How to sing in a choir 1
England has a fine tradition of choral singing. Of course, Wales also has a fine tradition of male voice choirs, but this gender exclusion, due to the historical reason that the women were all down the pit hewing the coal while the chaps were up above singing Cwm Rhondda, is to be deplored in these days of political correctness.
Equally, one must not be thought to be excluding Ireland and Scotland from the show, but, let’s face it, it’s the English that cut the mustard.
So, anyway, there’s this English choral tradition thing, fostered by the churches whose patronage not only permitted the likes of Kings College Chapel to flourish, but whose tendrils of influence penetrated even unto Crouch End [an up and coming suburb of north London—Ed]. It’s been going on for centuries—yonks before foreigners like JS Bach were trying their best to come up with a memorable tune, decent British chaps like Tye, Byrd and Gibbons were turning out masses of masterpieces—or should that be masterpieces of masses.
However, this mellifluous glory doesn’t happen by chance: it’s the result of a gruelling process of honing through rehearsal and personal study on the part of the singers. This article will let you into all the secrets of how this is accomplished.
The first thing to know is that singers come in four versions, or sections—to use a technical term—in increasing profundity: sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.
Sopranos: divine radiance or something
Sopranos are, of course, all extremely beautiful, but they are all flibberty gibbets, the sort of girls your mother warned you against (assuming she exercised her prescience in this way), but which are oh so tantalising. And, boy, do they have a will of their own. Try getting a group of sopranos to organise a sectional rehearsal (yes, sometimes for some inexplicable reason this is regrettably necessary) and, rather like brownian motion, at any future moment, they will be in exactly the same state of delightful random disorder as they were to start with.
Let’s hear it for the altos
Altos, on the other hand, are earth mothers, and terribly good at bonding. Of course they also are all extremely beautiful even if they do sit in rehearsal and converse discreetly upon matters of great weight whilst those around them are practising their difficult bits. Occasionally this gets in the way of them participating in the music, but they are all so adorable that you just have to forgive them. Get them to organise a sectional rehearsal… well actually they’ve organised it, held it, organised tea rotas for the interval and for the next seventeen rehearsals, roped in a spare hubby to conduct it with a ball point pen and an air of embarrassed devotion, and sorted out X, Y and Z’s boy friend problems, all before you’ve even asked them. They spontaneously coalesce like baby seals on the ice floe of life.
The only trouble with altos is that, because of their collective good natures, they let the sopranos dominate them.
One interesting problem arises when a female singer of clearly soprano tendencies is accidentally consigned to the altos. It throws the whole system out. A male singer on the loose, attempting to chat up the aforesaid chanteuse, and thinking he has a cosy alto in his sights, will get a stiletto in the vocal cords just as likely as they will get whisked away on a carpet of champagne [can you get carpets of champagne?—Ed] in a euphoria of bliss raised to the nth degree. And that’s just for asking…
On the other hand, a rather sad case is the alto ‘promoted’ to the sopranos. This may have been done for the best of intentions, for example to help the sopranos sing the right note, but there are few more pathetic sights than the poor alto, like the aforementioned baby seal, floundering around without her fellow baby seals, an alien in a hostile environment. Altos really only ought to be promoted in groups so that they can exert their corporate presence and retain the confidence to smile knowingly at the chorus master
Enter the masters of the universe: the tenors
The men are characterised in much the same way as the women.
Tenors of course are (a) permanently in short supply and (b) more camp than… [that’s quite enough of that—Ed] Because of fact (a), you will never actually be thrown out of a choir if you are a tenor. Although etiquette demands that you mime rather than make an audible dog’s breakfast in those awkward passages in A child of our time, they will never sack you, since who has ever heard of a choir with 103 sopranos and seven tenors? Even so, there are not enough tenors to go round, which means that, if you look very closely at those tv relays of the Last night of the Proms and other musical highspots, you will see the same faces in the tenor section whatever the choir.
Tenors are just so individualistic. Hear them in full cry and you hear a bunch of veritable Pavarottis: the concept of blending with one’s fellow singers is anathema to the true choral tenor. Exacerbated by the paucity of numbers, the best tenor sections sound like Luciano, Placido and the other one multiplied to the nth degree with not a few gerbils (see below) thrown in for good measure.
The solid foundation: the basses
Before we come to basses, it is necessary to dwell upon the wonders of physics briefly. As you must know, the lower the note (or pitch as we are supposed to call it), the closer it gets to its neighbour. It requires a bit of precision to stop that G natural from sliding into G flat. This is why the basses suffer from what conductors describe as being ‘unfocussed’. What this means is that all the slightly different notes merge together into a brown soup and the section starts sounding like a herd of cows on its way to the abattoir, as one great chorus master once observed, rather than the equivalent of Boris Godunov en masse.
There are always lots of basses. This is because all men in choirs have to be basses if they don’t satisfy the criteria for tenors already mentioned. Plus the most rigorous test of all, namely that, if you can’t make that top A, even sounding like a gerbil that’s been strung up by its goolies with piano wire, you’re in the basses.
Yes, this is the material the chorus master has to work with. To meld into a credible, if not creditable, musical entity by the time of the concert.
Illustration is a cartoon by Gustave Doré of Hector Berlioz conducting a choir, published in Journal pour rire, 27 June 1850.
copyright © 2014 Jeremy Marchant