Singing without Music

Sight reading from a score is sometimes considered desirable – though not always essential – for anyone looking to join a choir. But what about singers with diminished sight? Here one of LCS’s long-standing members, Annie Rimmer, chronicles her experience of progressive sight loss and her discovery that the challenge can be surprisingly liberating, for non-sighted and sighted singers alike:

“When I joined LCS in 2005, my deteriorating eye condition meant that I always had to find ways to transcribe the music, using larger and larger font sizes for the words, and developing ways of notating the music using thick, coloured felt-tip pens. This would take me hundreds of hours for each concert but at least it worked!

However, then came the time when it just wasn’t viable anymore: I was spending too much time and effort struggling to see my music and work out what was written, and not focusing enough on the actual singing. Knowing myself to have a very visual memory, and believing myself not to have a strong aural memory – and therefore not being able to sing without the score – I left, vowing to come to every concert as an audience member, which I did for a year or so.

In 2010 I found out that the choir was going to sing Fauré’s Requiem again. It had been my debut concert with LCS back in 2005, and was on the same day I graduated with my first guide dog Quaker. And as I couldn’t see him during the concert, I kept whispering “Is my dog okay?” to my neighbour Annette. But he was most definitely okay, lying next to a friend on the front row of the audience with his nose two inches from the first violinist’s foot, never once moving a muscle. A very laid-back guide dog that one!

So having decided to give it a go again, I thought I’d just come along to a few rehearsals to see what I could remember and found, to my utter surprise, that over the time of the rehearsals and with a lot of work at home with CDs and midi files, I could actually learn the music. Singing Fauré’s Requiem from memory with our French partner choir was a very proud moment for me and I was thrilled to be able to be part of my own wonderful choir again.

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One decision I made in coming back though was that I would never do a concert if I wasn’t one hundred percent sure of the work. I made a commitment to myself early on that I would never be a passenger in the choir, never be in the position where I didn’t know exactly what the next words were, what my next entry was, or what our conductor Dan Ludford-Thomas was asking of us at a particular point.

The great joy of singing for me is not only what it feels like to be using my voice to express myself through the music, or being part of a wonderful communal sound, but also knowing the piece so well that I can just give myself over to the experience. Not having the music to read, the pages to turn, and the repeated movement of my eyes between Dan and the score, means that I can focus entirely on the music and the joint endeavour of bringing it to life.

Now obviously I don’t arrive at rehearsal number one knowing the piece inside out, but when I can, I do work on our pieces quite a lot before rehearsals start. I always listen very hard to my wonderful and very accurate soprano neighbour Sue, and I check details with her as we go along. You can’t always hear from a CD just how your part is fitting the music to the words, and sometimes there are no midi files.

Dan’s way of working with us is also absolutely brilliant for getting the music in my head. My experience of this is that he introduces us to works in a well-planned and thought-out way – keeping a good pace in rehearsals, which means we are learning, repeating and improving several sections of music in every rehearsal. Then we come back to them within a couple of weeks to further improve and nuance what we now know reasonably well.

And because Dan uses his voice to demonstrate what he wants – his astonishing vocal range means he can sing each voice part in pitch – I seldom feel lost, which is in sharp contrast to how I’ve had to work previously, quickly leafing through page after page trying to find the right bar or entry.

I do spend a lot of time learning both the music and words. I don’t have a naturally good memory and repetition is the key. There is no substitute for repeating the words out loud:

pauper sum
et pauper sum
egemus et pauper sum
vero egemus et pauper sum
ego vero egemus et pauper sum

And it is the same with some of the musical phrases: when it won’t stick intellectually, it has to get into the brain and mouth muscles so that the music comes out just at the right time without thinking.

It’s harder with some works than others and I don’t think I will ever be able to sing in a language other than Latin, English or perhaps French. Never having learned German or any of the other languages we sing in occasionally – Hebrew, Hungarian and the linguistic smorgasbord which makes up Carmina Burana – I have no visual template to use to remember the words.

With familiar languages I “see” the words in my mind’s eye as I learn them and sing them; I find I can’t do it any other way. It’s also hard to learn the music of a very long and complex work, and I’m interested to see whether I’ll be able to sing Bach’s B Minor Mass again at the Royal Festival Hall next March.

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People have also wondered how I manage in concerts if I can’t see Dan. Well, it’s partly intense concentration and partly about really trying to anchor Dan’s instructions in my mind during rehearsals. It’s also about listening very hard to the people around me and trying to be very sensitive and responsive to the nuances of their singing and to the dynamics that I hear. But more than anything else, it’s about really focussing my attention on the spot where Dan is.

I can just about see the occasional hand movement and so pick up the beat sometimes, but more than that it’s about what I can only describe as “locking on” to him mentally and emotionally. This might sound a bit mystical for some people, but I do believe that in some way, I feel or sense some of Dan’s communication. I believe that he really inhabits the music he is conducting, emotionally and intellectually, and that is what I feel I can connect with a little – even without eyes.

It has happened with other conductors as well: after the Elijah concert in Derbyshire in March, Lyn, the conductor of The Derbyshire Singers, said: “you never took your eyes off me, you were really with me weren’t you – every step of the way.” And although I know I had “seen” very little of what she was doing, I do feel that I had been on that journey with her and not just in my own little space. I think we probably all know that there is something about music that transcends the usual physical barriers of communication.

So folks – LCS members and all singers – here is a challenge for you: why not have a go at learning just a little something soon, maybe a favourite bit from one of the works coming up, so that you can just concentrate on Dan and the sheer pleasure of singing – completely liberated from your scores. I would be surprised if it didn’t transform your experience as much as it has mine, and you might surprise yourself. It’s been quite a journey for me, but I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way now.

If you give it a go, or already do it, it would be lovely to hear about your experience and compare notes.”

We hope this inspires you to attend the first rehearsal of our 2016/2017 season on Monday the 5th of September, or even come to our Schubert concert on Saturday the 12th of November!

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Annie has also been thinking about different aids for learning music, and has written a review of the Carus music app and, click here to read more.

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