Never one to let us sit back and relax, choral director Sally has decided that over the next few months we should attempt something very challenging.

 Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14, is a piece of music by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It was composed and published in 1915. Initially it was written for soprano and tenor with piano accompaniment. There are no words; instead it is sung using one vowel (singer’s choice!)

It was dedicated to soprano Antonina Vasilievna Nezhdanova, who was an amazing Russian opera singer.

Over the years it has been transposed into various keys to allow other singers and choirs to perform and enjoy the piece within their range.

Tenor Mike sent me a link to a wonderful choral version which I include here.

Music fact…

The Pet Shop Boys song Happiness is an Option uses large sections of the Vocalise score underneath the spoken text! I include it here too…in case you don’t believe me.

A Bientôt! Clare!

On June 18th Raunds Community Choir performed in the Raunds Flower Festival. It’s safe to say it went very well and we all enjoyed it, probably more than any concert we’ve done to date.

Sadly for us it was the last time we will perform with our soprano Clare, and I hope all of Raunds Choir wish her well for the future.

Clare is not only a wonderful soprano but also a talented French teacher and author. Her blog at Figure Out French is well worth a read. This post is taken from it:

Last Saturday I sang in my very last concert with Raunds Community Choir at the Raunds Flower Festival in St Peter’s Church. I have been singing with the choir since its very first meeting six years ago. When I joined, I said to the organiser, “I’m not sure how regularly I’ll be able to attend as I often teach on a Tuesday night”. Little was I to know that I would fast become hooked and Tuesday night lessons were immediately rescheduled. I only missed one and a half rehearsals in six years!

Saturday’s concert was the best we have ever given and at the end I was so full of adrenalin,j’avais de l’énergie à revendre! I was overflowing with energy – I had energy left to sell off. Unlike in previous concerts where I often felt nervous and unsure of myself, this time we were singing mainly songs we had sung many times before and I was happy and confident. Je m’en donnais à coeur joie­ – I was having a field day (literally I was giving myself of it with heart joy).

Sadly, toute bonne chose a une fin – all good things come to an end, and having now moved to Oundle, I’ve decided to say goodbye to my Tuesday night rehearsals in Raunds but without a doubt I shall be sitting in the audience at their next concert wishing them well and waiting for that little tingle down the back of my neck when the music starts.

A bientôt!


There is a gallery of images from the concert here.

Do you feel musical frisson?

Soprano Clare sent me this great link for the blog, all about ‘frisson.’

It’s an interesting read.

The Paul Simon version of the Sounds of Silence (which we are currently learning) has always given me goosebumps, but the song which stopped me in my tracks the first time I ever heard it was Zombie by The Cranberries. It was so incredibly powerful that I caught my breath and my skin prickled, and still does when I hear it.

I asked my 13-year-old if he experienced goosebumps when listening to any piece of music. Without hesitation he replied, ‘Yes! The theme to Jurassic Park…the first one.’

Do you experience frisson or goosebumps when listening to music, and if so, which songs? Post links to your favourite goosebump-inducing pieces in the comments below.


The Sounds of Silence

One of the songs we are currently learning is The Sounds of Silence.

When I was at university I owned a battered vinyl copy of an album called Wednesday Morning 3AM. My musical hero John Peel had mentioned it in one of his late night radio sessions, and then there it was, the next day, in a box outside a junk shop on Great Horton Road in Bradford. I took it as an omen, parted with a few pence and schlepped it back to my student flat where I suddenly remembered I didn’t have a record player, only a tape deck! When I returned home for the holidays though I listened to it over and over. It was completely different to the eighties electropop and rock I’d previously been into. I loved the acoustic simplicity. It was my first foray into the folk genre and I carefully recorded it on to audio tape, and took it back to uni, where I listened to it until the tape wore out! My love affair with Paul Simon began at that point and from there I moved on to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Don Maclean and Cat Stevens, and I revisited my father’s LPs of the Beatles and the Kinks. My flatmates, who existed on a solid diet of House music, Hip Hop and Gothic Rock thought I was bonkers, but something about this music really appealed to me.

My favourite songs on Wednesday Morning 3AM were Kathy’s Song and the Sounds of Silence. Paul Simon wrote them when he was 21, about the age I bought the album. I didn’t know that then but maybe his slightly angst-ridden lyrics spoke to my own angst-ridden soul!

The story behind The Sounds of Silence is interesting.

A friend sent me a link to this cover version of the song recently. It’s by the Heavy Metal band Disturbed, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not a fan. This is a wonderful, epic version and I love it.

But for me nothing will ever match the original version which I fell in love with in my twenties.

What do you think? Which is your favourite version of the song?


Singing – like you’ve never seen it before!

So the blog is back after a bit of a break.

Scientists at the Freiburg Institute for Musician’s Medicine captured footage of a baritone singer Michael Volle singing an aria from Richard Wagner’s 1845 opera Tannhäuser. What makes this footage special though is that it was shot in and MRI scanner in real-time. It’s allowing scientists to learn more about how the vocal tract works.

Our voice is the sound that comes from air passing over our vocal folds. It passes through the vocal tract resonator, which shapes it acoustically and gives it pitch. These sounds can then be shaped into recognizable speech by articulators like the tongue and lips.

Opera singers (and indeed all singers) ideally need to eliminate anything that may interfere with the voice. Tense muscles in the neck and shoulders, and even in the arms and legs use oxygen, and leads to constricted breathing and poor sound quality. Singers require a loose, agile tongue and a relaxed jaw to reach their intended pitch. This means the support from the sound should come from the diaphragm (a point which Sally makes a lot!)

If you watch the video you can also see how he drops his tongue at the back, opening up his throat and increasing the space there, something else which Sally talkes about in rehearsals.

Watch MRI footage of a world-class opera singer performing

It’s pretty cool to be able to see exactly what should be going on inside our heads as we sing don’t you think.

Thanks Clare for the topic suggestion.


Chanter à tue-tête

I am completely indebted to Clare for helping me out with the blog this week. For those who don’t know Clare, she is an excellent  French tutor, an author, and a wonderful soprano too. 



Picture by Tamsin Edwards TexArt

“As a long-time, regular attender of Raunds Community Choir, I do enjoy a good sing! J’adore chanter à tue-tête!

chanter à tue-tête – to sing at the top of one’s voice

literally: to sing at kill-head

register: normal

Capucine, qui avait un peu trop bu, chantait à tue-tête, « On a besoin de toi, amour! »

Capucine, who had drunk a bit too much, was singing at the top of her voice, ‘We need you, love!’

Being curious as always, I decided to find out the origins of this strange expression. I looked to the terrific website Expressio for an explanation. It appears that the adverb à tue-tête dates from the sixteenth century. At that time the verbtuer not only meant ‘to kill’ but had other parallel meanings. It also meant ‘to lose consciousness’ and ‘to tire oneself out’ or ‘to destroy one’s health’. Therefore, chanter à tue-tête didn’t mean ‘to sing until dead’, I’m glad to say, but rather ‘to sing until tired out’.

Alors, je chante juste ou je chante faux? So do I sing in tune or out of tune? I have to admit that sometimes, as the French say,  je chante comme une casserole! – I sing like a saucepan – and you can imagine that isn’t very good! Tant pis parce que je chante pour le plaisir et c’est tout ce qui compte – too bad because I sing for pleasure and that’s all that counts!

Many thanks to all those who have bought a copy of my new book Je mourrai moins bête: 200 French expressions to help you die less stupid. If you have enjoyed reading it, please leave a review on Amazon. Here are the links for Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com and Amazon.fr.”


Eric Arseneaux

I had never heard of Eric Arseneaux and I have soprano Clare to thank for introducing me to his videos.

Eric is a vocal coach and has put a good many useful resources online at his site aaproach.com

Warming up the voice properly is really really important and Eric has produced a free resource for singers to help us take care of our voices. He goes through the ‘why’ of warm-ups as well as the ‘how’.

It’s a brilliant video. Eric is very engaging and personable, and it’s well worth watching and following his techniques.

Professional Warm-Up

Thank you so much Clare.

Debra x

For the Beauty of the Earth

Raunds Community Choir are currently learning the John Rutter version of the hymn For the Beauty of the Earth.

Folliott Sandford Pierpoint wrote the words of this rather lovely hymn. Not a lot is known about him other than he was born in Bath in 1835 and was a grammar school boy who attended Queen’s College, Cambridge, and then taught Classics. He also wrote poetry, mainly inspired by the natural world, and published several collections.

The hymn was originally written for the celebration of the Eucharist, and the original refrain was:

Christ our God, to thee we raise,
This our sacrifice of praise

Which echoes the biblical story of Christ’s sacrifice. Over the years the words have changed to be more of a thanksgiving hymn.

Historically it was sung to the tune composed by Conrad Kocher for the hymn As With Gladness Men of Old and I enclose a link to that version, which is also rather beautiful, for comparison.

For the Beauty of the Earth – Kocher

For the Beauty of the Earth – Rutter

Tap into Apps! – Helpful Apps for Singers

This week Clare emailed me to tell me about an app she uses on her iPad.

I wrote last year about the sad day when I had to say goodbye to my piano. I do miss it when I have a few tricky notes to practise on a choir piece we are trying to get ready for a concert. Happily, I recently made a great discovery – an iPad app called Virtual Piano. Here’s a link to it:

Virtual Piano

I can now transform my iPad into a piano keyboard! The latest version has a volume control so it is a great improvement on the original version. You can choose lots of different styles too such as organ or pan pipes. It’s great fun, very useful, and what is more, it’s free! Have a play!

I’ve checked the app. It’s great and and it works on my iPhone as well. There are very similar free apps out there for android tablets and phones too.


But really a piano assumes you can read a little music. What about if you don’t read music? How do you learn to sight-sing? Before I frighten anyone, no-one has to be able to
read music in order to join Raunds Community Choir, and even those of us who do read music find choral music with its many parts tricky to decipher. But I’m sure many of us have secretly thought it might be easier on occasion if we could just pick up a piece of music and have some idea of the melody before we start…especially those of us singing the harmony and not the tune!

Inspired by Clare I thought I’d take a look at any apps which might help with sight-singing and pitch-training. There are lots out there…some good and some absolutely dreadful. I roped my musical children in to help test them out.

We had three criteria for the apps we chose: they had to be free, fun and easy to use.

These were the clear winners. The first two are iPhone and iPad only sadly, but the last (which is actually the most powerful and useful) is for android devices too.

Sing True

This app is very simple. It’s all about pitching (hitting the right note). There are modules to work through and new levels open up as you complete the lower levels. The first levels are easy, the later ones more difficult. The app helps you to learn how to pitch notes and
sustain them. It uses the phone’s built-in microphone to analyse your voice. The section my children liked best was the game where you have to sing a note then hold it for a while, keeping a little dot inside a circle without wavering outside it. The circle becomes progressively smaller the more accurate you are.

It’s a very simple app which helps develop listening and pitching skills.

Sight Singing

This app also uses the microphone. This time you progress through levels of true sight-singing.

The app gives you the tonic note ( the main note of the key signature you’re in), so C for C major, D for D major etc. You can listen to the tonic note as often as you like before starting then you hit start and a little bar moves across a short phrase of music. As the bar reaches each note you sing it and the software analyses how accurate you are. The notes light up green if you’re spot on and red if not. You can tap a note to hear its pitch or play the whole line before singing it back. The idea though is to try to sight-sing because it’s a skill which improves with practice.

It has a clean, simple interface and a nice feature which allows tenors and basses to sing an octave lower at the touch of a button.

It’s safe to say that this was our favourite app. We had so much fun with it and laughed our socks off trying to beat each other. I had no idea how competitive my children are until we downloaded it. Competitive sight-singing could catch on I reckon. Highly entertaining, really easy to use and we developed our skills without it feeling like we were working at all.

Voice Training – Learn to Sing

This final one is available for iPhone / iPad and Android devices.

There is a free version where adverts pop up from time to time, but you can upgrade to a no-ad version at any time. It’s a little over £2 so pretty good value I think!

I strongly recommend that you watch the video tutorial first. Tap the ‘Information’ button to access it. It’s very helpful and there’s lots of incidental information in it which is just plain interesting for any singer. The app was developed by  Canadian singing teacher Chris Chinchilla, to help his students. In the video he explains clearly how to get the best from it. You can adjust it to your natural range, use it for pitch training, interval training, change the length of time you have to sustain the note etc, and even use it to free-sing and check your pitch for pieces of music you’re currently learning. It’s actually very easy to use but much less so without his clear explanations as to what you are trying to achieve.

The boys and I are still exploring this app because there is a lot to play with but again it’s great fun and you get instant visual feedback as to whether you’ve hit the right notes / sung the correct interval (the jump between notes) etc.

We felt this is probably the most helpful and powerful app long term once you’ve learned to use it.

I really hope these apps help you to improve and enjoy your singing with us even more.

Hope you like them. Let me know if they are useful.