Monthly Archives: December 2013

An Update

IMG_8232This is a short post to update you on my current situation as I have rather disappeared off the map recently. I’ve had a family crisis and some trying times in general which means the blog has not had the attention it deserves. I’m really sorry not to have brought you lovely Christmassy updates and info, but it has been a difficult few weeks here in the Discover Singing studio.

I am, however, optimistic about next year, and normal service should be resumed after Hogmanay!

In the meantime, I hope you all had a very Merry Christmas and I wish you a Happy Hogmanay for next week. Keep in touch, and I’ll see you all early in 2014!

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause
It’s been a quiet week in the blogosphere. I guess everyone is getting ready for Christmas! If you are, I hope you’re also taking time to enjoy the season and reflect too. Haven’t done that yet? Grab a cuppa and have a read of these gems.

Posts on learning

Words of encouragement and a reality check for young musicians (Beyond the Notes) – A reminder that no matter how amazing another musician seems, we are all still learning!

Why Write Programme Notes (Dr Marc’s Blog) – Some really important advice that will help you write better programme notes.

Posts on teaching

Tips for Ticks: How to Teach Piano Kids To Use a Metronome (Teach Piano Today) – Four key aspects of using a metronome to help candidates to

Free Christmas Singing Game (Helen Russell Music) – A gorgeously cute singing game which works for small groups, and is Kodaly friendly too 🙂

Music in the News

Pioneering online music degree set to launch (Music Week)

Singing ‘boosts mental health’ (Wirral News)

Plan to cut music lessons (Daily Record)

Music in higher education: what is it worth? – roundtable discussion (The Guardian)

A Singer’s Christmas: The Christmas Carol


It’s advent and that means for millions of singers that means fighting the cold and colds to make it out to thousands of choir practices, concerts and carol services. Music is a huge part of what makes us all feel Christmassy, and it’s one of the few seasons when even the most mainstream radio stations don’t mind playing songs that sing about Jesus. But where did all our Christmas music come from? And why do we call them carols?

Carols didn’t begin life as synonymous with Christmas. A carol was an early form of dance music which had nothing to do with the Christian celebrations on the 25th of December. Instead, it was called a carol because the dance was performed in a circle. There were also lyrics which were in a call and response style, much like the famous chant song “Everywhere we go!”. This form of vibrant and enthusiastic music lent itself well to processions, and by the 14th century the carol had been adopted for parades for religious festivals.

The earliest music that we now call “Christmas” carols were written for mystery plays. These were performances of bible stories which were organised in towns and villages at festival seasons.  Often different guilds would take different parts of the story, and I like to imagine them like a town-wide version of a school nativity play (although that is probably not at all accurate!). One of the earliest carols we still sing is the Coventry Carol, a tune which is about the events after Jesus’ birth when King Herod ordered the slaughter of all the babies under two years old in Bethlehem (click here to read the story in the bible).

Another early example of this era is the song Adam Lay Y Bounden. This song is thought to have been recorded by a travelling minstrel because it’s lyrics are first recorded in a manuscript showing other songs known to be popular at the time among minstrels. However, this song is deeply rich in Medieval theology which suggests a more religious origin that is now impossible to trace. The song starts with the story of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, and goes on to tell of the redemption of humanity through the coming of Jesus. No music survives from the original composition, so the words have been set in several different ways over the years. The arrangement below is by Peter Warlock.

Some other examples of old, traditional songs which have unknown origins likely dating back to the 15th or 16th century include The Holy and the Ivy, The Boars’ Head Carol and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. All of these carols reflect the wider Christmas traditions which were borrowed from pagan rituals. The Holly and the Ivy speaks about the practice of bringing in greenery which were originally pagan fertility symbols, but were adopted by Christians. The Boars’ Head Carol describes the preparation of a boars’ head as the Yuletide meal, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas also speaks about food, and the importance of sharing hospitality with neighbours.

Many other Christmas carols are also set to popular tunes which are much older than their lyrics, such as Past Three O Clock (early 20th century) which is set to the tune London Waits (from the 1600s).

Of course, this being Advent, the final carol we still sing which is from this early era of Christmas music is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This is another hymn which probably has a monastic or religious origin, as it was originally written in Latin. The lyrics speak of Jesus in the context of Jewish history including the exodus from Egypt and his direct earthly line back to King David. The song is strictly for advent as each verse repeats the line “O come, o come…” as the singers await the day when they can celebrate the birth of Jesus.

[Introduction] ♦ [Next Post]

This is the first in a four part series on Christmas songs posted over Advent 2013. Do you have a favourite Christmas carol? Comment below!

Dealing with Disappointment

ABRSM Mark SheetsExam results are now trickling through, and I am among those who have not been delighted with the results. I was sitting a piano exam, and although nerves got the better of me, I thought I had done ok. Turns out, my pass was much more marginal than I had expected.

Disappointment is a common problem for singers and musicians. We are always competing, whether with ourselves, the expectations of others, or other musicians (real or imaginary). It can be very hard when we don’t do as well as we had hoped, and it’s vital to manage disappointment well so we don’t get totally disheartened and give up!

Feeling those feelings

One of the most important steps with disappointment is to feel it. There is often a lot of pressure to “look on the bright side” with people saying things like “at least you passed!” or “I still think you’re wonderful” or “well, there’s nothing you can do about it now”. None of these are wrong things for people to say, but it can make us feel like disappointment is a bad emotion.

In reality, there’s no such thing as a bad emotion, and it’s really important to feel the disappointment. The only way to make feelings go away is to let them run their course, so if you need to find a corner to cry in, or have a tantrum and hit some pillows, do it! Surround yourself with a safe environment, and the people who know you best, and let yourself go. You’ll feel much better!

Decide what wasn’t your fault

If you are disappointed, it’s important to separate out what in the outcome was your fault, and what wasn’t. In an exam, you’re playing in an unfamiliar environment. Perhaps the acoustic surprised you, or your accompanist started too fast. Maybe you had a cold that day, or had arrived late because of bad traffic. Perhaps your teacher made some mistakes in preparing you, or work got really busy right before your exam. If it’s an audition or interview, sometimes other people have expectations that we just don’t meet.

It’s very important to realise that some of what happened was out of your control. You are not God (wouldn’t it be scary if you were!), and so at least some of the situation will be due to things you can’t do anything about! Let yourself off the hook a little bit, so that you can focus on the things that you can change in the future.

In my case, I couldn’t control my nerves because I had never done a piano exam before. I also couldn’t control the choice of tests the examiner gave me, or the state of the piano. I have to let these things go because I can’t change them.

Don’t go too far though! There will always be a mixture of things you did and things that were out of your control, and the important thing is to be able to accept both sides. If you just blame other people and circumstances then you’ve learned nothing (and you’re likely to become a great big whiney pain in the behind to your friends and family…!)

Recognise and accept your failings

Sad toddlerWhen you’re ready, and the emotions have subsided, this is the time to look at what role you played in creating your own disappointment. Did you misjudge the standard required? Did you honestly practice as much as you could? Were you late because you didn’t leave enough time? Was your voice struggling because of the late night partying?

I know I could have practiced more. I also pushed to go in for the exam this term, rather than next term when I might have been more prepared. I made choices that meant I was not doing my absolute best. It’s hard to face that fact, but it’s really important to do it because it’s the only way to get better and stand a chance of succeeding next time.

I hope, of course, that you have all got wonderful results in your exams, but if you haven’t, I’m with you!

Do you have any tips for dealing with disappointment? Comment below.

If you’re disappointed because you didn’t pass, click over to this post on what to do if you’ve failed.

Repertoire Corner



Christmas is nearly upon us, so the next few repertoire corner posts will focus on some of the festive music available on the exam lists

Sans Day Carol – Anon

This song is a bright and jolly alternative to the Holly and the Ivy, and tells the story of Jesus through colours. It does go at quite a brisk pace, so singers will need to ensure that they know their words and articulate clearly throughout the song. There are also several short runs which will need close attention to ensure they don’t become glissandos. There is plenty of scope for dynamic and mood variations between verses, so select those to be performed carefully!

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

* * *

A Spoonful of Sugar – Sherman/Sherman (Mary Poppins)

Just as with the Sans Day Carol, this is a song which requires precision and accuracy to be really excellent. Watch that singers perform exactly the right notes as written rather than what they think it should be. The tone should be brisk, but not halting – the goal is to create a fluid song, but one which is also precise. This should be a jolly song to sing, and a great choice for young singers.

Text. [Lyrics] [YouTube]