The British and International Federation of Festivals

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One of the great things about this country is the thriving amateur music scene. We have a plethora of choirs, orchestras and dramatic groups that have been founded base upon the rich pickings of talented people who want to perform for fun. They are also a great training ground for professional musicians and bring great joy to young and old alike.

The British and International Federation of Festivals are an umbrella body for competitive festivals of performing arts across the UK and further afield. Singers, instrumentalists, actors and dancers come together to compete locally and nationally in their chosen field. The standard varies from the complete novice to the emerging professionals. In the UK alone there are almost 300 festivals open to everyone from the very young to the more mature performer. They are a concert platform where you can have the chance to get feedback by an adjudicator and to hear the work of others at a similar level.

The festivals played a massive part in my musical education. From the age of 8, I competed in dance, singing and drama. They were great for building confidence, performing as a soloist, testing exam pieces and meeting like minded people. It was obvious that singing was my forte but the dance and drama almost certainly have added to my singing career. My first festival was Fleetwood where I did the 9 years and under singing and I did a song called ‘Rat a tat tat’. I won that class and from that moment on I never stopped singing. I competed right up until I went to music college and it was the best training ground that I could have hoped for.

Just recently I went to Richmond upon Thames Festival and I was astounded at the level of singing. The children were confident, well prepared and obviously really enjoying what can be a nerve wrecking experience. So if you have a child who is thinking of a performing career or just loves to perform for fun then this is the perfect opportunity for them. I recommend them to teachers who are looking for performance platforms for their pupils or adults who want to fulfil a lifetime ambition of performing in front of an audience.

Long may they continue.

 http://www.federationoffestivals.org.uk/who-we-are/

Masterclass

Masterclass is a play by Terrence McNally about the life of Maria Callas. It is set at a music college where various singing students are awaiting advice from the singing legend.  Alternately dismayed and impressed by the students who parade before her, she retreats into recollections about the glories of her own life and career.

Tyne Daly, known for detective TV series Cagney and Lacey, took on the role of Callas. She portrayed the glamorous singer wonderfully – full of whit, command and drama. She would drift into her own musings about her troubled youth in Athens, her battle with critics and her affair with Aristotle Onassis. The audience was treated to live recordings of her most famous arias as Lady Macbeth and La sonnambula. I just wish we could have heard them in full without the dialogue over the top. The singers used for the masterclass victims were excellent. Garrett Sorenson has a fantastic voice as did Naomi O’Connell.

The first half was a little slow but the second half picked up the pace somewhat. We got a real sense of the person behind the voice as we heard about her tragic relationship with Onasiss (who dumped her for Jackie Kennedy) and her transition from ugly duckling to beautiful swan.

I believe that the masterclasses that Callas actually gave at the Julliard School in New York were not half as entertaining. It was evident she wasn’t cut out to teach and they are reported to have been dull and technique driven. If McNally had stuck to reaity it would have been a very long night. However, it was in fact an entertaining evening whether you knew anything about opera or not.

A play worth watching.

New opera for new opera singers.

Opera critics can be harsh. Tell that to any singer or composer and I’m sure they’d agree. So when a composer writes a new opera for public consumption you can imagine what an ordeal that is. But brave composers aside, let’s think about the singers.

New opera can be a gift for young opera singers. Fresh out of college, not ready for Mimi but also not wanting to be bound to boring Mozart choruses for years until they are ready to wow the ROH. Often they are written with younger, fresher voices in mind and can sometimes tackle modern subject matters requiring youthful looking characters.

This is a perfect platform for emerging singers. It gives them a chance to feel their way through something that hasn’t been performed a million times by the great opera singers of the past and can only be done a certain way or else it isn’t deemed acceptable.  It also stops people trying to emulate a certain sound which can be damaging for young voices that are at the most susceptible to misuse.

I was recently involved in  2 new projects – ‘Theses Things Happen’ by Jonathon Pease and ‘The Clown of God/The Ancient Mariner’ by Louis Mander.  The former was more of an operetta based on the loves lives of 8 friends who told their individual tales of paranoia, unrequited love, boredom etc It was a challenge for the singer as it was very text heavy, but this was a perfect exercise in diction for the singers. The latter was a double bill of two short chamber operas. The Clown od God was about the life of Nijinsky, the Russian ballet dancer and ‘The Ancient Mariner’ was based on the poem by Coleridge.

Both of these shows were completely different requiring varied skills from making love to a chair to singing from under a veil at a great height.  All in the name of modern opera. So come on composers, get writing new opera in all its forms. The music colleges keep churning out good singers that have a lot to offer. Write for them!

Crossing over to the dark side.

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As classically trained singers, we spend years striving for ‘perfection’. Vowel sounds have been painstakingly tweaked, lung capacity used to the extreme, languages mastered, resonance found – the list goes on and on. The smallest adjustment to technique can make the biggest difference in the quality of sound produced. All of this can lead to paranoia and an obsession which is why singers get the ‘diva’ reputation.

Of course all of this is put into practise to produce a classical/operatic sound. So when a singer is asked to produce a sound of a different style it can be like asking a skier to snowboard instead.

I have done a few recordings now which have required me to sing in a completely different style. For the obsessive compulsive singer this is very scary. What sounds totally unsatisfactory to the singer can sound amazing to someone else. Learning to throw caution to the wind is very hard when in the past you have had so much control over the sound you produce. I analysed, criticised and over thought every aspect of my singing on this recording until I couldn’t bear to listen to it again.

It’s often been said that classically trained singers can’t sing musical theatre or pop. Of course this isn’t true. What they struggle to do is to let go of some of their technique in order to make a more relaxed and less resonant tone. Listening to the greats like Kiri Te Kanawa or Rene Fleming can be a cringe worthy experience when they tackle anything other than their home repertoire.

I recently witnessed a rock singer nonchalantly recording a song without a care in the world about vowels, resonance or any other form of technique. It sounded great. Perfect for the style of song. This is what singing is about isn’t it? A natural response to genuine emotion. How refreshing I thought. What must that be like?

You can hear me giving this a whirl on ‘Bells of Heaven’ by Andrew Keeling available on Amazon right now!

Thank goodness for Lin Marsh

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Any child that I have taught under the age of about 14 will know exactly who I’m talking about.

Lin Marsh is a composer known mostly for her vocal music for children. She writes beautiful, sad, scary, funny and informative songs which never fail to appeal to both singer and listener alike. Her melodic lines are beautiful and perfect for the developing voice.

Her series of songs for school use in Key Stage 1 to 3 are in a set of books called Songscape. They are perfect for classroom use, choirs and solo performances. The subject matters are also great for cross curricular activities like science and history. I have used them on many occasion on the most stubborn year 6 boy and they have always been a success. I’ve also used them for assemblies and whole school singing sessions. The books come with CD accompaniment which is perfect for keeping your eyes on the class instead of at the piano! When I asked a primary class that I was teaching to name three famous composers, they said Mozart, Beethoven and Lin Marsh. High praise indeed!

Serendipity Solos is another book full of gems such as Winter and Butterfly. They incorporate technical challenges and encourage an even tone from the top to the bottom of the voice.

I am so pleased that some of her songs have been included in the ABRSM singing syllabus and they are now starting to crop up in music festivals too. They make such a refreshing change from the usual graded songs for children that one hears time and time again like ‘Little Spanish Town’ by Jenkyns!

These are the best Marsh pieces that are around…

  • Seagull
  • Winter
  • Butterfly
  • Pirates
  • Silver Moon
  • River Journey

I urge you to give them a go.

The first Post

A great day. Here begins ‘Jane Sings’. A blog about all things singing. The good, the bad and the hopeful.

It’s half term and as there are no students to teach today I have been ploughing through poetry by Sylvia Plath. I have been searching through her work in order to find a suitable poem to be set to music. I knew about Plath as a person and have always had an interest in her but have never really taken much notice of her work. Her personal life always intrigued me, the relationship with Ted Hughes, her education and her battle with herself. I watched the film ‘Sylvia’ with Gwyneth Paltrow playing the troubled poet and read her novel The Bell Jar but hadn’t been drawn to her poetry. Until now. A friend had introduced the idea of putting poetry written by women to music and Plath seemed the natural choice. I came across ‘Poppies in October’. It instantly left an impression, which is important when thinking about an audience who will only hear it once and need to feel an immediate understanding with the text and with the song as a whole. It is very different to reading poetry on a page where the reader can pause to ponder or revisit a line. Audiences are bound to the time frame given by the composer.

I listened to Plath herself reciting her poetry on YouTube. One of them was particularly haunting – ‘Daddy’. Her ‘oo’ vowels are so round and owl like. It’s hard enough getting singers to sing with good lipped ‘oo’ sounds, never mind when they are speaking! It’s a lesson to us all! Here it is…