I am a singer and singing teacher working in the area of the female adolescent voice. I applied to the Afterlife of Heritage Project in order to give me a platform by which I could further my understanding of the vocalisation of different types of technique with which I was unfamiliar. That is, how do kids sing when they sing musical theatre, pop and even opera; all areas I am unfamiliar with. So I was all set up to go to some Saturday schools and see how it was being done in with these children. The institutions had been contacted, dates set, targets agreed. And then I went to the workshop…
I came away thinking that I was missing an opportunity to do something a little bit different. By going to observe teachers at different institutions I was going to benefit my own understanding. But what of the understanding of others? I realised that I needed to rethink what I was going to do.
I searched long and hard to find something which I could do which combined not only my academic skills, but my practical skills as well. As a musician, for me, studying is as important as creating. If the one doesn’t lead to the other then I feel that I have missed something. I suppose that is the true meaning of reflective practice. My PhD is looking into the vocal health of adolescent girl singers. There has been an enormous amount of research on boys and it can safely be said that much of this research has had a significant impact on how boys are taught to sing. The same cannot be said for girls and how and what girls are singing is little understood. Latterly my research has involved me with girls who sing in a Cathedral environment. I wanted my particiaption in the Afterlife of Research Project to reflect my knowledge and have an impact on these children who are singing intensively on a daily basis; and (perhaps it is a vain hope) possibly educate those who are working with them.
But finding the correct project was difficult- how to get children who already sing intensively to take on another project, how to get a school on board, how to choose the right repertoire?
And then Eureka! An opportunity presented itself in the form of a children’s opera called Brundibar. The story is a simple one- 2 children need some milk to make their sick mother better and they have trouble getting it, but in the end they overcome. It has nice tunes. There are singing cats and birds. On the face of it, a jolly story. But the story behind the opera isn’t nearly so nice. Written in Czechoslovakia in 1938, the opera was performed by the children of Terezin concentration camp. It was rehearsed and conducted by Hans Krasa, its composer, who was imprisoned in Terezin and eventually transported and executed at Auschwitz. The opera’s history is a shocking tale of inhumanity, lies and suffering which contrasts severely with the story it portrays.
I approached the local Cathedral choir school. The head has Czech parentage and every year they take their most promising pupils on a trip to Auschwitz. It was agreed that I can rehearse the children weekly between now and November and then Brundibar will be performed as part of their traditional Remembrance Day concert. The Cathedral has aloso put Brundibar in its concert programme for November, thus providing 2 occasions when this project will be performed to the public. So my research will not only have a practical application, but an appreciative audience!
Setting apart the tragic history of the piece, why am I choosing to do this? What has it got to do with my research? Well, what this gives me is a great opportunity to turn theory into practice. My recent research has been looking at girls who sing in a Cathedral environment. These girls are steeped in a male environment and are strongly influenced by male musical culture. It might be claimed that the boys’ singing voice is the most prized amongst Cathedral musicians and girls may feel that they are required to imitate a boy’s sound. I am a female musician who is not influenced by Cathedral culture and will come to working with the children from a more neutral point of view. The language I use to express my ideas, the expectations I have and the eventual outcome will all be very different for these children. It will be interesting to see how they respond to working with someone who is very different to their usual experience.
I am soon to start weekly rehearsals with a choir made up exclusively of adolescent Cathedral singers, both boys and girls. The hormonal change which occurs at puberty causes vocal mutation. This brings with it breathiness, hoarseness, difficulty controlling the breath and increased register breaks. This happens to a greater or lesser extent in all boys and girls. Within the choir will be voices that have yet to mutate, voices that are mutating and voices that have mutated. It is unusual to hear these voices together. The demands of the music are somewhat less taxing than these choristers would normally be used to, as Brundibar was written for untrained voices. However, constant singing at a very high pitch can be vocally tiring and can cause problems for any singer. These problems are exacerbated when the voice begins to mutate. However, the lower pitch will allow for all the adolescent singers to participate, no matter which stage their voices are in the mutational process.
As the project is yet to begin, it is difficult to say exactly what will happen. It may very well be that the mutational voices don’t blend, the children hate the experience and we produce a performance that is unpleasant and untidy. However, I hope that the children WILL enjoy the experience and produce a performance that is pleasant and polished. And above all I hope that I will be able to show them that they can produce a pleasant, breathy sound which can be produced healthily during vocal mutation. I am hoping that this might make those who work with them on a daily basis question what it is they are doing. Perhaps they may challenge their own preconceptions and look to improving their own knowledge and widening their own experience in order to improve the long term vocal health of the children they work with.
It may be a vain hope, but at least now, thanks to Brundibar I have the opportunity to showcase a different path. And who knows, one day all Cathedrals might have reconsidered their age old expectations….