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Category: Music

The Big Rehearsal

Possibly the most ambitious thing we've ever undertaken, our choir is performing a work at the Sydney Town Hall tomorrow written by our very own conductor. Now, when someone you know quite well goes and writes a massive piece of music, one tends to gnaw at the under lip a little, reserving judgement. I think all of us in the choir did a little until we started to get to know the piece. Much to our extreme amount of relief, the thing is fabulous and we're very much looking forward to singing it tomorrow. Which meant today was the Big Rehearsal.

The piece is a War Requiem, officially endorsed as a Centenary of ANZAC event. It's based on some fairly painstaking research done on the letters written by soldiers to their mothers during the First World War and gives a hint at the horror of war in the actual words of soldiers and the anguish of their mothers at home. Pretty intense. The last bit has the ANZAC Ode set to music and I could only get through it today without having to put my head between my knees by concentrating very hard on the cable knit of the cardigan one of the second violins was wearing. I wonder if she'll be wearing it in the performance?

Obviously, we've been learning it for ages, but today was the first time we got the choir, the guest choir, the children's choir, the soloists and the orchestra together. So today was really the first time we've heard it properly. Gosh it's good.

A word about the orchestra. When we decided to do this thing, about eighteen months ago (though it has been simmering in his fevered brain for much longer than that) it had quite a modest orchestra. But as it became real and started taking shape, our conductor kept getting an itch to add new instruments. Not little ones, like recorders or penny whistles or kazoos. A harp. More bassoons. A celeste (we talked him out of a real one). Every time he adds another one we on the committee smile a tight lipped smile and write a frantic letter to another government to send more money. Fortunately there were quite a few countries involved in the First World War, those who've donated can be found in the program, which you can purchase at the door when you turn up tomorrow.

I arrived at the rehearsal late (Muffet's netball, they lost 13-7) to find the hall locked. A fellow alto happened to be outside too and being more forthcoming than me, like most of the human race, rapped smartly on the door which ended up with us being let in by Ataturk. Not in spirit form, the lovely chap singing him. We are very fortunate in our soloists, especially the emergency tenor. We have a lovely Turkish soprano who sings very expressively, risking knocking her music off the stand with her gorgeous balletic hands. The other soprano sings (beautifully) with her arms firmly crossed across her ribs, as if worried her spleen is going to leap out and join the clarinet section. And this is what we do with basses who don't behave themselves.


We have a large percussion section this time, including a giant bass drum whose job it is to be distant gunfire and shelling. We're going to put him essentially under the stage, which means that, as our conductor put it so delicately, the sound will be coming up through our underpants. The trombones, whose music seems to consist of a series of 32 bar rests, gave themselves an early lunchtime and waded out of a pool of their own saliva. I can't believe they don't bring dropcloths. Or a bucket.

Our conductor knows us well, and hasn't given us too many tricky bits. We were having a bit of trouble with the timing of a cry of “Mother!” So our conductor demonstrated it by punching a tenor (I wish he'd lay off the tenors, they're fragile and a scarce commodity) and getting him to say “Ouch!”, it was very effective and we've got it right ever since. I was describing this technique to the Horror from Outer Space (he has a professional interest, he's in a percussion group that often has timing issues). He wanted to know why on earth anyone would be singing “Mother!”. I said “if you were a soldier scared on the battlefield with shots being fired all around you, who would you call out to?”. He looked at me in amazement. “Batman, of course. He'd be much more likely to save you than your mother”.

It's been a jolly fine rehearsal, we've all worked out how to stick out fingers in our ears while not dropping our music for the bit with whistles. The emergency trumpet has had a show off, playing the Last Post at triple speed, which was simultaneously very funny and kind of offensive to those of us with military ties, I was very conflicted. I was soothed by the familiar sound of musical rehearsals everywhere, that of the regular clatter of a 2B pencil hitting the ground.


We've all stocked up on our lozenges of choice, I favour Butter Menthols, while those around me are going for traditional Fishermen's Friend to ward off the nasty cough that appears to be going around. I've ironed my white shirt and found my musical socks for tomorrow. I hope the poor conductor has found someone to massage his cramping conducting hands and that everyone has a good night's sleep and remembers to bring their music tomorrow. All you have to do is come and hear us. Tickets are on sale at the door of Sydney Town Hall from a bit after 1pm with the thing slated to kick off at 3. Come along and be part of a World Premiere! It'll be tops, promise.




A Musical Interlude

There’s a lot of music going on in this house. And most of it isn’t the sit down the young man and don’t get up until I’ve heard an hour of Hanon type stuff, which is why I think it’s working.

Oh, I started off trying to do it that way. I am a believer in starting kids off on the piano so that they can get a feel for reading music, using both hands, having more than one thing happening at once. Unfortunately there’s no easy way to learn the piano, it’s a bit of a slog for a couple of years and that at an age when they’d rather be doing almost anything else, including cleaning their rooms. If you can stick that out, and I highly recommend using quite a lot of bribery, you’re away.

You then need to get them involved in group music, and that could be at school. At the first school my kids went to, there was just the choir. And there was only a choir because me, another mum and a passing piano teacher decided that there would be, none of the actual teachers thought they’d like to be involved. It was quite painful for me, as I don’t actually like children that much en masse, every rehearsal I was worried I’d end up tied up in a cupboard somewhere while the kids set fire to the hall. It did get quite a lot of kids performing music, though, so the aim was achieved.

It’s much at easier at the fancy private schools I ended up sending my kids to. You have to make an effort not to be involved in music at these places. Because I’d put in the slog and my kids could read music, they had no trouble picking up the clarinet, the flute and the bassoon in descending order. The Moose didn’t join the choir initially because he found the public school one almost as traumatic as I did, but by the time he’d reached high school he’d got over that. The other two joined immediately, plus every other ensemble on offer. The Moose didn’t really enjoy the clarinet either, even though it got him into the jazz band. He campaigned long and hard to be allowed to learn the drums. “When you’re in high school”, was my technique for putting him off. What do you know, eventually he did go to high school, despite my confident prediction that one of teachers would slaughter him by halfway through sixth grade, and I had to come good. Now he’s playing percussion in the jazz band and the intermediate wind orchestra and loving it quite a lot.

What I’ve discovered is that once you’ve given them that initial push and then encouraged them to look at what’s available, you then let them choose. Muffet has quit her choir because the singing at her high school seems to be run by a series of unimaginative old bats and it’s no fun, and I’m behind her all the way. What is fun at her school is the really excellent pipes and drums band that she’s had a couple of pops at. Initially she had a go at the drumsticks that have fluffy pompoms on them that you twirl and get tangled up behind your right ear if you’re the Muffet. That didn’t work out, so she took a breather for six months. Then she decided to learn the snare drum and, despite the agony of listening to her practise, I’m all for it. It could have been a lot worse, she could have chosen the bagpipes.

Between the three of them, they’re playing ten instruments if you count piano twice and percussion three times. I went to a middle school concert last Thursday, a RockFest last night and am attending a junior school concert tonight, which is why I’m eating a bowl of vegetable soup at half past four in the afternoon prior to picking up the Muffet from pipes and drums practise, inserting some sushi into her and taking her to the boys school so she can be a supportive sister and make many superior comments about the lax techniques of the flute and sax players.

I also had a rehearsal on Monday night and have a committee meeting for my own choir on Thursday night, because I love being involved in music myself. It does take a fair bit of parental commitment, and can be expensive if you’re going the private lesson route, but most choirs are cheap and a lot of school bands don’t require you to be having ongoing lessons. It’s probably good for some parts of their brain if you’re doing a cost benefit analysis, but the best bit is it keeps them off the streets, they hang out with kids older and younger than them, and they love it. If only I could persuade them to sing madrigals with me…

In Defence of Classical Music

The Moose is studying electronic music at school which has resulted in not so much a discussion about music, rather just me giving him a diatribe about how very very much I loathe and detest and abhor that garbage.  “But Mum”, he said.  “Electronic music was a revolution.  It meant that people with no musical training or skill were able to make music”.  He may have touched the heart of why it’s so crap.

My testiness has increased because the greasy young man that lives next door is rather fond of electronic music,  which has enabled me to pinpoint exactly what it is about it that irritates me so much.  It’s the repetition.  Doof doof doof derdoof, doof doof doof derdoof, for four, eight, sometimes sixteen bars with only minor variations over the top.  Some may find that soothing or hypnotic, especially if they’ve suffered a traumatic injury to the brain stem or are on a certain class of drugs.  It affects me like a tiny flying chainsaw trying to very rhythmically escape my skull from the inside.  It makes me want to smash things.  Like next door’s sound system.

I will agree that classical music can be a little inaccessible, and there is a reason for that.  The kind that you go and hear in a big venue is very complicated.  It has been written by men (generally, there’s a whole other discussion) who have studied music for years and been immersed in a classical music culture often since birth.  It can only be performed by musicians who have dedicated much of their lives to training on their instrument.  Listening to it takes commitment.  If you are planning to go to a classical music concert, and like all music (except electronic) it’s better live, listen to the pieces first a few times.  The first listen will be a big blah of louds and softs and you won’t like it a lot.  Gradually the patterns and the shape of the piece will become apparent.  Then every time you hear it performed you’ll find something new in it and it will totally capture you.

My theory is that the kind of music most people listen to needs to be turned up loud because that’s the only way you’re going to be able respond to it – if it’s actually making your head vibrate.  If you’re listening to classical music your brain will be so busy following the melodies and counterpoints and dissonances and filigree that you can be engaged with it without having to annoy the neighbours.  Most popular music is like junk food.  Easily consumed, easily forgotten.  There’s a place for it in your diet, but if that’s all you’re eating you are missing out on those ten course banquets that are the classical canon.  Yes, you’ll need to educate yourself a bit to appreciate it, but it is so very much worth it.

My favourite way to interact with classical music is to be involved in a performance of it.  My choir (Sydney University Graduate Choir, click here) is performing Verdi’s Requiem next Sunday at the Sydney Town Hall at 3pm.  Google it, you definitely will have heard the second movement.  We’ve been practising it for months, and we’re now in my favourite bit where I know the piece so well that it is swirling within me all the time, not so much an earworm as an entire worm farm.  I can’t imagine how my conductor must be feeling, he has to get to that point before we start rehearsing, then spend a few months extracting from us what he’s already hearing in his head.  On Sunday I’ll be one of a three hundred strong choir, contributing my voice to a piece that is sometimes sung in eight different parts, sometimes in a gentle intense unison, sometimes screaming hellfire, sometimes a delicate lullaby.  I can’t wait.  If you can get there, book a ticket now (Ticketek and Seymour Centre), there are a few seats left.   It will be an amazing experience for the audience, but even more so for the musicians.

A Day at the Town Hall

Well I couldn’t call this blog The Messiah, could I, that would be giving entirely the wrong impression. It’s a wonderful thing to attend a big concert at a beautiful venue like the Town Hall. It’s much more amazing to be in it. I thought I’d give you some behind the scenes snippets.

Firstly, view from the choir. From where I was sitting I had a terrific view of the harpsichord, I’ve never seen one up close before. Because I’m living in the future, when the Muffet asked what it looked like, I could show her exactly, it looked like this:

We had hundreds of guest singers to bump up our numbers from our base of a measly hundred to a massed choir of over five hundred, so we made many new friends. The tenor sitting next to me had a score written in sol-fa notation, something I’ve never seen before. It looked like shorthand. It looked like this:

You learn something new every day.

I’m endlessly fascinated by our soloists. The orchestra are fun too, but you tend to focus more on the soloists by the nature of what they do. I was particularly entertained by the bass, who looked about fourteen. When I came in from lunch the alto was rehearsing and the bass was sitting on a chair beside him holding onto his knees and looking like he was trying not to vomit. The impression of youth was strengthened by the tailcoat he appeared to have borrowed from his dad. And yet the voice that came out of this red headed round faced infant was strong and vibrant, and while singing he seemed to be having the time of his life.
Then there was the alto. He has sung with us many times before and I’m always delighted by him. He’s a chunky Chinese guy with a shaved head and a goatee who looks like he’d slip a knife into you, steal your wallet, knock off your phone and use it to reprogram the Pentagon to delete Taiwan. Yet he sings like an angel. The Muffet tells me that an elderly lady sitting near her exclaimed “he sings like a girl!”. Of course, he doesn’t, male altos have a sweet unearthly quality to their voices that is richer than the female alto, alas. Here he is rehearsing:

The young tenor soloist was much better behaved than tenors usually are, despite the filthy looks our conductor was giving him for not keeping an eye on the timing. I especially warmed to him after the show. I was writing him a cheque (I’m the treasurer) as he was disrobing backstage and I offered to tuck it into his waistband, which he thought was a terrific idea. The perks of being on the committee.
Of course the soprano was lovely too, but I have nothing amusing to say about her, our sopranos usually cause us no dramas at all.

My fantasy that the alto soloist will sprain a tonsil at the last minute and I’ll be plucked from the choir to sing “A Man of Sorrows” to great acclaim didn’t come true, again. Not that I would be picked anyway, especially as the young lady singing on my left used to be a professional opera singer, but one can dream. The whole thing went off without a hitch, and I managed not to sob when the whole audience rose to sing the Hallelujah Chorus with us. Nobody noticed the soprano and the orchestra coming in at different times to one of her solos. The first violinist managed not to crack up too badly after putting in about eleven extra trills at the end of one piece and nearly giving the conductor apoplexy. The extremely enthusiastic tenor behind me was drowned out by the more practiced voices in front of him. A wonderful time was had by all. You should have been there.


Why are Australians embarrassed to sing? If they like it as a kid they’re mercilessly teased until they can escape to a performing arts school or the Conservatorium. If they must sing because they’ve formed a rock band at school, then the boys will croak or scream and the girls will do that intensely irritating breathy little girl thing that’s so regrettably prevalent at the moment. Yes I am easily irritated, thank you for asking.

Singing is ridiculously good for you and I don’t want to hear this nonsense of I can’t sing. Everyone can sing. Some better than others, for sure, but all you need is to want to and the ability to hear yourself, and sometimes you may need a singing teacher or singing friend to help you with that. It doesn’t matter what you sing, sing along to the radio (especially the ABC fanfare, that’s very stirring), join a choir, and at this time of the year you should sing Christmas carols. That appears to be the only mildly acceptable form of Australian public singing, so take advantage of it.

I started singing fairly recently. I just wanted to get out of the house one evening a week, to even up the score with my husband’s soccer training. I did classical piano for many years so can read music, but hadn’t sung with a choir at all. I was very lucky in my choice of choirmaster, because he hustled me into the Sydney University Graduate Choir which sings exactly the kind of complicated music I love. He also convinced me that I could sing. At first, I didn’t believe him, but after a few months it became true. I’m going to plug this choir right now because on November the 18th we’re singing Handel’s Messiah at the Sydney Town Hall, for more details click here. It’s a wonderful experience and even my kids like it (we do it every two years), so come along for your yearly classical music dose.

I’m having some mates over tonight for a spot of singing and we’re going to have a go at singing Christmas Carols in parts. They’re going to be getting Once in Royal David’s City, which they’d better like because I asked for suggestions and didn’t get any. Have a go at getting your friends together for some carol singing, and if they’re too shy, come over to my place. It’s good for your core strength, your lung capacity, your soul, and it’s even better in a group. I love it.


View from the choir

A friend once asked me, knowing me to be musical, if I was in a rock band when at Uni. Not me, I was in the madrigals group. I like my music complicated, I like to perform stuff that takes months to learn, and I like it to be a couple of hundred years old. Anything that’s still being performed after two hundred years must be good.

Our concert was yesterday afternoon. We generally start with an overture that doesn’t involve us, so we sit on our chairs trying hard not to scratch or cough. I like to spend the time looking over the sea of grey heads that comprises our audience. I like to spot the woman who has come to every concert, always sits in the front row and always falls into a restful slumber about thirty seconds in. She’s not even particularly old.

Of course, performing what we’ve been working hard on for months is always terrific too, but I love watching the soloists. Our bass soloist this time was fascinating. He’s very tall, with quite a small head. During rehearsals he was wearing a large jacket which gave him the appearance of actually being composed of two smaller basses, one standing on the other’s shoulders. He also had the habit of either buckling at the knees while singing or standing on his toes. It was as if whoever was holding his string wasn’t concentrating very hard. I was delighted to see this habit was taken into the concert.

Our conductor is a man with very high blood pressure, coupled with the artistic temperament. He’s the only person I’ve ever seen actually foam at the mouth. Many of our concerts feature our chamber choir singing a piece that’s a bit too tricky for the whole choir to sing, and so it was in this concert. We’ve worked very hard on this piece and our focus is sharpened as we all wonder if this is the concert where blood will start pouring out of his ears because we’ve over pronounced a B. Fortunately it wasn’t, and we made it through the piece without the organist smashing her fists into the keyboard like she did in rehearsals. A lovely time was had by all, and we get a week off to rest the tonsils before starting off on the Brahms Requiem.

I didn’t end up wearing the pendant I posted I last week’s blog, I wore this:

I’d started it weeks ago and finished it during the Moose’s juggling class in the morning and during the time I’d set aside to iron school shirts. You never really grow out of procrastination.