Monthly Archives: September 2013

Repertoire Corner



Happiness and joy are our themes this week, and I’ve selected two intermediate level songs


Schubert – Seligkeit (Heavenly Bliss)


This song has quite a long introduction which should be used by the singer to prepare mentally for the mood of the song. The melody here needs attention to detail. It’s vital to get the trill at the start of each verse right, and all the slurred notes need to be clean. Watch especially for the large jumps in the second half – they shouldn’t become glissandos. This song needs good, clear top notes without too much vibrato to reflect Schubert’s semi-classical style. Each verse should be sung with a different character to reflect the meaning of the words regardless of whether the song is sung in English or German. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

* * *

Lerner/Loewe – I Could Have Danced All Night (My Fair Lady)

Watch the key change in the opening recit to this song – it’s easy to think it’s a repeated phrase, but it’s not! Once the main theme gets going, it’s important to sing right through every note, shaping it roundly. Dynamic variation is also important to communicating the story of this song. Breathing needs to planned carefully to ensure every note is really well supported. Finally, this song needs a good dose of raw enthusiasm to be truly excellent. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

Friday Favourites

Time to take a Friday Pause

A semi-palindromic date today –
always makes me smile, anyway! As the autumn sets in, there’s plenty of live music popping up around, but if you’re not lucky enough to be out and about tonight, have a read of this lot.


One Simple Bit of Tech May Be a Piano Teacher’s Best Friend! (Teach Piano Today) – A useful post about how to send mass text messages to students.

4 Ways Judging Can Make You a Better Teacher (ComposeCreate) – A lovely guest post on Wendy’s blog about how being the judge can help us all be better teachers (and musicians)

Learning music, riding bikes, and eating Oreos (Beyond the Notes) – Find out what layers have to do with learning (and use it as an excuse to open that pack of Oreos too)

Communicating with Teachers (The Musician’s Way) – A useful post with some thoughts on how and why to communicate with your teacher.

Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowships (The Curious Piano Teacher) – Ever wanted to travel to learn more about teaching? Here is a useful source of funding.

Perform Better Under Pressure (Bulletproof Musician) – How simply changing your perspective can make you a better musician.

Are Stage Adaptations Always Inferior? (Guardian Theatre Blog) – I’m usually of the opinion that “the original medium is the best”, but there are always exceptions…

5 Music Theory Tips: Part 2 (Music Teacher’s Helper) – A blog post packed with great little mnemonics to help you remember theory basics.

Getting Students Excited about Classical Music (Music Teacher’s Helper) – How to help young kids develop a love of classical music as well as popular music!

How to Use Pop Music to Improve Your Ear (Jazz Advice) – A Great post with ideas on how to use the music you listen to all the time to your advantage.

What Makes a Good Audience? (Guardian Theatre Blog) – Some thoughts about getting the balance right between too quiet and too loud!

Costume and Set Design (The Drama Teacher) – Preparing for LCM exams or interested in theatre? This video is a great introduction to the role of costume and set.

Which actors pass the telephone directory test? (Guardian Theatre Blog) – Who would you pay to see in any show?

What insecurities are keeping you from the stage? (Speak Schmeak) – Some thoughts on what it is that gives us performance anxieties.

Finally, this is an excellent post on how to practice, and how to learn songs. It’s from 2011, so I’ve left it till last. Keep an eye on the blog for future posts on how to practice singing more effectively: Vocal Technique: How to Best Practice Practicing Singing (The Counter Tenor Voice)

A History of Music for Singers – The Classical Era

A History of Music for SingersIf the Baroque Era was the era of music for Kings, the Classical Era was music for escapism. As we learned in the last part of this series, the music of the Baroque era was composed for Kings and Dukes. However, as Capitalism began to rule supreme in Europe, composers became more business minded and began to become more independent.

Fashion in 1700s

From a wider point of view, the Classical Era was a time of social and political upheaval in the Western world. In 1776, after a bloody war, thirteen British colonies joined together to declare themselves independent and formed what would become one of the most powerful nations on earth – the United States. Two decades later, the French declared a revolution and chop off the head of their King. Revolutions were also happening in Belgium, Austria, Haiti, Poland and Ireland. The Swedish and Russians assassinate their ruling monarchs. By the end of the era, in 1820, Britain has been to war with Napoleon twice, both at Waterloo and Trafalgar.

However, in music, this is not the era of Wagner’s Sturm und Drang. No, Mozart is King of the opera house with his tales of love and adventure – escapism akin to today’s trend for comic book superheroes in the midst of financial recession and uncertainty. To be rich enough to go to the opera and enjoy high classical music is to be at risk of being overthrown by the revolutions of the poor. No one wanted to pay money to be reminded how bad life was outside, so the classical composers provided a safe haven where all was right with the world.

Edinburgh Old CollegeThe other key influence on Classical music was the “classics”. Developing on from the Renaissance interest in Greek and Roman ideas, Classical art and architecture drew on the Greek and Roman art which was being rediscovered by collectors. This is the era of the Grand Tour when rich Europeans travelled to the Mediterranean to collect a little bit of history. It’s the era of the British Museum with its classical columns on the outside and Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon (collected 1810-12) on the inside. Classical art is notable for its simplicity, clean lines, formal structures and emphasis on order and hierarchy (an antidote to the challenge to order and hierarchy going on politically). You can see an example of this in the picture of the University of Edinburgh’s Old College which was designed in 1817.

This emphasis on clean lines, simplicity and formal structure extended into music. Classical music is notably less rich than Baroque music, and tends towards a “melody and accompaniment” form. By using this form, there was more scope for other kinds of variety such as greater use of dynamics and changes of mood within a single movement or section. Modulations became more adventurous and more frequent, paving the way for the chromaticism that would be a hallmark of Romantic music (itself leading to atonalism). Here’s an example of classical song by Beethoven:

Instrumentation became more fixed. In the Baroque era, it was common to miss out certain instruments or add in additional ones, and use a “continuo” bass (similar to a modern leadsheet which shows just the chords and leaves the pianist or guitarist to interpret the chords as they see fit). Classical music moved towards a system whereby the music was played as written every time with the same instruments. The “continuo” bass declined as the piano (see right for an example of an early design) replaced all previous instruments as the keyboard of choice for all music. This alone provided a whole new vocabulary of musical sounds as the piano can be played with much greater expression than the harpsichord or organ. This is one of Haydn’s piano sonatas:

For singers, the Classical era saw developments in of both opera and song. Oratorios fell out of favour, and instead, Mozart made opera a real genre of its own with his engaging stories drawing on literature as well as mythology and theology which had previously dominated. As composers were drawn more and more away from the church and into the drawing room, secular songs became popular with composers setting poetry to music. Many of the new art songs were “serenades” dedicated to a specific person. Vocal music in this era was really a prelude to the flowering of the voice as an instrument that the Romantic era would bring. Words were important, but the melody became more important. Here’s a great example of Mozart melding melody with words in the opera The Magic Flute:

For the ordinary people, song became the means of protest. The music of the people was key to uniting them around a cause and expressing the fears of the participants. It’s no co-incidence that the very successful musical Les Miserables is set against a background of revolution with its rousing chorus of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”. Songs had always reflected the political circumstances, but now it was a unifying force for war. (Another thing which foreshadowed the role of popular song in the 20th Century). Here’s a song from the American Revolutionary War which is still sung today:

The key forms of music in the Classical era for voice were:

Most of the new forms were for instruments, and these included:

When you’re listening to decide if something is music from the Classical era, it’s likely to have some of these features:

  • Simple but beautiful
  • Restrained and elegant
  • Clear in melody and accompaniment
  • Usually singable, with clear phrases

Composers to Remember:

The composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Aus) is the most notable “transition” composer who bridged the Classical and Romantic styles.

–> Next week: The Romantic Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

Friday Favourites

Time to take a Friday Pause


Welcome to another Friday Favourites! As the evenings show signs of drawing in a little, why not cosy up with your favourite piece of classical music, and check out the best of the blogosphere this week.


Musicians, Athletes and Practice (Kids & Keys) – A short but sweet post.

How Does Music Produce Emotional Reactions (Bulletproof Musician) – Honestly, if you’re not following this blog, you should do.

The Anatomy of a Sound: Overcoming the Barrier of Music Theory (Jazz Advice) – A fantastic post that really gets into why music theory is important, and what we should do with it once we know it.

Wednesday Question: Why Don’t Parents Support Piano Lessons? (Susan Paradis) – A short thought on the parent-music lesson relationship that’s wise words for teachers, and wise words for parents too.

Looping – How to Manage Repetition Rhythmically  (Practicing the Piano) – Some great advice for all musicians on how to break down and work on tricky passages.

I’ve also started following the 40 Piece Challenge this week – a great Australian initiative designed to combat the “3 pieces a year” mentality that exams and poor teaching can encourage. Why not try this yourself this year?

Why Even Beginners Need to Practice Singing

It’s amazing how often I come across comments like this, which I recently read on a forum:

Singing doesn’t count, as it doesn’t … require the same kind of practice as instruments do.

There’s a bit of a myth that exists that singing, especially at a beginner level, doesn’t need practice. After all, we all use our voices every day, right?


Singers, even those just starting out, need to practice every day in an organised and focused way.

Image by monica liu on flickr

Singing practice is like doing physical exercise. If you’re a runner, and stop running for a while, the next time you go back to it, it’s hard, right? Your muscles are all stiff and your body feels slow. You probably even wake up the next day with aches you don’t normally get. Singing, just like running, dancing, swimming or going to the gym uses muscles. They’re very small muscles for the most part, but they’re there, and the need to be strengthened and conditioned to work at their optimum (You can learn more in this post about how the voice works and this one on how breathing works). This can only be achieved by singing regularly, and focusing on using good technique. Training those muscles is vital, and the sooner you start doing it regularly (daily), the sooner your muscles will get stronger and more responsive.

Regular, focused practice time also helps you to learn songs faster and more accurately. By giving the song your full attention (rather than just practicing in the car, as one parent proudly claimed her daughter did), you can be certain you’re not learning notes or words incorrectly. You’ll also be using your whole brain to absorb the information, rather than just part of it. This might not feel important when you’re learning little more than folk songs and nursary rhymes, but by focusing on your practice, you’re not just learning about singing – you’re learning about learning to sing.

So, what happens if you don’t put in the time and effort to practice properly when you first start out?

Your voice doesn’t develop strength, power, accuracy, control or range. This is a serious issue. Just as if you launched straight into a marathon, doing nothing by the occasional jog around the park, jumping from low effort levels into working on harder songs with more challenging range and technique can not only lead to frustration, but it can lead to injury. By working on building up skills and strength, you’ll be improving  the longevity of your voice.

If you don’t learn how to learn songs when you’re learning nursary rhymes and folksongs, it’s an awful lot harder to sit down with a four page Romantic song in French or German and know where to start. It’s like trying to solve a complex quadratic equation without having ever taken the time to learn how to do basic arithmetic.

Ultimately? Not practicing early on leads to frustration, injury and, ultimately, giving up
It’s that simple.

So, how can we fix this? Well, make some time every day for practice, and keep following the blog for tips on practicing, and simple vocal exercises that can help you to build up good habits and make it feel just as easy at Grade 6 as at Grade 1.

Review: Hairspray

The opening of the 2013/14 theatre season at the Playhouse was bright, colourful and bursting with joy.


Where and When: Edinburgh Playhouse; Tuesday 3rd September 7.30pm (Run ends 14 Sept)

The Show

Having seen the film of Hairspray (which I wasn’t overly impressed with) I wasn’t certain whether I’d like the show. I was pleasantly surprised. The film comes over as brash and silly, but on stage, the bold strokes in which this story is painted are just enough to get over a very real and important point about social acceptance while still allowing the audience to have a whole lot of fun.

The basic plot takes place in 1962 and follows the rather “larger than average” Tracy Turnblad who has ambitions to dance on The Corney Collins Show on TV. While planning how to manage it, she meets some of the black kids in her school and begins to question the racial segregation which is considered normal. Comic capers ensue, and a happy ending is had by all. It’s a little bit like someone smushed together Show Boat, Grease and the great British Pantomime tradition (complete with the Dame in the form of Edna Turnblad) and then topped it a little bit of Sixties technicolour. Despite this strange combination, the story works. It’s not too silly, it’s not too brash, it’s not too moralising – it’s just right.

The musical numbers are a standout highlight of this show and one of the reasons for it’s success. Shaiman and Whittman write fantastic songs which manage to pastiche many great 60s hits while still allowing the music to be fresh, innovative and unique. It doesn’t surprise me at all that they were invited to write the music for Bombshell, the fictional musical in the US TV Show Smash.

My final note is that although there’s an “everyone get up and dance” moment at the end of the show, this is very clearly after the curtain call. This small detail made me very pleased because it allows the audience to choose whether to give a standing ovation, rather than being forced into one. It’s my petpeeve to attend shows where I am not given that theatre-goers’ right not to give a standing ovation. However, this production pitched their ending beautifully, allowing me to remain seated during the curtain call, and then stand to join in with the dance break.

The Cast

Surprisingly, the opening night in Edinburgh of this tour featured not one, not two, but six replacement cast members, including the understudies for both Tracy (Nikki Pocklington) and Edna Turnblad (Daniel Stockton). In fact, my ticket-broker-come-musical-theatre-encyclopedia companion took most of the interval to work out how there could be six replacements on stage, but only five swings in the cast (the answer being that Tracy’s understudy is a “walking understudy” meaning she has no other role in the production due to the requirements for the actress to be large – you learn something new every day!). Of course, most of the audience would have no idea, and it certainly didn’t show that this had been the debut performance in their role for several of the actors.

The highlight performance of the evening was, for me, Lauren Hood as Penny Pingleton. Penny is a geeky and awkward character which would be easy to overact, but Ms Hood’s performance was spot on. Paul Rider was also a gorgeously entertaining Wilbur Turnblad opposite the understudy for Edna, Mark Hilton. The weakest performance of the night, sadly but expectedly, was Lucy Benjamin. Although her acting of the part was lovely, and her physicality was good, her singing was rarely singing – very raspy, breathy and strained.

There were some technical issues which also detracted from the largely excellent performances. The balance of the sound was often poor, making it difficult to hear the words to the songs. There was also one glaring costume problem – Edna’s finale dress was clearly intended to be pink (to match Tracy and Wilbur’s costumes), but instead it was a strange, clashing shade of red. I sincerely hope that this was due to costume damage, and not a directorial choice!


This is a lovely, upbeat musical best seen at the theatre rather than on film. It’ll definitely be appealing for teenage girls as well as adults, making it a good family choice. The lively music will be ringing in your ears long after you leave the theatre, and the moral of the story, about being true to what you believe is right, is one everyone could use a reminder of now and then.

Notable Songs

  • Good Morning Baltimore – Tracey (Medium)
  • I Can Hear the Bells – Tracey (Medium)
  • You Can’t Stop The Beat – Tracey/Chorus (Medium)

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Composer of the Month for September: George Frideric Handel

Logo Composer of the MonthWelcome to the very first Composer of the Month. This is a new regular series in which I will explore the vocal music of different composers. As part of Composer of the Month, a free pdf will be available of this month’s composer for you to use with your students. I will also post at least two posts, one with a biography of the composer, and one with a selection of typical vocal works and some notes on what makes their music famous.

This month, we’re beginning with one of my favourite composers of all time:

Handel, GF

Handel Image


Born: 1685
Nationality: German (Prussian)
Lived in: Brandenburg-Prussia, Italy, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Fame Rating: Fortissimo!


George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg. Halle is in the east of modern Germany, but when Handel was born, it was in a country called Brandenburg-Prussia which became the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701 (Handel was 16).

Handel loved music from an early age, but his father wanted him to become a lawyer. Young George was forbidden from studying music, so the story goes, and he practiced in secret. Then, during a visit to relatives, he surprised everyone with his ability to play. This convinced his father he should continue to have musical training, although not enough to dissuade him that the career for Handel was the law.

Just as his father wished, Handel headed off to law study at the University of Halle, but this commitment didn’t last long. Within a year, Handel accepted a job as violinist and harpsichordist for the Opera in Hamburg (at the time, an independently governed imperial city in the Holy Roman Empire, and now in northern Germany).

After a few years of working as a musician and composer, Handel left the Holy Roman Empire for Italy at the invitation of the powerful Medici family. Italy was the place to be in the early 18th Century for composers as it was at the cutting edge of musical fashion. Opera was booming business and Handel was soon adding his own sound to the mix. Handel also worked for the Papacy, writing sacred music for the Roman Catholic church in the form of cantatas (songs) and oratorios (choral works).

In 1710, Handel returned to Germany, where he became court musician and composer for Georg, Elector of Hanover. As part of this role, he travelled to London, where only a few years later his patron would also move. In 1714, Georg of Hanover became King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.

In London, Handel thrived, holding posts with the Royal Academy of Music, and the Royal Opera in Covent Garden. He also continued to work for the Hanover family, composing one of his most famous works, Zadok the Priest, for the coronation of George II. It was this royal music which includes Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music which would fix Handel in the history of music as one of the most famous composers of all time.

Handel continued to write operas in London, and also travelled Europe recruiting for choirs and  orchestras. Later, he returned to religious music, as this seemed to be more popular among the London audiences. His most famous work, the Messiah, was first performed in 1742 and has been performed constantly ever since.

When he died in 1759, Handel was one of the rare breed of artist who was recognised as great during his lifetime as well as after. He was buried with full state honours in Westminster Abbey. Three thousand mourners attended the funeral.

Today, his works live on amongst the most popular works of all time. This year (2013), the Messiah placed at 22 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame (an annual public vote of favourite classical music).

Famous Historical Events During Handel’s Lifetime:

  • 1688 – The Glorious Revolution makes England a constitutional monarchy
  • 1703 – Peter the Great founds St Petersburg and moves the Russian capital there
  • 1707 – Act of Union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland
  • 1714 – George, Elector of Hanover, becomes King George I of Great Britain
  • 1715 – “First Jacobite Rebellion” happens in Scotland (it’s not really the first one though…)
  • 1720s – Bad financial management causes the “South Sea Bubble” – one of the first Capitalist market crashes
  • 1729-30 – The Wesley brothers found Methodism in England

Find out more about Handel elsewhere online:
Classics for Kids – BBC Radio 3 – Classic FMWikipedia


Repertoire Corner



Two love songs this week…



Greig – Tø Brune Øin / Two Brown Eyes / Zwei Brune Augen
[ABRSM 3(B); NC 2]

This is a fairly simple song melodically, but still needs a good acting performance to ensure the meaning is clear to the listener. The opening section needs to be light, but not staccato – sing right through the notes. There is a shift in mood in the middle of the song which needs to be communicated by the singer as well as the accompaniment. At the end of the song, there is a quick dynamic change alongside chromatic movement which needs to be cleanly executed to be sure of a strong finish to the performance. [YouTube]

* * *

Bernstein/Sondheim – One hand, one heart (West Side Story)
[ABRSM 4(C); TG 4(A1)]

This seems like a very simple song at first sight, with a straightforward slow melody and repeating verses. However, the key challenge with this song is to keep not only a sustained tone throughout the song, but to shape each note so that it is rounded. The high point of the song in the B section also requires strong vocal control as the singer is required to crescendo and decrescendo on a single note. It is the dynamic variation and tonal control required that make this song both challenging and rewarding to sing. [YouTube]

Review: Pippin

A return to Morningside’s Church Hill Theatre for a second American High School Theatre show.


FRINGE RUN: 16/8-20/8 (Not 17) @ Various; Church Hill Theatre (137); [£5]

Who, Where and When: American High School Theatre; Sunday 18th August 2013; 4.15pm

The Show

Pippin is a fantastic example of a post-modern semi-surreal musical theatre. The show takes influence from the Italian Commedia Dell’arte which influenced everything from Shakespeare to the Pantomime. The basic principle is that characters are charicatured and slightly abserd. This is the case in Pippin, where the story is told by the performing company, and the journey of the central character takes him to meet a range of personalities. It is surprising how similar this seems to the Bernstein operetta Candide in content and physical style.

What makes this show so brilliant is that it is very flexible. There are many smaller parts, so although some leads do have a heavy burden, the ensemble of secondary characters is large and varied. This makes it a surprisingly good choice for a High School Theatre group, as well as being capable of wowing audiences on Broadway by adding performers trained by Circ du Soleil.

I really enjoyed the story which is simple, but gripping, and comes to a dark and challenging conclusion (which I won’t spoil, lest you are able to see this show some day). Every character Pippin meets on the way is colourful and entertaining – from his overly matcho brother (played in this cast by a female actor, which only added to the hilarity) to his dear batty grandmother.

The Cast

Although young, the cast, by-and-large, rose to the challenge of this show. Some vocal performances were perhaps a little too weak. The girl playing Fastrada struggled with the demanding songs and was unable to hold her pitch accurately at times, and the actress playing the grandmother was clearly very nervous despite her wonderfully entertaining acting.

However, all of the cast threw themselves into the mood of the piece which was really the most important aspect in this show.


Pippin is a fantastic show, and deserves to be remembered as part of musical theatre’s greatest. In particular, the nature of the piece makes it extraordinarily accessible for a wide range of theatre groups (I could imagine it would work well for mixed-ability theatre groups such as Chickenshed). The story is engaging and funny (the hallmarks of Mr Schwartz of Wicked fame) and the characters lively. One can only hope that the Tony Award for Best Revival-winning Broadway production is given a West End transfer and a long run in the UK.

Notable Songs

  • Corner of the Sky – Pippin
  • Simple Joys – Leading Player
  • Spread a Little Sunshine – Fastrada
  • And There He Was – Catherine
  • Extraordinary – Pippin
  • I Guess I’ll Miss the Man – Catherine

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥