Purcell, Dido & Aeneas (4): Orpheus Music Choral Course

January 11, 2010

I’ve just returned home from a splendid week in the countryside, learning to sing from scratch the Chorus parts of Dido & Aeneas, culminating in a public performance on the final afternoon. Soloists were picked from the participants, numbering 50 or so in total. Experienced singers opted for an additional session devoted to the madrigal from Monteverdi’s Book IV, Ohime!. All started the day with Bach chorales and one, Jesu bleibet Meine Freude, was memorised and sung after the Monteverdi to form the warm-up for the opera. Fortuitously, the singers were accompanied in the Purcell by not just a harpsichord, but a string band (two violins, viola and cello) in the final performance. The drive and support offered by the two tutors, Tobias Cole and Katie Cole, were impeccable in every respect. 

I’d say almost of the choruses were in ‘good working order’ by about Tuesday (we started on Sunday), with Wednesday through Friday used by soloists to master their rhythmic challenges while the Chorus got their segues right, there being barely a bar separating recit or aria from choral entry, as well as their opening notes.

I’ll write more extensively about the Choruses, divided into Easy, Tricky and Difficult. Plainly the course was an extension of last year’s, which was devoted to Schutz’ Magnificat, and I believe some Monteverdi as well. My commentary will be a mix of what I’ve learned from a singing perspective combined with observations of a more musicological character. 


What I walked away with personally, in terms of Top 10 Things, might probably be summarised as follows. For me, it’s about drawing parallels between the science of singing and the science of playing the viol, against the backdrop of me as artist/musician.

1. Divest yourself of your Australianness. If you are serious about Western Art Music, carry yourself in as European a manner as possible. Cultivate a European’s natural sense of tactus and ‘readiness’. In Europe, there is no slouching, no slurring, no complacency. Comport yourself as a European. Walk and sit like one and you’ll start singing (and playing viol) like one. No successful Australian viol player I know comes across as ‘Australian’; they come across as ‘European’. This goes to the heart of who you are as an Artist and Musician, a Musical Being (as in the ‘sentient being’ spoken of by Buddhists, a being which feels – ergo, here, a being who creates art and a being who is musical). This also goes to the heart of how much we internalise our social conditioning about the dualities associated with music – amateur/professional, singer/instrumentalist. Transcend these identifiers, rise above them.

2. Cultivate the harmonics, nasal resonance, go for those vowels, lose the consonants. Use your voice as you bow that viol. Don’t squeak or be timid on the viol. ‘Strike’ the viol for its full resonance, eke out as much as possible from each bowstroke. This is about the body, the physical body of the singer (everything from the diaphragm up to the eyes) with parallels to the instrument of the instrumentalist. This is about projecting yourself as Artist/Musician to the world. Do you want to whisper to yourself in a scratchy tone or say something significant to the Whole Room? Use the full length of the bow. Consonants will provide meaning but not character; vowels alone produce character and poise.

3. Attack properly. Don’t warm up the engine from the start of the note, hit that note from the start. Parallels with chiff and viol bowing are obvious. Articulate on the viol as you would a baroque violin. Viol music is not wishy-washy, vague or indistinct.

4. Think pendulum, see the arc of the phrase, the trajectory of the line, while being thoroughly aware of that fast-beating tactus as a foundation. See the whole picture, from the beginning of the piece to the end, from the first rehearsal to the final encore, from birth to death and all in between. Use the full length of the bow.

5. It’s not about staying in tune (though that helps), but playing in time. Viol music cannot be played as a single line of music alone; it stands or falls on the ability to cooperate, be a teamplayer. You can have your own identity and know yourself, but you have to eventually become an Artist-in-Society, a tenor in a choir and treble viol in a consort. You have a responsibility to articulate the intentions of the Composer. Music is tactus is timing. Tuning is what we as humans bring to the music, with all our faults.

6. Have as much solid ‘prep’ in the voice whether you are singing low or high – “stay the same” whether singing the bottom note in an octave leap as the top. Don’t be attentive only on the high notes or high points; be equally attentive to the low notes and low points. Equanimity and equal qi or chi or force or energy in all things. Play all notes at all times on the fingerboard with equal intensity and interest. Don’t assume that everything in the high register or tessitura is more interesting and has to be played with more focus than the low notes.

7. Come ‘over the top’ when singing or humming notes high in your register. Don’t come ‘from underneath’ them. Go for it. Life is not a rehearsal. Every note is different.

8. Having spent years playing bass viol in bass clef, I found I could look at a bass line and ‘know’ it instantly. Regrettably I can’t sing much lower than a G, so for this workshop I opted for the high tenor – though I find the E-flats, Fs, F-sharps and Gs difficult (we sang at A415). Not at all being used to ‘filler’ tenor parts, pushing the harmonic direction with quirky leaps here and there, I was faced with an enormous challenge. If I’d played viola or a tenor viol all my life, things might have been easier. Ergo, one works with what one has. With the voice one has, the viol one has, with what life has given us. But in the heat of the moment, difficult notes can be sung. Struggling with Purcell’s Fs, I would always find it possible to sing the wonderful F-sharp-high G-low-G sequence in Act III (see later notes). You can pull rabbits out of the hat as a viol player, no matter how inferior the instrument or how small your fingers!

9. Memorising is the magic of music.

10. Learn through movement. You’ll learn faster by moving, by dancing, by singing fast music slow and slow music fast. As an instrumentalist, I kept wanting to bow every sung note – standing or sitting still felt abnormal.

I drove eight hours north to get there. And another eight hours back. Given Tobias Cole is singing Monteverdi’s Vespers with the Oriana Singers in Canberra later this year, I might drive the three hours south to attend. I’m sure it will be worth it.

Orpheus Music Choral Course, 3-8 January 2010 Armidale NSW Australia; www.orpheusmusic.com.au  Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas.  


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