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 and”


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

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.


Banishing the buts!

On Tuesday Raunds Community Choir hosted an open-evening, which anyone who had been thinking about joining a choir could attend. I think it’s safe to say it was a HUGE success. If you didn’t make it on Tuesday it’s not too late. You can come along and try us out at any time. Raunds Community Choir does not require you to audition, anyone is welcome regardless of musical experience…or lack of it!

Whenever I mention I’m in a choir the most common response is, ‘Oh that must be fun. I’d love to be in a choir but…’

This blog post is about ‘banishing the buts!’

‘…but I can’t sing.’

Well maybe you’re not Beyoncé  Knowles, or Arethra Franklin, or Michael Bublé for that matter; there’s a reason they’re international superstars after all. But a lot of people enjoy baking even if they could never win the Bake-Off, and five-aside football leagues thrive, though most blokes will never play at Wembley.

So maybe you can’t sing perfectly but it’s a safe bet that you can probably sing a bit and weekly practice will improve that. Besides, everyone else is singing at the same time. You won’t stand out.

‘…but I can’t read music.’

Neither can most of Raunds Community Choir. If reading music was a prequisite of joining we’d have only a handful of members and a very tiny choir! Mostly we learn songs by ear. Think about the tunes you enjoy singing along to in the car. You didn’t need the music to learn the melody; you just learned it by repeated exposure. Yes we have copies of the music but reading it is really not necessary, though you’d be amazed at the amount of musical knowledge you pick up along the way at practice sessions.

‘…but isn’t it all old people?’

NO! we have members in their thirties and members in their seventies and every age in between! And we all get on well. The glue that binds us is our love of singing. My two best friends are in the choir, yet our paths would probably never have crossed if I hadn’t joined! We’d love some more younger members and definitely some more men. We have a loyal group of terrific basses and tenors but they will always welcome additional support.

‘…but I won’t know the songs.’

Well it’s true that there are some songs we will know because we’ve worked on them in the past and have even performed them in concerts, and we may polish them up and give them another outing from time to time. But every term we learn a lot of new songs too…that’s rather the point of being in a choir, so mostly everyone is in the same boat. I’ve been a member for over three years yet didn’t know one of the songs we performed in the Christmas concert, which lots of the others did know because they learned it the Christmas before I joined. We all went over it line by line to refresh memories and help those who hadn’t sung it before, and if anything I found it easier to pick up because I could listen to the other altos and copy them. Plus if I was a bit unsure at least everyone else knew what notes they should be singing so my voice didn’t matter as much!

‘…but I don’t have the time.’

Modern life mean commitments: work, children, study. It can be difficult to justify time spent doing something just because you enjoy it. But that’s precisely why you should make time. Doing something just for us is important to our mental well-being and tops up our happiness reservoirs, making us more able to deal with life’s daily challenges.

I hope this little blog piece has banished a few of your own buts. If so, maybe we’ll see you next Tuesday.


The ‘Sign’ of a Good Community Choir…

…is surely where everyone is included: young and old, male and female, those who read music and those who don’t. In a community choir all should feel welcome. But how about those who live in a world without sound?

I can’t imagine what it must be like not to be able to hear music, to live in silence. I learned British Sign Language (BSL) not long after I left university and moved to Leicester. Leicester has a large and very sociable community of deaf people, and as many of them became my patients it made it much easier to communicate if I could speak their language.

BSL is a complex and very beautiful language with its own grammar, idioms and even accents! Two of my regular patients befriended me and took me to a deaf comedy club and also to see a deaf choir. The choir was a very mixed one, comprising of deaf, partially deaf and hearing, male and female, white, Asian, and black members. They used signs, singing and percussion, and most sang without shoes so they could feel the beat better through the stage. All were clearly enjoying the experience of group ‘singing’. In addition the synchronised signing was wonderful to watch. They even had different signing sections in some songs, rather like a more conventional choir has harmonising sop, alto, tenor and bass lines.

Today my deaf friend sent me this link to an article about a mixed deaf and hearing children’s choir. It’s very festive and I thought you might enjoy it.

Merry Christmas!

The Kaos Choir



Trust the Baton

I’ve been reading Imperfect Harmony, by Stacy Horn. It weaves her own experiences of choral singing with the history of choral music. It’s a good read and the perfect stocking-filler for any choir-singing family or friends.

With the Saturday concert looming this excerpt jumped out at me. Sally and Chris always implore us to look out of our music and ‘Watch me!’

Excerpt taken from Imperfect Harmony, by Stacy Horn

“…Something was wrong.

We couldn’t pinpoint where the problem was, exactly, but somewhere within the choir the timing was just enough off-kilter that all the vocal parts had started to veer away from each other. If we could have, we would simply have stopped singing and started over, but a churchful of people were watching. Instead, the choir began to react, each section confident for a split second that their tempo was the correct one, which made matters worse.

The clear, brilliant sound we had been making was starting to sound ever so slightly muddy. It took only another second for whatever confidence remained to melt away. Now the orchestra was picking up on the wall of wrongness behind them, and their timing was perceptibly beginning to slide. Or maybe we heard it that way because we were off. That’s when our voices started to clash. Two seconds later and we were in free fall, just moments away from complete catastrophe. Don’t look horrified, don’t look horrified, keep a straight face.

It’s like the whole room was spinning,” Brent Whitman recalled. “You’re really not sure which way is up, or straight, or whatever.” All season long John had been imploring us, “Get your faces out of the music and look at me!” Our faces were out of our music now. Fear leapt from the heart of one chorister to the next, like thoughts jumping between synaptic connections in a brain. All 145 members of the choir were looking to John, every pair of eyes crying Fix This.

John Maclay, our conductor, didn’t look the least bit alarmed; his expression had all the focus and intensity of a music-traffic controller. He was going to land this baby. “Don’t worry,” he once said, when asked how he was going to give us a cut-off. “I’ll use signal flags.” Right now what we needed was his pulse, the simple up and down movement of his baton, which as of that moment we were following to the absolute rhythmical second. Trust the baton. In one gloriously unified moment of attention, everything snapped back into place. The bright, sparkling clarity of rhythmic perfection returned and the wave of panic that had briefly arisen throughout the choir just as quickly subsided. I’m sure the audience never even noticed. John was pointing to his baton. Okay, now he looked a little mad.

Over the next ninety minutes, a masterpiece came to life without a single word spoken. After the concert, an audience member came up to me and asked, “Do you really need a conductor up there? I mean, you all know the music, don’t you? What do you need him for?” 

Yes we need Sally and Chris. They are our heartbeat and we need to watch them. Trust the baton.


The Twelve Days of Christmas

One of the carols which we’re not singing this year sadly, but which is always popular is The Twelve Days of Christmas. The song is an old one but the version we are familiar with is set to the tune of a traditional folk melody, arranged in the early 1900s by Frederic Austin.

Victorian children used it as a memory forfeit game, and the words have been altered over the years. At school my music teacher was from Northumberland, and insisted we sang about four ‘colly’ birds. She explained colly was old regional slang for ‘black’. Frederic Austin’s version states that there are four ‘calling’ birds, possibly because ‘colly’ meant very little outside of a narrow geographical region.

While most people agree on the order of gifts up to eight maids a milking, things can go a bit awry after that, so some people sing about twelve lords and eleven ladies, while others favour twelve drummers and eleven pipers or any number of other permutations of gifts over the last four days.

As you may know if you’ve read previous posts, I have the privilege of meeting many interesting people during the course of my work. One of my patients is a retired professor of Divinity. He attended last week and we got chatting about carols and how the church had ‘adopted’ certain pagan or folk songs throughout its history; The Twelve Days was one of those he cited, but he told me an interesting story I had never heard about the carol.

According to some versions of Catholic history The Twelve Days was used as a catechism song for children in the time when it was illegal to practice or teach the Catholicism. Hidden meanings were attributed to the gifts to help children remember the lessons of their faith. So the ‘true love’ mentioned in the song referred to God, while each gift was assigned spiritual significance as follows:

Partridge in a pear tree – Jesus Christ

Two turtle doves – Old & New Testaments

Three French Hens – Faith, hope, charity

Four Calling birds – The four gospels

Five Golden Rings – The Pentateuch or five Books of Moses

Six geese a laying – Six days of creation

Seven Swans a swimming – Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit

Eight maids a-milking – Eight beatitudes

Nine Ladies Dancing – Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit

Ten Lords a-leaping – 10 Commandments

Eleven pipers piping – The 11 faithful disciples

Twelve drummers drumming – 12 articles of the Apostles Creed

Who knew?

And so to finish this week’s post, a friend sent me a link to this version of The Twelve Days of Christmas which is both clever and very amusing. I hope you enjoy it.

The Twelve Days of Christmas…sort of!


Regular readers might recall that this isn’t the only carol with a hidden meaning. I wrote about O’ Come All Ye Faithful last year:

The Carol and the King