Monday, 17 February 2014

Singing Competitions

This article first appeared in

It's shop window season: the BAFTAs last week; the Oscars soon. Closer to home, The Opera Awards have just been announced. Competition is the complicated fact of the singing business, as in all mainstream arts industries. Auditions are comparable in their scrutiny but remain very low-key, indirect competition-a-likes with your peers. Like many, we've been watching the Winter Olympics recently, in which so much competition is decided not simply by the fastest, the furthest or the first. No, many of these important competitions are decided by adjudication, by panel marking. And just as in singing, whether its the right choice or the scandalous wrong 'un, all the competitors smile through the results as the simple act of participation can be its own reward.

We've not only been thinking about the Winter Olympics but also about a video we've recently seen in which the fine - and young - American soprano Angela Meade talks about the 55 competitions that she has won in her career. Quite apart from the boost in profile and consequent opportunities such success brings, there is also the not insignificant issue of prize money.

However, for all that the rewards can be sizeable for a concentrated period, it's not really a choice for making a living. Preparations for such competitions can cost in themselves, with extra singing lessons, accompanist and coaching fees, hiring rehearsal space - and turning down paid work in the run-up to competitions in order to preserve the voice and maintain form.

There are also age restriction issues on many competitions, designed not only to level the 'playing field' but also to restrict the competitors to those needing slingshot the start of their career with rather than established professionals looking for a pay windfall.

What's interesting is that for all that competitions are almost identical to auditions they differ in two respects.

Firstly, the reward of a competition win is instant. An audition 'win' leads to a contract which may be anything from a couple of days to a few months in duration. There is still plenty of work left to do.

Secondly, a competition usually has an audience. Not just a panel listening but also a proper audience, interested in hearing a new voice or the music in the programme. This is considerably more straightforward to singing to a small group automatically disposed to forensic examination of your abilities.

If you are accepted to compete in a singing competition, you have the opportunity to give a recital, can legitimately claim to have taken part and, this kudos aside, may even win one or more of a number of prizes. The occasion is usually rather festive. Natural nerves aside, it's fun.

An audition is functional, anonymous and has no reward other than the possibility of a contract, during which you will be required to continue to achieve the promise you have shown.

Or rather, that's one view. That fact is that the audition is the one place where what you do as a vocal practitioner and as a performer is given proper scrutiny. There's no 'audience vote'. The panel want to see if you can fulfill their requirements, free from extraneous pressures. As long as you look presentable and professional you are not required to splash out on a new suit or at Droopy & Browns. The work that you are doing in an audition is pressured because your work depends on it but there will be further opportunities, even with the same company. Perhaps the panel see that you aren't what they need for this contract but will earmark you for another. Good panelists appear at a number of auditions and often crop up at performances too.

Auditioning is an ongoing, organic process and rewards the dedicated singer. Competitions aren't really easy, despite how one might argue it - but they're the office party in a business that, day-to-day, values the dependable at least as highly.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Georgians Revealed, British Library

It's a rich time for Londoners interested in the 18th century. This the final month of the British Library's Georgians Revealed exhibition, a stylish show that stresses the influential cultural development of the period. As it happens we are not far from a new exhibition just down the road at the Foundling Museum which covers some of the same territory.

Indeed, the Foundling Museum, though tucked away in a self-contained corner of the British Library's (uncomfortably overly-air conditioned) space is representative of the art that literally jumps off the walls. Hogarth sold his prints to raise money for the children who could not be kept by their mothers; the entire exhibition is wrapped in a period-to-present montage in his familiar cross-hatched style. It is to the exhibition's credit that, in addition, we are not assaulted by piped Handel as well, though the patronage and success the composer enjoyed throughout the reign of all four Kings George would have warranted it.

If the rise of the middle class, the availability of education (largely through printing, not to mention a fresh focus on childhood) mirrors the social change at the start of this millennium, the Georgians also had their fair share of financial woes too - though John Soane's design for the Bank of England was, happily, not one of them.

Instead, spending power coupled to a wide obsession with social comportment meant that the seeds of Empire building were being sown and nurtured. At the end of the period, disposable cash and the end of cross-channel hostilities meant that travel to Europe and beyond was viable (if mocked in a particularly funny French cartoon). The example of a monarchy with German ties and goods imported increasingly cheaply from further afield had dribbled down to the moneyed middle class. They went in search of their own dynastic horizons abroad.

The Georgian period also midwifed Joshua Reynolds' Royal Academy and Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. We were sure that there was more to be had that just couldn't quite be accomodated though. To tie up our visit we left the exhibiton and popped upstairs to the John Ritblat rooms. There, in the music cases on public display is a selection of three artefacts associated with composer Joseph Haydn's visit to London in the late 1790s. In addition to a letter there is a manuscript copy of his 96nd Symphony (the Miracle, so-called as it commemorates an apocryphal account of an audience member narrowly avoiding death by chandelier) and a contract. This wonderful document, signed on his behalf, details the remuneration for 55 works to be provided over a 5 year period for the sum of just over £900. A considerable sum in 1796, when the document is dated it also gives an indication of the esteem in which the leading composer of the day would have been held.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Don't forget the audience

On Wednesday this week I attended one of Club Inégale's Rants evenings. These boil down to an evening's symposium chat in a bar about a number of issues affecting those of us working in the arts. Three speakers talked for 10 mins each about their pet issues before the Club's founder, Peter Wiegold, chairing the event, opened it up to the public for discussion.

The most interesting of these was the first. Ghislaine Kenyon (who works principally in Art) wanted to confront the issue of coughing, and in doing so open discussion about the way in which performers can contrive to neglect their audience.

Her opening remarks, which she admitted had no statistical backing but were the result of many years of regular concert-going, focused on her idea that the coughing that is heard in classical concerts is linked directly to the audience's sense of embarrassment with or estrangement from the performance at hand. She told the story about Andras Schiff getting a member of Wigmore Hall staff to tell his audience that the pianist would tolerate no coughing whatsoever - and, furthermore - that he would indicate when it was acceptable to applaud*.

Using this topic - and story - as a stepping stone for other issues, she noted being behind Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies at the premiere performance of his 10th symphony last week. The experience of sitting behind someone physically reacting to the music had caused her to consider how we think of our behaviour in a concert situation.

Ms Kenyon suggested that many people feel distanced from the very performance that they had come to see. She remarked that players that make an effort to communicate in ways beside their music making often have the audience's greater attention. As simple an act as speaking to the audience - perhaps introducing music, particularly new music - makes a great difference in her experience. Perhaps it simply represents the performer acknowledging a mutual presence in the space and the purpose of that attention.

Following her talk, many of the audience comments focused on feeling ill-at-ease in certain venues, often due to the perception of the different class of the majority of the crowd (Wigmore Hall was singled out in this respect), or a sense of not being at liberty to behave in reaction to the performance at hand. Importantly, Ms Kenyon pointed out that such a sense of the entitled majority doesn't arise at the BBC Proms because everyone knows that the best positions to see and the concert are also the cheapest 'seats' - the promming arena.

Now, I have also been to a fair number of concerts of all types. As an audience member I must admit that I rarely feel estranged from the performers. This may be because I am, more often than not, in a performing position myself. I think the point that those leading the performance might do well to involve the audience has tremendous value - as long as it doesn't career down that slip road of being patronising, of trying to speak for the music before that music can speak for itself.

As to the behaviour of the audience of which I am part. I am faintly aware of distractions in the hall. Many such distractions are individuals reacting to other 'distractions' that I haven't seen. My experience is that whether those distractions are due to the performance or not they still pull focus from the performance itself: it's easier to forgive someone tapping their hands to the music than someone tapping on their mobile phone.

I had an opportunity to examine these issues last night.

I attended an orchestral concert at the Royal Festival Hall: Britten's Four Sea Interludes, Thomas Adès' Violin Concerto, Concentric Circles and Vaughan-Williams' 6th Symphony. The concert, given by the Philharmonia under Nicholas Collon, was excellent. The showpiece interludes from Britten's opera Peter Grimes with maritime turbulence and shimmer. The demanding violin concerto had the orchestra operating with astonishing ensemble precision for so many players and the soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, made lithe work of the alternating spasms and singing line. His encore, which later we discovered to be the Bach D minor Partita, was played with the insouciance of a lazy cat allowing a ball of wool unspool from its grasp. The symphony had all of the aforementioned capability at its disposal to realise Vaughan-Williams' dark narrative of a country rocked by conflict.

I enjoyed the concert. There were a couple of the usual inventory of distractions that one encounters at any such event: latecomers arriving after the first piece; the rustling of free and purchased programmes; a poor soul who had a coughing fit in the final bar of the Symphony as it quietly came to its end.

I did note a couple of things that recalled the symposium I had attended only the day before.

Firstly, that the concert's start was heralded not by someone coming to say hello but by the disembodied announcement that mobiles phones should be silenced & that no photos ought to be taken (then the dimming of the house lights). This was all done warm-and-welcomingly but formally. Quite distinct was the soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, who dressed in clothing that was obviously special but not formal by any conventional code and then spoke to the audience prior to offering an encore. Indeed his (intimate) performance of the Bach started as he was still finishing his final sentence.

Secondly - and rather unfortunately - we were spoken to rather briskly by a member of the ushering staff following the concert, who pre-emptively told us to leave the auditorium. We were in the process of exchanging our thoughts on the performance. Most of the audience had left and staff were beginning to clean up. 'Would you leave please' is a reasonable request from a host to a guest who has clearly overstayed their welcome. But to two people quietly discussing the event? 5 minutes after its conclusion? And an early conclusion too - the performance ended at 9.15pm, 20-30 minutes before conventional orchestral concerts usually wind up.

To the issues raised in the symposium and the experience of the concert then, I might add this coda. As we left I thought to distract our dampened spirits by trying to find out what the Bach encore had been: there had been no announcement in the concert; nothing in the programme; and, as it turned out, nothing online. A Tweet in the direction of the orchestra elicited no response, though a member of staff replied in a personal capacity with the answer. This lack of empathy from institutions both hosting and performing is precisely the issue that had been raised the previous day. One hopes it might be fairly easily addressed.

*Though this is an extreme story, I might add that I attended a concert hosted by Club Inégales recently, in which I heard a composer mutter of the audience ('I do hope they'll shut up so they can hear').

Blind Auditions

This article first appeared in

I watched the BBC's The Voice UK (the UK suffix to distinguish it from the Dutch original on which it's based) for the first time at the weekend. More than a decade of reality/fly-on-the-wall television makes for keeping a cynical distance from what is, ostensibly, an X Factor clone. However, I was intrigued to watch the principal gimmick of the show in action, that is to say the Blind Audition.

In one form or another blind auditions have always been around. The main idea is that the performer is given the opportunity to be judged on the precise criteria for which they are to be used. We've all heard the phrase 'a great face for radio', which highlights the appeal of the blind audition by turning its value upside down - the idea that an individual's appearance might be considered at odds with the qualities of their voice.

Blind auditions also serve another purpose, which is the drama of discovering that the origins of a talent can confound the expectations of those who hear it. The big reveal is a staple coup of a film such as Singin' In The Rain. Interestingly it's also constitutent of the drama in a talent show like X Factor where the audience and panel can already see the performer - only to have their prejudices confounded. Indeed, it's possible that the success of averagely talented (if brave) individuals in such a situation is as much to do with an audience or panel over-compensating for their embarrassment in judging a performer on criteria that doesn't - and shouldn't - consitute their ability.

In The Voice UK, a panel of celebrity perfomers sit in chairs facing away from the performance stage. The performer sings live (amplified/balance with a microphone and accompanied with a live band). During the 90 seconds of their opportunity, the panel have to decide whether or not they like what they hear sufficiently to want to turn round, which commits them to helping to mentor the performer towards other performing opportunities.

Of course, there are a number of political, face-saving and showbiz-like games that are played out in this situation. Essentially though, the panel judge what they hear on that criteria alone.

Age, dress, shape or skin colour are almost impossible to discern. Even sex can also be rather difficult. The sex of the performer is an important issue in blind auditioning. A study carried out in Princetone University over a decade ago showed that blind auditions had significant potential in overcoming the sex-bias of the constituent members of Europe and American orchestras
Traditionally, new members of the great symphony orchestras were handpicked by the music director and principal player of each section. Most contenders were the male students of a select group of teachers. 
To overcome bias, most major U.S. orchestras began to broaden and democratize their hiring procedures in the 1970s and 1980s, advertising openings, allowing orchestra members to participate in hiring decisions and implementing blind auditions in which musicians audition behind a screen that conceals their identities but does not alter sound. 
[Florence Nelson, director of symphonic services at the American Federation of Musicians] recalled how sensitive she was to the gender issue while auditioning. She remembers being told in the 1980s to remove her shoes while walking to center stage behind a screen, so the judges would not hear the "clickety-clack" of a woman's high heels.
There are two differences in this situation to what is now a conventional TV talent show. The first is that the audience - live and at home - can see the perfomer(s) before the panel. As a result, the sense of catharsis is different, though the 'reality' inserts and backstage cameras seek to open up the back story that democratises the performers' lives.

The second is also slight but has a greater effect. The Voice UK uses no compere, the presenter keeping a very low profile, even in voiceover to pre-recorded tape. As a result, the behaviour of the audience, the panel and the apprehension of the performer, even after we have heard them perform is not moderated. There are any number of conventions that the BBC keep in place, from editing the pre-record to the moody music that plays over a back story about an individual's battle with weight or bereavement but telling the audience what to think at any one point is reduced to nest to nothing.

Clearly a blind audition is not always going to be practical. Auditions for singers in particular may depend on very specific roles or the demands of a director. Yet it is worth bearing in mind that having confidence in one's own ability may be as surprising to a panel who, like many of us have experienced as an audience to talent shows, may harbour some prejudice despite themselves. This residual part of the 'blind audition' may yet work in your favour.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Firsts - Auditions and Shows

This article first appeared in

Did you enjoy the French-themed accordion burlesque show you saw last week?

What do you mean you’ve never seen a French-themed accordion burlesque show?

Well, it is enitrely possible that there was a French-th(etc.) show somewhere in this most eclectic and all-embracing city of diverse entertainment, last week. And that you might have been there. Even if you had, it’s probable that it would have been your first time at such a show.

First times are worth remembering. In this rather camp (and point-makingly extreme) example, you are the audience and may be seeing something new, individually or corporately. Perhaps you expected it. It probably made an impression. It’s also possible that you might have attended a general audition for a list for future casting and this is your first, rather leftfield project. Like singing Rosina to a company panel and ending up in a chorus for Moses und Aaron.

Turn that around: perhaps you knew the job would be somewhat exotic but were not told to expect anything unusual at the audition. What did such an audition consist of? Did you have to demonstrate a willingness to involve yourself in the ‘triple threat’ – i.e. to be able to sing, dance and act – as increasingly the demand of lyric theatre? Was there an indication that the work, as yet unspecified, might be new to you? Perhaps you were only asked to sing but the audition circumstances were new to you. Warm up rooms are notorious for queuing more than one candidate at once. You might have been asked to perform in a small group. Or use a prop, or a chair. Perhaps you came to the audition with sheet music and the panel asked you to try it from memory. All of us have had the accompanist who plays at a wildly different speed to every possible interpretation of the music at hand!

It’s very difficult to hang on to your sense of perspective in an audition situation. I’m sure many of us have the experience of going to auditions where the panel have made a small request which takes on the appearance of asking you to remove all your clothing (‘would you like to take off your jacket?’) or sing through a straw (‘could you try that top B flat pianissimo instead of forte?’). Auditions should be a place for a panel to hear what you are capable of, not to test your psychology. If a panel request is unusual it’s not to catch you out but to examine what you are already doing in a different light. Many stories of odd audition occurences involve one of the panel getting up and walking away. How many of such stories, I wonder, took place inside a building with changeable acoustics? For that matter, how many audition panels have been sitting down for four hours and simply want to get up and stretch? You are due the courtesy of being heard with full attention but being looked at and being heard are not mutually inclusive. Try not to worry.

I started this piece by talking about the audience. Why? Well, you may be singing a role debut that you have heard many times from the audience. Equally, whether you are singing Suzanna or Mimi or Maria for the fortieth time, it is almost certain that there will be one or two people in the audience who have never heard the music before, even on a recording. Perhaps you’ve done dozens and it’s press night – but everyone is keen to see what a particular music director has done to give the familiar some shine. Perhaps the director has made his Barber of Seville that French accordion player working in a burlesque club (*seriously, don’t Google this!).

The point is this. Remember that first experience of a new show. The awkward cocktail of being in the same row of seats but taking in something alien is central to the appeal of theatre. Live theatre is always a unique event, a never-to-be-repeated first time. It also reflects our experience of auditions, in which a small group of people must hear multiple performances of the same thing from individuals who have done their party piece on many occasions. The novelty – the frisson – of the exchange is crucial. It’s what makes the connection. The re-creation of a that first time is an event to be sought out and welcomed, not a hazard to fear.