My adventures in singing

Hilary Farnworth

I never imagined I would be sitting at my computer, singing away to an Elton John song, and warming up with “Crispy Crackers Keep your Granny Grinning” going down a scale. 

Online choirs are weird, they lack that feeling of wraparound sound, but I’ve found a new community, had some fun, learned a lot, had some challenges, and even sung in a project that had 5,000 international participants. 

I sang in school and university choirs, then had a massive gap till I joined the Finsbury Park Singers two years ago when they started up locally. Fortunately my school taught me to read music. Gareth Malone started up a project in week 1 of lockdown: Great British Home Chorus. Five days a week, on YouTube, sheet music downloadable, audio backing tracks provided with your part louder so you could learn the alto, soprano, tenor or bass depending on voice. 

The warm ups can be weird, with very odd sounds, tongue twisters –“Red lorry yellow lorry” is another one of Gareth’s . The only voices you hear are the leaders, and your own, and the keyboard or other backing track.  This takes a fair bit of getting used to. 

The musical challenge is:  can you learn the notes – mainly yes – can you sing to the required style – not really my thing if its pop song “twang” voice, but I have a go, and yes if its classical and in Latin. And then can you breathe well? Both my online choirs have coached better breathing. 

The technical challenge comes when you are asked to record. You need two devices: one is used to show the sheet music, play the backing track, with your voice part  prominent, (alto, tenor etc) you put in earphones, and you set up the second device (smartphone, tablet  or laptop) to record sound and video.

This usually requires a tablet stand, or a tripod, smartphone clamp gadget (see picture) piles of books, or inventive use of blu tack. For Gareth Malone and hi pop songs I used a tablet to record, I took three videos of each song and picked the least worst to upload. It was a nasty shock finding out what my voice sounded like, and this stops many people sending in the recording, but I did send in some of them as they can edit out awful bits and there were several thousand of us on Gareth’s projects so I reckoned my two pennyworth could get edited in. Gareth teamed up with Decca records and I sent in recordings for several of the songs which came out on a CD in July.  

Gareth interviewed other singers, and music professionals every Wednesday. He introduced us to the Stay at Home Choir (SAHC) and its leaders, Tori Longdon and Jaimie Wright. Tori is the conductor of  the Covent Garden Chorus! I wondered if I would be able to raise my game and join a community which has a lot of professional singers in it. Anyway I joined a 10 week project, the Armed Man, where we were actually video conducted on screen by Sir Karl Jenkins the composer. There is a small fee for each SAHC project, and many of us also buy the sheet music, as the on screen scores can’t be printed due to copyright issues. 

At week three, struggling, I realised this isn’t an exam, I don’t have to do ALL the pieces – we were doing which was five  – so I chose three to work on, then eventually one to concentrate on and really try to learn it so I could record and upload the video.  Every week there were coaching sessions, in our voice parts, with professional singers, and socials where I felt part of the SAHC community, which grew to 5,000 for the Armed Man, including Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and Uzbekistan.

So I uploaded my video of the Benedictus from the Armed Man, choosing least worst of three takes, learning from the SAHC Facebook group how to install compression software on my phone and compress my video so it would upload, as I’d had three failed uploads. They edit the recordings and if yours is cut you’ll never know. So I’m taking the view that mine must be there!

The guide video we had all learn with showed Sir Karl in face – on view,   actually conducting a massive choir and orchestra in Berlin 2018, but also conducting all us singers at home!  Thrilling. There were Zoom sessions where we could ask Sir Karl questions, and he would explain each movement. 

On September 6th Classic FM’s website showed the result, a recording of five  pieces from the Armed man: the  film of Sir Karl conducting in Berlin, and then thousands of tiny shots of the choir singing away at home. All our names were on the credits!

Still available at time of writing on YouTube (ClassicFM) 

My next step is two leaps into the dark. So I’ve signed for the SAHC Christmas project, hoping it will be classical, and my own local choir leader is offering an eight week online term ( fee paying) with some Christmas music – which is likely to be innovative. 

http://hannahbrine.co.uk  and see “virtual autumn term” 

I think its unlikely many real carol services will happen this year.  Groups of six  singing at two metres anyone? There might be a few in the open air – but not the usual packed venues in big churches. I’m hoping for something classical and something uplifting like a wassail song.  

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