Choral Musings – The Art of Sits and Stands
Sitting on command!
We were meant to remain on our feet during the tenor aria and wait for the next chorus. We stood quietly and dutifully held our folders at the right angle – a picture of choral professionalism. Our musical director was dealing with a lot of stuff – the orchestra, choir, soloists, tricky acoustics and the score. Maybe there was a sit we had failed to record or maybe he just thought we were looking a bit tired. Anyway, he gave a clear downward wave. There was a split-second of indecision before we all obeyed. The aria was beautiful but short and there was a growing sense of tension among the singers. This was clear from the tightening of shoulders and stiffening of jaws. Where were we going to stand? Then, at exactly the right moment, the choir rose to their feet to perform the chorus. We had made a silent but collective decision and I have never felt prouder.
There is an art involved in getting your choir to sit down and stand up again at the right time during a performance. It seems such an easy thing to the layperson but it is a complex process. Good conductors plan out appropriate sits and stands and ensure that all singers have marked them in. There are times, however, when performers drift off into the beauty of the music and lose their place in the score. When this happens their neighbours need to be alert and ready to pull them up or drag them down at the correct point. It is wise to be courteous about this though. There is nothing worse than seeing a fist-fight breaking out amongst the sopranos during a performance.
A first-class choir demonstrates their choral chops if they master the discipline of good sits and stands. The audience feels confident that here is a choir that knows what they are doing. Messy sits and stands are horrible to watch. If someone gets it wrong it is immediately obvious and can be hilarious. Standing up on your own is worse than sitting but both are bad. There is no way to carry it off with panache as everything you do will attract attention. Giggling, mouthing ‘Sorry!’ at the conductor or slapping a hand to your forehead will all make it worse. It is best to sink slowly back onto your seat with a blank expression.
Sits and stands are fraught with risk and you have to learn how to deal with them. We have experienced staging that swayed from side to side if anyone moved a muscle. We were singing the Sea Symphony and the motion sickness did not add to the performance. The sits and stands in that performance were executed very carefully. Some staging creaks and bangs when you step on it. This means the entrance of the choir is accompanied by pistol shots and cannon fire. On this kind of staging you have to be careful not to move during the performance in case you spoil the quiet bits. And, if you don’t have the luxury of chairs you can experience the very painful ‘bottom pinch’ from where boards join. There is nothing worse than hearing singers, spaced at regular intervals, cry out when sitting down.
There are times when a sit in the wrong place is involuntary. Fainting is relatively uncommon but you need to know how to deal with it. It can be hot up there under the lights, and some of us have experienced the sudden drop of an adjacent singer. The first thing to check is that the person has just fainted and it isn’t more serious. The second thing to take into account is that the show must go on. You could administer first aid with your feet as you keep powering on through Carmina Burana but it is tricky. I’ve seen singers tucked up in the recovery position under the seats waiting to be rescued in the interval. It seems harsh but there is nothing more embarrassing than being stretchered off the stage in the middle of a performance.
To sum up, then, sits and stands are important to any choral performance. Choirs that raise and lower themselves quietly as a single entity look great. Getting it wrong can spoil a performance for the audience, no matter how beautifully you sing. Getting it right demonstrates your professionalism and sets the scene for a glorious experience.
Forty years on…
David Temple MBE has been Musical Director for Crouch End Festival Chorus since 1984 and for Hertfordshire Chorus since 2000. But his musical life started long before that.
‘My conducting adventure all began 40 years ago on July 1st 1978. I had been with the London Philharmonic Choir for 5 years and wanted to have a go at waving the baton.’
David was a teacher at Goldbeaters Primary School and had identified a need for investment in musical instruments. He decided to put on a concert to raise money towards this cause. He chose the date, booked a slot at St Alphage’s Church in Burnt Oak and set about finding performers.
‘I had already used my long-suffering school pupils as guinea pigs and, having provoked some sort of response from them, I collared some London Philharmonic Choir singers in the pub and asked if they would sing for me. To my joy and surprise they said that they would!’
The concert was for choir and organ. David decided to include the school’s Recorder Consort, who were called upon to play some Byrd and Bach.
As concert day approached David started to experience his first case of ‘Conductor’s Anxiety’.
‘Because of nerves, I was unbearable to live with for many days either side of the concert.’
The organ in the church was a little rickety and it was only when the 50 strong choir burst in with Handel’s Zadok the Priest that the audience knew this might be worth listening to. The programme included Vivaldi’s Gloria as the main work and a performance of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.
The children performed brilliantly and David was very proud.
‘Those children will now be around 50 years old and I do wonder how their lives panned out and if they remember the event.
David recently realised that the anniversary of his first foray into the world of conducting coincides with an upcoming concert. Crouch End Festival Chorus, the choir that David helped to found in 1984, will perform Stravinsky Les Noces and Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at 3pm on July 1st 2018.
The Chorus will be joined by primary school children which seems fitting.
A Fitting Tribute
‘In general, I am someone who rarely looks back but on this occasion, I am proud to celebrate this anniversary and feel so blessed that I am loving my music-making more than ever! I would like to dedicate the concert to all who have performed with me over these past 40 years’
Details for the concert are here:
The Phoenix and the Turtle
A commission takes shape
The Canterbury Singers performed Michael Hurd‘s Music’s Praise for their annual concert in the Chapter House in Canterbury Cathedral in 1973. Chris Godfrey is a bass who has been singing in the choir for 50 years. When the Musical Director, Anthony Stutchbury, chose the piece for a concert, Chris wrote to the composer to ask him if he would like to attend. As Michael Hurd lived in Liss, a two hour drive from Canterbury, Chris’s wife, Janet, offered to provide him with a meal and a bed for the night.
On the day of the performance a green MG sports car drew up and a youngish chap dressed in smart casuals, got out. Chris was surprised. ‘I wasn’t sure what a composer would look like but I wasn’t expecting someone who looked like an ex-RAF pilot’. Michael Hurd periodically taught composition at the Royal Marine’s School in Deal so perhaps he had absorbed some of the atmosphere.
The birth of an idea
After the performance Chris, Janet and Michael got chatting over a beer at home. The conversation flowed easily. Chris was curious about the commissioning process and asked how the choir could set about it. ‘Just ask me!’ was the reply.
Chris asked how much a piece like Music’s Praise might cost. Michael Hurd mentioned a figure, which Chris and Janet can’t remember, but it seemed affordable. Sadly the Canterbury Singers had no funds. The composer felt that if the choir could raise half the cost, the Canterbury Arts Council would probably match it. Janet suggested holding a jumble sale which was a tried and tested method for raising money at the time. Michael was amused and said it was the first time he’d had a commission funded this way. Chris proposed that, if the committee agreed, they would like a piece to suit soprano soloist plus SATB voices. They would aim a concert the next year if the piece was finished in good time for rehearsals.
Michael Hurd had an idea for a piece of music already in his head which he agreed to develop for the Singers. The Phoenix and the Turtle is an allegorical poem by Shakespeare that tells of the tragically frustrated love of two birds. Scholars have spent many years speculating on the meaning of the poem. One theory is that it refers to the love between Queen Elizabeth 1st and one of her courtiers. There are many layers and this makes it a perfect playground for musical imaginations.
The choir was lucky to have an experienced soprano soloist in their ranks – Elizabeth Stutchbury, the wife of the Musical Director. Elizabeth was a little sniffy that her performance was supported by the selling of old clothes but it got the fundraising off to a great start. ‘The beauty of the soloist being a member of the choir was that she was in every rehearsal from the beginning. It was so much easier to learn the piece when we could hear the joins.’
The Canterbury Singers performed the premiere of The Phoenix and the Turtle with a piano accompaniment. The string and timpani score was written before publication by Novello in 1977.
Performances have been rare and the piece was recorded only once before the British Music Society selected it for a new CD of Michael Hurd’s works launched on the Lyrita label in April 2018. This fine recording features Hertfordshire Chorus, the London Orchestra da Camera and mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons. Chris Godfrey is looking forward to hearing the dramatic opening timpani, and the mysterious ending. ‘It was the most challenging part to sing.’
Chris Godfrey is delighted that the music he proposed 45 years ago has been revived for a new audience. He did not meet Michael Hurd again after the premiere. ‘I wish I had kept in touch with him. He was a fascinating man who could turn his musical talents to all sorts of things.’
The Canterbury Singers have a full calendar of their own concerts and as a stand-in choir at Canterbury Cathedral when the Cathedral choir is away. Their current Musical Director is Adrian Bawtree, an assistant organist at the Cathedral. The Singers regularly use their best voices as soloists. For example in their recent performance of parts of Rachmanov’s challenging All Night Vigil the contralto & tenor soloists were choir members. For more information about the choir follow the link.
* Reproduced with kind permission of Canterbury Cathedral Archives
A Choir Unwrapped – from the tenor section
Good choral tenors are worth their weight in gold. They are a rare breed and often sing with several choirs who need their talents.
Hertfordshire Chorus has been lucky enough to attract some of the best amateur tenors available, both male and female. They come to us for a number of reasons – quality of the singing, variety of concert programmes, great venues and a regular rehearsal schedule.
Quality of the singing experience
The audition process really helps maintain quality and the singers appreciate the benefits this brings. Hertfordshire Chorus is also fortunate to have Charles Andrews as their regular accompanist. It is important to have someone who understands what a choir needs during rehearsal. His skill allows the choir to learn fast and reach new levels of performance.
Variety of repertoire and great venues
Hertfordshire Chorus sings a very wide range of music in a great selection of venues. In the last five years the Chorus has performed at The Sage in Gateshead, The Albert Hall, King’s Place, St John’s Smith Square and The Barbican. We are regulars at St Alban’s Cathedral.
Tenors are an important part of the fabric of any piece. The Hertfordshire Chorus team loves the challenges the music throws them. The tenor line often carries the melody and it is important to have a solid team who are up to the mark. The classical and modern works Hertfordshire Chorus performs are wide-ranging – the tenors get a good work out.
Hertfordshire Chorus singers get around! This includes recordings of commissions, providing backing for world-renowned artists like Ray Davies and Noel Gallagher. We also perform regularly at the Rochester Castle Proms and have provided ethereal sounds for rock and thrash metal bands. The choir has a regular wedding choir that contributes to choir funds as well as providing a view of the latest in matrimonial fashions.
The musical philosophy
Hertfordshire Chorus has a world class Musical Director in David Temple MBE. The seasonal programmes he creates are designed to be exciting for singers as well as for the audience. He has commissioned major new works such as Codebreaker by James McCarthy and Ode to a Nightingale by Will Todd. This enthusiasm for new challenges ensures that Hertfordshire Chorus stays at the top of the choral tree.
David has a special connection to the tenors. ‘Singing in a top class choir is an amazing experience – but singing tenor is even more special. I am biased as I am one!
Come and join us!
If you have a good tenor voice, have reasonable sight reading skills and want to be part of an exciting and dynamic choir then come and try us out. Main rehearsals are on Wednesday evenings between 7:30pm and 10:00pm. There are additional all day workshops and rehearsals depending on the current programme. Follow the link to find out how easy it is to become a member of our team.
A Choir Unwrapped – From the Bass Section
To sing bass with a top ranking choir requires a good voice, a loyal heart and a sense of humour.
The Hertfordshire Chorus bass section has a deep, rich sound and an enthusiasm for the wide-ranging and challenging repertoire the choir is called on to perform. Team work is paramount and this section sticks together even when the going is tough.
Basses In the Royal Albert Hall
David Temple MBE, the Chorus’s musical director, has a keen ear and a passion for excellence. This inspires all voice sections to ensure they are constantly improving. There are no passengers here.
Rehearsals are fun but no easy ride. David is meticulous and demands the best from all. At the beginning of the evening, after a full day’s work, most singers feel a little sluggish. They are fired up and exhilarated, however, by the end of the rehearsal – the perfect state of mind for a debrief in the pub.
Entry to the Chorus is by individual audition, and everyone is re-auditioned every three years. It may feel intimidating but auditions are handled supportively and sensitively and all Chorus members are agreed that maintaining quality is vital.
That quality has enabled the Chorus to perform at the best venues, such as The Barbican, The Royal Festival Hall, St Albans Abbey and St John’s Smith Square. We continue to work with world-class orchestras and soloists and commission new music from talented modern composers such as Will Todd, James McCarthy and Roland Perrin.
Colin Blankfield, a bass who has sung with the choir for over 30 years, is very clear on the benefits.
‘I also sing with a chamber choir which is great but love singing the really big works too. Hertfordshire Chorus gives me the chance to perform these to a very high standard.’
Singing with the Chorus is a great way to support your community. We often work with local schools, from primary age to teenagers. This gives the students an opportunity to participate in a large-scale concert and get a taste for performing to a high standard.
The Chorus supports many charitable events – putting on concerts and raising funds. We sing for The Willow Foundation every Christmas which is very popular.
Singers running for Willow
Fitting Singing In
Singing with the Chorus is a commitment but there are so many benefits for health and well-being. Bass Julian Edwards, says ‘My wife tells me I’m a lot happier since I joined Hertfordshire Chorus’
Dr Paul Baker, juggles work, family and playing cello with a local orchestra but knows the Chorus is worth the effort. ‘We are a very good section and fortunate to have the opportunity to sing with such a wonderful choir without having to travel into London. Hertfordshire Chorus is really on a par with the best in the country.’
In addition the social life is great. Chorus members are welcoming and supportive and lifetime friendships are common.
Steve Williams joined in 2003 to sing Mahler 8. ‘I enjoyed it so much I’m still here. After 45 years of choral singing I can honestly say that Hertfordshire Chorus is the best’
The Chorus is always looking for talent and encourages singers to try us out. If you sing with a chamber choir, another large chorus or have not sung for a while please get in touch. Main rehearsals are on Wednesday evenings between 7:30pm and 10:00pm. There are additional all day workshops and rehearsals depending on the current programme. Follow the link to find out how easy it is to try us out.