Friday, 26 August 2016

Foxgloves by Michael Head and Farewell to North Yorkshire

I had a full morning and lunchtime teaching session today and very rewarding it was too ! I had a lady who was, in all honesty, absolutely terrified ! If I had been a grand inquisitor from the Spanish Inquisition wielding a pair of thumb screws she couldn't have been more petrified ! J, ( not Julia you understand....) had not been for any sort of lesson or masterclass at all over the years I have been teaching my old Yorkshire compatriots, and so for her to come today was a big deal. I have heard her within Renaissance and I knew she was well in tune and reliable with her parts, but other than that I didn't know what she could do. After a tentative start she began to open up and let her voice 'out' of its vocal prison and how lovely it was. All the others bar none either had enough years with Middy, or like myself had many years and are now very technically solid, so the overall sound of the group is so unified and resonant. J, is clearly a most musical lady and had simply merged her tone and copied the sound by Middleton osmosis, so her ear was already tuned in. What a brave lady however - to come and feel very exposed and vulnerable and have her lesson in front of the old hands, without having had that background. I take my hat off to her, and boy did she work and make it happen. Muscles take a while to remember what to do by second nature, and she has a path to walk, but the first steps have been taken and I think and hope that she will build on her time today. All the others are so supportive, and want her to fulfil her potential. It was a lovely moment.

C, who has had a couple of years out due to illness, was back in top fighting form today, and given the battering her abdominal muscles have taken, her support and lower abdominal wall are bouncing back and beginning to be flexible once again. Last time I saw her she was not able to take the breath down low, and fill her 'balloon', the surgery had scuppered that until the healing was complete - and she is a great example of the power of healing. As long as care is taken, time is allowed and we work gently at nudging the parts of the body so in shock from 'injury', the ability to move the muscles to inhale and sustain will return. Her voice was as glorious as ever, and I love teaching her strong and liquid dark mezzo tone. Twenty steps forward !

B came as worked very hard, and I pushed and pushed her to go further, to touch the outer edge of what she believes ( and sometimes doesn't believe!) is the full capacity of her delicious soprano voice. There is so much more to come, and she can go so much further - I know. The most successful way to convey this to her seems always to be to make her actually perform, even though it is just to her friends and peers. She is so very musical, and cares very much about the text that if she, almost accidentally, gets swept up in the emotion of the song, waves of lovely tone pours out. Keep at it B !

K brought the gorgeous Head song 'Foxgloves'. She sang it beautifully the first time around with a real sense of the melodic line and poem, yet I always feel that somehow I need to give her permission to slow it all down and wallow a bit ! She is clearly a highly efficient woman in her job and life, and her singing has that efficiency and brisk 'get on with it' feel. Today, the difference when she filled every vowel from the beginning to the end, was so marked and beautiful it brought tears to the eyes. All she needed was that precious permission and she soared, and took her listeners with her. The tone broadens, loses the breathiness and is totally satisfying to listener and singer. 

As ever to complete the occasion we have to go out for a good meal and companionable conversation - just like at home, the food is both the music and song for the soul, and the magnificent nosh for the inner man ! I took photos because the Whitby fish and chips bordered upon being white whale and chips, so large were the portions ! Sadly I had a delicious pork and apple burger with green vegetables .......can you see my halo!

It is such an immense pleasure and privilege to offer some advice, technical tips and interpretation ideas to my oldest friends. Thanks girls, and you have all retained much more voice than yours truly !

Clare and Julie

Karen and Barbara

Julia and Moby Dick




Thursday, 25 August 2016

Menotti and Yorkshire at its beautiful best !

I am in Yorkshire at the moment for a bit of holiday combined with some teaching and choral work. The teaching is always very rewarding - generally the ladies who are hungry for lessons are those who come to Song School, so only have imput once or twice each year, or ladies who cannot make SS and thus hardly ever have me for lessons.

The difference this year is very marked - those who are not Song Schoolers have been going for lessons to another of my older singing friends, E. She has always had the most exquisite natural voice, and was a Middleton Singer star from a very early age. Quite why she has not thought of teaching since the redoubtable Middy died, baffles me a little. She plays the piano, has had years of teaching and is utterly rock solid in her own technique and musicianship ! I want it recorded that she has done a marvellous job with those younger ladies who have been seeing her regularly, and they now have much more technical discipline and their voices are developing at a rate of knots ! We didn't really tackle much in the way of repertoire, it was more technical imput that was needed, and they all worked their socks off !

I recorded new music for my old duet partner Julia, and gave her some more taxing and more tricky music than she has had before. The wonderful song Rhyme by Walton, so breezy and clever but so tricky, then a couple of Puccini arias in the original Italian, she having sung them years ago in an English translation ! Mostly I so enjoyed giving her the lovely and interesting Monica's Waltz from The Medium by Menotti. Fortunately she loved it and was clearly excited by the dramatic possibilities of this aria. It changes as Monica's madness swerves in many different directions, and was completely new venture for Julia !

I had a great evening with Renaissance doing some hard choral graft on pieces which need vocal as well as interpretational work, and by the end of the two hours they were exhausted but flying, and sounding like a wonderfully homogenous group, swelling and falling like one voice. A most satisfying rehearsal !

Yesterday, in the searing heat we went to Egton Country Show. A real old Yorkshire event full of elderly farmers in vintage tweeds and hats which have seen many a year of wear, each carrying a stick or carved top shepherds crook. Their accents are almost impossible to decider, even for a born and bred white rose woman ! We wandered around the rings, marvelling at the sparkly white sheep, the clean and mud free milking cows, and the majestic and slightly terrifying bulls being walked around the ring by folk who weighed about as much as one of the legs of these great beasts. Then the glorious moment when the gigantic and beautiful Dales heavy horses with their splendid be ribboned manes, looking as proud and perfect as a Yorkshire Pegasus ! 

It was a day which zoomed me back to my childhood when I rode horses and jumped in gymkhanas during the long school summer holidays. I rode a great deal, like many Thelwell girls, but I am secretly pleased to say that at about 15 the horse addiction waned and the singing addiction kicked in. 

A trip back in time...........

Ready for the show jumping !

Proud junior handlers

Contented and hot cows ?

Just magnifique !!


The view from the benches specially put out for watching the sheep dog trials.

Henry, the resident teenage peacock at Littlebeck. 

He is having a gaze through the kitchen window - wondering what is for tea ?







Sunday, 14 August 2016


I was reflecting on the needs of an aspirant professional singer whilst watching the Olympics. The analogy seems ridiculous but much of  the sheer slog and persistence has marked similarities with the work load of a singer. There is so much daily grind, so much physical balancing and then a great deal of luck and what happens on the day !

I see these amazing athletes, bound entirely by how their body feels and works when they are required to perform, and we singers are bound equally by the way our body and vocal equipment decides to function at the crucial moment of the 7.30pm start or the midday exam recital ! A little sniffle of cold, or a few tears make it exponentially more difficult to deliver and fulfil our potential. 

Over the years however, I have learned that the mental approach to how we feel has almost more impact upon our ability to perform. The magnificent Jess Ennis-Hill is a shining star of positivity combined with a clear self knowledge. She is so very onward looking and radiates humility and gratitude. She blames nobody for fails and is humble when her successes are stellar. Others try to blame the 'day' the weather, their age et al, and probably blame their coach in private. 

What we put in is what matters, how we know ourselves is the key, and when we work as hard and as honestly as we can there is no blame. Only a precious few stars in any 'performing' art or sport reach the top. The junction where coach/teacher and student meet should be exactly halfway on the road to success. Talent itself is almost relegated to superfluous - it is the team that matters !

Those who can't be happy in the team will find the struggle to improve impossible, and a long and bumpy road ahead of them. Fortunately my own experience over 40 happy years is largely of fantastic team players, willing and hungry for any wisdom I have had to offer, and always meeting me in the middle. In my game, the sum of these two halves meeting, adds up to much more than 100% !

Individually we are one drop. Together we are an ocean. 
(Ryunosuke Satoro)



Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Iolanthe 2016

Wow, I can't believe it is two months since I last posted - I think I have been caught up with Iolanthe and lots of teaching - that is all I can manage as an excuse anyhow ! The run up to the show had its usual ups and downs. These fluctuations in highs and lows are par for the course, and such a large emotional and exhausting undertaking is never ever without this. Sometimes I think I almost survive because of it ! There have been one or two crisis moments over the last five productions which were a step too far, but this year's extravaganza did not have any of those life or death happenings. It was as smooth a run up as it could be, and the company worked fantastically and with their amazing team spirit. 

It had some glorious sections and the standard of the singing was tremendous - full, healthy and so full of vibrancy. I was so privileged this year as I could sit in the audience and simply watch and enjoy the show. I collected my grandchildren from Inverness airport on the day of the penultimate performance so when we arrived back at the venue we picked three seats and I became ( for the first time in my producing life) a member of the audience who could laugh and whoop and share some of the detailed mo nets with a 13 and 9 year old ! It was an amazing experience, and one I would love to repeat again. If I am honest I'm not sure if I could do it from performance 1 when I need to pace and metaphorically bite my nails whilst it all shakes down and falls into place !

The adults are staunch and so strong both vocally and dramatically, and they have to take great responsibility as each has their own character and personality. In a chorus of 12 men each one is utterly crucial. I hope they appreciate how valued they are and what a difference they make with their individual personalities. The young voices are the centre of the amazing tone quality of the show, and it is such a privilege to have more than a dozen youngsters who want to sing this 19th century music ! They have a solidity of fresh and younthful tone which takes the whole standard of the show up about five levels from average and even good  amateur productions ! How lucky we are !

The male principals were, as usual funny, wild and acted with gay abandon, encouraged by our wonderfully loose canon M. E and I as the two lords grew in performance and humour each night, and after five nights the ad libs were flying like Easyjet ! M as the Chancellor was quite exquisite and even given the restrictions of wearing a kilt he managed to appear drunk and out of control from the moment he entered. M as the Scary Fairy Queen was majestic, and vocally lasted the course very well indeed, it is as if the role was written for her in character and vocal tessitura. She was absolutely in control of her fairy cohorts and the dim witted lords. What a star.

The younger roles were stunning and sparkling, N sang a heart breaking Iolanthe bringing a previously unsung reality to the final section when she offers her life for that of her son. This made for an interesting audience dynamic, and she managed to switch the atmosphere in the flick of a veil. A was a wonderfully bossy Phyllis, and even though her voice is dropping like a stone she upped her game, transposed the duets down a tone, and used every shred of her considerable talent to make her performance way beyond her 16 years. I can't wait to hear what magic will happen to this voice in a year or two ! M was such a wonderful Strephon ! She has always played female roles to this point and asked me if she could play a boy ! Strephon could have been written for her, bright, breezy, intelligent and full of fun and sass ! She was like a huge breath of fresh air when she stepped on stage, and she and A were a dream team pair of lovers !

L came back to us to sing a brilliant Private Willis, returning from the end of his second year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and showed us that his voice has grown and developed over those years, but pleasingly still entirely recognisable as himself - no unnecessary changes to his large and resonant baritone voice. His facial expressions were a wonder to behold !

The three youngsters playing Celia, Leila and Fleta have doubled in vocal size since last year, and they were just delightful. Each had their own personality, a fairy with anger issues, a fairy with common sense and a fairy who was thoughtful and considered in her ideas, just lovely. They sang their music beautifully and with such maturity and held the tricky music of the chorus together with style and assuring. We have much to look forward to with this trio, and the others snapping at their ankles !

Tiny fairies stole the show when they appeared, working beautifully and adding to the detail of the overall picture. The production was set in deepest winter in a magical forest covered in snow and sparkle. It looked magnificent and was quite breathtaking when the audience first saw it. The costumes made by K were magnificent, so stunning and quite beautiful - they were exactly the picture which had lived in my head for the last year, and that is the finest compliment that I can ever give ! The time and effort was all worth it K and her ladies ! Many many thanks. The set was wonderful and thanks for that go to G and his team. 

I am lucky indeed to have a team with spirit, heart and the will to make my rather shimmery brain vision come true. I know the singers can do it, but without the rest of the team the singers are nothing !

A miracle of a show.

Enjoy some production and pre production photos

Phyllis and Strephon

The opening chorus

 Trio of fairies

Oooooo my !

 A nightmare of a song !

 Frolics in a trio !

Signs of things to come !

A serious and beautiful moment 

Tan tan ta ra !

 Blue Blood

The sewing team

 Final rehearsals !