprano parts in some of the anthems in Novello’s Tudor Anthem book, many of which I’ve never sung. Indeed I’ve never come across a choir with a set of copies of this anthology. As the weather warms, and inspired by what Italians have done, I’m opening the window for some of this.

Meanwhile I am progressing putting the LP collection we have inherited on to CD. It has been quite a long haul, partly because the records haven’t always been in good condition and there’s been a fair bit of click removal and cleaning necessary.

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