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Learning Music

What’s your preferred method for learning new music? Or is your sight-reading so good that you don’t need to look at music ahead of a performance?

There must be many different ways for singers to learn music – either on your own, or in a group setting. Me, I always prefer to look at new pieces in a group rehearsal, because I can then hear how my line fits in context with the other voices. But rehearsal time in some choirs can often be tight, and there can also be an understandable reluctance from some directors to note-bash individual lines.

So unless you’re blessed with a wealth of rehearsal time (and a very patient choir trainer), it’s inevitable that you’re going to be required to learn some music on your own. And I’m guessing different people prefer different methods.

I will often listen to recordings of the piece and sing along to learn the notes. However, there are distinct disadvantages in doing this; namely that you might end up learning someone else’s interpretation of the piece; and also that you may subconsciously rely on the voices in the recording to help set your pitch and timing, and end up not being able to sing your line unaided later on.

Other people may prefer to play the music to themselves on the piano or another instrument – but that implies a degree of proficiency in instrumental playing that not all singer have. And so a few singers use one-to-one lessons with singing teachers to help learn their part – but again, this can be seen by some as a waste of the teacher’s time and experience, which would be much better employed polishing the finished performance, rather than teaching notes. And finally, some people have the ability to hear music inside of their head just by looking at the notes on the page, and as such, can learn music in silence.

As I’m sure all choir trainers will tell you, in an ideal world all member of the choir would turn up for rehearsals knowing the music, allowing them the time to check the ensemble, and add the final details to the performance. But we all know that the world isn’t perfect, and many singers (even – shock horror – some professional soloists) turn up to rehearsals having not learnt the music beforehand.

It is, of course, highly regrettable to turn up having not learnt your part properly – particularly if you end up being the weakest link in the choir. But I’m sure we’ve all done it at different times in our musical careers. I know I have. Lack of time (and sometimes a touch of laziness) has periodically stopped me turning up fully prepared. And sometimes when this happens, I’m lucky enough to blag my way through. And other times, I have been known to go wrong during a concert or service. But at least my lack of preparation has never caused a piece of music to collapse during the performance – something I’ve seen other singers do.

Baroque and roll

Ended evensong in a very good mood today, principally because we had just sung a load of Purcell music. I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough of the stuff.

My current director of music seems to be a fan of early music and modern 20th/21st century music, and very little in-between. As such, it’s a rare treat to get a whole day of early baroque. The renaissance music we do is also very cool, but I’ve certain felt a bit deprived of baroque and classical music during this term.

Term Times and Holidays

It may be interesting for some people not involved in cathedral music to learn that choirs normally operate around academic terms.

The involvement of children as boy and girl trebles, and also of young adults as choral scholars, means that choirs very often have to work in sync with schools and universities. The autumn (Michaelmas) term will, however, be extended up to Christmas Day. And similarly the winter term from mid-January onwards is extended up until Easter Day. A week or two of holiday is then often given both after Christmas and Easter. During the summer, a break of about eight weeks is pretty much the norm – usually during July and August (again fitting in with school/university holidays).

When the choir is on holiday, there may not be any music in church, and services may instead be said. This is often a disappointment for visitors on holiday themselves, who may have come along specially to hear the choir. However, during these holiday periods other visiting choirs may take over the duty of singing the regular services in the cathedral. However, it is best to check in advance, to avoid disappointment. The more high-profile cathedrals will mostly have a full schedule of visiting choirs, but other more parochial cathedrals will have gaps in their musical services.

During the holiday periods, the cathedral choir itself may go on tour either nationally or abroad; often fulfilling the duties of a visiting choir in one or more other cathedrals. University and college chapels will often go on tour as well, as well as some parish church choirs.

Appointments to cathedral music jobs often also fit in with academic year pattern. Vacancies for new directors, organists, and layclerks are advertised throughout the year, but the majority of new appointments are made from September onwards.

Similarly places offered to trebles, choral scholars, and organ scholars are based upon academic years – from September to June. However, auditions for these roles can often happen many months in advance – with applications required towards the end of the proceeding calendar year.

Holidays are coming

With the end of term just a couple of weeks away, it’s not long till the summer break. There’s no tour this year, so the choir are getting a full eight weeks off without any singing duties. And although I’m certainly going to miss the music (and the social aspects of the choir) during the break, I’m also quite keen on the idea of reclaiming my weekends.

I’ve already got two long weekends planned during July and August, and no-doubt I’ll fit in a few other short trips. But I don’t think I’ll fit in a proper holiday this summer – I just don’t have the money for it. Flights and accommodation are just so expensive at this time of year. Indeed, it’s the same old problem that teachers and parents have been complaining since the beginning of time – that holiday prices shoot up during the school holidays.

Oh well, I guess I just might have to prevail upon the (hopefully generous) hospitality of friends and family for this summer, and maybe slip a quick week away in the sun during the October half-term.