Archive for the ‘ Singing ’ Category

Suppose you was a little cat…


I have performed many songs, but if there’s one I’ve performed more than any other, it has to be ‘Mr Cellophane’ from Chicago.  It’s my party piece, the number that gets pulled out when I’m asked to sing outside the context of a musical, and as such has had outings in Darley Dale, Bakewell, Elham, Postling, Canterbury, Whitstable, Newport Pagnell, Dover and possibly other places I’ve forgotten about.  Each time is different, as the circumstances change.  Sometimes it’s a capella, sometimes there is musical accompaniment ; sometimes the audience is largely friends (or at least friends of friends), sometimes they’re complete strangers.  And each time is different because I’ll put a slightly different spin on things, bring out different aspects of the song.

Needless to say, I love this number (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb).  It strikes a difficult balance between being funny, being sweet and being terribly sad.  It is the lament of an ‘invisible’ man, who gets passed by in life, feeling that even those people he sees every day don’t notice him.  When I first performed the song (over 10 years ago now), I felt very much like him and I found that singing his story was cathartic.  These days, when I take on the properties of cellophane it is out of choice – there are times when it can be quite useful to fade into the background.  As a performer, part of the song’s appeal is that is builds gradually from a tentative start, taking on more force and power as the character gets more frustrated with the way people see (or rather don’t see) him.  Then, in a stroke of songwriting genius, it drops off again sharply, half way through the final line, ending with a completely appropriate moment of bathos as the man’s normal state of quiet transparency returns.

A little cat

Last week, Mister Cellophane made his most recent appearance in my repertoire. Bearing in mind how many times I’ve sung the song, it ought to be possible for me to perform it in my sleep. However, this was not to be. Having completed the first verse and chorus, I began the second verse. “Suppose you was a little cat…” Then…nothing. A complete blank. My thought process ran something like :

  • “Suppose you was a little cat,”
  • Oh. Oh no.
  • What on earth comes next?
  • It must rhyme with “cat” and…there’s something about scratching ears, but that’s not yet.
  • Don’t look panicked – look sad, look meek.
  • It’s very quiet…
  • Oh, that’s because P won’t carry on playing until I sing something.
  • I am so embarrassed. What happens if I never remember the line?
  • I ought to make something up.  Something about what the cat does.
  • What do cats do, anyway?
  • !!!  Got it!
  • “Residing in a person’s flat.”

The whole thing can only have taken moments, but it felt like forever. I’m told that it was barely noticeable (the musical director thought I was simply ‘acting’ and other members of the company either didn’t notice or said it was a second or two at most, though that’s still an age in performance time), but those moments were absolutely terrifying.  I’d like to think I’m never complacent when performing, but this was an excellent reminder – no matter how well you think you know what you’re doing on stage, you could know it better and you still need 100% concentration, every single second.

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Concert season


It’s the summer, so the population of Great Britain has both umbrellas and barbecues at the ready, anxiously peering at the sky.  In addition to outdoor meals and disappointing weather, the summer tends to bring a whole bunch of concerts with it.  The Proms are on in London, and the prospect of warm weather seems to get music makers and music lovers going.  Over the last two weekends, I’ve taken part in two very different concerts.

The first was with Reach Out Gospel Choir, a group which was formed in January.  I started going because it’s organised by a good friend, and I carried on going because it was so enjoyable.  We’ve been having fun singing a mixture of traditional gospel music and pop songs, with this being our first public performance.  The choir performed diverse material from ‘Steal Away’ to ‘Can You Feel It?’, all in 3-part harmony and mostly with broad smiles on our faces.  My personal favourites to sing were ‘Magnify the Lord’ and ‘I’ll Be There’, encompassing the range of our repertoire.  The first is very simple, a short and catchy piece which shifts up a key after every chorus, and the second is just a joy to sing thanks to my friend’s fantastic arrangement.  I also sang a solo, stepping out of the musical theatre world to have a go at Michael Buble’s ‘Haven’t Met You Yet’, which was brilliant fun to sing.  I may have to delve into his songbook again!

Next was West Side Story From Scratch, which was (as the name implies) put together with a minimum of rehearsals.  In an outdoor venue, we got the audience to join with us as the Jets, the Sharks and their girls as we sang through the score with the help of two very accomplished pianists.  My part in the concert was pretty mad, even by the standards of a year where I’ve been a wolf and sung a song in my underwear!  For the ‘Tonight Quintet’, I sang the part of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.  I then got to play the Jets (all of them!) in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, a feat that involved four different accents and a workout for my falsetto range.  I think I can safely say that it was a unique version of the song, and it certainly got a very warm reception from the audience.  The Quintet, on the other hand…  well, let’s just say that it could definitely have gone better.  But I suppose that’s a “From Scratch” performance for you.

I have the possibility of one more concert before the summer ends.  In many ways, I prefer doing a fully staged show, partly because I do like to have a character to hide behind, but concerts are a lot of fun and I think the audiences generally feel more a part of proceedings, even if they aren’t being asked to join in with some of the songs.

Speak up!


I have recently been asked, in two completely different contexts, about how to project the voice.  One query was from someone who has a very, very quiet speaking voice and would quite like to be heard, and the other was from a group of young people about to do a performance.  It struck me that although, in theory, I’m a good person to ask about this, given how often I have to project my voice, it was a very difficult question to answer.  How, exactly, do I project my voice?

I know I was never specifically taught projection techniques of any kind – it was a skill I somehow picked up naturally.  This is a strange thing, because in ‘real’ life, I am often difficult to hear.  I can mumble quite unintentionally and very often have to be asked to repeat what I’ve said.  Yet, put me on a stage and suddenly I can be heard.  Projection also comes in handy when getting users of the Library of Doom to be quiet – sometimes it’s necessary to get a whole roomful of people to turn the volume down.

When I thought about it, I realised that projection has something to do with breathing, something to do with confidence, something to do with psychology and something to do with posture.  The sound has to come from further down, starting deep down inside you rather than in your throat.  There has to be enough air in your lungs to support it.  You have to imagine that you’re speaking or singing directly to someone who is quite far away.  And you absolutely do not have to shout – persistent shouting instead of projecting hurts and would probably ruin the voice if it was tried for too long.

Explaining a process that I don’t entirely understand proved to be a difficult task.  It’s hard to explain how to breathe or how to think yourself into projection.  It made me realise once more how much a mystery performing is to many people.  As well as all the joy of creating a character, and the great conundrum of ‘how do you learn the lines?’, there are a great many technical bits and pieces that evidently aren’t as normal and natural as years of doing them might make them feel.  There’s an art to speaking up and speaking out – now I just need to learn how to apply that art, in a minor way, to conversation.  Speak up, Singing Librarian!

The Singing Librarian’s Tour Diary


Readers of this blog will be well aware that the Singing Librarian normally has two or three projects on the go at any given time, so here is a brief update on where he can be seen and heard in the coming months:

12th-15th November 2008
Titanic
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

Playing the role of 2nd Wireless Operator Harold Bride in Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s musical based on the fateful maiden voyage of RMS Titanic, “the largest moving object in the world”.  The show won five Tony awards when it debuted on Broadway in 1997 and has become a popular show with community theatres and local performing arts societies, in this case Herne Bay Operatic Society.  The role includes a beautiful duet, ‘The Proposal’/’The Night Was Alive’ and is musically challenging due to the complex (but very powerful) score.

22nd December 2008
Prepare the Way
The Ark, Dover

A Christmas oratorio by Phil Hornsey.  This is a fresh musical setting of familiar Biblical texts andwill be an enjoyable evening for both singers (mostly local to Dover, with one or two sneaking in from other parts of Kent) and audience.  For more information, see the page on Prepare the Way.

10th-14th March 2009
The Pirates of Penzance
Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury

Ageing up to play Major General Stanley in the very, very silly comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan.  A different sort of challenge to the usual, including the famously tongue-twisting ‘I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General’.  This will be Canterbury Operatic Society’s fourth production of Pirates, but this is a show that stays fresh over the decades due to the deliberately preposterous plot and outlandish characters which can be mined for a rich vein of comedy.

That seems like quite enough for one Singing Librarian for now.  Mark some (or even all!) of the dates in your diary if you want to see whether librarians really can sing, and watch this space for future updates and a return to the regularly scheduled rambling, ranting and musing.

In which the Singing Librarian is very busy


I had thought that my weeks would be quiet and peaceful now that the librarianship course is truly in the past, but this was clearly foolishness on my part.  The life of the Singing Librarian is rarely quiet, and I’m not sure that I’d like it very much if it was, which is a rather good thing.  Aside from the usual work and church life, I have managed to pile rehearsal upon rehearsal in a glorious mixture of different ways to fill my evenings and weekends as I work towards four different projects.

First, a series of concerts with Canterbury Operatic Society, to be performed from 12th to 19th July.  These include a mix of old and new tunes from George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ to pop hit ‘You Raise Me Up’ and numbers from Spamalot and Wicked.  In addition to the choral work, some of which I love, some of which I’m really not enjoying, I’m wheeling out old faithful ‘Mister Cellophane’ as a solo.

The next project is West Side Story, to be performed in August at the Marlowe Theatre.  I have managed to get myself drafted in as a replacement for an adult cast member who disappeared somehow, possibly lost down the back of the sofa, and am in the slightly bizarre position of rehearsing the role of Doc, who owns the store which the Jets hang out in.  It’s a nice part, appearing in only three scenes but going quite an emotional journey.  However, Doc is usually played by someone about twice my age, so I don’t yet know (having only had one rehearsal so far) whether I will be aging up or whether Doc will just be unusually young in this production.  I’m working with Phoenix Performing Arts, a local performing arts school, so I have the privilege of working with a whole host of enthusiastic, talented young people.  This role is very different to anything I’ve done recently, as Doc does not sing a single word – I haven’t been in a show where I have ‘just’ acted since I left school eleven years ago.

Once the whirlwind of learning and performing West Side Story is over, my main focus will return toTitanic, which is to be performed in November, also at the Marlowe.  We are currently learning the music at super-speed, which is great fun but somewhat scary, trying to remember everything, particularly as very little of it is easy.  But, as is also true with West Side Story, I do enjoy a challenge when I’m performing.

Last, but certainly not least, is a Christmas oratorio written by a very talented friend of mine.  This will be performed in Dover in December.  At present, I’m laying down some vocal tracks for his demo CD of it, which is intended as an aid to members of the choir, and also attending some early rehearsals.  It’s wonderful stuff, great fun to sing, in a variety of different styles.

Most days see me attend at least one rehearsal or performance, with some days involving more than one of my projects.  Thus far everything has stayed straight in my head, but before long I expect things will start to leak over.  I shall communicate with students in Morse code, or arrange the Jets according to a strange interpretation of Dewey Decimal System.  Harold Bride will tell people to “call him Jesus, the Messiah and the king” or the ‘Quintet’ in West Side Story will unexpectedly gain Bride’s refrain of “the night was alive with a thousand voices”, which appears at least 18 times in the Titanic score.  Or perhaps my brain is handily compartmentalised.  We can but hope.  The Singing Librarian is very busy, and he’s loving it.

Rehearsal ups (and downs)


Rehearsals for amateur shows are strange things, often.  You never quite know what the atmosphere will be like as a great many different people gather together for a common purpose, some more enthusiastically than others, to create and improve a show.  A wonderful time can be had by all, in which very little is achieved, or a great deal of work can be done by a group of moody people, or anything in between.  The exact mix of people present can affect matters – is a cast member sick?  is the wardrobe mistress present, taking measurements?  is it the choreographer’s night off?  A particular moment can stump everyone and consume the whole rehearsal.  Some people are kept busy all night, while others can (if things are badly planned, or good plans go awry) sit around doing nothing.  You can have a collective breakthrough or a collective nervous breakdown.  As April ended, I had a particularly interesting rehearsal experience.

At the very tail end of May, I’ll be in a show about the wonderful Richard Rodgers, to be performed at the Whitstable Playhouse (book your tickets now, all who desire to see it).  It’s a strange show for me, as I’m playing said Mr Rodgers in a sort of featured capacity, which means that I don’t tend to be on with the ensemble very much other than at the beginning and end of each act, where I lead the cast in song.  However, as I have been asked to be at almost every rehearsal, I have stood in for missing members of the male ensemble, to the point where I know the words and choreography for almost every number, often with slight variations according to which particular man I’m standing in for.  This is a great deal of fun, but can be rather confusing.

As part of the show, I sing Carousel‘s fantastic ‘Soliloquy’ part way through Act Two. This is a privilege and a challenge, as it’s an incredibly powerful piece which has to be truly acted and truly sung with all the heart and soul that the performer can muster. It scares me and excites me at the same time, and there’s one part which I know I’m not getting perfectly right. It’s just seven words – ‘the way to get round any girl’ – and I’m working on it, I really am. I refuse to listen to a recording of it, as I want to do it my way, not John Raitt’s way, not Gordon MacRae’s way and certainly not Edmund Hockridge’s way. I shall just have to keep plunking the line out on the piano until it finally sinks in properly.

So there I was, the second time I’ve done this number in rehearsals (and only three days after I first rehearsed it with the director and musical director). I sang the line, which wasn’t perfect but wasn’t off key, and heard a voice at the side of the room saying “that was nearly right.”  It was the oldest member of the ensemble. I felt like turning round and telling him that I was well aware of its ‘nearly’ status, that I was struggling with it and would do my best to reach his standards of perfection in every rehearsal. I felt like making a similar comment the next time he had to sing. I felt like deflating like a tired old balloon, my confidence in the number punctured. But I didn’t. I carried on with the song, though I fluffed the next bit of business due to having been pulled out of my train of thought by his comment. I gathered momentum again and continued to the end, to be greeted by a cheer from the rest of the cast. That was lovely, unnecessary and heartwarming. A little later, a couple of the ladies in the cast were angry when they realised that I’d heard the man’s comment. They expressed the opinion that his words were completely out of line, and thought I should have stuck my fingers up at him, but I’m a terribly refined young man, so that had not crossed my mind. I am do pour everything I have into the number, and the comments I’ve received suggest that it’s showing in a good way, which is very exciting.

Less exciting is what happens after I finish the song. Both times I’ve really done it as if in performance, it has had an unexpected side effect. A huge headache, of the sort that makes me feel as though the back of my head is about to explode. The feeling lasts for a few minutes and is horrible – though not as horrible, and certainly not as messy, as it would be if my head really did explode. It’s probably worth it to give the best performance I can, but it’s also strange and perturbing. I don’t recall getting any singing-related headaches before, not even belting out the first tenor parts in Carmina Burana or Rutter’s Gloria, which both reach into higher parts of my range than ‘Soliloquy’. A little research suggests that it’s a result of being an untrained singer, and thus not knowing how best to control my voice. I had best remedy that.

Having experienced discouragement, annoyance, encouragement and pain within a few short minutes, I was then paid another big compliment by the ensemble (who, it has to be said, have to work a heck of a lot harder in this show than I do). During the coffee break, a group apparently accosted the poor director and said they were unhappy with the end of the show. Why? Because they thought I should be out front on my own receiving applause for my hard work. Now, I hate curtain calls. I find them embarrassing and awkward. But that was incredibly touching to hear. I left the rehearsal feeling as though I was floating. Believe me, people involved with shows don’t normally complain because somebody else is in the spotlight too little. Quite the opposite, in fact. To know that my talented co-performers esteem me enough to ask that a fuss is made of me at the curtain call is absolutely incredible and strangely humbling.

It was a strange rehearsal for me, emotionally. I suspect it’s one that I’ll remember for some time. Standing in for ensemble members is a lot of fun, singing the songs is a joy, but the mutual respect, support and encouragement top everything else.  Perhaps I’m just letting my ego get the better of me, but the evening’s actions made me happy.  Rehearsals can be funny old things, but sometimes, just sometimes, they can be uplifting.

Talented youth


This week, I have been privileged to see talented young people performing in two different venues in Canterbury, and it has inspired and encouraged me.

The first was a performance of a musical by two of the local grammar schools – the Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents masterpiece West Side Story.  I am not frequently in attendance at school shows, but this one starred a talented young guy who I have performed alongside in Kiss Me, Kate and My Fair Lady, and I wanted to support him, so turned up to the opening night along with a couple of other members of the operatic society.

From the overture onwards, I was frequently impressed by the skills, energy and enthusiasm of those involved.  The orchestra negotiated Leonard Bernstein’s difficult score very well, and seeing the show performed by people of around the right age for the characters was a rare treat.  Though there were some iffy moments, these were far outweighed by the good bits.  ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ exploded with energy, and the boys were clearly loving every moment of that song.  The ‘Tonight’ quintet was impressive – not perfect, but very, very good.  It is an incredibly tricky piece of music.  In terms of stage craft, I was amazed at the ensemble’s ability to hold a freeze at the end of the ‘Somewhere’ sequence – it seemed as though not a muscle twitched.  The leads acted most of the adult characters off the stage.  My young friend had an entirely natural, relaxed and convincing air to his performance as Tony and both the main girls impressed me greatly.  The girl playing Anita had an incredible voice, with immense power and control far beyond her years.  I was so glad I had gone and I was encouraged that the schools were supporting talented young performers – involvement in a project of that nature can teach many things which cannot be taught in conventional lessons.

Then on Saturday, I was a steward at the semi-final of a talent competition run by the local churches for the city’s secondary schools and further education institutions.  This competition has many aims.  To encourage and develop local talent (the judges are from a local stage school and offer helpful advice as well as giving out scores).  To demonstrate that the church is not a remote and cold institution.  To have fun. 

The talents on show at the heats and the semi-final were diverse – dancers, singers of all varieties, solo musicians, bands, a comedienne and even a pair of roller-dancers.  Some are better than others, but most of them perform with such joy and enthusiasm that it is infectiously exciting, even if their particular brand of performance is not the spectator’s normal cup of tea.  Particular highlights from the semi-final include a girl who had written a song after hearing someone on the radio say they’d never been given flowers or a card on Valentine’s Day.  The song was well-structured and moving, and her delivery very engaging, using her deep voice to great advantage.  And then there was the boy who did an Irish dance routine, who was able to do amazing things with his knee joints.  It was also encouraging to see the acts cheering each other on and giving fulsome applause.  Next week’s final should be an absolute delight, though I fear the pressure of counting the votes may get to me!

It is a joy to see talented young people perform, perhaps even more so than talented people who have had time to refine their craft.  There is a raw energy and excitement to what they do which is wonderful to behold, and there can be a surprising amount of talent locked in the youngest of bodies.  I can only hope that their teachers, relatives and friends continue to encourage them to use and develop their gifts into adulthood and that young people (particularly boys, who seem to have more inhibitions than girls) continue to be brave enough to act, sing, dance and create music.  It is a privilege to have shared in what they do.

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