I have just submitted the sheet music for Forksaken - using text from psalm 22, to the church where I am in residence. The first half of this psalm is the most stunning poetry of absolute anguish but the second half is a complete contrast - where connection to God is rediscovered and celebrated. The first half was simpler to approach musically, because the emotion of the text such as ‘you have laid me in the dust of death’ belongs with the grief of Good Friday. I didn’t want the second half of this psalm to be inappropriate for the theme of Good Friday and to prematurely express the emotions of Easter Sunday. So I needed resolution and reconnection without too much jubilation. Which came down a sense of plagal rather than perfect movement - so rolling subdominant movement - but also resolving harmonically through neighboring chords by moving down a tone. After we sing this, I’ll share the music and you can hear this for yourself, I don’t think a verbal explanation is terribly satisfying for you! So, in the meantime I took the feel of this and wrote a very simple song - I wanted to keep playing with this feel. So here’s a draft of Maybe He’s Coming Home. I’m now writing this out in the bluegrass vocal style for four parts so hopefully I’ll have an acappella version for you soon.
Back in the early 2000s I wrote my first version of Polly The Opera, you know the one who famously put the kettle on. My mother stared as Polly and we produced the opera for a season in The Adelaide Fringe.
Several years ago, I started rewriting the plot. I actually shared an early rewrite here on this blog when I naively thought i was finished. hahaha. No. I have kept thinking I’m done and then needing to change things. The more research I did - into the quest for the Holy Grail, many ideas from Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes, interviewing a real life tea maker, taking high tea in a fancy hotel foyer, reading ancient Chinese tea poetry, much reading up about the correct ways to make tea, and so much reading up about what happens for women to leave violent relationships that ads for divorce lawyers started popping up on my facebook stream (thanks for caring facebook) - the more material there was to fill the plot but then ofcourse there was far too much material. ha. Plus I needed to learn how to structure plots so I’ve read up books by novelists and film makers on how to tell stories.
I’ve put the whole story below if you would like to read it. But first let me offer a tantalizing glimpse… Here is the wonderful wonderful Hew Wagner having a read through a sketch of Picander’s coffee poem.
Coffee keeps the beat strong
And the dreamers awake
A rich flavor to live by
Drink and listen as the earth taste fills you
You will hear, here it comes
the music, the music.
Earth beneath my feet
And the music stretches me
Into the blue lost sky
For a moment I can hear the sky song
Filling my day ends
So we meet coffee again friends
Share some time with us
Coffee and music will melt the ice
And you will hear the song once again.
Yesterday I started walking around the house talking aloud about the plot and what it meant, so i grabbed the phone and made a number of long videos. Mostly just me raving lol but this one was succinct enough to be shareable.
And now to the plot!!! Next up I will start on the libretto which requires getting the different characters’ ways with words very clear in my head, which I’m really looking forward to. Enjoy!
Set in Earl’s lavish but pompous Tea Rooms
Our story begins with the spoon polishers (the audience) sitting keenly in place, ready for their afternoon's work. The splendid teapot arrives with Suki, and introduces her to the spoon polishers. It is Suki’s first day at Earl’s tea rooms.
Polly enters with a handful of flowers. Teapot squeels and embraces her.
"Oh Teapot. well...Sorry. I didn't mean... It's great to see you...um... I was in the garden. I love flowers and the peppermint smelt so lovely. I’m trying it today. Here smell.”
“Peppermint eh? In tea?”
“Maybe it’s what I need - maybe it’ll bring some high notes. I don’t know...just a fancy...... Oh!...I got peppermint on my glove.” Polly hands teapot the flowers and rubs at her glove to clean it. Teapot hands the flowers to Suki.
Watching her, Teapot reflects, "you know you don't have to wear them.”
"Don't start, Teapot! Oh and how do you do?" Polly notices Suki.
Teapot introduces the women. ‘So exciting. Look, it’s Suki - she’s starting today. Suki meet Polly, the teamaker. She makes the tea - in me.” Teapot bows and dances off.
“Welcome Suki. Lovely to meet you. Here let me help you get ready.”
Polly finds Suki an apron and cap and so on. Suki asks Polly how long she’s been teamaker.
“I took over from my Grandmother, She used to make beautiful tea and everyone loved it. When she died, twenty years ago I hadn’t completed my tea studies, but Earl let me stay as a probationary teamaker. I still can’t make tea like Grammy - La Destina tea.”
Polly pauses and smiles. “It’s the magic flavour of a perfect cup of tea - when you drink it’s like time stops and your senses are filled by the flavour.”
“But can’t you make it?”asks Suki.
Polly shakes her head sadly. “I keep trying. If only Grammy...but like Earl said, I’m lucky he was there. I was so young, like you now!...and you're ready. What do you think.” Polly holds up a mirror for Suki.
“Awesome. A new look for me. Fun.”
“Earl is very particular, so do it exactly this way every day. Come and meet Dishie. You'll like him." Polly walks off and Suki takes a moment in front of the mirror,
“I might just pull some hair out here…a little errant strand.” before following.
As the women approach, the dishwasher dries his hands and warmly shakes hands with Suki. Dishie offers Suki a vase for the flowers she is still carrying.
Polly asks, “how's that poem looking? Did you work on it?"
"Yeah. There's more to come. Gotta wait for the mist to drift in from the river. Poetry needs time - hey like tea. It’s gotta steep you know?"
The dishwasher introduces Suki to a teapot in the kitchen - Old Bones - who sits in the corner, dressed in a large filthy coat, muttering to herself. Suki shakes hands with the old teapot, who grabs hold of Suki’s arm and doesn’t let go.
“Cold skin. She’s got cold skin.” says Old Bones.
Polly calls out. “Help Dishie. You’re the only one who can manage her!”
The Dishwasher gently un-prises Bones’ hand and gives her a pat.
“My head is all steamed up.” complains Old Bones.
“The swan waits for the evening star’s invitation, and then takes to the sky in greeting. Right," Dishwasher throws a tea towel at Suki. "You look like you could dry dishes better than the afternoon sunshine.” They head to the sink.
Earl’s arrival is heralded with an orchestral antagonist theme, dark, opulent and terrifying. Ear; is impeccably groomed with a straight back and a slight limp. ‘Ah Suki I see you’ve arrived. And are dressed appropriately. You’ll need to fix your hair though. You will find i run every aspect of this place with absolute precision and high standards. Someone has to maintain high standards here don’t they Polly? What would these tearooms be without me hmm? I simply cannot abide a lack of discipline.'“
Polly stands to attention as Earl slowly circles her, appraising her outfit.
“And the gloves?”
Polly obliges and holds out her hands as Earl inspects them.
"Other side." Polly turns her palms over.
"mmm." Earl gives the slightest nod. “Today’s tea plan?”
Polly explains she was thinking of using Peppermint.
“Peppermint? Mmmm. Is that wise?”
“Ah… well…you see…I...I...”
“Oh so you’re not sure at all. Why aren’t I surprised?”
“Well… the...the high notes?”
“High notes? Are we at an opera and I didn’t notice? Nothing you’ve done before has worked. You really are a total disappointment. At least Grammy was spared from witnessing your dismal failures. At this stage, I very much doubt peppermint will make any difference.” Old Bones creeps over, squawking like a crow.
Earl tells the “filthy old bag of bones” to shut up. To Polly he says, “I don’t know why you keep Grammy’s disgusting old pot. Throw the mad old witch out on the street and stop her stinking up my kitchen.”
“I’m really sorry. But Grammy left her to me...” At this Bones hisses and spits like an old cat.
Earl snorts and reminds Polly that without him she would be at the mercy of these fools. His gesture includes the occupants of the kitchen.
He sighs then shouts ”Teapot? In the kitchen. At once.” Teapot runs in. “Do try to behave yourself today.” The teapot giggles and Earl turns and leaves.
Teapot wiggles onto his chair and Polly begins to make tea.
“Well, let’s see... ⅓ a scoop...I’ll use two of those...and...oh wait...” Polly talks to herself as she selects and blends the tea. “Well I think that looks OK. but how does it feel teapot?” She offers it to teapot who rubs it through his fingers thoughtfully. “Oh I like the peppermint.”
Polly scoops the tea into the teapot. Then she spins him around 3 times, (never a pleasant experience for the teapot) and helps him into his splendid steeping jacket and lid.
“Service!” Earl’s voice rings out.
"Oh. This is Suki’s first day. I’d better go and help her. Will you be OK if I leave you alone today?" Polly pats the teapot on his splendid tummy, who giggles contentedly. "Thank you Polly. I feel pretty warm now. Yes we all run after Earl!"
"So you will just sit here, and stay calm? Dishie will keep an eye on you."
Earl’s voice again. “Am I having to ask twice?” Polly and Suki rush to the front of house together.
But what's this? A stranger arrives in the kitchen with particularly lovely hair that swooshes so. He says he is Suki's friend - Picander - and he's dropped in to invite her to the coffee house - to the poetry night he hosts. He puts a flyer on the table, smiles and swooshes his hair. Of course everyone's welcome Picander announces.
The Dishwasher explains she is serving.
“It’s too hot to go anywhere.” grumbles Old Bones.
The Splendid Teapot wonders if, considering how lovely he looks, he might be good at poetry. Particularly since he's steeping which always makes him a little hot and steamy. “Why, yes you are,” notices Picander. “Maybe you can help me? I want to finish my new poem for tonight.”
Old Bones seems to drift to sleep as Picander and the splendid teapot begin work on Picander’s poem. It starts badly, Picander’s poetry is awful and the teapot’s suggestions are worse.
As this dismal poetry writing attempt progresses, the teapot looks to the dishwasher, with a delighted confession. "Well I can't write poetry after all. My prettiness really is only skin deep." He giggles contentedly and the dishwasher agrees. He dries his hands, walks over to the teapot and whispers vastly superior text in his ear. “ Ooh. thank you! that’s so much better!” says the Splendid Teapot and repeats the lines to Picander, clearly enjoying the delighted response of the handsome man. The teapot relays the lines with increasing flourish and theatricality.
In this way, they finish the poem and it is lovely. Oh joy! The Dishwasher slaps the splendid teapot on the back and returns to his dishes happily.
Picander stares at the poem. Perhaps he sheds a tear.
“I’ve never written anything so, so..This is the most perfect and beautiful and and, the words...when I read...it’s like time stops and my feelings are all.. And...it’s...it’s…what’s the word?”
‘Well when that happens with teamaking, it’s called La Destina.’
“La Destina. This is my La Destina poem, and you Splendid Teapot inspired me.”
If the Splendid Teapots blushes at this, it only makes him prettier. “Hey - I’ve got an idea. I want you to come with me, to the poetry night. Reading this poem tonight is going to be momentous. I mean there’s another teapot here. Surely Earl can manage.”
Oh dear. The Splendid Teapot is quite alarmed by this proposal. He tells the dishwasher he can’t possibly leave Earl, can he? - what should he do? And he's steeping - and can't think straight. He's likely to do something rash. But, but Earl. The dishwasher responds that the teapot should go with the flow. He points out that Earl takes the teapot for granted and it might do Earl good to learn how much the teapot means to him. “Earl does take me for granted. And it is annoying. But I’m just a teapot. I can’t walk out, can I?”
“Why not? You do lots of surprising things for a teapot,” responds Dishie.
“Oh I do too.”
Picander interrupts. "Look. I want you to come with me. This is the best poem I've ever written and tonight is going to be amazing." Swoosh swoosh.
The teapot succumbs. He allows himself to be taken by Picander as long as Picander promises to be very careful with the teapot’s beautiful flowers. Picander leaves, muse in hand. Old Bones mumbles.
The Dishwasher returns to his dishes. He announces to the spoon polishers that their work is done, it is time they left and made space for the teadrinkers.
(spoon polishers put their polishing cloths into their laps as serviettes and make costume adjustments to become tea drinkers. When the costume change is complete, the tea drinkers assume a rather haughty upper class air)
Our attention now turns to the front of house where Polly and Suki assist Earl, Grand Tea Regent in Perpetuity, in welcoming the teadrinkers. Earl is in his element - suave, charming, gliding through the tables, a handshake here, a friendly touch on the shoulder there. Such largesse. Such panache. The tea drinkers respond with a song of thirsty anticipation. The song climaxes with Earl sending Polly to the kitchen to fetch the teapot and serve the tea.
Alas and Alack.
Polly returns empty handed. The colour drained from her face.
The Teapot is gone!
Earl runs as fast as his limp allows to the kitchen vainly looking for the teapot.
He turns on Polly. Why does she ruin everything she touches? What would Grammy think of how she’s turned out? At this, Old Bones starts laughing at Earl which incenses him further. He explodes in anger
“Well I can’t run a teahouse without my teapot. Polly I hold you personally responsible. The teapot is your job. And to make matters worse you let him go while he’s steeping. You know how he gets when he’s steeping.”
"I did. I left him on his own. If I stayed with him this wouldn’t have happened. Oh no. Let me try to find...I'll leave right now...I’ll go and look for him..." Polly pleads.
“Find him. Polly. Find him or the teahouse is ruined. For both of us. I don’t want to lay my eyes on your pathetic face until you have the teapot with you.” Earl turns and marches off to his office.
The Dishwasher reassures her. “Don’t worry Pol. He can’t banish you from your own tearooms.”
“What?” says Suki.
“These rooms aren’t Earl’s - they are owned by Polly. Passed down from Grammy. When Grammy died Earl and Polly made a deal. Earl would remain Grand Tea Regent in Perpetuity until Polly learnt how to make La Destina. And then Earl would step down, and Polly could take her rightful place.”
“And I’ve never made La Destina tea so Earl has stayed,” sobs Polly. “What am I going to do? I don't even know where to start looking for Teapot.”
The dishwasher picks up the poetry night flyer. “The teapot's here. At the coffee house. Picander took him, seems to think the teapot can help him write poetry.”
"But..I don't know how to get there. I don't know anything about coffee. Or poetry. I'm going to have to leave forever. I'm just going to walk away and..." Polly looks around desperately, unable to complete her sentence.
"I can take you. I know the way. Coffee is delicious! and poetry night is actually fun! Come on Polly." says Suki.
Polly stares at her gloves. Her hands are shaking. "Thank you Suki. Let’s go."
The women leave.
The dishwasher finds his bongos under the sink . He tells the audience that since there was no afternoon tea, there are no dishes to wash so he might head to the coffee house. He invites the audience to join him, instructing them to be groovy and don their sunglasses and berets.
As Polly, Suki and Dishie arrive at the coffee house the coffee drinkers share a lusty chorus about the delights of coffee.
Teapot sees Polly and runs up to greet the women. Picander, as splendid as ever strides over to welcome them.
But Polly just wants to take the Teapot and return to the tearooms.
“No man. I and Teapot have a very special poem to perform tonight. He needs to be here for that. And You’ll want to stay for that.”
Polly argues but Picander waves her off.
“You have a poem tonight Teapot?”
“Well, it’s really Dishie’s poem but it is very nice. Picander has such wooshy hair. Oh! Look at me a teapot in a coffee house, and I’m still steeping.”
“Alright. Alright. I will wait til you do this poem Teapot. At least I know where you are and I can keep an eye on you.”
Suki turns to Dishie. “Do you mind that Picander thinks your poem is his?’
Dishie shrugs amicably. “When steam rises water boils.”
Picander takes to the floor to begin officially welcoming all to the evening. He seems ready to settle in for a rather verbose and rambling speech about how special tonight is going to be, when The Dishwasher, walks up and takes the floor.
“You, friend, have been heard.” and with that Picander is dismissed.
‘Cool cool. I guess Dishwasher is ready to go now, so um here he is.”
Dishwasher unfolds some scrappy paper from his back jeans pocket, hands his bongos to Suki with instructions for her to do what she feels, and begins his poem, a rather steamy work on how good cream feels in a hot cup of coffee. He finishes, folds up his paper and tells Suki she “rocked the skins”.
Picander thanks him and calls for the next poet.
Suki turns to Polly. “There’s something about Dishwasher. I felt it the moment I saw him. He’s just got this way… How can I tell him? he’s so…ooh.”
“It’s poetry night. Why don’t you tell him in poetry?”
“A poem! Could i do it Polly? Do I dare? I don’t know. Ooh. should I? I mean look at him...mmh. I’m doing it! Polly wish me luck!”
Polly laughs. “Suki, you won’t need luck.” Suki takes to the stage to perform a poem.
A rather steamy song about how there was a cup of coffee who delighted in the feeling of cream sliding into her. AS she finishes Dishie applauds and tells her
“The moon’s song wasn’t fear but longing for the meteor to scar his ancient skin,” Suki leads him behind a furniture where the two disappear.
“Well that worked” Polly laughs.
Teapot turned to Polly. “ I’ve been steeping for hours and my head is getting woozy.”
Polly addresses Picander. “My friends are busy. I could just take the teapot now, if you’d let Suki know...”
"Teapot has to stay. We’re about to do my poem. It’s incredible.”
"But I need to get back."
"Polly - face it. You have been kicked out. You're free. You might as well take your time. Relax. Here, try some coffee. It's good."
"Earl what? he’s not here. Just have one sip. Go on. Just one little sip. Try it..”
"alright. hand it over. One sip. And then…” Polly takes a perfunctory sip and is hit with a rush. "ooh.
wow. that is good. So different ... so earthy. ooh...it makes my heart beat faster. But I feel so loose at the same time. My skin is all tingly.”
"oh yeah. Coffee'll do that. That’s what my poem is about. How coffee makes me feel."
"ooh," Polly takes another sip. "Well I would very much like to hear it."
“Right. Here I go.’ Instead of walking to the floor, Picander suddenly sits. “I feel sick. This poem - it’s so...potent, so...magical. What if the world isn’t ready for it? And I am the humble vessel for this poem. Teapot told me about La Destina. This is my la destina Polly.”
“Maybe you need some of this?” Polly offers Picander her coffee cup who downs it in one shot, gives himself a shake, squares his shoulders and takes the floor to introduce his extraordinary poem.
Picander’s poem is very well received, especially by Polly who has become quite coffee affected and dreamy. “Amazing work, Picander. You delivered it well, congratulations”
Even Dishwasher and Suki pop their heads up briefly to admire the poem.
“And I must thank teapot, my muse.” Picander gestures Teapot to join him
Teapot joins Picander and they bow.
Polly stands up and takes Teapot’s hand. “That WAS a beautiful poem and now teapot and I can leave and get back to the tearooms.’
“Absolutely not. Teapot, my wonderful muse must stay. I want another poem. My fans want another poem.”
“Picander that was the deal. One poem. Now LET TEAPOT GO.”
“NO! Hear that sound? That’s my audience chanting for another peom. Teapot STAYS”
The argument continues and Polly and Picander pull the teapot back and forth and the poor pot STILL STEEPING and now being fought over shouts at them back.
“STOP IT. STOP PULLING ME. Just Stop.” He pulls his hands/spout etc free and smoothes himself down. “Actually i’ll have my turn at a poem now, thank you Picander.
A teapot’s whole life is ordered about
‘Go here. Go there. Now show us your spout.
Spin around thrice, now give us your tea.’
But what about ME? What about ME?
I know a teapot should do as they’re told.
Be steamy, be well drawn, be hot but don’t scald.
For twenty long years I’ve served out my time
What I have left I want to be MINE.
If I was a free pot, I could pour when I chose
And not have to wear these hot, itchy clothes
I’d go where I wanted, with whomever I liked
When I’d speak they’d listen, without a huge fight.
I’m sorry Picander, but find your own rhyme.
And Polly my old friend, I know you’ll be fine
You don’t need this teapot to make your true tea
But I need me now. I need to be free.
Polly I’m not going back to the tearooms with you. I’ve decided to emancipate myself - I’m a free pot now.”
“Teapot. I need you. Earl has banished me. Please.”
“The tearooms will be fine . And so what if Earl is angry? It’s time I put my foot down. (stomps) Oh my, I need to pour so bad. I’m going to...I’m going…”
Teapot runs off stage, and we hear a long shout/sigh of relief as Teapot pours. From the garden he shouts out, `Polly the peppermint comes out real nice.”
A disheveled Dishwasher and Suki emerge. Dishwasher admires Teapot’s poem.
“Awesome poem. And the actions. So real! When teapot pours, he REALLY pours,” says Suki.
Dishwasher agrees, “I lived in a teapot for a while and eventually you do need to break free. Cool.”
Polly is in a frenzy. “I’ve got to find him.”
Dishwasher shakes his head. “Pol, let him go. He’s free now! Do you really want to take him back to the tearooms against his will?”
“No. Of course not. But, but...I can’t go back empty handed. I can’t...I can’t...”
‘Well you could do a poem,” suggests Picander helpfully.
“No, I’m not doing a poem. I’m not a poet, I’m a teamaker. Well I was. now I’m just banished. Now I’ll never make La Destina! Oh Grammy. Grammy tried to teach me the old way. How the blend looks in the mixing bowl, the smell, the colour of the tea, then the taste. Different days need different blends. It’s a feeling. It’s your senses. Waiting for each flavour to emerge from the blend. Grammy used to say Tea is a balm a salve. Tea marks the changing seasons inside each day. It’s magic. It’s music. She taught me to love tea. And I try. I’ve spent 20 years trying but I can’t make la destina I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’m a failure Earl is right. And now i never will.”
“Wow. teamaking is your poetry.” muses Picander.
“What did teapot mean - you will be fine without him?” says Suki.
“I don’t know. I won’t be fine without a teapot!. How can he…There’s no other teapot...unless he means... but he couldn’t!...After Grammy died, Earl bought her that big cosy. I made my first tea in Old Bones. it came out awful, so bitter. No one could drink it.”
“Keep going. Keep pouring it out” Dishie shouts out.
“Why was the tea so bitter?” asked Suki.
“I wanted to ask her, what was I doing wrong? She was so different after Grammy died, and Earl said talking to her would only make her worse. We put her in the kitchen and brought in the splendid teapot...and...But he’s right isn’t he? She’s completely mad? I mean she...she says…Earl has...The way she’s always...so...hot?”
“I know I’ve only just started at the tearooms, but wouldn’t she be cooler without that big coat?” asks Suki.
“But Earl said -”
Polly closes her eyes and stands very still.
“Grammy never used a tea cosy. And Old Bones never complained of being hot then.” And after another long moment...
“Let’s go. I’ve been chasing the wrong teapot.”
Everyone leaves, except Dishwasher. He addresses the coffee drinkers. “Well it seems we are all heading back to the TEAROOMS. Where the TEADRINKERS have been waiting all this time. The TEADRINKERS. You know the ones with the fancy hats.” (on this cue the coffee drinkers change costume to their tea drink attire.)
Back in the tearooms
In the kitchen, we find Old Bones sleeping.
The dishwasher gently wakes her and tells Suki to find a bucket and sponge from under his sink.
“It’s so hot in here. Hard to stay awake.”
“Wake up please. We want to help you.” says Suki.
“Help her Dishy. Take her coat off.” whispers Polly.
“What? You want to take off my coat? Well. Well. It’s taken you long enough. I’ve been waiting twenty years to feel cool.”
“Please stand still.”
It takes Suki and The Dishwasher some moments to undo the heavy coat and slowly lift it off Old Bones. Polly holds her hands to her face, nervously covering her mouth.
As the coat comes off her, Old Bones lets out a long rumbling phlegmatic noise and coughs.
Dishie provides her with a cloth to use as a hankie. It takes some moments before she becomes still and silent. Without the weight of the coat she straightens up to her full height.
“Now I can think clearly. What does this mean? What do you want? Why are you standing there gawking at me?”
The dishwasher begins to polish the old teapot.
Polly addresses her. "Why was the tea I made in you bitter? What did I do wrong? It’s fine when I make it in Earl’s teapot."
Old Bones snorts. “Your tea isn’t fine in Earl’s teapot. It is flavourless drivel. And it is just the pretty flowers on the teapot and Earl’s blustery carry-on that the teadrinkers like.”
“So I can’t even make good tea in Earl’s teapot?” Polly asks Old Bones.
“Of course you can’t. It will always be weak and flavourless.”
The Dishwasher finishes cleaning Old Bones, and brushes her hair. The lid he puts on her head is like a crown. She is quite a different figure now - fierce and powerful.
She addresses Polly. “I will tell you what you did wrong. Your Grandmother came from a long, long line of Pollys. I am an ancient and proud teapot, Bone China. And I have been passed down this line, from Polly to Polly. When a Polly makes tea here, in Polly’s tea rooms my flavour is at it should be - La Destina.” Bone China points a gnarled finger at Polly. “ But YOU have never once made tea in Polly’s tea rooms. YOU gave the tearooms away before you ever touched me. YOU made that dreadful deal with Earl. You let him put me in that tea cosy. Me. Bone China. in a teacosy like a garden variety metal teapot. If you use a teacosy for a teapot like me, the tea will always oversteep and be bitter. I would have told you if you’d asked. But you stopped talking to me.”
"an ancient line? And the tea was bitter because of the cosy...so... can you still make La Destina tea?” Asks Polly very timidly.
“Do you doubt me?” Bone China roars at Polly.
Poor Polly is overcome. She asks Bone China what she needs to do to become a La Destina teamaker.
“If you want to make La Destina tea, you must take off those gloves. Polly! A teamaker’s knowledge is in her hands. You can’t feel the blend through that terrible fabric.”
“I’ve worn gloves for twenty years.”
“Did Grammy wear gloves?”
Polly slowly, nervously unbuttons and peels off her gloves. I'm sure you'll agree - such a moment requires a song. Perhaps the buttons roll this way and that and this time, no-one chases after them.
The Dishwasher takes them from her and throws them in the dishwater.
“Begin.” instructs Old Bones. “Select the botanicals.” Bones pushes the vase of flowers towards Polly.
Shaking, Polly starts selecting different flowers. Examining them, smelling them. Holding different flowers up to the light to see the blend. She places her selection in the tea blending bowl and turns the mixture through her hands. It is a slow process, with reflection and adjustments. Finally Polly is ready.
Dishwasher lifts Bones’ lid, and Polly puts the tea in. Bone China seems to grow in size and stands commandingly to steep.
With dishwasher’s guidance, the teadrinkers replace the signage on their table from Earl’s to Polly’s, while Suki, Polly and Picander pull down the oppressive Earl branding and replace with bright flowers.
At that moment Earl storms in. “I thought I heard you come in Polly. You’ve found my teapot? No? What the hell are you doing here? Well well!! A little deluded game of play making amongst the fools, now it is time to get back to reality. Polly put the cosy back on Old Bones and put your gloves on immediately.” Dishy places the lid on Bones. “THE TEADRINKERS ARE HERE. MY CUSTOMERS ARE SEEING THIS. This is absolutely reprehensible.”
Suki and Dishie ignore him and hand tea cups out.
“Polly you know what happens if you use Old Bones for tea. Why are you being such an imbecile?”
Polly looks to Bone China for guidance. "Polly you know what to do." Polly slowly, nervously, but with determination pours a cup of her tea, approaches Earl and hands it to him.
“Drink this. What do you taste?” she asks, almost inaudibly.
“What’s that? Speak up. You want me to drink this filthy bog water? Have you completely lost your mind?”
“Just one sip Earl. Try the peppermint.”
“Don’t be ri-” Earl catches a sniff of the tea and is stunned. He sniffs again in horror. Slowly he lifts the cup, He drinks...and falls back into a chair. The colour drains from his face as he whispers “la Destina”.
Curious, everyone else drinks. LA DESTINA LA DESTINA they shout joyously and surround Polly.
Polly begins nervously, “And now that I have made La Destina,” she swallows but goes on, “our deal is complete. I can take my place here. I no longer require you as Grand Tea Regent in Perpetuity and,” has Polly actually begun to smile? “Earl, you are free to go.”
Earl visibly crumples. “What can I do now? I have lost my teapot. I have lost my tearooms. All the years I poured into this place. All my work to make my place in the world. To keep everything JUST SO. Fo what? I gave everything I had. I took so much care over every little detail and it has all crumbled. Dust in my hands."
At this moment the teapot arrives in fabulous travelling clothes, with a suitcase and a large folded umbrella. Earl looks at teapot. “Are you leaving? I don’t deserve you, old friend. You are too beautiful for me, you should be free to make your way - not trapped with a man who has nothing. Go Go lovely teapot. Leave me.”
“What? Why? I know my flavour was never La Destina. That’s not why your teadrinkers came to these tearooms. They came for you Earl. Your charm. Your intoxicating charisma. Look at us. I am beautiful, you are suave and that has been enough to keep the tearooms going successfully for 20 years. What couldn’t we do together Come with me. I’ve got such great such plans for our adventures.”
“You are a very surprising teapot!”
“I know.” Giggles the teapot. “So how about it? One man and one free pot.”
The Teapot puts out his hand and with uncharacteristic sheepishness Earl takes it. The teapot hands him the umbrella. "This is for you - you can use it as a walking stick and it might come in handy when i get leaky." Off they walk arm in arm.
The Dishwasher approaches Polly and Suki. He has his apron over his arm and announces he is leaving - that his work is done.
"I have a gift for you both. For you Suki, afternoon sunshine, a notebook to write down your beautiful poems." Suki takes the gift and hugs him.
"For you, Pol." The dishwasher hands Polly his now completed poem, framed. Polly reads the beautiful text tearfully. I needn't recount the lengthy work here word for word, suffice to say it features Polly, Suki and the movements of a kettle on and off. Polly says she doesn’t know what she will do without him. The dishwasher responds that she will be fine and that he has found the perfect replacement. He tenderly puts his apron on Suki. Polly embraces her friend and hangs the poem on the wall.
Our attention turns to the kitchen where we find Picander. His beautiful hair has been put back into an industrious pony tail and he is writing his new poem under the brutal but brilliant editorialship of Old Bones. “Your poetry is dreadful. DREADFUL. It is all “I want”. good poetry is written in “I am”. Is she the sort of editor who would box a young poet around the ears for poor meter?
Picander finishes and stands to read the poem to the audience. - wishing everyone good fortune, good poetry and tea of true La Destina quality.
Everyone joins the final chorus - a resounding chorale of the Dishwasher's Polly poem.
This article follows on from my previous post, which had some more general thoughts to starting a new choir. If you are starting a community choir, you may be wondering how to put together a collection of songs that are simple, lovely and accessible. You may also need them to be free if you haven’t started collecting subs and other funding.
Here are a few songs I have used with choirs to get started. I’ve only included public domain material, so you can get up and singing for the cost of photocopying.
If your choir enjoys this Elizabethan music and wants to go further in this direction, cpdl has a wonderful book called the TUMS songbook with about 25 songs, most from this era.
Winter’ll Soon Be Over
I cant find a recording online of this beautiful, simple piece. It is a wonderful piece for choirs to build confidence in choral singing.
African Freedom Song
The Shining Shore
I learnt this song from Sonsy, an Australian folk duo singing here. The only issue i see in the sheet music is how much movement there is in the bass line which may be too much for beginning choristers, so that may benefit from a quick simplification.
How Can I Keep From Singing
The first verse of this song seems universal in its message for singers, so a non sacred choir may enjoy just this verse. Once again, the bass line could be made simpler.
And lastly, i would invite you to look over my catalogue of songs. They are all public domain - free to buy and free to use - and include a number of super simple songs that can be taught by ear very quickly to new choirs.
What does ‘community’ mean for your choir?
Before you start a community choir, the very first thing I would recommend is deciding what community the choir belongs to. Many community choirs belong to a location. Some choirs are about gender, sexuality, age, political affiliations. Some community choirs have a commitment to providing support for people in need, such as homeless people, domestic violence survivors etc, or people with specific health challenges. Articulating what ‘community’ your choir belongs to will inform how you plan the logistics of your choir. It will also help singers know if the choir is for them. I think it’s really really valuable to know, from the start, ‘community’ does not have to mean that you cater to every single possible person. Trying to be all things to all people makes your choir unfocused, and makes it hard for you to start, establish and keep running the choir.
When and where for rehearsals
Being clear about who your community is will allow you to make decisions about rehearsals. One consideration that is actually quite important is rehearsal time. For example, evening choirs might not suit everyone - if you want to have a choir for retired people, they can rehearse during the day, and singers may very much appreciate not having to go out in the evenings. If you want busy city workers, a lunch time ‘drop in’ choir may be a great idea, or rehearsals within school hours may be appreciated by moms.
Knowing the community you are part of will also inform who you approach as a rehearsal venue. Libraries, schools, community centers, churches, scout halls, even pubs and cafes are worth approaching. All organisations with a usefully sized and shaped room, geographically and philosophically well placed in your community are worth approaching. It’s amazing how many people are interested in helping a community choir and will offer free or very cheap room hire for you. It’s just a question of getting on the blower and asking around. I am a huge fan of sorting out day, time and place for rehearsals before you start recruiting, because people will make a decision about coming based on when and where rehearsals are. In a perfect world, rehearsals are near a cafe or a pub so choristers can socialize together afterwards. This is a really valuable and important aspect of community choir. (more on this further down).
Have a navel gaze - who are you? what do you want?
To run a successful choir, you have to enjoy it, so you have to know what sort of music YOU want to do, what sort of community choir you want to be directing for eg choirs range from unison singalong groups through to auditioned choirs that devote a lot of resources to mastering sophisticated choral music. Would you like an acappella group (makes logistics so much easier, but presents other challenges).
You do not have to be all things to all people, and if you don’t decide for yourself what sort of choir you want, the pushiest choristers who turn up will decide for you. In my twenty years of experience running community choirs whenever I’ve taken a group where they have been in charge I have not felt effective as a director, I haven’t enjoyed myself, and i haven’t stayed. A community choir cannot be all things to all people, but it needs to be right for the director. Particularly if you’re the founder, you get to make a lot of decisions about how you want the choir to be. So what DO you want? What music do you want to teach? How? Do you want a low pressure group that is about everything being easy, or do you want a group that focuses on developing and achieving? Do you want to work towards performances or have the rehearsals be an end in themselves?
Knowing the community you’re drawing from and your own interests will help you decide on a name for the group, that helps identify the group. Don’t sweat this, I think marketing types would say don’t worry too much about capturing every aspect of the choir in one name and just call the choir something catchy.
Now you can put together a flier and a newsletter article
When you know who the community is, when and where rehearsals will be and what sort of choir you want, you can put all this into a few sentences, make a nice flier and do a poster/flier run in the area, and email any suitable local community groups and ask if they would distribute a pdf flier too. You could look for aligned facebook groups from your community and ask if they would also share the message, and approach community newspapers in the area.
“Razzle be Dazzle Singers is a new choir for the chronologically advantaged (ie over 50) focused on singing the big hits from Broadway. We have fun and don’t work too hard. Everyone with a love for showbiz songs and a willingness to wear feather boas at performances is welcome. Rehearsals day, time, place contact….'‘
“Early Early Music Consort is a group of auditioned non vibrato just intonation nerds who sing early music - medieval, renaissance and select obscure baroque - exclusively early in the day. All our rehearsals and concerts are at 5am beside Lake Melody, on every day there is enough mist to shroud us in a veil. We do not rehearse on clear days. We dress in black and many of us own ravens.”
“If you’ve always wanted to sing, and never have now is your chance. Doodle Doot Community Chorus has just started up in Croydon and is looking for adults of all ages who would like to begin singing. Our focus will be on fun, encouraging each other, finding our voices, learning basic singing technique and learning how to sing with others with songs like Bring Me Little Water Sylvie, date, time, contact”
How much you charge in choirs subs will depend on the circumstances of the singers, and what your choir is about, whether you are donating your time, or are looking to earn money and what your running costs are. If you are paying for a rehearsal venue, you will need enough in subs to cover that. If you are buying sheet music you will need enough to cover that. If you are paying for public liability insurance you will need to cover that. I’m from Australia, and the Australian National Choral Association had a good deal for public liability for choirs. Legally, in Australia singing copyrighted work at a choir rehearsal is considered a public performance, meaning royalties need to be paid to the royalties collecting body of APRA/AMCOS for rehearsals. I don’t know what the laws are in other countries and what the best set up for choir is. I will say, for choirs where money is an issue, public domain sheet music saves stress/money.
I have always charged subs, and always had a published policy that if money is an issue, don’t worry about subs because choir is more important than money. Rarely have i had singers who haven’t happily paid. To keep costs down, I have sent choristers pdfs of sheet music that they have printed out themselves. If you’re really strapped for cash you can rehearse at someone’s house. (This can be an issue for power dynamics though.) In Australia, generally speaking community choirs would be unlikely recipients of grants and donations. Perhaps this is a potential source of income in other countries.
Pick music that seems easy. Songs that are easy will give your choristers confidence. For many community choristers, the rehearsal is the show - the rehearsal isn’t the means to a performance end - the rehearsal itself is the main experience people come for. (Performances still matter, but they aren’t necessarily the primary goal for many choristers, which can be to sing with other people.) So being able to sing songs from beginning to end at every rehearsal matters and comes down to judicious repertoire selection.
It pays to program a rehearsal as if you were programming a concert, and think of your singers as having similar needs to an audience. Variety. Hard pieces (and only have one or two on the go at any one time) interspersed with easier pieces. Make sure to sing through known material and let the choir just roar through it between more hard working sessions. I will write a separate article on suggested repertoire for a new community choir.
If you are used to working with children, you will need to slow down the tempo of your directing/teaching because adults on the whole move through the world more slowly. The older your community choir is, the more marked this tempo change will be. You need to keep your rehearsal moving of course but no one likes feeling rushed and flustered.
The main behavior management issue that comes up in community choirs is chatting. I have two tools for this. Firstly, when we are learning parts I encourage everyone to sing every part or hum their own part. And I tell them the reasons why; it’s good for their musicianship, it’s more fun to sing than just sit there and if they’re singing they won’t be tempted to chat. Or use similar devices: “See those eighth notes on beat two? To help the tenors can everyone else please clap a ta ti-ti ostinato to help them, while we learn their part?” The other tool is break time. Community choristers like to get to know each other and bond and care about each other. And that’s a great thing you are helping to create, as you know people with close human connections stay alive longer! The only issue is, choristers do this by chatting to each other. So give them a time and a place to catch up. A 20 minute break during, or coffee/drink time afterwards. Chat time not only keeps rehearsal time tight, but if your choristers are friends they will keep coming!
When you teach children and model for them, they largely copy you. When you teach adults, for various reasons, the sound they make will be much less an imitation of your voice. This means when you sing along with your community choristers they will not match your singing style. Particularly if you are working with unauditioned and beginner singers who through no fault of their own have not had the chance to develop good technique, you need to be cognizant that if you sing along with your choristers this may well impact on how you sing. This will matter if you end up teaching ten community choirs a week. To keep your voice in good health, which is in everybody’s interest, it’s important when working with community singers, that you model but don’t sing along.
It’s OK to start small, and it’s perfectly fine if people come and go
In my experience a new choir takes a year to feel settled. I’ve had groups starts with only two or three singers, and it’s taken at least a year of recruiting to get a sustainable 12 to 15 committed singers. Singers come and go. Your choir won’t be what everyone is looking for. I had a retired professional opera singer turn up to one rehearsal of my unauditioned community choir. Not surprisingly, she sent a very sweet email saying that the choir wasn’t what she was looking for. I totally agreed. It’s important to be relaxed about this and not panic. I had one woman turn up to a gospel choir rehearsal and announce that she loved gospel music but wouldn’t sing any songs about God. Hmmm. This was early on, in the first year of this particular group, and early in my career, and I was desperate for singers. I made the mistake of not wishing her well finding another group, but instead foolishly tried to source a choir’s worth of secular gospel music.
If your choristers are enjoying themselves they will recruit for you, and they are the best recruiters. So your job is to make the rehearsals worth talking about and they will bring people along. Let your choristers know - guests are always welcome - please bring people you think might be interested. And have a cache of spare folders ready to hand to people who walk in the door.
Nerves are a big thing for adults, performances can be small
Performances give choirs a sense of season eh, often helping to create momentum and purpose in the choir. Often community choristers are well community minded people and can want to share their music within their community. Performances do not have to be a big deal, to be meaningful. If your choristers are new to singing, they are likely to be very nervous to start with, so low key performances will help them develop their confidence. I had a community group who rehearsed on Friday mornings in a community center with a public art gallery attached. On the last Friday of the month, we would sing in the art gallery for fifteen minutes. This was singing in a public space, but not exactly a performance. We did this for about a year. That was how long it took the lovely singers to have enough confidence to sing as well in public as they sang in rehearsal.
I am not a huge advocate of fun meaning the opposite of good - that having fun means choirs can’t work. But I am a huge advocate of the more joy and playfulness you can bring to music making and singing, the more your choristers will enjoy choir and the better they will sing. All of the elements needed to sing well require playfulness and willingness to try. On this, here’s a community choir warming up. We were doing this ridiculous but effective warm up and they looked so marvelous, I took out my phone and recorded them mid rehearsal. What a bunch of darling humans. (shared with their permission.)
Maintaining a webpage feels so much like maintaining a garden. I’ve just finished planting some new seeds to share with you.
I have previously published my sightsinging workbooks for choirs, Singing The Dots. Today, I’ve added links to the PDFs of each song included in the books. This might suit directors/teachers who already have their own approach to teaching sightsinging or choirs who want to use the songs just for the pleasure of singing some simple repertoire.
This is a solo acapella song I wrote for my dear friend Wendy Stanton to sing. She did it beautifully, and I’ve since had a number singers ask me if they could also sing it.
Of course you can!
It’s a setting of Rumi’s beautiful text
We come out of nothingness
Scattering stars like dust
The stars form a circle
And in the centre, we dance.
Because it’s unaccompanied, you can set the pitch to suit you, and in my mind it’s quite free and flowing, with easy and unapologetic pauses to breathe. The dotted notes are about relative length ie a bit longer than undotted notes.
Today I received a lovely email from a composer, who is thinking about where to go next in her writing. She asked me “Do you remember how it was to start composing, and what you found helpful on your way?”
I’m not sure whether the huge rant below, that poured out of me in response will help her. I hope so! Composing is hard and lonely and mysterious. I hope she keeps going!
I am a vocal and choral composer, so I will ponder this question in terms of writing for singers and their voices. I will also focus on things intrinsic to composing - developing and finding my compositional voice - rather than career development - how to take compositions to the world - cause frankly I have no idea how to do that! I’m sorry if this is going to seem bombastic or preachy. I’m sure there many possible ways of approaching composing, and my ideas have come from what has worked for me, but I’ve no idea what has worked for other people.
I sing. My mother and her family sang. I am married to a singer. Nearly all of my dearest friends are singers. Until I had my vocal damage I sang all day, every day. My work was with singers, my ‘day job’, then performing work, but also at home, with Emlyn, and by myself. In the car. Even when we’d go away for weekends it would be to music festivals where we’d sing. And often I would jam, just play around with notes and ideas. I’ve always done that. So there was never a moment where I thought - you know I might try my hand at composing, because it’s just been normal.
Singers are their instruments, we are the song. The song is inside us, held in our imaginations then given life through our breath. The membrane between song and human is so thin, the two entities are completely morphed. I don’t know what it feels like for composers who don’t sing to write music for singers, but I can’t imagine it.
The downside of this is a lot of knowledge I have about vocal music is in my body rather than in my head. It has led me to profound frustration at times when I’ve tried to articulate my composing instincts and the ideas are in my pores, and not in my words. I dropped out of formal composition study and the main reason was I couldn’t communicate with my supervisor about my ideas, I couldn’t advocate for my own work because my understanding of why I wrote what I did was a practitioner’s deep gut instincts.
If this was to be turned into a piece of advice it would be SING. a lot. And then hang with singers. In the classical vocal system there are so many different categories of voice types - from light to full dramatic and then bass, baritone, tenor, contralto, mezzo, soprano. Professional singers have different ranges and capacities to students, talented hobbyists and community singers. Children, teenagers and adults have different vocal ranges, capacities and needs. Young men, when their voices change can lose the notes from middle C down to A, G or F for some months or longer. A contralto and a soprano may both welcome an A above the clef in a song, and be perfectly capable of singing it, but a soprano will be able to make it float like a bird soaring on the wind, and a contralto will more likely want to sing it as a fortissimo, and will only appreciate a note this high ONCE in an entire song. A dramatic soprano will often have wonderful rich chest notes, and will appreciate a chance to sing low. But once again, not for too long! There is so much more, and I don’t know a short way to learn these details except to greedily consume the thoughts and sounds of singers, to seek out their company. Performances and recordings are finished product, attending these things won’t always help composers understand how singers sing. Sitting in on singing lessons and rehearsals wherever you possibly can would be the most instructive experience for learning the landscape of different voice types.
Sing folk songs. Folk songs are necessarily catchy and singable. They stick. All the ones we know, we know because they have stuck. The evolution process for aural-tradition folk songs is brutal. Songs that don’t stay in people’s heads and flow on people’s voices and connect to people’s hearts will have all fallen by the wayside. Sing folk songs. Study folk songs. See if you can write tuneful pentatonic songs within the compass of an octave. See if you can create them without writing them down, away from the piano, the computer or manuscript. Go stand in some foggy foggy dew somewhere and write a song. Can you remember it the next day? And the next? If you can write a memorable pentatonic song, can you write a catchy three note song. See if you can sing your simple song to someone else once or twice and then have them be able to sing it back to you, from memory, with every note right. Maybe do this for years, or just from now until you die, ideally. I grew up singing folk songs, and then sang folk songs with my husband. And had always felt unclear about whether I was a folkie or a classicalie. When I discovered Kodaly at university the light switched on - that all the great composers have connected folk music to art music and understood folk’s power and magic, and that there is no dichotomy between the two.
Singers can’t push buttons to create pitches, they have to hold the sound of the song in their heads, often from memory, so it’s incredibly helpful for singers if composers write vocal music that is aurally appealing! Other composers and singers might disagree on this idea - and thoroughly enjoy much more exotic music than I write. So it is.
Do you know what rubs me up the wrong way? When people talk about how composers should study music theory because “you’ve got to learn the rules first and then you can break them.” I suppose theory is taught as a collection of arbitrary rules but it isn’t. Theory is simply a useful description and analysis of how music works, how it expresses and communicates. Music is a shared language - there are shared understandings for successful communication. People who haven’t studied theory will still feel the grammar of the language instinctively. Just like English speakers conjugate their verbs correctly even if they aren’t aware that this is what they are doing. I think theory is a great articulation of how composers can use music to convey what it is that they want to covey
Be greedy about learning these tools. Harmony books are easy to find. Counterpoint books are easy to find. Courses abound online. Sometimes they are written as if they are handing down sacred rules instead of useful tools, and that’s a shame, but read around that to find what is useful. I will say, as a caveat, you’ll know which genre/s of music most connect to your heart, and so obviously researching how the specific music you love does what it does will be important for you. Music is as wide as the ocean, and I know when I’ve been studying theory in music that doesn’t connect to my heart, it brings me down. I like to write lyrical music - I’m quite old skool - and some of the approaches to 20th century writing I came across as a student just upset me, but delighted many of my much groovier colleagues.
I guess the approach I would advocate in studying music theory is not to stress over learning the “right way to do things” or worrying that your unique composing voice will be drowned in a river of rigid, oppressive rules, but to approach the great body of theoretic works with the question “excuse me, I would like to communicate this particular thought or feeling or style, what tools have you got I could use?” Also the very vastness of music knowledge can be daunting. I don’t know if it’s possible to become an expert in understanding many musical styles, and I’ve certainly found I can feel dismayed about how little I know. I haven’t exactly overcome that feeling, but given I’m now 47, I figure I’m more than half way through my life and if I wait til I know everything before I compose more, I’ll be dead!
I haven’t come across a great book specifically on how to compose for singers, working with different voice types, breathing needs, passaggio management, how to construct vocal phrases, what vowels work for long notes or different pitches etc, what intervals are aurally appealing for singers and audiences and so on and on and on. I hope books like this exist. I’ve never found one, but I have substituted for this book-learnin’ the knowledge I’ve gleaned from over 40 years of singing songs, and I think that’s probably OK.
If our job is to give singers a story they can use to captivate audiences, we need to think in terms of plot. What is the introduction? Musically speaking, who is the main character? What is the propulsion? I’m also old skool in that I’m a fan of a narrative structure - of shape. What are we doing to create light and shade and propel the audience along from beginning to end? What are we doing to build up the intensity? Where are we peaking? Are we peaking enough? I wrote a seven minute choral work and realised my peak, my victory verse was only half a bar long. That didn’t seem fair to the audience or the singers! So I rewrote it to go for eight bars. In these #metoo times one must be judicious about one’s metaphors, but if you were to adopt a french accent, waggle your eyebrows and “hor hor hor” about shaping the build up and leading to the dramatic peak, please go for it! It works as a model.
The other thing I have learnt over the years is to forget about trying to be clever. For reasons that no longer make sense to me, when I started writing I crammed a lot of ideas into my works. I think it came from a youthful combination of insecurity and desire to show off. These days I have learnt to respect that a piece needs a character and a select palate of musical devices. And that the simpler a piece is, the more an audience can access what I’m trying to say. This has meant slowing down harmonic rhythm. Finding ways to repeat ideas. Not being scared of putting unaccented words on the same note. Having breathing space for the song, for the singer, for the audience.
I have also learnt that the things i am trying to highlight must be placed strategically. Like a feature color in interior design. It’s wonderful and highlighted because it’s used strategically and actually quite sparingly. I articulated this when I was writing a piece for Bethany Hill, a coloratura soprano who had mad coloratura and mad high notes. If her piece was just stratospheric throughout, her incredible height wouldn’t be featured, it would just become bland. I thought about how much build up there is to get to the high F in the Queen Of The Night aria, but that one note defines that entire aria. Same with the top C in Allegri’s Miserere. So there’s something to be said for - hold off as long as you can.
I have learnt to write porously. Whenever I can, I give myself a lot of time to write a piece. I know there are composers with deadlines who do not have that luxury and hats off to them, that’s amazing. What i’ve learnt is that in a single sit down session, while I’m working on a piece, I get used to it and I lose a sense of where there is friction, where ideas aren’t working smoothly. After a while in one session, I stop noticing. So I have learnt I need breaks, so I can come back and hear with fresh ears (audience’s ears!) how the piece is, and notice the rough bits. My best pieces have sat on my piano for months, with me spending 15 minutes at a time multiple times a day, just smoothing out the issues. Sometimes changing a single note. I think because I write intuitively a lot of my musical composing process is hidden from me. In the past when an inner voice was whispering I would often ignore it. These days, I try very hard to listen to my intuition. Taking breaks helps this enormously.
The text is a vocal composer’s collaborator. It is where we start and where we finish and our guide on the journey. The words you are setting come with so much meaning, expression, rhythm, inflection, accents and unaccents, sounds, tone, character. Singers have to connect with the text they sing. The text needs to be marvelous for them to sing your work wonderfully. Speak your words, feel them in your mouth. Play around with them. Write them down, layed out like bad teenage poetry - highlight and indent and capitalise and underline. In English we place our accents on beats. This means text meaning and rhythm are the same thing! And why text setting is a fastidious art. Singers know the difference between a modern composition that has meter changes that highlight and accommodate the text, and meter changes that are written in simply because that’s what modern compositions do.
Don’t be scared of using piano where you’ve built up audience expectation for a loud note. Soft singing draws the audience in to the singer and is a most thrilling device for an audience, when managed by a skilled singer. Loud is awesome, but soft is devastatingly beautiful.
I’m never met a trained singer who doesn’t sing a major seventh beautifully. Just saying.
Did you see this rather delightful meme circulating this week?
It reminds me of inspirobot.
These mirrors we’ve built for ourselves, they bring into relief how ridiculous we are eh?
Surely a reminder of our own ridiculousness is good for our mental health.
To celebrate this loveliness, I wipped up a setting.
If you sing it, I’d love a recording!
I believe it’s important to honour the singers who perform our music - and to give them work where the music feels so natural that it flows out of them, allowing them to put all their attention to conveying the story to the people listening. This doesn’t mean the music has to be dull, cautious and non-virtuosic. I think there are three essential elements to writing vocal music that sits comfortably for singers.
The first is TEXT.
TEXT TEXT TEXT TEXT.
Singers sing words. Words come with inbuilt rhythms, pulses, inflections, accents. Words convey meaning. Many years ago I studied acting. The work I learnt then for approaching text - to sit with the text and discover what words to emphasize, what words to throw away, where to pause, where to rush - has been invaluable to me as a composer. It is the same work to compose. I think - write your text down. Read it aloud. Find the most important words in the piece and ensure they are the climax of the song. Find the accented words, find the throwaway words. Find the stanzas, find the phrases. Find the character whose words these are. What will they need musically?
Secondly SING IT.
SING IT. SING IT SING IT
Ask a singer if they can tell when pieces have been written at a keyboard. They’ll probably roll their eyes. A work written at a keyboard might be harmonically marvelous but a singer sings. Over and Under tone singing aside, voice is a one note at a time instrument. A melody instrument. Writing at the keyboard, with the harmony playing won’t give you a sense of whether the work makes melodic sense. How can you do that? Close the lid of the piano and sing it yourself. You don’t have to be able to sing well, you’re the equivalent of a seamstress’s dummy. But if the melodic line doesn’t sit well unaccompanied for you, I believe that’s a great indication the work isn’t finished.
LINE LINE LINE LINE
The rainbow shape of a phrase line is telling isn’t it? I find it hard to stay attentive when I listen to vocal lines that are agile and jumpy without a helpful overall phrase shape I can relate to. I think agile lines most need the scaffolding of carefully architected shape. And like interior design where a feature colour means two throw pillows and one pot plant against a neutral background, an exotic interval will become a feature by being used sparingly and strategically placed.
I’m currently setting some of Psalm 22 for a lent piece for Emlyn. Here, I want the anguish of major sevenths and tritones. I’m only setting the first part, the most bereft text of the psalm. But I don’t want Emlyn or his audience distracted by the jumps - ooh tricky, can he do it? It’s not a stuntman show! I want him to find the line natural and expressive so he can put all his attention to conveying the anguish and despair of the text for his audience.
This is my work then. I’ve decided YOU HAVE LAID ME IN THE DUST OF DEATH is the climax of the piece. Because Jesus is quoting this psalm and addressing God, I think it is important that “You” (God) is a high note in the phrase. If it was a different character, appealing to a different “you” this might not have made sense.
I have decided to end high - and jump the line up for the last three words. It’s only a C, which a baritone can sing comfortably quietly, but higher would be thoughtless on my part. Lower voices - basses, baritones, contraltos and low mezzos, can sing high notes. They’ll let you know how high they are comfortable. But the key is to use the top notes sparingly and for the lower voices they tend to be easier loud. A beautiful high, soft, floating melody is something to leave for the tenors and sopranos. However I suspect, having lived with a rather representative baritone for twenty five years, I’ve got a good feel for baritonial comfort and this jump up for this last three notes will be low enough to sing quietly and can offer more room for emotion than staying low. My instinct is also that the current notes for “fragments of pottery” are a bit twee. But it might be alright. Things to ponder.
Still playing a few chords for security so there’s still work to do!
The most accessible, most open doored, most everyone’s welcome community choirs can end up with folks who haven’t sung a lot before. These choirs do great work for people. People who may have had a non musical life, a life busily filled for decades with work and family responsibility where finally at some stage, work becomes steady, even pleasant, children grow, and a long held dream to sing in a choir becomes feasible. Magnificent. And how bloody marvelous that there are welcoming choirs with friendships, connections, low requirements and accessible repertoire for people to find.
Musical directors who specialise in working with these choirs have to develop a raft of particular skills that are quite different to those who lead more musically ambitious choirs filled with trained choristers.
One of these skills is in group vocal training. And one of the biggest vocal issues facing choirs of older beginners is a dearth of sopranos. This isn’t because there aren’t any sopranos. It is because most women new to singing technique don’t feel comfortable in their lighter mechanism/head voice/upper mode/tilted larynx. For directors, shouting at untrained singers to ‘lighten’ or ‘lift’ is not only mean, but musically pointless. Untrained singers don’t know what this physiologically entails so they are likely to just increase tension, choke back their sound, gain less enjoyment from singing and never find those upper notes. I believe it’s essential that directors address this in a step by step way, in a way that fits the culture of a welcoming beginners’ choir - playful, manageable, respectful of people’s comfort level with learning, and handing out technique in small chunks so choir time doesn’t feel like endless, dull vocal drilling.
The upper, lighter mechanism is physiologically a tilt forward of the larynx - stretching and thinning the vocal cords. As you know the voice is a wind instrument - powered by air. The upper mechanism needs LESS air than untrained women normally use as they ascend in pitch. Now, for community choristers, addresing this by focusing on engaging trunk muscles to exhale more slowly is fraught. Because you aren’t teaching one on one, but to a group, it will be hard to stop and correct tension that will very likely creep in to shoulders, throat, jaw, ribs. Consequently, when I work with new singers in groups I don’t focus on holding the air. I use the humble “V” - a consonant that requires very little air. Below are videos going through a sequence I would recommend for how to - pleasant step by pleasant step - use V and then progress to a real song. This sequence could cover several months of time in your choir. Each step needs to be not only intellectually understood and doable, but through repetition, become habitual. When I conduct open adult choirs, I try not to expect homework. People’s time away from choir is filled with other things. But I certainly do welcome habit establishment. “if you have the time and energy, singing at home on V when you can will really help.” I’m sure we all have our own ways of saying this!
Please feel welcome to ask me any questions about any of the steps. I have sung quite quietly, which is not necessary, but certainly makes less air more likely. I prefer to model quiet singing rather than ask for it because folks can easily tense up in an effort to quieten. I have also stayed in the middle range and not gone stratospheric. (I sing alto myself, so I physically can’t!) This is important. For the women who actually have lower voices, they won’t need to sing higher than this in choral repertoire. For women who on the other hand discover they comfortably sit in a higher range, the technique for their very top notes relies on technique in the middle of the voice - the way to the top is through the middle. So this work in the middle of their voices needs to be done before they can access their top.
This week we’re in Las Vegas. Emlyn has a conference on AWS, along with 50 000 programmer types. So I’ve come along to experience the razzle dazzle that is Vegas. But after a day on “the strip” I’ve scurried back to the relative peace of our hotel. Today, I was reading through the Singing The Dots workbook, because I’m preparing a catalogue of the songs as individual pdfs for choirs who just want to sing them as songs. And it got me reflecting on why I wrote the book. I got my ranting mcrant pants on and wrote about some of my experiences with sightsinging education for adults. It's a bit first draft at this stage.
During my time teaching community choirs and adult beginner singing students, I was driven batty with frustration by the amount of time non music reading choirs who work from sheet music need to devote to teaching EVERY SINGLE NOTE by ear. I loved working with adults. They are respectful and self disciplining, on the whole kind to themselves as learners, and able to put choir and most things, really, in perspective. I think my frustration is at the way many choirs approach note learning via rote, and avoid teaching sightsinging.
This means for most rehearsals, choristers who have given up Wednesday nights at home to come out to sing, actually spend three quarters of the time sitting in a dulled stupor, while the other parts of the choir learn their notes. How can this be a joyous experience? How can this be better than staying home, with a nice glass of wine and the latest episode of the British Baking Show?
Music directors have to fight the stupor - with careful rehearsal planning, razzle-dazzle showpersonship, and judicious repertoire selection - songs need to be simple enough that choristers can learn each part very quickly so songs can ‘come together’ before everyone is so bored they want to stab themselves in the eye. I have no complaints with repertoire this simple - a choral piece where every line is catchy and simple is a treasure indeed. But, if that’s all a choir does, week after week, year after year, the singers will remain at the level of this simple repertoire, excluded from singing choral work with any musical sophistication.
But I think much, much more importantly, ongoing illiteracy stunts choristers from growing and developing in musical ability and skills. Choristers stay at the same level of musical development, despite pursuing their musical endeavour for years. Surely we all want to grow, to improve, to develop, at our endeavours? Surely?
Language illiteracy is a failure of society, it dooms people to a poorer, more vulnerable life with reduced access to nearly every aspect of their community. We all know this as a basic truth.
Imagine if for some reason, children weren’t educated in literacy at school and arrived at adulthood unable to read. Would book clubs exist, where instead of teaching adults how to read, illiterate adults were instead forced to learn books by excruciating rote? The idea is ludicrous. But that’s how adult community choirs run. Who in their right mind thinks this is OK?
I want to say right here that I love a good jam as much as anyone. Some of the best nights of my life have been spent in various states of insobriety, roaring out improvised harmonies to beloved folk songs with good friends. I love this experience. And I know that the musicians who work only by ear can of course be spectacular musicians. Absolutely. But do you know, learning to read music doesn’t exclude singers from doing this! On the other hand, there is SO MUCH MAGNIFICENT CHORAL music that requires literacy to sing, which illiterate choristers are doomed never to have access to. I also know I’m white, and I’m talking about the traditions of white choral music, and that there are other choral traditions that don’t use sheet music, and get along just fine. Of course. And yet, this doesn’t change that Wednesday night at the local sheet music based choir is three quarters stupor time.
I do also need to acknowledge my own position - I believe that music making is essential to being fully human. I believe over the last hundred years we have largely replaced active music making with more passive music listening. Go read John Philip Sousa if you want the perspective of someone who saw this change coming in 1906. When you first read John’s raging against technological change you have to giggle but then he asks WHAT OF THE NATIONAL THROAT? Ie what will happen to our music making, when recorded music becomes ubiquitous. Well we can answer John now! The idea of a national throat has evaporated for a start! A person’s entire musical expression can be reduced to a connoisseurial curatorship of their collection of other people’s music making. When I was a child this meant having a record collection. These days it’s a less concrete, online collection of music. Everyone can have music in their lives, without needing to actively make any music. I don’t think this is as good for us. Just as watching people talk on TV isn’t the same as conversing. It isn’t as good for us. To be clear I’m not saying that listening to music is terrible. I’m not advocating that you burn your beloved record collection. I am saying replacing all active music making with listening is a bum deal. My Aunty Ann, in her 70s told me a few years ago about the formative day in her childhood when the piano was sold to buy a grammaphone. She didn’t think it was a good day. She said the family used to sing together around the piano.
In this environment of passive music engagement, why would anyone value universal music literacy education? For children. For adults? To be musical we need paying jobs so we can buy records, or blueray speakers.
In Australia where I taught, plenty of people arrive at adulthood with somewhere between 13 and 20 years of formal education, functionally literate, numerate, with an employment ready threshold for institutional boredom, a lovely collection of recorded music, limited experience at making music and no ability to read music. In South Australia where I lived, there is a mass choral performance for year 6 and 7s from all over the state each year. It’s a wonderful performance experience. And creates treasured memories for everyone involved. All of the parts are taught through rehearsal tracks. It’s a great experience, but it’s not about literacy education. Kids don’t walk out of it with more developed musical skills.
However, adding to the complexity of Wednesday night, an absence of music education isn’t universal amongst choristers. Some choristers have had a musical education through their schooling or private lessons, so choirs often end up with a range of music reading abilities, which can make life more challenging for music directors.
It is wonderful, WONDERFUL, that adults decide to join choirs and become music makers. But here’s an interesting thing - choristers themselves are often invested in not learning sightsinging. A dear colleague told me he was a replacement music director for a choir, after the previous director had been fired by the choir for doing sightreading training every week!
I’ve been working in this field for decades, I’ve heard a lot of reasons.
A big reason is that the music literacy needs for singers are special. Normal “how to read music” education doesn’t help singers very much. To play most instruments, a musician reads a note on the music and pushes the corresponding button or level or covers the right hole. Singers however have to see a written note, and then imagine the sound of it, before they can sing it. This requires specific education to develop the ability to imagine or “inner hear” the sound of a written note. Simply knowing that every good boy deserves fruit doesn’t help singers with this!The term “sightsinging” is used to differentiate from a more general skill of being able to read music. Choristers who have had some exposure to normal music theory can rightly feel that they already know music, and that it doesn’t help them sightsing. In fact, in my experience, musically educated folks who can’t sightsing, are the most resistant to learning sightsinging specific tools, even when it’s painfully evident to me, that they would benefit immensely from it!
Music directors might not be trained in how to teach sightsinging. Even if they are, training and materials available for sightsinging tend to focus on how to teach children. The techniques I was taught work beautifully for children, but I have learnt that they need to be adapted to work for adults. Community choirs tend to be filled with middle aged and older adults, and as we age, our working memory changes. I believe sightsinging relies strongly on working memory - whilst singing a current note, choristers need to read ahead to the next note, imagine its sound and then be ready to sing it, at the right time. This involves a part of the brain that works better for young people than old people. This is not fair, adults don’t deserve to have their working memory reduce. But it doesn’t mean community choirs can’t develop their sightreading. I’ve seen it. It does mean sightsinging needs to be taught with sensitivity and awareness for older brains.
Given this, another issue is that literacy training takes time, and develops slowly. It may take years of learning before sightsinging skills can be applied to the choir’s sung repertoire. This means, rightly, sightsinging training will feel completely irrelevant to the music at hand. Choristers can justifiably feel - what is the point? And feel that the sightsinging material is babyish and insulting.
Some choristers have a general sense that they don’t want to spend choir time learning. I suspect they are concerned it will turn choir time (fun if porous) into something more like school, which many adults are thrilled to have left behind forever! Particularly if they are concerned it will be taught in a chalk n talk kind of way, and take valuable time away from singing. We are about fun, not education. We work all day and just want to come to here to sing. (Even if it’s 25% of the time?)
Sometimes choristers are invested in keeping musical activities in choir simple and accessible to ensure the choir feels it is an open and welcoming entity in the community. If the choir skills up, this will challenge the choir’s self perception.
On self perception, adults who haven’t learnt how to sightsing can have a very strong identity as non readers. Changing this can be quite confronting and hard to deal with. To make this more challenging, choristers might also find it hard to articulate - I don’t want to learn to sightsing because that’s not how I think of myself.
There are good ways to address all of these issues. But I think a lot of the reasons really boil down to the great truth - people don’t like to change.
Reading back through these reasons I have encountered I have to reflect on whether my work in adult music literacy was misguided. If choristers are happy, in fact prefer to stay illiterate and learn simple songs by rote, why should I interfere? Who am I to say that reading music is better than not reading music for these people? I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about this over my working life. My briefer, contrasting experiences of teaching children has felt like knife through butter compared to working with community adults. And I’ve often wondered if I was on the right track. Obdurance isn’t necessarily right.
But I have to believe the arguments folks like Richard Gill and Zoltan Kodaly have for why music education matters for children applies equally to adults. I can’t see a reason why this isn’t so. James Cuskelly is one of my favourite people on the planet to talk with about these issues. Working on Singing The Dots, we really had to reflect on these issues. He believes in the ability of adults to learn, and music directors to teach, and that literacy is the way to full musical citizenship. I think so too.
It’s been cold. A surprise early cold snap. SNOW level cold!
Admittedly not much snow. The lightest dusting. But legit SNOW. And for an Aussie girl, that’s pretty exciting indeed.
Except we weren’t prepared and hadn’t bought winter clothes, so I spent a few days inside, next to the heater.
One of my composing projects for Nashville is to rework the setting of Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor Of Glousester I wrote a few years back. It’s part story with a spoken narrator, and part musical, with a choir, soloists and string accompaniment. I am happy with the vocal and choral parts. The musical themes come from folk tunes from that part of England. After our first public performance, an audience member was in tears because as she said, “you used the songs from the West Country. These are my songs!”
I used Beatrix Potter’s text, abridged and in some cases slightly re-arranged to suit lyrics. But I wanted to keep the charming poetry and bucolic-whimsy of her authentic text. This means Simpkin is not verbal. But he is very important - I suspect Simpkin is the main character. He certainly undergoes a hero’s journey of behaving badly, then feeling terrible remorse, leading to renounciation and renewal/reward.
So it’s important he has his I AM/I WANT song. All Potter says to introduce Simpkin is “The tailor lived alone with his cat Simpkin; and he also was fond of mice, though he gave them no satin for coats!” In the original version of my show, Simpkin chased a mouse and hid it in a teapot, to be clear to the young people in the audience what Simpkin’s fondness for mice entailed. This was done in silence. During the cold snap, I wrote a narration for the strings to accompany this action. Because Simpkin starts his journey as somewhat of a villian, I wanted an uneasy, dissonant sound which is quite different from how I normally write for singers! This first video is the original folk song, the hilarious drinking song The Barley Mow, which I’ve used for Simpkin’s theme in the work.
Isn’t that marvelous?
Here’s what I’ve done with it for this scene. Can you hear the original theme in there still?
Contraltos complain that the only roles composed for them are Bitches, Witches and Britches. Years ago, on hearing that one must have a Mozart aria for audition purposes i looked up a Mozart aria database for something suitable. After scrolling past the many pages of soprano arias, and then the pages of mezzo arias, I arrived at the single page, and uh single entry for the contralto arias written by Mozart. And it wasn’t the genuine article at any rate, it was composed for castrato. Why don't composers write more works for low ladies?
It's been slowly dawning on me that I compose and have the instrument at hand to work with, so maybe I could stop complaining and write some work for contraltos.
This thought brings me back to a work I abandoned a few years ago - THE DAY - a sort of Taoist oratorio drawing on stunning ancient Chinese poetry. I shelved it after I made the regrettable decision to go back to uni to pursue composing studies, where I had been working on this piece. Originally, based on my supervisor's advice, I had scored the important female role in this work for Soprano. The Wu, a Chinese, female rainmaker. Basically a shamanness archetype who can summon the rain amongst other talents including ‘sight'.
It's taken me a few years to shake off the feelings i had around uni and this work - the deep frustrations of being unable to articulate and justify my instincts with words, to my lecturers. I certainly have taken my musical education seriously, but many of my compositional ideas are instinctive, and based on soundfeel and because I sing as I write - mouthfeel. I found I couldn’t translate this to words when called upon (and this is a perfectly reasonable expectation of a university supervisor) to discuss what I was writing and why. I just got tongue tied and miserable, depressed about the suggestions and alterations my lecturers offered.
Any way, that seems sufficiently long ago for me to come back to this work and follow my own instincts. Onee of my ideas is that The Wu could be for a low voice. What I'm going to do to come back to writing the work, is focus on her songs and create a stand alone song cycle.
Here's a sketch of her telling the humans to "go walking." I pulled it out yesterday to start thinking about.
I've spent more time on this 5 minute anthem than I spent on the 45 minute wine and cheese cantata. It’s finally finished. It’s been hard work and a lot of revision. The move I suspect, has disrupted my instincts. Still, whether it's the high road of inspiration or the low road of deliberate craft and much redrafting is irrelevant to an audience. Because I’m writing the anthem set in Egypt, I based the piece in Dorian mode, which apparently appealed to ancient Egyptians because it has the same tone/semitone pattern ascending and descending. It was good to explore dorian for a choir ie harmonically. The progression of chord III to IV to V (with a raised leading note) has three major chords, a tone away from each other. Which makes for a bright sentence! I’ll be able to share it with you after it’s premiered in December.
In the meantime, I have also been working on a poem in response to a stunning dance company's work on the stories of people from Fukushima and their experience of the 2011 tsunami. It felt similarly hard to write about, I was collecting more and more pages of notes and snippets. But the emotion is too big to try on - to write from inside - it's too much. Thankfully the muse turned up and said the beauty of the dance came from reporting the facts. Just be matter of fact. Hopefully that'll work for the anthem too.
The Magnificat! What a text. It makes you think there was a lot more to Mary than meekness and mildness!
I am writing a piece for Downtown Presbyterian Church’s Lessons and Carols. Because the church has this stunning Egyptian Revival Architecture I was inspired to write about when the Holy Family fled to Egypt, escaping the massacre of the innocents.
How was it for Mary, hiding in a cave, holding on to her baby? Was she haunted by the thought of the mothers who were left behind? Did their cries come to her in her sleep? If Rachel wept from the dead, surely her voice travelled to Egypt?
We don’t have a car in the US yet, so I’m walking a lot. I walked for days thinking about Mary and the Magnificat. This experience of being a refuge in a cave with a baby, and she was only a girl herself! How this must have stealed her mind to the way she would raise her son.
I have been thinking about what writing an anthem means. Anthems are sung by church choirs. Often competent readers and singers. Maybe drawn from the congregation, maybe paid singers, likely a mixture of both. Church choirs are working choirs. They have a performance each week so there just isn’t a great deal of time for rehearsal. Anthems need to be written with this in mind. I have found it hard to put into words what this means exactly, but it basically requires that the song doesn’t have features that take getting used to, to sing well. Exotic chord changes that work because during rehearsal you get the feel for how the harmony sounds as a whole. That’s a brave move for an anthem. Or phrase shaping that relies on singers really knowing the piece. I was describing this to Emlyn - and he was saying that like Shakespeare, I need to write with no subtext! That is a good way to describe it, and it’s quite different from writing for community choirs - anthems will be read, by good readers. I’ve found this quite challenging to be honest. It’s a new angle.
The music has been hard. One by one I’ve been disgarding the ideas I started with, as the song has slowly emerged. This has taken some time. I have been working on this piece for weeks, and have only started to feel like it was going to work, two days ago. It started in 6/8 and felt crowded and rushed. I put it in 6/4. Normally I prefer the softness of note seven a tone below the tonic, but I had to face that this was getting oppressive and perhaps a major chord V was going to bring some welome light to the piece. The tune I started with wasn’t working - it didn’t translate to a choral setting - so I threw half of that away yesterday. And now the 6/4 doesn’t always allow the singers to express the words, so that has gone too. The more I’ve given away of what I originally wanted, the better the piece is working. But it’s been a wrestle. Every time this happens, which honestly is most times I create anything, I wonder - have I peaked? is it all down hill from here? Maybe. One day. I’ll reserve judgement til I finish this one, but I think I’m still ok.
Now I need to go over every part with a fine tooth comb to make sure each part is good to sing, and good to sightsing. I have one thought I wanted to share on this. In my experience when a note that is suddenly sharpened a semitone as part of some harmonic movement, it is easier for singers to pitch if they descend to the new note. Rising to a recently sharpened note is harder and likely to be flat or insecure. For example, a tierce de picardie moment will be easier for the folks singing the brightened, major third to find it by falling a semitone. Hmmm. Maybe this isn’t such a good example because singers tend to know and recognise this harmonic movement and will be secure whatever you do, but if there are other places with sharpened notes, I think it will be easier for singers to fall to them, when they come across them for the first time in a piece.
Along with our move from Australia to the US, I guess it’s not a surprise that my life is changing in some significant ways. We have come here partly for Emlyn’s job, partly for an adventure, and partly for me to have some space and time to consider what to do next and how to set about doing it. At any rate, I don’t have permission to work in the US yet. It takes about six months to process, so I am having an enforced retreat.
I have left teaching students and choirs behind. I miss this work, but my voice doesn’t seem to have the stamina it had before the surgery - last year my voice was worn out by teaching during the day, and my singing, initially feeling easy and exciting after the surgery, got harder and more miserable as the year went on. So leaving that work was a wise thing to do.
I’ve been teaching and conducting for many years now, it’s been a big part of who I am, so the space is big.
Not to mention when we moved, we left our children behind. Somehow they grew up and became adults and despite the impossibility of this, it has happened. So there’s that space too.
Because I’m not directing community choirs, I am not composing as a part of this. So this blog as it currently stands, where each week I share pieces I’ve written for the choirs I’m working with doesn’t relate to my life. I’m not whipping up arrangements and short pieces. I’ve run out of back log too, I’ve shared with you what I have to share! I’ve been wondering about whether to just gently close this blog down.
But then, this blog has been part of an important transition for me over the last few years. Where I slowly became aware of a huge pivot - where the writing I have always done as a sort of adjunct to teaching and conducting, often literally squeezed into the gaps between lessons, has become the main focus of work.
One of my challenges has been pondering how to do this - how to become a composer at large. I wondered if I should go back to uni. Partly to address gaps in my knowledge and skills. (I’ve no idea what they might be because if I had the knowledge to identify what they were, I wouldn’t have them.) And partly for opportunities, connections, and immersion in a musical community. Emlyn was quite disparaging of this idea. He said something along the lines of “I know your work, I listen to it every day. You’re going to have to trust me on this. You are a composer not a composition student.” There was a lot more but you get the jist. Then I read advice from Eric Whitacre on how to become a composer and he said find a choir that will sing your work and take notice of everything they like and don’t like, find hard, find easy etc. Well I’ve done that for twenty years. So I guess I can cross that off the list too.
Beyond this, I’m not sure. Yet.
What I have got is a room of my own to write it. A QUIET and rather lovely room. In two weeks it will have a piano in it. And I have a pile of projects. Works started and not finished for various reasons, from sketches to works that have been workshopped even performed, and need final tweaks, all waiting for “I’ll get to this when I have time”. I have a sense of purpose, an underlying drive with my writing. A life filled with singing and singers means I am saturated with song. The challenge isn’t scratching around desperately looking for musical ideas, it’s sorting through all of the jumbled options and teasing out single threads to work with. I also believe the canon of vocal works needs female librettists to round out the full human stories, and I have much work to do to develop as a librettist.
There is work. It will be different. Rather than close this blog down, I will keep sharing my work with you, but it will be a different style of sharing. I will share the process, checking in weekly on where I’m up to. Now that’s not what you initially came here for, so if you unsubscribe, well fair enough! And if you wish to stay and follow my adventures, next up my work begins on the Holy Family hiding from Herod in Egypt.
This week a summary of the sacred choral pieces I’ve written. Organised into four categories- Very Simple, Medium, Sophisticated and Christmas. I’ve included recordings where I have them, of various quality and level of rehearsal! If you perform any of my works and record it, I will happily share it here.
These two pieces are from the book Singing The Dots and are designed to be accessible for community choirs.
An Irish Blessing
These are three gospel pieces arranged for acappella choir.
SATB with Soprano Solo
Balm Of Gilead
SSATB with Solo
SATB with divisi in every part
These two works have divisi in every part.
Prayer For Sanctuary
setting of Psalm 23
setting of the latin Gloria from the Ordinary Mass
Still Still Still
SA - simple setting of An Austrian Carol
Mary Had A Baby
SATB - simple arrangement of a traditional gospel piece
SSA - simple arrangement of a Southern Baptist Carol
A Child Is Born
SATB - Medium - arrangement of a medieval carol
a 15 minute work with ten small sections
Medium -SATB with some divisi and solos and piano accompaniment
Last year I dusted off this Christmas work which I'd first written about 10 years ago. I rewrote it in sections, and whisked it off to my choir while the ink was still drying so we could learn the work in time for our Christmas concert. I shared it here, published as five discreet parts. My lovely choir Voices In The WIlderness sang it at the last concert we did together. In fact it was the last concert I conducted. Funny how things change, after directing happily for hmmm somewhere between fifteen and twenty years, I don't know if conducting is in my future. It's been a gradual shift in my heart. I am still as passionately committed to choirs, and what singing with others means for us as humans, but my sense of where I want to put my energy has slowly changed.
Anyway, I've spent the last week putting the pieces all together, smoothing out the transitions and tweaking little bits here and there. And here it is. We are staying in an apartment temporarily, where I don't want to make a lot of noise and annoy my neighbours. I also don't have a piano and I tend to write piano accompaniments at the piano, my fingers feel what goes. So I've been playing the air piano to write bits.
This piece goes for about fifteen minutes. It's middle level complexity. When I first wrote it I was conducting a choir who liked to sing medleys, so it's in that style, with ten small sections. This means if you have multiple ensembles this would be a piece everyone could do together, allowing different groups to take different sections.
And here's a rinky tinky Sibelius version of what it sounds like.
Well I don't know what sort of fancy shmancy recording studios you record in. To record the songs for the sightsinging book Singing The Dots, Emlyn and I were joined by Australian Soprano Bethany Hill, and Tenor Hew Wagner, for the most rustic recording session of my life. We ferried to Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia for a camping weekend with Beth's boy's fam and friends. During daylight, we recorded in an unpowered tin shed using a single battery powered H2N. To give you an idea of the rusticness of our recording situation, the photo on the left is the view from the outdoor facilities.
I'll give you a sample here - Break Break Break, a setting of a beautiful poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.This song introduces quavers. The main tune is just do, re and mi. All seventeen tracks, recorded in a weekend, in a shed, and the books with the sheet music and teaching notes are available here.