'Sad as it is, to the majority of my parents, choral singing is a totally new experience for them and their offspring'
Picture the scene: you have an eager group of young singers who all want to give the choir a try. You’ve spent an enormous amount of time carefully choosing repertoire that will both challenge and educate them and you work your socks off in the first rehearsal to sell your vision for the choir. A week or so later, a message comes back, usually through a parent to say ‘we quite like the music, but we wondered whether we could do something we like and know. There’s that song from Frozen that’s really good and would work nicely.’
Why should I, as a ‘trained’ musician expect anything different? Sad as it is, to the majority of my parents, choral singing is a totally new experience for them and their offspring – something to be tried like any number of after school activities on offer. There’s the odd musical that they know, a working knowledge of current hits, mostly heard on prime time reality TV shows, and a film or two that they have on DVD, but that’s about it. The ongoing argument at the moment is that this is a travesty, and as a country we need to work together to give all children a better music education. Yes we do, but my point is that we also need to do it in a way that doesn’t make it an extraordinary activity that leaves parents and the general public bewildered. We need to normalise music education.
It’s my job as a Music Director of the Cantate choir to introduce young singers to a huge range of styles of music, some of which they might not find immediately appealing. The key is in our acceptance of sung music of any style as being a totally natural expression of emotion, and if we can connect the singers with this emotion inside themselves then we can teach them virtually anything. It’s not always an easy task, especially working as I do, with a non-auditioning youth choir, but it demands a level of creativity from the whole team that is both exhausting and invigorating. I’m aiming to pass ownership of the piece from me to the singers – it might have been my vision, but it’s most definitely their piece. You can always tell how it’s going from the ‘coach’ test. Listen to what the choir sings on the way back from a concert and you’ll know how you’re doing. At a recent successful trip to the World Choir Games in Latvia we had a medley of Schumann, Adele, Byrd, Les Mis, Wicked and Joseph Phibbs all following naturally from one to the other. No styles, no boundaries, just a whole lot of good music sung with passion.
Cantate is soon to record a new choral symphony by Mike Roberts based on William Morris’s 1890 novel News from Nowhere. It’s a difficult text – combining time travel with utopian socialism – for anyone, let alone the younger 8-11 year old members of the choir. Play heavily on the science fiction aspect of the work and you can link into any number of current iconic TV series or films. Introduce some ideas of Victorian child labour and the striving for equality in the age and you open up a new series of historical pathways. Finally sell the whole package as a proper studio recording where everyone will need to wear headphones ‘like a real band’, and it’s sold, both in the rehearsal room and, crucially, at home. The links have been made, and the singers feel a proud ownership of the piece. Any work that then needs to be done technically on the actual singing flows naturally from high octane enthusiasm that you’ve generated. You can then start to insist on the excellence that you need as a Music Director from your choir, and of which all young people, whatever their background, are capable.