Post Tenebrae, Lux

Thank you for all your kind comments following my last post. It was a difficult two weeks, made worse by the business of school life, but it is getting better and hopefully I will have a more normal week at school before half term! There is always light at the end of the tunnel, it just might not seem as close as we would like! Plus I promise I’ll stop with the Latin titles next time…

I am so grateful that in my life I have been given so many wonderful opportunities. As a result of these opportunities I have some memories that I will never forget, and always cherish. My opportunities have varied from spending 2 weeks alone in France on a French exchange, to going on 2 choir tours of Prague, to visiting theatre productions, seeing concerts, travelling abroad, going to the Olympics.

In the modern age of technology, we are surrounded by opportunity. Only yesterday, for example, did I spend my tea break cracking the Dan Brown’s Inferno wordsearch code in the Times for the opportunity to spend a week in Florence. [By the way, if you didn’t manage to crack it or complete it, the answer was Botticelli.] It’s an opportunity I doubt we will win, but it was worth a go. However, it’s not always as easy as cracking a code and submitting the answer online to take an opportunity that comes your way. Taking an opportunity seems daunting because we have to step outside of our comfort zones. Usually we know it will be worth it, but we are afraid to take the first step.

Almost a month ago now, I was given the most incredible opportunity, to sing with the world famous choir, Tenebrae. Tenebrae, under the direction of Nigel Short (an award winning conductor and former Kings’ Singer), are renowned for their passion and precision in their singing. They have an ever-increasing discography which ensures their frequent collaborations with high profile orchestras, and recording companies. They have won multiple awards including 2 BBC Music Magazine Awards. They sing repertoire ranging from works of the Renaissance through to contemporary choral composers, and tour globally. More than anything however, they want audiences to experience the power and intimacy of the human voice.

So, needless to say, given all their prestige, I was feeling incredibly daunted when the week came during which the choir were going to be working with us. On a trip as a member of the school chamber choir, I had seen Tenebrae in concert the previous year, and remembered the incredible awe that permeated all of our minds as we ran through London and dashed through the tube network following the concert, trying to make the 22:03 back home from Waterloo, which we missed, of course (we proceeded to sit alongside the pigeons on the dirty floor of Waterloo sharing a bag of chips). And when we heard at the beginning of the term that Tenebrae were coming to our school, it was this power and unity and precision that we remembered, and that struck us with fear.

It got to the week of the performance. We had been preparing several pieces to sing to the choir in masterclasses, several pieces we would be singing with them in concert, and we were trying to juggle rehearsing the Duruflé Requiem on top of that for a following concert. Having just 3 half hour rehearsals a week, this was a lot. As ever with our school choir, our weekly rehearsal on the Monday was not promising. The basses had no idea what was going on, the sopranos were flat and the tenors sounded like strangled cats. The altos started in the wrong key and struggled to hold the piece together with their drone-like series of Cs in varying rhythms while the rest of the choir fell apart.

As ever, this provoked an emotional email from our Assistant Director of Music and Head of Choirs, which explained why he felt so ‘dispirited’ following that day’s rehearsal. He expressed a desire for us to work more as a team and to take pride in our music. He stressed that we would only get out of the experience what we put in, and that we were all talented musicians who could do him proud.

So as ever, like the team that we are, the choir suddenly rehearsed like crazy on Monday night. I expect for a 20 mile radius around school the notes of Faire is the Heaven and Bob Chilcott’s The Last Invocation (2 ) [no one knows what happened to number 1, clearly a write-off…] along side My soul there is a country and some German Mendelssohn that no one could ever pronounce but sounded like something rather dodgy to a group of teenage boys (girls are far more mature…), could be heard being hammered out from pianos that were only ever played on desperate Monday nights following emotional emails.

And the day dawned. Tuesday 29th September. Tenebrae arrived at lunchtime, and sat in the dining hall. I mention this simply because it is a well known fact in any school that the dining hall is a perfect place for spying on people, teachers and pupils alike. You can build a profile someone from three bits of information ascertained in a dining hall, namely: who the said person sits with, what they are eating, and how they hold their knife and fork.  For example, I tend to find that I am more likely to get on with someone who plunges into a chocolate pudding than someone who nibbles at a piece of salad and a spoonful of quinoa like an upper class rabbit. Thus, Tenebrae were able to be surreptitiously spied upon before the rehearsal itself. We could already approximately guess who sang which part, who would be fun in the rehearsal, and who would be strict. We could also tell at this point, that most of them had been choral scholars at high profile universities.

Thus, when we sang with them that afternoon, it felt a little less like we were singing with complete strangers. However, in a choir of 70, in front of Tenebrae, and as the only Alto on my side who actually sings, I was incredibly nervous. However, after an hour or so of the masterclass, I felt more at ease. This was my first step. For the next few days we got to know the choir a lot better. The cello section of the orchestra (+ a stray bassoon), taking the decision to rehearse in the undercroft of the Chapel, even serenaded them with a poor scratchy rendition of Hamish McCunn’s Land of the Mountain and the Flood. As the smaller 15 member chamber choir, we had our own rehearsals and masterclass with Tenebrae, and were surprised at how easy it was to respond to what Nigel Short encouraged us to do. We could truly see the magnificent transformation in our chosen pieces, they immediately had a more life in them.

What surprised me the most was how easy it was to do. The two key elements to transforming our pieces, quelling our nerves and really singing were simply: breathe together and smile. I am the first to admit that I find it incredibly hard to smile when I sing. My Mum always tells me that when I sing I look like I’m about to cry. To be I honest, I’m usually so nervous that I could cry. But this time it was different.

Singing with a group such as Tenebrae was an incredibly moving experience. To stand amongst such powerful singers means that all you can hear is a wave of sound. It is like a tide, that pushes you softly forward and you ebb and flow with it. Each member of the choir truly becomes one, when you sing properly together. It was like we were all droplets of water, and together we were a body of water. What one person did, the other did simultaneously. And on the Thursday night, we did what I had been dreading the most. We sang with Tenebrae in concert as part of their unaccompanied British songs programme. I highly doubt that this is an experience many school choirs are able to do. I was terrified that I would get something wrong. We were singing without music, and one mistake would stand out as if I were screaming when everyone else was quiet. We stood among them, intermingled and we performed to a full Chapel. It  was the first time that I had never felt nervous in performance. It was perfect, nothing went wrong.

Singing with Tenebrae is an experience and an opportunity I will never forget. For one night, it felt as if we were part of Tenebrae, and we could sing with the same precision, power and passion as them. I know this experience has truly given us, particularly the chamber choir, the encouragement to sing as best as we can for the remainder of the year, and longer. I think personally, it was a turning point as since then performing has not been as nerve-wracking, or I have managed to control my nerves, and use them to aid my strength in performance. I would like to thank Tenebrae and Nigel Short for the three days they dedicated to spending time with us and giving us advice. It was honour to sing with you in concert, and I look forward to more opportunities that come our way as a result, I will be ready to take them with less fear.

We were delighted to hear this week that Nigel Short has decided to continue to mentor our Chamber Choir for this year, and is coming back to see us and how we have progressed early next term. The chamber choir will also be recording and entering in competitions in the near future. For more information on Tenebrae, click here.

 

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