Loosening up your vocal chords

Indulging his passion for oratorio and English art songs Dr Bruce Herriot headed off for a singing weekend

About three years ago I discovered Jackdaws, an organisation set deep in the wilds of Somerset, that runs musical courses ‘to provide an opportunity for music lovers to discover for themselves, in an inspirational setting, that the deepest pleasure in music comes from understanding and hard work’.

As singing has been a hobby of mine for many years, and encouraged by my family to seek all possible solutions to gaining a better voice, I set off for a weekend on Schubert Lieder.

I was full of trepidation, not helped when I discovered that the two contrasting pieces that I had prepared should be performed from memory, and that German pronunciation was of critical importance.

However, having worked on them with an accomplished baritone, I survived with my morale intact. I have just returned from my third course at Jackdaws, where we studied oratorio and English art songs.

The 12 participants turn up for supper on Friday night. Wine is available for the needy which helps with the first night nerves. After the meal we introduce ourselves and sing one song: an excruciating experience reminiscent of early GP trainers’ workshops. We were a disparate bunch this year, with three young bass students who wanted to pursue a musical career, an immigration judge and, surprisingly, a couple of other doctors.

One of the joys of the weekend is listening to others, seeing what a huge difference can be made to their voice production by very small changes. You are exposed to new repertoires, and also have the chance to sing with a professional accompanist who plays Jackdaws’ magnificent Steinway beautifully. Over the two days you are put on the spot for about four 20-minute slots.

But the teaching is certainly not by humiliation. Everyone is asked to perform one of their pieces at a concert on the Sunday, but the audience consists of Maureen Wishart, the inspiration behind Jackdaws and a former professional mezzo, a few neighbours and a very friendly dog. The opportunity to sing in public doesn’t happen often to me so I am always grateful for this experience because it adds a new dimension to singing.

There is a choice of accommodation within the village of Great Elm — most is bed and breakfast with local families and every year I have been very comfortable. All meals are provided at the centre and are of a high standard.

‘Breathe properly, where’s the support, put a ring around that flat, etc’ is what I remember from each tutor. I’m not sure how much I have improved, but I have enjoyed the challenge each time.

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