Carfield Community Choir
I had a fun evening on Monday with Carfield Community Choir in Sheffield. They started a few years back as a choir of parents of children at a local primary school, and have gradually taken on an independent identity – though they still rehearse at the school, they have gradually acquired members who are not associated with it. They are directed by Liz Nicholas, who stepped out to keep things going when their original director moved on. Liz, like me, started out as a pianist (in fact we both studied with the same teacher, though not at the same time), who gradually moved through accompaniment to leading singers as she discovered how much more fun you can have making music with other people than alone in a practice room.
The workshop for Carfield was a bespoke version of my sessions on Developing the Ensemble and Aural Skills for Choral Groups. These are clearly related themes, so it took its focus in the overlap areas, with an emphasis on the listening dimension of developing togetherness as a performing group and the mutual responsiveness dimension of aural skills.
We started out with some generic exercises/games to develop awareness/skills in musically simplified contexts, but spent a good 2/3 of the time using their own repertoire as the basis for skills development. The easiest way to ‘transfer’ skills into repertoire is, after all, to learn them along with the music they are intended to enhance. We worked on two songs, both Liz’s arrangements for the choir, one of which was a current work-in-progress, the other a song from last summer due for revival. The choir was consequently sufficiently familiar with the notes and words to have some attention to spare for how they were singing them, but not so practised that they didn’t feel the need to spend time on them.
One of the things I always find delightful when helping people find ways to develop aural skills is how perceptive listening is its own reward. By definition, the people you find in choirs are the type to take pleasure in and respond well to music – that’s why they choose to spend time doing it. So having space amongst all the cognitive and coordination challenges of singing your part to pay attention to the sheer sound the group is producing is a treat in itself. And of course, opening your ears has a magically beneficial effect on the sound itself, so the more attention you pay, the better quality your sonic pay-off.
One singer said that hearing the sounds they were producing together made her ‘feel proud to be alive’. And what I love about the fact she said it was that everybody else got the chance to go home feeling proud to have contributed to giving her that feeling. Ensemble musicianship emerges as not simply a matter of balancing leading and following, but gaining personal transcendence as an individual via service to the collective.