Monthly Archives: June 2013

Review: 9 to 5

Last week saw the return of 9 to 5 The Musical to the Edinburgh Playhouse. Based on the 1980s film of the same name, this show has music written by Dolly Parton.


When and where: Edinburgh Playhouse, Saturday 8th June 2013, 7.30pm

The Show

This show was entirely new to me, as I’ve not even seen the 1980s movie, so I didn’t really know what to expect from it. The first half, while opening well with the title song, was a little slow to get into the real plot, but the plot did pick up in the second half, albeit concluding with the most cheesy ending you could imagine. The movie origin also shows as the scenes are shorter than is usual for theatre, though the book has still been creatively adapted to prevent scene changes being too frequent.

The real highlight of this show for me was the music. I’m not a Dolly fan per se, but I really enjoyed all the songs. It’s not often that a show comes along with only one big male solo, verses four female solos, and that alone is enough for me to love it. The songs also carry the emotional depth of the story, and without them the plot would have likely fallen very flat. I would recommend looking out the original cast recording of this show, even if you never see it on stage.

The Cast

Like many musical tours, this show has been “stunt cast” with three of the five lead roles going to people who cut their performing teeth in TV. Both Ben Richards (Franklyn) and Jackie Clunie (Violet) have made the transition to theatre brilliantly. My friend who came with me said that Clunie was the first true alto she’d seen in a musical and, boy, does she have a voice. I’m sure she could have out sung her duet partner, Mark Willshire, with ease! Ben Richards also does brilliantly in the role of Franklyn, which requires more than a little confidence to do well in.

Natalie Casey (Judy) was, unfortunately, the weak link in the casting. Although she clearly has a good, strong voice, and good acting skills, she has been allowed by the director to over do the role of Judy to the point where there is little to no depth left to the character. Instead of being awkward but genuine, Casey’s performance is played for laughs to the point where her emotional moment of “Get Out, Stay Out” is not really convincing.

Of the rest of the cast, who all performed brilliantly (I always have so much admiration for ensemble and swing cast who never get a mention in reviews, but without whom we’d have no show), Amy Lenox as Doralee was the standout performer of the night. Her Texan accent and bubbly outside were marvellous, and yet she still let the confident outside slide away to really share the true feelings of her character in her solo “Backwoods Barbie”.

Dolly herself does make a cameo as a talking head in this show. It’s entirely unnecessary and actually detracts from the show’s content. I’m not sure why it was added in when the show transferred to the UK from Broadway.

Notable Songs

  • Backwoods Barbie – Doralee (Medium-Hard)
  • Heart to Heart – Roz (Hard)
  • One of the Boys – Violet (Medium)
  • Get Out, Stay Out – Judy (Medium-Hard)


All in all, an enjoyable girly evening, made sweeter by a deal offering a cocktail at the bar in with our ticket. If it’s touring to a venue near you, 9 to 5 is definitely worth a watch.

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥  (3/5)

Friday Favourites

Time to take a Friday PauseWelcome to this week’s Friday favourites. Enjoy them with a cup of tea, a biscuit and your favourite symphony, opera or musical! Have a great weekend’s practice.


Do You Have a Student About to Quit Piano? – Save them with this email (Teach Piano Today) – Would this work for you? I’m not sure it’s the miracle cure, but I do think it’s a great reminder for all of us that learning music is a journey, with hills and valleys. The reward isn’t getting to the end (there is no “end”…) but the things we learn and do along the way.

A New Spin on the Popular Game for Teens and Tweens (ComposeCreate) – I love the idea of using a spinner for older students, but it’s the Affirm-A-Term game itself which appeals – a great way to work on learning musical terms in group sessions.

The Role of Intervalic Reading when Reading Music (Color In My Piano) – A wonderful post about how learning intervals can help with sight-reading. Intervalic reading is the core of how I teach singing sight-reading, but it’s a good way to look at things no matter what your instrument.

Tapping into the Video Game World When Practicing (Beyond the Notes) – Ever wondered what Tetris might have to do with music practice? Have a read of this blog post!

Was Mozart really a genius? (LaDona’s Music Studio) – A very interesting post, debunking a few myths about a composer who seems to be held up as a legend. The post which inspired LaDona can be found here.

Carmen (Don’t Shoot The Pianist) – Yes, it’s a Facebook feed cartoon. But it’s about an opera, and one of my favourite roles too!

ABRSM Exams Series – Choosing Repertoire 2: The Lists

NB: While reading this series, it can be helpful to keep a copy of the ABRSM Singing syllabus to hand. The syllabus can be downloaded here

ABRSM did a wise thing when they invented the lists. It might initially seem restrictive to have to pick from a list, but as I’ve already noted, there’s plenty of choice on each one for singers. In fact, rather than being restrictive, the ABRSM list system means students must pick songs from at least three different styles and periods.

Let’s take a closer look at the styles and periods. Where I’ve mentioned specific songs, I’ve linked to them on YouTube. At the end of each section, you can access my playlists on YouTube for each grade. The playlists aren’t always complete as not everything has been put on YouTube, and I’ve not done every grade list yet. If any of the links become defunct, please use the comments box to let me know so I can update them.

List A (all grades) – From Folk to Baroque

List A is the earliest list in terms of composition date. At Grade 1, it is dominated by folk songs such as “Golden Slumbers” and “The Miller of Dee”. Although folk songs are not necessarily hundreds of years old, they are usually unknown in terms of date, so fit into the idea of ‘early music’. By Grade 5, students are expected to manage simpler baroque arias such as Handel’s “Where ‘Ere You Walk”. Grade 5 candidates are also offered their first taste of Renaissance music with Arne’s “Where the Bee Sucks”. Handel, Haydn and Purcell are regulars on this list. Mozart and early classical composers also feature, straddling lists A and B. At Grade 8, candidates can choose Renaissance songs such as Dowland’s “Flow my Tears” or “Weep You No More Sad Fountains” , oratorio and mass settings such as Mozart’s “Agnus Dei” or operatic recitatives and arias like Purcell’s “Ah Belinda/When I am Laid”. For Grades 6 to 8, there is a general section, and then four sections for soprano, mezzosoprano/alto/countertenor, tenor, and baritone/bass.

List A songs tend to be quite word-y, in that the words are as important as the melody. Clear diction is important. The Baroque songs usually require a level of vocal agility in tackling the long  runs of quavers on a single vowel, while the Renaissance songs often change time signature every bar. Many of these songs have the opportunity for students to learn about ornamentation (both written by the composer and added by the performer).

YouTube Playlists: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

List B (Grades 1-5) – From Classical to Classic Art Songs

List B for Grades 1-5 covers simple repertoire from about 1750 to 1950 in date. The ABRSM have a bit of a love-affair going on with Brahms, and his songs feature heavily. High romantic songs (Faure etc) are notably absent, primarily because of their difficulty. They start to appear on the Grade 6-8 list B. Grade 1 offers songs such as Brahms “Die Nachtingall”, Schumann’s “Der Abenstern” or Lin Marsh’s “Seagull”. By Grade 5, the choice is a little more varied with Chopin’s “Smutna rzeka”, Finzi’s “Boy Johnny” and Copeland’s famous arrangement of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts”. There is no requirement to sing any repertoire in a foreign language at Grades 1-5, even though much of the B list was not originally written in English.

Vocal music became more and more about the music and less about the words as it progressed into the 19th century, and so these songs often provide opportunities to show of breath control and depth of tone along with emotional communication.

YouTube Playlists: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5

List B (Grades 6-8) – The Foreign Language List

At Grades 6 to 8, list B is the mandatory foreign language list. While other songs may be sung in translation, list B must be sung in its original language. At Grade 6 high romantic music in the form of Faure makes an appearance with the likes of “En Priere“, and students can delve into German Lieder with Schubert’s “Stanchen”. By Grade 8, Faure is a stalwart appearance, joined by his contemporary Debussy’s “Beau Soir” and Verdi makes an appearance with “Perduta ho La Pace”.

The key to a good B list choice at higher grades is finding a language your student is comfortable singing in. Good pronunciation will be essential, as will communicating the meaning through tone and facial expression. Thankfully many of the songs on this list have strong emotional content making them easy to engage with as performances.

YouTube Playlists: 6 – 7 – 8

List C (Grades 6-8) – The Art Song List

I will freely admit to hating List C as a student, but then I love baroque music, opera and music theatre! List C for Grades 6-8 covers modern art songs. Several of Roger Quilter’s Shakespeare settings are on the lists like “How Should I Your True Love Know?” at Grade 6. Madeline Dring’s Shakespeare setting of “It was a Lover” features at Grade 8. Britten’s “When You’re Feeling Like Expressing Your Affection”  features at Grade 6 and Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night” is on the Grade 8 list.

Modern art songs can be comic, emotional or pretty. All of them require confidence against more complex accompaniments which are often less helpful than those for the other lists. It can be quite a balancing act to get the emotional content across while maintaining good tone and technique.

YouTube Playlists: 6 – 7 – 8

List C (grades 1-5)/List D (grades 6-8) –  The Musicals List

Well, strictly speaking, this isn’t exclusively a musicals list, but the vast majority of candidates choose from the musical theatre or opera choices. At Grade 1, the musicals choices include classics like “We’re Off to See the Wizard” (The Wizard of Oz) and “My Favourite Things” (The Sound of Music). There are also some lovely songs written for primary aged children that I’m keen to look into further, such as Jenkyns’ “The Crocodile” or Lin Marsh’s “Pirates!”. Grade 5 has gems like “Sunrise, Sunset” (Fiddler on the Roof) and “I Could Have Danced All Night” (My Fair Lady). By this level, Gilbert and Sullivan are also on the list (“The Policeman’s Song” and “When a Merry Maiden Marries”) expanding the genre into operetta. There are also still art songs such as Rowley’s setting of “From a Railway Carriage”. By Grade 8, the musicals content like “Adelaide’s Lament” (Guys and Dolls) is thinning out to make way for opera arias such as “The Dew Fairy’s Song” from Humperdink’s Hansel und Gretel or “O Columbina” from Leoncavello’s I Pagliacci.

This list has a great range of choices all the way through the grades, with a mixture of musicals, jazz standards, and art songs for early grades, and more opera arias later on. This list allows students the chance to show off different skills, like characterisation, accents and a greater depth of emotional communication. It can be a real joy choosing a song from this list as students are likely to have several songs they enjoy and can perform well.

YouTube Playlists: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

Now you’re getting to grips with the accompanied repertoire, it’s time to choose an unaccompanied traditional song.

–>  Next post “Choosing Repertoire 3: Unaccompanied Traditional Song

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]

Understanding Repertoire (Free Printable)

Sheet music 2One of the aspects of teaching I really enjoy is when I get to use my degree (which isn’t in music) to help students understand the songs they are singing. I studied Social Anthropology and Social History, and so I love discussing historical context, composers and meaning.

When preparing repertoire with students, I often make use of my Understanding Repertoire printables. These short forms give prompts to help students start thinking about the emotional content of their songs, as well as covering musical features like key and structure. These sheets also make a good additional written aspect to practice for students if they are likely to have trouble doing regular practice one week. I also use them regularly for exam song to help students start to go beyond just singing the song accurately and really start to engage with the motives of the singer.

The sheet isn’t really suitable for very young singers, but from around age 9 or 10, students should be able to engage with this. You may need to explain the terms “baroque” and “romantic” etc if you’ve not covered basic history of music with them (and stay tuned to the blog for more information on my History of Music for Singers programme in the future).

You can download the pdf by clicking this link: [purchase_link id=”1318″ style=”button” color=”dark-gray” text=”Purchase”]

Please don’t modify this sheet before you give it to students, or sell it to anyone. You are, of course, welcome to print copies for students or use it as inspiration for producing your own activities to help students get to know their repertoire.

Repertoire Corner

A Stack of BooksIn addition to my Friday Favourites posts, and the slot on Wednesdays reserved for series (like the current ABRSM exam series), I hope to make a regular appearance of a short post on Mondays with my teaching notes on one classical and one music theatre song. I like to discover new repertoire, and I hope that this will inspire you to look at new songs, and go back to old favourites.

So, without further ado, here’s the first “Repertoire Corner”:

Handel – Where’er You Walk
[ABRSM 6(A); TG 6(A1); LCM DipLCM]*

Although a well-known tune, don’t be fooled by this, it still requires technical skill. All the phrases should be sung legato, but ended crisply. Special attention should be paid to the starting and finishing of each phrase and candidates should avoid the temptation to sing through the rests. The long runs of notes also need careful attention to be clean but still legato. The first repetition of “shall crowd in to a shade” needs particular attention. The da capo repeat of the A section should be ornamented, and suggestions can be found in the ABRSM Songbook 5.

* * *

Formby – When the Lads of the Village Get Crackin’
[LCM:MT c.4-5]

Wartime songs, while assumed to be “part of British musical culture” are often unknown to young singers, but can provide good variety and contrast in Music Theatre exams. When approaching this song, the melody itself is fairly simple, although it does modulate a little, which makes it more challenging for those who aren’t confident with pitch. The accompaniment is, however, very supportive. The challenge in performing this song well comes from really telling the story – getting the audience to believe that the singer is proud to be in the home guard, even if they are mocking it at the same time. Make sure there is ample time for the candidate to engage with the words in preparing this song. This peice could be sung in any natural British accent, but would be best performed using Formby’s own Lancashire accent.

*This gives the grade level of a song, if it appears on a list. Notes given in brackets refer to the specific list on the syllabus.

Bagpipes Sound Weird for a Reason

Once or twice, I’ve had students insist to me that a Cb is the same as a B. Each time, I have to remind them that, actually they’re not the same note at all and as singers it’s very important to remember that.

Now, many of you may go “huh? I thought a Cb and a B were the same note? They’re the same key on a piano!”. They are indeed the same key, but they’re not actually the same note. As a t-shirt I bought in Thailand says “Same Same, But Different”.

About 300 years ago, Western music adopted Equal Temperament. In essence, this is where all instruments (pianos in particular) are tuned so that all intervals are exactly the same*, even though in the natural world, they’re not. So your beloved piano is, by the wonders of modernity and our desperate need to enforce order in a chaotic world, tuned slightly flat at one end and sharp at the other. So, in the world of equal temperament, yes, a Cb looks and sounds and sings like a B. But it’s not a B.

Outside our crazy, regimented Western music, a Cb is fractionally higher than a B. Which brings us back to bagpipes. Bagpipes are not tuned to equal temperament! They’re tuned to Just Intonation (or, as I like to think of it, left in their wild slightly-unharmonious natural state). This is why their intervals sound slightly strange to us, as though they’re not quite in tune. In reality, the bagpipes are actually -in- tune, and the rest of our music isn’t. Kinda.

Acappella singing also tends to drift towards just intonation. I suspect this is why it’s blindingly obvious when TV shows and films like Glee and Pitch Perfect use voice samples plugged through a keyboard to fill out the acappella singing. It just doesn’t sound right, and I wonder if it’s because actually, true acappella singing is justly intonated, not equally tempered.

So there you have it, a short explanation of why bagpipes sound weird, and also why the voice is the most flexible instrument out there – it can be equally tempered and justly intonated without any trouble.

If you want more, the Wikipedia pages are pretty good, and I believe Ross Duffin’s How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony and Why You Should Care comes pretty well recommended.


*The intervals are not all the same length because the frequency ratios differ slightly for each pair of notes. Equal Temperament is an average ratio, based on the ratios of the note A, which has nice neat frequencies of 110hz, 220hz, 330hz, 440hz etc. For a more detailed explanation, see the Wikipedia page, or speak to a music teacher!