This week’s blog post is courtesy of Molly.
“Many of you will already know that I am a Teaching Assistant. Last week I got to hear about something exciting at school. Some of you may already know about BBC Ten Pieces but it was new to me. It’s a project where ten pieces of music are introduced to school children who may not have heard classical music before. As I understand it, each year group look at one piece and then they get to explore how to interpret the music for themselves. As yet I don’t know which piece of music Year 5 will listen to (my year group), or where it will take us. I do hope it all happens on the days of the week that I’m in school.
If you are interested there is a 3 min clip here.
I’ll let you know later on how it all goes.
See you all on Tuesday,
A patient of mine, who also sings in a choir, brought a poem in with her when she came to her appointment this week. Sadly she doesn’t know the author. As an alto, it made me smile, although Raunds Community Choir is pretty democratic generally and the altos don’t fair too badly.
The Altos’ Lament
It’s tough to be an alto when you’re singing in the choir.
The sopranos get the twiddly bits the audience admire.
The basses boom like loud trombones,
The tenors shout with glee;
But the alto part is on two notes
Or (if you’re lucky) three.
And when we sing an anthem and we lift our hearts in praises,
The men get all the juicy bits and telling little phrases.
Of course the trebles sing the tune –
They always come off best;
The altos only get three notes then twenty-two bars rest.
We practice very hard each week from the hymn-book and the psalter,
But when the conductor looks at us our voices start to falter.
“Too high!” “Too low!” “Too fast!”
“You held that note too long!”
It doesn’t matter what we do – it’s certain to be wrong!
O shed a tear for altos – they’re martyrs and they know,
That in the ranks of choristers they’re considered very low.
They are so very ‘umble and a lot of folks forget ’em;
How they’d love to be sopranos, but their vocal chords won’t let ’em!
And when the final trumpet sounds and we are wafted higher,
Sopranos, tenors, basses – they’ll be in the heavenly choir.
While they sing “Alleluia!” to celestial flats and sharps,
The altos will be occupied, polishing the harps.
Recently I heard Kevin Spacey being interviewed about his acting career. The interviewer asked him what was the most important piece of acting advice he’d ever been given. He replied, ‘Just listen…’
‘When you focus less on yourself and pay attention to what you’re hearing around you, you are in the moment. Listening to your fellow actors helps you reflect back their emotions and helps you create and maintain the mood of a scene.’ [sic]
He went on to say ‘At the same time you have to listen to the director, take on board what their vision is…how they are trying to drive the narrative.’ [sic]
That was the gist of it anyway, and I thought, if one of the world’s best actors thinks listening is important then perhaps as a choir we should take notice. The skill is certainly transferable.
As choir members we each need to pay attention to what we’re hearing around us. Are we matching the volume of the singers either side of us? Are we matching the volume of the other sections? Or does this piece require us to hold back collectively and let another section shine through? Are we singing the correct pitch? Does our tuning ‘fit’ with what everyone else is singing? Are we helping to create the right mood for the song?
And are we listening to the director? Where is she or he trying to take us? A song, like a scene in a play, generally has a narrative and the director will want to drive us through that narrative so that the ‘whole’ makes sense. They will be listening to hear whether the harmonies are working; whether the sections are blending well; and whether the balance is right. They will feed their thoughts back to us and by listening then acting on their feedback we will begin to shape and craft the song into something complete, something with which an audience can connect.
After all, if it’s good enough for Mr. Spacey…
One of the songs Raunds Community Choir will be singing in the May Folk Festival is Paul Simon’s arrangement of Scarborough Fair. It’s a fiendishly tricky arrangement but really lovely, and one of my favourite Simon and Garfunkel songs.
The Scarborough Fair was a medieval event which began in mid August and which ran for 45 days. It attracted traders and entertainers from all over the country. The song was originally one which Bards would sing as they travelled from town to town. No-one knows who penned the words or the tune. It evolved over the years and some versions have many more verses than the Simon and Garfunkel arrangement.
It’s a sort of love poem set to music. In Medieval times, the herbs mentioned in the song represented the virtues of the woman for whom the song is being sung: parsley equated to comfort, sage to strength, rosemary to love, and thyme to courage.
The Paul Simon arrangement was released as a single in 1968, after it was used in the Dustin Hoffman movie The Graduate. It actually blends two songs, Scarborough Fair and Canticle. They are woven lyrically together to create the musical texture of the piece. The first and last verses are Scarborough Fair and lines from Canticle alternate after the first line of the other verses.
On one of the first albums Paul Simon ever released, The Paul Simon Songbook, there is a song called The Side Of a Hill, an anti-Vietnam protest song. This song was also reworked into the Canticle part of Scarborough Fair.
To be honest it’s taking some mastering but with practice hopefully we’ll be able to showcase just how beautiful this arrangement really is.
I’ve included a link to the Simon and Garfunkel version of Scarborough Fair and also to The Side of a Hill. With so much conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Syria and the rest of the Middle East, I find this simple song particularly poignant at present.