Choir Director of Malton-based choirs Harmonia and Ryedale Voices, and the new Pickering-based Ryelarks
Q What is your background?
I lived in Pickering until I was 4, then Newton-on-Rawcliffe—a wonderful place to grow up. Neither of my parents are musical, yet they encouraged my sister, brother and I to learn several instruments. We trained at Kirkham Henry Performing Arts, taking part in many productions at the Kirk Theatre. After leaving Lady Lumley’s School, I went to Middlesex University in London to study for a Music degree.
Q What age did you start singing?
I found my voice when I was about 13, singing my first solo at the Kirk Theatre. My Mum still remembers me singing and thinking: ‘Where has that come from?’. I had singing lessons with the wonderful Jennie Henry, and she took me through my singing exams. Singing became my focus and, at 16, I was given the opportunity to sing with the EASY Jazz Orchestra in Scarborough. Singing with a big band suited my style and I went on to perform with the George Bradley Orchestra for many years. At university I trained with a fantastic vocal group and developed a love for contemporary choral singing. The university choir and its musical director were highly influential in shaping my career.
Q What’s the best thing about teaching music?
Until a problem with my jaw worsened, I taught singing to hundreds of children in schools for 16 years. Some have gone on to work in the music business or performing arts or teach themselves. For many, it was a much-needed outlet to express themselves and it was always a joy to watch them develop as singers and performers.
Q How and when did Harmonia Choir come about?
I was asked to direct the Scarborough Area Music Centre Choir soon after I started teaching, which was daunting, as I’d only taught individuals up to that point. I shadowed the then-MD, and eventually had enough confidence to lead the group on my own. I found that leading a choir came naturally to me and I loved the process of creating a choral sound. Five years later I decided to start my own adult choir. Malton already had a male voice choir, so the idea for Harmonia was born. I held the first rehearsal in November 2008, and many of the original members are still with me. It is now a 60-strong female voice choir.
Q How do you know which music will work best for the choirs? Do you have a favourite piece?
I get incredibly excited when I’m choosing new music! I spend hours trawling sheet music websites and get a bit carried away buying odd copies of arrangements to look at. Choosing the right music is about knowing your choir’s strengths and not giving them something that exposes any weaknesses! With Harmonia, I know their voices and what will suit them. I try and stretch them with some pieces that test them and make them think. Ryedale Voices are a relatively new group, so I’m still finding out what works best. We’ve also had a lot of new members recently (especially men) so the type of arrangements I choose are changing—we now have really strong tenor and bass sections. In terms of style, I try and bear in mind where we perform and what the audiences we attract would enjoy. I hope that our repertoire is varied and that there’s something for everyone at our concerts.
The songs are always evolving so I go through stages of having different favourites. Currently I’m enjoying Blue Mountain River by Sam Lakeman with Ryedale Voices. My favourite piece that Harmonia sings is Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell. It’s one of our simplest arrangements, but they sing it with such heart it always moves me.
Q What makes a good choir director?
Being a good choir director is about knowing your choir and listening to them. I think (and hope) I have a good relationship with my members and I try and get to know them. They need to trust you as a choir leader—you’re training them to stand in front of an audience, with no music or words, and put themselves on the line. As many of my singers have never performed before joining the choir, this is a big ask.
Q Do you believe that anyone can sing?
I think that everyone can be helped to sing better. Often people say ‘I’m tone deaf’ but usually that means that they just have a very small range of notes that they use. I don’t believe that choral singing should be just for those who are trained or can read music. Some of my singers are experienced, but many join not having sung since school. I don’t dumb rehearsals down. I try to challenge the more able whilst making it accessible to others. I record all our arrangements so that everyone can learn songs in between rehearsals. It’s the only way some singers can access the music and helps everyone enormously to learn their parts.
Q Who are your role models?
My first was David Peacock, the eccentric MD of my university choir. He was so passionate about the music and his enthusiasm for what we were doing was contagious. I listen a lot to Eric Whitacre speak about composing, arranging, and working with choirs. He’s so in tune with what works with whichever group he’s writing for or conducting and adapts his approach accordingly. Harmonia Choir performs Whitacre’s ‘The Seal Lullaby’ and are working on another beautiful piece of his called ‘Sing Gently.’
Q The choir has won several festivals. What makes it so successful?
Harmonia has competed at the Eskdale Festival several times and won the Recital Class three years in a row (2016, 2017 and 2018). At our first Festival (2014) I remember thinking: ‘We’ll just go for the experience’. That year we came away with one 3rd place and were thrilled. I learned so much from watching other choirs and gained ideas about repertoire-what worked and what didn’t! We really knuckled down, worked so hard, and in 2015 came away with another trophy. Then in 2016 we won 3 trophies. Repeating that success the following two years was an incredible achievement, especially as the competition was fierce. I don’t think that Harmonia’s success should be measured by how many trophies we’ve won, but it is nice to have positive feedback from respected and experienced adjudicators.
Q How have your choirs survived the pandemic?
The last two years have been incredibly challenging. For many singers, the choirs provide a social network, so the sudden break from our weekly rehearsals was hard. The pandemic coincided with my long-term health problem worsening, which exacerbated the situation. Five years ago, I developed a problem with my jaw and during the pandemic I underwent two surgeries to try and correct the issues. Ryedale Voices rehearsals were being led by Richard Kay from York Philharmonic Male Voice Choir and he did a brilliant job of taking rehearsals online. Harmonia stopped altogether for a while as I couldn’t see a way to keep it going. However, after a while, I restarted Harmonia rehearsals online and took on Ryedale Voices rehearsals again myself. Amazingly, nearly all of Harmonia took part in the Zoom sessions and about half of Ryedale Voices were still logging on every week to sing. It was a strange experience, as I couldn’t hear them, and they couldn’t hear each other! There were those that, for various reasons, didn’t partake in the sessions and I tried to maintain contact with them, sending recordings and sheet music for new songs. When we finally resumed live rehearsals in September, nearly everyone returned, and Ryedale Voices has welcomed about 12 new members. I also arranged an outdoor sing in June last year at Swinton Sports field. We hadn’t seen each other in 15 months, spaced 2 metres apart and just sang. It was joyous!
Q You have two new choirs in Ryedale—Ryedale Voices and Ryelarks. What makes them different?
I started Ryedale Voices in 2019, as I wanted to take the idea of Harmonia and create a mixed voice choir. It has been a personal challenge to work with male voices, as most of my experience has been with unbroken or female voices. We’re lucky to have a large number of men in the choir opening up opportunities for different repertoire. I’d wanted to start a choir in Pickering for some time, but my health and then the pandemic meant that I had to wait. The Ryelarks is similar to Harmonia in style, but with a different group of people of course. Every choir’s sound is unique due to the range of voices and blend of personalities therein, so I’m excited to see where The Ryelarks will go.
Q Do you have any concerts planned this year?
It had been three years since Harmonia last performed and Ryedale Voices hadn’t done a concert yet. Our first concerts were outdoors at Nunnington Hall in May. We’re holding an evening concert on 9th July at St. Peter’s Church in Norton which I’m very excited about. We hope to be joined by some singers from Malton School, who will perform an Eric Whitacre piece alongside Harmonia. More information about this event will soon be on our website www.singinginryedale.co.uk.
Q What does the future hold for you and your choirs?
I can’t quite believe that I’m able to get back to doing what I love, after being told a few years ago that I shouldn’t sing due to my jaw condition. It’s an exciting time! I’m now looking ahead to Christmas and starting to organise performances.
I’m also hoping to start a perinatal singing group in September, with the aim of providing a well-being activity for new parents and mums to be. When I had my girls, I went to so many groups, but they were all aimed at the baby and their development. During those early months I found the connection with other parents invaluable, but I didn’t really do anything for myself. There have been significant studies to show that regular participation in a singing group reduces levels of postnatal depression faster than other group activities. The sessions will run during the day, will focus on well-being, and feature uplifting and other carefully chosen songs. Parents can attend with or without their child, and the sessions will be relaxed. I hope to run sessions in Malton/Norton and Pickering. More information will be available soon on the website:
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