I spent a week at Benslow Music last month with Sarah Leonard‘s annual Vocal Summer School. It’s a popular and oversubscribed course. All of the other course participants had been before and had got to know each other well; I was the only new member. For me it was a chance to perform in public some of the pieces I intend to sing when I next have a crack at the ATCL Performance Diploma to gain more experience performing in front of an audience. As a choral singer I’ve done this many times before, of course, but solo singing is a whole different deal and nerves can do terrible things to your breath and voice control. If I’m honest, it was also a chance to escape some ensuing turmoil at home for a few days and just concentrate on doing what I love without interruption.
There were fourteen participants including one brave divo, and we all had to bring a song to perform on each of the four days. We’d take turns to perform our song, accompanied by fantastic and accomplished piano professor Stephen Gutman – never underestimate the value of a supportive accompanist – and then Sarah, who is also my regular singing teacher, would gently take us through feedback and possible improvements to technique or aspects of our performance.
On the final day we put together a little concert, commencing with a choral canon and finishing with a chorus from The Gondoliers. Concentrating so hard for the full day, we were wiped out with exhaustion by the end of our last session each day, at 9pm, but we also had the privilege of attending a couple of stunning concerts.
There were no televisions in bedrooms and the wifi was patchy to say the least, and it’s probably fair to say that Hitchin, while perfectly pleasant, is not really a shopping hotspot. So there were were, with our music and some practice rooms and a few ten-minute rehearsal slots with our pianist. Walk through the centre, and you could hear flute trills and runs and mezzo soprano scales and sirening floating across the campus from all directions.
The thing about singing is that it’s all-encompassing. The singing ego is fragile and there is always the fear of not pulling off a good performance, which can feed on itself if you’re not careful. I’ms sure that this is one of the factors that caused me to fail my diploma the first time. Your diet, your level of exercise, whether you’ve slept all have an impact on the breath, the posture and, ultimately the sound you make.
Unfortunately the Benslow week was at the height of my allergy peak this year and I slept appallingly for a couple of the nights there, waking up at 3am sneezing my head off with such a blocked nose that I couldn’t get back to sleep for several hours. So one night I made the mistake of taking an additional anti-histamine. I’d swapped with someone who was attending to personal issues elsewhere, to sing Chausson’s Le Colibri at 9.15 the next morning. The song is tricky not least because it is nominally in 5/4 time and, for some reason, my brain was so out of it die to the drugs that I was unable to count the 5 beats in each bar so I kept not coming in or coming in too early. Sarah was sympathetic but I was so embarrassed that I still haven’t revisited the song, nearly a month later.
The only way to perform a song properly is if, having mastered all the technicalities of breathing, phrasing, language and diction, one tells the story, losing oneself in the character. So for these four days we chose to be someone else. In this way recent widows; those with lung disease; those with terminally ill partners; those recovering from horrific car crashes; those facing other life turmoil could choose to be a young nun facing her initiation into a convent; several 16 year old girls begging their fathers to let them marry their unsuitable boyfriend; one of the slaves in Showboat; Gretchen at her spinning wheel exploding from lust; a mother trying to distract her starving child; a drop of melting water in a frozen Swedish landscape.
And me? I got to perform the Habanera from Carmen in public for the first time. I hope it won’t be the last time and, like all of my songs, it is a work-in-progress. It’s something I’ve always wanted to perform even though my natural voice falls well above the lusty, throaty mezzo-soprano tessitura. I’d never even sung this to my teacher before so it didn’t go especially well the first time but I eventually agreed to perform it in the end-of-course concert. Fastening my shawl around my hips in a predatory manner, I assumed the position of the sexually-aggressive and untameable gypsy, all swagger and sneer. It was quite an act and, whilst perhaps not a completely accurate performance, served to show me in an entirely different light from the impression I’d made during the previous days. I’ll work on the Habanera: it was a lot of fun being Carmen.
Would I go again? Well, most people do. Some make a Benslow week their main holiday and some go to three or four courses every year. I’d like to go again, yes, but I’d also like to try the Singing With A Big Band course. Maybe I’d better not tell my teacher that, though.