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That’s not the Messiah! My Top 10 Tips for Classical Singers

Pippa is in concert dress, holding a Mozart score, smiling .

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If you are classical singer just starting out gigging on the oratorio circuit, I am sure you will benefit from some wisdom from an experienced hand. I have clocked up miles singing for Choral Societies up and down the land in churches, cathedrals – and sometimes sports halls – for the past twenty years and I am going to pass on some things that I’ve learned.

Tip #1 – get your eyes on the score straight away

This is a great piece of advice that I was given when I was training at the Royal Academy of Music by Julie Kennard, our Oratorio tutor. As soon as you are booked for a gig – even it’s months or a year away – get your hands on the score (see below) and take a look, especially if it’s something new. Good, reliable singers get busy quickly, so looking at the music ahead of the gig is never wasted time. It will give you a heads-up for anything tricky and needing working into your voice AND save you a rush and panic the week before the gig.

Tip #2 – get the right edition

Make sure you have the right edition of the score. Instead of going out and buying one, ask the choir librarian to send you a copy. That way, all your bar numbers, page numbers and section letters will line up and things will go smoothly in rehearsal. It’s also cheaper! If the choir can’t spare a copy, head to your music library and ask for one to be ordered for you – plan ahead in plenty of time though.

Tip #3 – listen to lots of recordings

Listen to lots of different recordings of the music so you don’t get stuck on one. This is easy to do on Spotify, iTunes or Youtube. Watch out for recordings that aren’t at standard British concert pitch if you’re singing in the UK. This is because some orchestras from, for example, Germany tune at a slightly different standard pitch. If you are going to be singing Handel, Bach, Monteverdi or any baroque repertoire, check with the conductor if you’ll be performing at Baroque pitch (A = 415 instead of A = 440). It can make a big difference to how it feels to sing!

Reading sheet music during a lesson from a vocal coach

Tip #4 – mark up your score

When you get your score, look through carefully and circle all your solo entries in pencil. Don’t be afraid to mark up the score so that it makes sense to you. I always mark in beats of the bar for tricky rhythms, places to stand or sit, or little reminders of what’s coming up. I also mark in when I have no more solos “That’s it for you Pippa, you can chill now!” and draw smiley faces and things. It’s one less thing to think about during rehearsals and performances.

Tip #5 – practise at different speeds

You never know what’s going to happen on the day. You never know what kind of orchestra you’re going to get (fully pro, semi-pro or anything in between). It’s also pot-luck as to whether the conductor can give you a clear down beat. My advice is to practise your solos and ensembles at a load of different speeds. Practise painfully slowly, just in case. Practise quicker than is comfortable, just in case. There is very little time to rehearse and sometimes you just have to go with whatever speed is given to you. That said, if the speed isn’t to your liking, tell the conductor soon – within a few bars – so the orchestra can stop and readjust.

Tip #6 – on the day

As the soloist, you are expected to being able to slot in with very little rehearsal. The conductor’s main concern is getting the orchestra and choir working together well and you should be the least of her worries. That’s why they are paying you. I’ve done gigs where I only get to top and tail whole arias because time is short! You may not get to run Da Capos, repeats, or polish anything at all. If the conductor is feeling time-pushed, prioritise practising cadenzas, tempo changes and any tricky joins. Don’t be afraid to ask to run a section again though if it worries you.

Tip # 7 – turn around and sing to the choir

One of my favourite things to do in rehearsal is turn around to the choir and sing some of your solo sections singing directly to them. You have your back to them for the concert and it’s quite difficult for them to see/hear you at times. Remember they are the ones paying you (through their choir subs and ticket sales) and they will absolutely love you if you sing to them.

Tip #8 – what are you going to wear?

If you get lots of repeat work with a particular choral society, note down which dress you wore and wear a different one the next time. If you enjoy wearing bright colours, check with the mezzo what dress she is planning to wear – then you can coordinate! Sometimes, a darker colour is more appropriate for Easter Passions, Easter Messiahs or Requiem masses, otherwise go to town and glitter it up to the max. Audiences love a sparkly dress. Oh – and always carry a couple of safety pins with you because you never know when you’ll have a wardrobe malfunction!

Tip #9 – to accept choir hospitality or not?

You may be offered a bed for the night or a meal and somewhere to change with a member of the choir. It’s completely up to you as to whether you want to accept. Accepting hospitality can have some benefits: you save cash; getting to know someone in the choir can build relationships and perhaps lead to repeat work. It can also have its pitfalls: I find it quite tiring having to be ‘in people-ing mode’ in the downtime between rehearsal and gig. You can expect to be quizzed and told “It must be sooo nice to do your hobby as your job!” “What a difficult, uncertain profession it must be.” So, it depends on how much bandwidth you’ve got for that sort of shenanigans. I quite often take my iPad loaded with a relaxing box-set and find a quiet spot before the gig.

Tip #10 – don’t be a diva

Be friendly, stay calm. Even when the conductor is waving their arms manically. Things will go wrong, they nearly always do. The keyboard will accidentally go into demo mode in the middle of the Lacrimosa. You will stand up in the wrong place and have to style it out for 36 bars. An over-enthusiastic tenor in the choir will come in fortissimo a bar early. You will have to hold back the giggle loop of doom. There are so many things we can’t control. Enjoy it and go with the flow!

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