Friday, January 28, 2011

The "Easy" Life of a Lay Clerk (Musically speaking)

Every so often, as a "Gentleman of the Back Row" you come accross that breed of professional musician called the "Opera Singer". Most of them are perfectly nice, but the odd one or two seem to look down on us church musicians. I have to say, as a former Army officer, it's not a situation I'm entirely unfamiliar with. I was commissioned into the Royal Logistic Corps, and every so often when the banter and the beer were flowing the cavalry types would pass a snarky comment on the infantry types about their superiority, and the infantry types would pass a snarky comment looking down on us combat service support types, and we'd remind the infantry types of exactly how long they'd last as cannon fodder without us (less than 5 minutes usually). And so it is in music. The opera singer who rocks up to "Panis Angelicus" his/her way through the signing of the Register at a wedding thinks we have an easy life trooping in and out of our churches and cathedrals in our cassocks doing the same thing day in and day out. Well, if you really want to see an opera type sweat, put them in a proper service where you have 20 mins to rehearse 40 mins of music and make them sight read! (Harsh, but ultimately fair!)

Now what I'm about to say comes from my persepctive as a singer utterly incapable of conducting a choir if my life depended on it. Those of you who conduct regularly may well pick holes in some of what I'm about to say and utterly debunk me. Some of you may accuse me of trying to teach my grandmother to suck eggs. I hope I'm not. What I'm suggesting are a few things to consider about giving singers the experiences of what it takes to be a lay clerk in the hopes of raising your game.

The first "skill" is deportment. The "opera singer" debunks the Lay Clerk on the grounds that their singing is highly choreographed and they act/dance as well as sing. The Lay Clerk isn't that much different actually, we process in and out and we move around Quires and Sanctuaries with the precision of a Guardsman. We have to. Some choirs sit up in lofts out of sight, but even if you do, a little precision of movement is an important thing. It reminds you of your purpose and dignity, and even subconsciously, it teaches you to move, operate, and think as a team. It used to really annoy me, 5 mins before mass, when the Brompton Oratory choir would cross the nave in a "gaggle" on their way to the choir loft. On the occasions when they would sing in front of the Lady Chapel it would take them forver to get organised because they were so used to not being seen. Precision, deportment, movement are all important. Teach your choirs to move as a body, to walk upright, to be dignified. Train them to move around the church to sing from different positions when required to do so.

The next skill is sight reading. So many choirs rely on "note bashing" and in a rehearsal devote no time to sight reading exercises. The ability to sight read is what Eric Whitacre included in his reasonsing as to why British choirs are amongst the best in the world. My sight reading ability isn't perfect, but it doesn't usually take too long for me to work out where a piece is going and for me to be able to predict with accuracy. A lot of amateur church choirs over here also devote time to teaching singing technique on a 1-1 or small group basis and are able to do this because they don't have to spend hours note-bashing until the choir has memorised the piece. Like I said, if you really want to make an opera singer sweat, make them sight read. Many of the best opera singers in the world can't do it because they are so used to memorising their roles.

Following sight singing is repertoire. A choir will have it's own personality and with it a standard faire of repertoire that they are used to. Now I'm not suggesting that you only sing the same 5 pieces week in week out but that the chorister will feel most comfortable knowing that the majority of what he/she sings falls into a discrete category of music with the odd bit and piece that is unusual. Singing in Poscimur means the bulk of the rep is 19th and 20th Century English composers and Anglican chant. Every so often we get some Byrd or Palestrina, but the bulk of our work is Sumsion, Blow, Bairstow and the likes. It means with experience comes confidence in knowing what I'm doing when I'm with that choir. If it suddenly vered towards a choral diet of Gesualdo and Des Prez (and I frankly wouldn't mind if it did), it would rattle the choir because it's not the core of what we do. Having a "house style" means that you become good at what you do because you mix skill with experience.

The next skill is liturgy. It's no good just tipping up to sing without knowing the context you are singing in. It's worth doing joint workshops with the altar servers to learn how the liturgy goes together, what prayers are said when and why. A deep understanding of the liturgy helps you understand what's going on when something needs to change, or when there's a curve ball, like the sudden need to dig out a "potboiler" motet at short notice. A good Lay Clerk will understand the workings of all of the liturgies that he sings, the meaning and significance of the actions, and the way in which the prayers and readings go together.

The final one is professionalism. It's a skill that doesn't always translate too well in amateur terms and one that when singing with amateur choirs so many of them struggle with. When I'm paid to sing and I have a call time, I'm there 10 minutes early. When the rehearsal starts there's quiet and we follow instructions and mark up accordingly. We sing what we are asked to sing. When the Director speaks we are quiet. In the amateur choir it's hard when Betty and Doris start chatting away whenever the Director speaks akiing it hard for others to listen, or when Albert's 5 minutes late and then disrupts everyone else by rumaging through his bag for the music or his pencil, or his brain! It's annoying to hear Derek pontificate about how he did this motet with the cast of thousands in the Chipping Sodbury Choral Society and how it was so much better with the trembling voices of the countless octigenarians when he should be concentrating on the direction being given by this director of this choir. It's hard instilling discipline on people who willingly give up their time to sing, but want to do so on their own rambling terms. I'd suggest the way to move around this is to act professionally. I sing in a choir at a church in St Albans. It doesn't pay a fee, but the Gentlemen each have a pigeon hole with their names on it (Mr Fraser in my case, not "Keith"). Each week the music is left in the pigeon hole. In the song school the boys and girls are expected to keep silence once rehearsal starts. The adults are expected to set the example. It's the little things like this which means that the entire choir pulls together "professionally". In the deputising cathedral choir I sing with Cathy, the Director of Music rules with a gentle iron rod. What it achieves is a mentality that strives for excellence and a real sense of achievement at a job well done.

I don't really have it in for opera singers by the way. I bumped into Bryn Terfel once, literally, outside of the Wigmore Hall in London where he was in the audience. Being a bit shell-shocked at having barged into the 6'6" baritone I said to him "'re Bryn Terfel!". He just smiled and said "Yes, I suppose I am".