Teach Through Music

I’m excited to be joining the Fellows who will support the enrolled teachers on the Teach Through Music professional development programme commencing this autumn. One reads so many ‘sermons’ by academics about the virtues of music education but finally a programme exists that gives a voice to those who ensure music thrives in the classroom. Surely the most important people, that often aren’t heard enough. If the target intake of 150 (including the Fellows) is met there will be a fantastic community of practice established that I hope will have a life beyond the programme. Yes, there are websites and forums that allow teachers to engage but what we need is conversation; not rants and exchanges on forums of lofty and vacuous rhetoric. We need case studies that can celebrate the joys of success, whatever the extent or size of that success. I’m keen to meet lots of passionate teachers and equally keen to see what ideas will come my way through the Inspire events and Short Courses. London has a significant cultural offer and I look forward to seeing how the link with KS3 music teachers can develop to ensure all our pupils gain access to music of an exceptional quality. It is going to be a fantastic year of CPD! A final conference will bring together the best of the experiences of the year and I’m confident there will be a great deal to celebrate. 

Further information here http://www.sound-connections.org.uk/teach-through-music 

Gurney’s ‘Sleep’

Ivor Gurney (1890 – 1937) saw himself as a composer first and a poet second but he clearly was equally gifted in both disciplines. The son of tailors, he grew up in a modest household that afforded him the opportunity to learn piano and would later attend the Royal College of Music. His teacher Charles Villiers Stanford considered him to hold the greatest promise of all his students (which included Arthur Bliss, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland). It was a mark of his genius that depression plagued him before he enlisted as a Private in the First World War in 1915, but war left a permanent mark on the composer poet. Following the war regular employment proved difficult and he did several short bursts of manual labour and indulging his penchant for night walks. The exertion was never enough to quench his inner angst and he would spend the last fifteen years of his life in mental hospitals longing for death to end the strain of life.

‘Sleep’ is one of Gurney’s ‘Five Elizabethan Songs’ (composed December 1913-January 1914) setting a text by John Fletcher. Gerald Finzi heard the song performed in 1920 and ‘felt it to be one of the finest things of its type’ (Anthony Boden). Finzi and others would later champion the work of Gurney and ensured his continued acknowledgement as one of the finest English composers of his generation.

His dual artistry as a poet and composer exists in synergy in ‘Sleep’; the long vocal line soars over the gentle rocking of the accompaniment and it is not until after the true climax of the song (‘let my joys have some abiding’) do we feel that the insomniac of the poem has finally achieved sleep. The unexpected harmonic shift makes the final cadence on D-flat even more compelling and restful.

You can see a page from Gurney’s manuscript for ‘Sleep’ on the Ivor Gurney Society homepage.

Engaging young people with new music

Two things always surprise me about using ‘new’ music with my classes; one, they consistently will describe it as ‘odd’ and secondly they will question its value as ‘music’. It makes me smile every time. With scientific precision pupils will find much ‘contemporary’ music to be unattractive. Something changes though, if I introduce the music. If I can use an amusing anecdote, and somehow highlight the process behind, or during, the work, the students’ interest is peaked. They are keen and receptive to listen.  Equally surprising is how remarkably fresh and recent music from over 100 years ago can sound to unsuspecting ears; classes can hear Henry Cowell’s The Banshee as something ‘new’.  Our students need to see that composing happens now, and that there are equally interesting characters in the living world of contemporary music as there are in the often more familiar world of more popular musics.

I encourage teachers who attend my music teaching courses to make use of recent music; I make the case that we are teaching composing today so why not use the music of today? The ABRSM Spectrumpiano series is ideal. Full of short pieces, many with their processes and design clear for young composers to investigate and ultimately experiment with. I obsess over Gabriel Jackson’s September Chorale, and this becomes a laughing point for the teachers as it features so heavily in my discussions. What I love about all the pieces in the ABRSM volumes is that they can’t be pigeon-holed by our students: “I don’t like classical music” is powerless against these pieces. They are forced to abandon their stereotypes and engage with the music. Whether they like it or not is suddenly less of an issue. What is immediately noticeable is a willingness to engage with sounds and how the composers have woven them together because they’re fresh and beyong immediate categorization. It keeps the students guessing.

Originally published on Sound and Music Blog here.

Be insistent with your vocal weapon…

I was watching vocal masterclasses on YouTube, keen to glean some ideas on a few issues I’ve been working on in my own singing lessons. Gerald Finley gave a masterclass at RCM in 2003 and I was glued to his first session with a tenor, particularly as I have been working on Un’aura amorosa too (Cosi, Mozart). I loved his choice of words: “be more insistence with the traveling of the air through the sound”. It seems so desperately obvious, but after a few listenings of this opening masterclass student’s session, I could hear what Gerald was referring to. He wanted the delivery of the sound to be completely consistent, a continuous stream of the breath. Gerald was equally insistent on the student persevering with trying to achieve this consistent sound, often not letting progress beyond the opening two notes.

Joyce DiDonato has given a masterclass for the National Opera Studio at ROH, and this was my second YouTube viewing. Another tenor started off the session and lots of good advice came from the mezzo-soprano who openly professes to not being a ‘voice-teacher’. Amidst all the superb advice on breathing (love the tent-poles analogy) and the painting of coloratura, and particularly loved one moment: “the weapon in opera is the voice”. Joyce was discussing the aria, and how the character the tenor was portraying needed to exert themselves not only physically but vocally.

Anyway. This all came to mind, the weapon of choice in opera being the voice, in light of the recent criticisms of opera critics, choosing to dwell on the physical attributes of a female singer. Opera is much more than a voice; it can never be the only weapon. The issue could spark some interesting debates on the nature of the art form and the physiognomy of particular roles: perhaps these preconceived ideas of certain characters’ physical attributes needs questioning? I saw a wonderful ENO Harewood Artists’ Recital in Kensington last year, one singer particularly standing out – Eleanor Dennis. What made her performance stand out was how she was able to become the characters of her songs instantaneously; she didn’t change physically, but her ability to change vocally made us believe she had transformed. It was incredibly impressive and striking. Seeing Anna Netrebko’s face change in a YouTube clip of Elektra’s aria near the end of Mozart’s Idomeneo made me confront again the power of singers to become a role with their voice.

I think what we should be focussing on in opera is the power of the voice to be the role, and not a particular ‘look’. Singers can create the ‘look’ with their voice, and the artistry of the singer should focus on their power to convince us that the same singer can be in one performance a villain, another a hero. Let’s celebrate the voices, as surely these are the most powerful weapons of all.

Review of “The Armed Man”

Here is my review from the Vivace Chorus’ 16 November 2013 concert, where I gave the pre-concert talk. 

Jeremy Backhouse, conductor of the Guildford-based Vivace Chorus, never ceases to craft interesting programmes and last Saturday we were treated to the pairing of Haydn and Karl Jenkins in a choral concert at Guildford Cathedral. Haydn’s ‘Mass in Time of War’ is a work full of pride and positivity and the Chorus sang with energy and purpose throughout; this was very detailed singing with the ‘scrambled’ chorus singing with superb diction and a broad dynamic palette. The soloists, a team of aspiring young professionals, complemented the choir well; soprano (Alice Rose Privett) sang the Kyrie with ease, and the rich timbre of alto (Angharad Lyddon) was powerful yet blended well. The cello solo in the Gloria was controlled beautifully, supporting the bass soloist (Bozidar Smiljanic).  The chorus gave the Credo vitality with precise entries, and a strong sound, which contrasted well with the well-paced Sanctus that followed. The quartet of soloists excelled in the Benedictus, and the whole work finished with the soloists, chorus and orchestra in the compelling and powerful Agnus Dei and the ensuing celebratory ‘Dona nobis pacem’.

Karl Jenkins ‘Armed Man: A Mass for Peace’ was a superb partner to the Haydn; both works are a response to war and both have an optimistic approach to peace through powerful and direct musical ideas. The choir excelled here at showing real passion for delivering the relentless repetition of Jenkin’s music, supported by an orchestra that Backhouse conducted with vigour and precision; the balance and blend of the whole work was always judged with care throughout. This work of nearly an hour in length had a narrative that was understood well by Backhouse, as he shaped the work intelligently and with vivid changes of colour, particular in the ‘Hosannas’. The soloists did much to bring the text to life in ‘Now the guns have stopped’, and the cello again soared about the orchestra with the solo in Benedictus. ‘Better is Peace’ was vibrant and a real pleasure to hear, as was the beautiful and peaceful close to the whole work.

Bravo to Vivace Chorus, soloists, orchestra and particularly Jeremy Backhouse for an enjoyable evening that was more than a concert but something that clearly touched many of the audience members with powerful music performed by a powerful chorus.

Are conductors necessary?

Originally posted on Steven Berryman:

Haydn’s last visit in 1794-95 [to Great Britain] had marked both the climax of London’s public concert life and the beginning of its decline. The founding of the Philharmonic Society in 1813 by a group of professional musicians was a rare flash of light in an otherwise sombre scene. Although it helped to make London the kind of city that musicians such as Weber, Spohr and Mendelssohn wanted to visit, the concerts were handicapped by the lack of rehearsal time and the absence of a conductor…

(The Triumph of Music, Tim Blanning, p. 156)

The idea that concerts could be successful without a conductor seems unlikely in the early 19th century, yet performances before this often relied upon not one non-playing musician who directed from the front of the ensemble but leadership from within by players. It seems accepted that the conductor is an indispensable component of the large ensemble…

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Opera “too difficult”?

Originally posted on Steven Berryman:

I read Susan Elkin’s piece for The Independent, ‘Why are educationists so afraid of cultural excellence?’ with much nodding of my head. I am particularly passionate about promoting living artists in my teaching – right from Year 4 upwards – and also ensuring pupils are engaging with as much music as they can, from a broad range of styles. No dumbing down.

Why can’t we celebrate that which is great with children rather than apologetically putting them off? Any teacher could familiarise children with, say, The Marriage of Figaro by playing recordings (all those fabulous tunes) sharing film and working on the story. You can appreciate opera without necessarily buying an expensive ticket. And for those who want to take children to see opera at first hand, almost every opera house has an enthusiastic education department and many of them stage events for children. School-based projects are quite usual and…

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