All together now…
This weekend, I have been perched on a piano stool in the recital room at City Lit, playing Handel. As part of the organisation’s annual summer school, we spent a happy two days running a ‘Come and Sing’ event on a couple of Handel’s Coronation anthems – the kind of event that occurs up and down the country, often on well-known repertoire such as this, all year round and run by all manner of organisations. And that’s great to know, because they are enormous fun for everyone involved.
The main business of an event such as this, you might think, is to learn to sing Handel. Well… yes, but that’s only a fraction of what happens. The working days are quite substantial: we started at 10.30am and finished at 4.30pm each day (ending with a performance of what we’d achieved for assembled friends and family). So pacing yourself is a pretty crucial consideration. Then there’s getting yourself into the right mindset to sing. Rail replacement buses, bad traffic, and all the other irritations that have started the morning – since this is not a residential course in which such delights of daily life can be temporarily suspended, as at somewhere like Dartington – have to be forgotten. Mind cleared, throat open. My wonderful colleague Edward Breen, who was conducting the weekend, had just the remedy for this: a bagful of brilliant warm-ups, from straightforward stretching and breathing exercises to tongue-twisters to be sung at speed. (That’s Popocatepetl, Copper-Plated Kettle, Hippopotamuses, Mississippi River. To a scale. In one breath.) And warm-ups are wonderful too, of course, for helping to show singers what effects the sound they are producing, their breath control, the effect of tension or relaxation, perceptions of high and low notes, and so on.
And then to Handel. Some of our choir couldn’t read music, which didn’t matter since we were teaching parts to all the singers. Some were extremely familiar with the repertoire and the idiom, some less so. Some corners we sailed through with surprise, expecting a difficult few bars; others seemed straightforward enough on the page but needed teasing out and close work. The great joy of teaching humans is that you can’t ever predict what is going to be enjoyed, hated, struggled over or surpassed until you’re actually there, with that group of humans, experiencing it together.
So Zadok the Priest was merrily dispatched, with some very fine fast scales from all our singers, some of whom were clearly rather worried about the dense black snaking across their scores. And we moved on to My Heart is Inditing (including a lengthy conversation about what ‘inditing’ actually means… ‘my heart is overflowing’ is sort of where it’s going, we think). As someone who used to spend a lot of time playing for choir rehearsals, and loving every second, hours of staring at an old Novello score and trying to remember how to keep a handle (pardon the pun) on playing multiple lines together was a form of slightly creaky mental gymnastics that kept me busy. But there’s nothing like that feeling of being part of a big group of people making, and sharing, music together.
I hope that the folks who joined us this weekend will tell their friends and acquaintances – of all ages – about the joys of ‘Come and Sing.’ Sight-reading ability not required. Familiarity with the repertoire not required. All you need is a willingness to have a go, and to be willing to trust yourself, your co-singers and those of us accompanying and conducting, to take you somewhere you’ve never been before. It’s fun, mind-expanding, an oh so rewarding. Here’s to you, Coronation Anthems choir of 2017! Thanks for a fantastic few days.