15 Divas and a Professor of Piano

Benslow Music

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.








Look at MsDD’s interpretation of a snow scene for our Christmas cake! She particularly likes the footprints in the snow. Can you make them out?

This evening, we met up with the parents of MsDD’s friends at the Belair in Dulwich. (I’ve often felt that, should I win the lottery, I’d buy it, modernise it and live in it, mainly to slash the time spent travelling to and from school.)


We were there to listen to the Gatsby Saxophone Quartet, who perform there on one Wednesday evening each month, from their repertoire of music from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Worth a look on Wednesdays if you like jazz. #nice.


Post mortem

Post mortem


Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

I have never been one for exam post-mortems. I never wanted to talk to anyone after an exam partly because I have no wish to relive the experience and in doing so register indelibly forever in my mind every false technical term; every wrong entry; every badly-placed breath but also because I hate comparing myself to others and finding myself wanting. There it is.

I have, however, had such good thoughts and wishes and encouragement and support from people on my blog and on Twitter (don’t forget guys, you can’t possibly be real friends…) that I feel I owe you some closure. In doing so I cut myself open and expose my viscera to the world but bear with me: this is probably the final singing diploma-related post you will read, at least for a while. I’m thoroughly bored of them and now hoping to move my life on to something a little less all-consuming.

How did it go?

Well, I thought I did reasonably well in the first three songs. We had an underrrun so we slowed it down and I think I managed to include a reasonable amount of expression, emotion and good diction. Hell, I WAS the Angel Gabriel and Countess Rosina Almaviva. When the examiner looked up from his note-writing during that aria that I’d worked on for two years and still found so challenging, he saw me using my scarf as the Countess’s shawl.

My breath didn’t desert me quite in the way it has done before, although there was no complete absence of illogical snatched breaths to break up my legato, which was a trifle disappointing.

I think the Strauss went OK too, though those songs were probably less emotional and quieter than they should have been. Less of a screech at the high notes and possibly less pushing of the breath. I don’t know. I wasn’t conscious of dropping my jaw at all times, which meant that there might have been a few duff, sharp notes: I couldn’t tell.

I missed my entry to the first Duparc but Dan managed to finesse that for me really well, thank goodness. I lost my concentration a bit at this point so I don’t know how well I rendered these two French songs. I seemed to recover my composure for the Dring but I think there were a few duff notes both from the piano and the voice in these .

There. That’s how I did. The technicalities. Where they really that interesting for anyone apart from me or my teacher? I doubt it.

As I’m discovering, the singer is the last to know, to hear, what s/he’s sung. The notes only hit our ears later, weeks later in some cases. I have no idea whether I’ve passed or failed and, despite what some people are saying, it IS important and it’s not JUST the experience that counts. I so want to have passed, to tell myself that I have reached the standard by which (baby) professional singers are judged. I’m not sure whether I did my best today. It was probably near my best but I still have no way of telling whether it was good enough.

It’s not surprising that no-one: not my teacher; not my accompanist; not anyone else who’s heard me can’t actually tell me because I don’t know myself what the standard is. And there is no point telling me that this is a hobby for me whereas music undergrads devote their whole first year to achieving this standard. There’s no point taking individual circumstances into account because one either makes the grade or one doesn’t. End of.

So let’s proceed with a final dissection. Here are the things that have not helped me these last few weeks:

People who have said things like: “You’re mad to do this.” or “I don’t see why you’re putting yourself under all this extra stress.” Or “Well, it’s your choice and you can always withdraw at the last minute.” What is their problem? Maybe these are throwaway remarks, meant well, but they aren’t encouraging, are they? It makes one wonder whether some people are threatened by other people actually working hard to achieve something, that it makes them feel bad because they are not doing that. I don’t feel morally superior to anyone else because I worked hard for this exam. I’m not signalling any particular virtue here. Singing is just my THING in the same way that reading or flower arranging or adoring Jeremy Corbyn are other people’s THING.

Goodness, how on earth can anyone think that this sort of thing is at all constructive, that I haven’t already eviscerated myself with them a million times?

Even better meant and, sadly, just as unhelpful are people who have said things like “Oh, you’ll be fine.” “I know you’re going to do brilliantly.” I’m sorry. I am completely aware how ungracious this is of me but how do you know that I’ll be fine if you’ve never even heard me sing a note? It’s just one of those things that well-intentioned people say when they can’t think of anything else and reminds me of when I was long-term unemployed (and an over-qualified Asian woman of childbearing age) and people would say “Oh you’ll be fine. Something will come up.” And you know that they mean well so you don’t reply but inside you’re screaming “How do you know? Have you any idea how many letters I’ve written; how many jobs I’ve applied for; how much rejection I’ve faced; how my confidence is at an all-time low even though I have done what I thought was the right thing and gone out and re-qualified and still I can’t get a ruddy job?

As an aside: I really can’t bear this “All right, all right,” thing. My husband says it all the time and, in my experience, things are only all right if someone makes them all right. But I digress.

The helpful things this week were the support of Daniel, my accompanist. I really, really would not have been able to go through the exam without his support. Last Monday I was paralysed with fear, because I had dwelled on everyone’s comments and felt I wasn’t fit to sing a jingle for house clearance services on hospital radio let alone go through a 35 minute diploma recital. I was petrified of letting myself down in front of him and then having to face him at choir each week with that knowledge (He is our choir pianist.) Yet, he was unstintingly encouraging and I shall be eternally grateful for his help. Especially if I pass.

And my family, who are used to my singing and still encouraged me that I sang well and that I would do fine in this exam. Opinions from people who know a bit about the subject are always welcome.

And Nathan, who’s doing our garden at the moment, who twice passed positive comment on my singing and popped his head around the door on leaving yesterday to wish me good luck. And, indeed, the simple good luck wishes from all of you have helped.

Joyce DiDonato’s vlog post about the persistent inner voice also helped. I would recommend that you have a look at that if you haven’t seen it as it offers a lot of encouragement and comfort for those of us who aren’t quite so secure as we might be with the extent of our abilities. I wouldn’t say it silenced my pesky inner voice but she was whispering rather than yelling at me and my nerves weren’t so much of a factor as they have been in the past.

So, what next? I need to catch up on missed sleep. I am exhausted. Then I have been asked to put together a duet recital item (by someone who hasn’t heard me sing) for the next couple of months. I’d like to go to Sarah’s Benslow summer school and learn to sing some opera arias properly. She says I am capable of singing them now. I’ll keep singing in the choir – I woke up to an unsuitable earworm of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio yesterday morning – and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that I’ve passed. That’s all I can do now.

Eve of the exam

So here we are. The night I’ve been dreading.

And yet, I feel only a mild amount of horror. I’ve done as much as I can. I’ve worked hard and if I’m not good enough to pass tomorrow, well, it’s just because I’m not ready yet. Singing to such a high standard takes years of practice perhaps more than I’ve had.

Anyway, it’s just one examiner and I can look at the score for one song. I just have to imagine I’m Mad Bess and the narrator and the Angel Gabriel and the Countess Almaviva. Just think about the emotions and the breathing will sort itself out. I hope.

I’d better try and get some sleep. Night all.

Enfin, the weekend

And so we come to the end of another week. I shall be glad to see the end of all of this. The stress has made me frantic at times. I’ve been waking ups early in the morning and not been able to sleep properly and I’m exhausted.

It started with me paralysed – literally paralysed; out of breath; dry, sore throat; nausea at the thought of my first run-through with my accompanist and total fear of the exam. As the week has gone past, the fear has eased and I really felt after Wednesday’s practice that I was ready for my exam on Sunday.

I had a lesson today and there was a maelstrom of contradictory feedback: some of it is absolutely beautiful yet who knows whether I’ll pass or fail and yet it’s the best I can do and I’m never going to be an opera singer but my determination has got me this far and, well you get the picture. I’m left thoroughly confused and yet resigned to Sunday. If I can keep my nerves under control  and can remember all the little bits and pieces that I need I should be OK. And yet, unless I try and forget those little bits and pieces and immerse myself fully in the characters and emotions of the songs, I shall not give a good performance.

To cap it all, I finally resolved the conflict of how to sing Mad Bess of Bedlam today, two days before the exam. You might remember that this was the first song I performed in my Bromley Music Makers’ recital, having been locked out of the building and it was a little tentative. It appears that there has been a conflict in singing styles for this song. (Purcell would only have scored it with a figured bass, line and it’s up to the people who make renditions of the door to provide the actual arrangements.)

Until about 10 years ago, singers were encouraged to sing the song in distinct sections with a pause between each section, denoting Bess’s rising unhingedness. This is how my accompanist at BMM suggested I perform it. In the last decade though, another scholarship of the song has defined it in a different way, expostulating that there should be a constant pulse all the way through the song and it should not stop. I am being asked to sing it like this now. I hope I remember on Sunday, eh?


In other news, I find that I have faded to a lighter shade of foundation. My skin changes colour quite noticeably throughout the year, and often quite quickly, and suddenly I catch my reflection in the mirror and I look strange. This has happened and I have now gone from Syracuse to Barcelona. No. Me neither.


And the Boywonder Facetimed this evening. It’s always lovely to count his presence at out dinner table, just as if he were seated there with us. Of course, he and MsDD has a debate about who was the US President who has done most for civil rights since Abraham Lincoln but that’s usual FT banter hereabouts.

Anyway, enough of me tonight. Sleep well.


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