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Maia - Eton Choral Course

Eton Choral Choir

 Eton Choral Course Report

The Eton Choral Course was one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable weeks of my life. The course strengthened my passion for choral singing and I felt that I developed significantly as a singer.
I encountered so much new repertoire during the week and my sight-reading skills definitely improved as a result. Often, the pieces that initially seemed very daunting turned out to be the ones I most enjoyed singing. Each day started with a warm-up with one of the singing teachers on the course. Upon returning to school in the Autumn Term, I taught some of my favourite warm-ups to Chamber Choir as I thought they were both effective and fun. Anita Morrison did lip trills with us to help us control our breathing and Robert Rice’s warm-up involved singing ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ but missing out key words so that you really had to think about what you were saying.

Some of my favourite moments on the course were the rehearsals with my consort. Each consort was a small ensemble made up of about ten people. I absolutely loved singing in close harmony with such able and enthusiastic singers; our rendition of the American Spiritual ‘I Can Tell The World’ (arranged by Moses Hogan) was a particular highlight and was incredibly fun to sing. Our rehearsals culminated in a workshop with Christopher Bruerton who sings with world-renowned a cappella group, the King’s Singers. His attention to detail was fascinating; he stressed the importance of matching vowel sounds in an ensemble which was something I hadn’t thought about before.

One session on the course was entitled ‘Whatever Next’ and was about how we could continue with music after leaving school. There was advice about studying music at a conservatoire versus a ‘regular’ university, undergraduate and postgraduate music degrees and choral scholarships. All the staff on the course had something insightful to contribute; some were still studying music at university so could offer current information, whilst others had decades of experience within the music industry. I remember my friends and I being incredibly impressed that one of the singing teachers had taught Eddie Redmayne for seven years whilst he was at Eton!

The course was held in Durham and we stayed at St Chad’s college, which is right on the doorstep of Durham Cathedral. Apart from being visually stunning, with its imposing exterior and ornate interior, the cathedral has such a rich, generous acoustic that makes it an absolute pleasure to sing in. There was also a flurry of excitement when we first entered the Cathedral as some of the Harry Potter movies were shot in Durham and we swiftly spotted Professor McGonagall’s classroom!
We sung two services in the Cathedral: Compline with guest conductor Paul McCreesh and Choral Evensong with our course director, Simon Toyne. We learnt that Compline would have been the monks’ last service of the day and after the service, one would keep silent until the next morning. This imbued the evening with a certain gravitas and sense of tranquillity which was complemented by choral works such as ‘Bring Us, O Lord God’ by William Harris. We also had an informal concert in the Chapter House inside of the Cathedral. It has a wonderfully echoey acoustic which provided a perfect setting for our pieces, especially ‘Dance, Clarion Air’ by Tippett.

One of my highlights of the week was a session where we all learnt about conducting. All of us had a chance to conduct about 20 of our peers which was something I had never done before. Our coach, Benedict, was such a great teacher and his encouragement sparked a new interest in conducting; I am hopeful I will put these new skills into practice this year at school.
There is no doubt that course helped me develop as musician and greatly strengthened my passion for singing. I am so grateful to the Calne Foundation Trust for their very generous grant which enabled me to attend a course that was genuinely one of the most rewarding musical experiences of my life.

Eton Choral Course Diary

Thursday 27th July
Thursday morning saw the start of a five hour trek to the distant land of Durham. I arrived at St Chad’s college and was welcomed by one of the singing teachers on the course. The first thing we had to do was create our own personal timetable by noting down our singing lessons and consort rehearsals. I had a lot of nervous energy in me but luckily I quickly began to make friends and was relieved that I wasn’t the only person who didn’t know anyone on the course!

We hit the ground running: we had sectionals where we worked on our individual parts in detail and then our first full choir rehearsal which finished at 9.45pm. It was quite daunting being faced with so much unfamiliar music, but also refreshing to move at such a fast pace and sing with other keen, enthusiastic musicians. 

After rehearsals each evening, we had what was known as ‘Tap’ which was time to make friends and socialise. I was in bed by about 11pm and unsurprisingly, I was tired but also excited that tomorrow was going to be our first full day.

Friday 28th July
Today I had to wake up early which was quite a shock as I was used to the lie-ins and lazy afternoons that are so essential to a summer holiday. After eating a lovely breakfast, we had a warm up with Robert Rice, one of the singing teachers. It was a much more physical warm-up than I was used to and we spent more time stretching and warming up the body than we did singing which I found quite interesting. The course definitely reminded me how important warming up correctly is. This was followed by sectionals where we rehearsed some of our pieces. During the lunch break, we had a chance to walk around Durham and it was wonderful to explore such a historical and vibrant city.

We also had our first consort rehearsal in the afternoon. Each consort was a small ensemble of about ten people. All of us got on really well and we had so much fun during the rehearsal! We covered a broad range of repertoire and sung some really lively, upbeat pieces. After consort, we had a full choir rehearsal where we put into context the work we had done in sectionals.

I had also brought my violin with me as our final rehearsal of the day was orchestra. We played a familiar favourite - Radetzky March. For those on the course who didn’t play an instrument, there was ‘Norchestra’ (which simply stands for ‘not orchestra’) and they spent the evening playing with boomwhackers!

Saturday 29th July
The day begun with our session of Feldenkrais. The Feldenkrais Method is similar to Alexander Technique and it is a method which focuses on being aware of your movements. It involved a series of exercises where we had to stretch and isolate certain limbs and think about how we were moving them, rather than just completing everything on auto-pilot. I had never heard of Feldenkrais before so it was interesting to learn about it from an expert.

Today we had full choir and a consort rehearsal. We sung ‘I Can Tell The World’ which is a American spiritual arranged brilliantly by Moses Hogan. Our consort leader, Simon Lee, is so passionate about music and his enthusiasm is so infectious! It’s so helpful to have such an encouraging leader.
In the evening, we had a seminar about performance which specifically dealt with how to overcome nerves and practice effectively. I found it really useful as Robert Rice gave us tips on how to memorise pieces and what to do when things go wrong.

Sunday 30th July
Today I had my first individual singing lesson. My teacher liked to use a lot of movement during her lessons which I wasn’t used to but I think it was helpful. I was quite nervous, but she understood my voice very quickly and knew the areas which needed improvement.

We also saw the inside of Durham Cathedral which was a moment that I think everyone was excited for! Our consort rehearsed in a small room inside the cathedral. In the evening, we had a session called ‘Whatever Next’ which was about how we could continue with music once we left school. It was really informative and we learnt about studying music at a conservatoire versus a ‘regular’ university, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and choral scholarships.

Monday 31st July
Today was a very focused and intense day (even more than usual!) because we had compline in the evening and our guest conductor Paul McCreesh led the rehearsals. He knew exactly what he wanted from our voices and gave very precise feedback which made for a tiring but productive rehearsal.
After full choir, we had a mini masterclass where I had to perform a solo in front of six people, including our singing teacher. This session was very enjoyable but also useful as our peers gave us feedback and helpful advice. It was lovely to perform and hear other people sing.

Compline was incredible! The Cathedral has the most stunning acoustic which makes everything sound magical. After the service, we played some really fun team-building games which involved a quiz as well as making wearable garments out of strawberry laces!

Tuesday 1st August
There were lots of full choir rehearsals today in preparation for Evensong tomorrow. We bought a present for our consort leader, Simon, when we were in Durham. We also took a course photograph. It was beginning to feel like the end of the course which was so sad! We had our last consort rehearsal and then the consort workshop with Christopher Bruerton which was an amazing experience. Christopher Bruerton sings baritone for the King’s Singers and getting to work with him was one of the main reasons I was so excited to go on the course. Singing in close harmony was one of my favourite aspects of the course; I really enjoyed performing our piece and taking on board Chris’ advice. He talked about the importance of taking an audible breath and matching vowel sounds when singing a cappella.

On the way back to our rooms, my friends and I were talking to Anita Morrison (our singing teacher) and we were rather impressed when she nonchalantly told us she taught Eddie Redmayne for seven years when he was at Eton!

Wednesday 2nd August
I had my second private lesson today and we focused on breathing technique. I had to lie on the floor and concentrate on what parts of my body (for example, my stomach, lungs, diaphragm and shoulders) were doing and ensure I was engaging/relaxing each part at the right time.

This afternoon we also had a conducting session and I think it was the highlight of my week so far. We all got to conduct an ensemble of about 20 people; I had never done anything like it before and it was so enjoyable. Benedict, the member of staff who was leading the conducting session, was such an inspiring teacher as well as a brilliant conductor and we all learnt so much from him.

Thursday 3rd August
We had the sad task of handing in all our music today. Berty also held a masterclass where four people sang their solos and he gave them feedback which was very interesting. We had our recital in the Chapter House inside Durham Cathedral. The Chapter House has an incredible echo which perfectly suited pieces such as ‘Dance, Clarion Air’ by Tippett. We also sang ‘I Was Glad’ by Parry and it was amazing to hear that magnificent organ fanfare in such a beautiful cathedral.

After the recital we had the course BBQ followed by an informal concert which was such a great way to end the week. Highlights included several beautiful duets and trios, the consorts singing their close harmony songs and ‘Rather Be’ by Clean Bandit performed on boomwhackers by Norchestra!
Friday 4th August

Today was our last day! Simon gave us our reports which included comments from our singing teacher and consort leader. We ate our final breakfast and all said goodbye to each other. I thanked all the staff on the course and needless to say, it was quite an emotional day! I learnt so much during the week and I’ll never forget what a great time I had.

Maia UVI

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