The Come and Sing! Choral Workshop was organised by St Thomas’ Church to celebrate the renovation of their new organ. Natalie Hyacinth, PhD student on the Making Suburban Faith Project whose work focuses on the role of music for suburban faith communities, has been conducting research with St Thomas’ Church Choir over the last year. She helped to organise the event and has also been interviewing some of the participants for her research. Here she provides an account of the day.
Come and Sing! ‘Choral Workshop with Ralph Allwood’ took place at St Thomas the Apostle church on Saturday 21st May 2016, it was such a wonderful day! Over 85 singers from a diverse range of churches, faiths and community choirs such as St Thomas’ very own Choir, Hanwell’s Our Lady and St Joseph’s, Greenford’s Our Lady of the Visitation, Kew Community Choir, St Barnabas Ealing, Ealing Choral Society, Questors Choir and the Songbyrds all female singing group and many more came together on what was an enjoyable gathering of communal singing, creative participation and fellowship.
The day started at 10.30 am with a steady stream of singers entering St Thomas church for registration. Each singer received a score for the workshop that contained the music of the four songs we sang together:
“The Old Hundredth”, arranged by R. Vaughn Williams
“I was Glad”, C. Hubert H. Parry
“Softly”, Will Todd
“Zadok the Priest”, G.F Handel
“Sing!”, David Willcocks
The workshop began with a welcome from Professor David Gilbert who explained the importance of such events as these that seek to bring people together, and how ‘Come and Sing!’ embodied the ethos of the Making Suburban Faith project. Ralph Allwood, an eminent and excellent choir leader and musical director, led the workshop for the day. His energetic presence and humorous persona kept us all thoroughly entertained and inspired. I especially enjoyed his sharing of anecdotes and experiences as a choir leader interwoven into the practice of each song. It was also wonderful to hear his contextualising of each piece of music with little snippets of the history and background of each song and it’s composer. Paul Ayres, the talented Director of Music for the London College of Music, was the organist for the day and done an excellent job at creating beautiful sounds through the organ.
In the first half of the workshop, from 11.00am – 1.00pm, we practiced the first four songs. Though we sang tentatively at first, we warmed up into our voices with each step. The initial feeling of singing in such a large choir was simply amazing. I loved being surrounded by singers and sharing in their sounds. I sat on the alto to the left hand side of the church which had a great mixture of voices. The basses behind me sounded superb and were excellent in singing their solo parts. To the right hand side sat the sopranos and the tenors who also sounded wonderful, their voices beautifully blending with ours.
I was particularly excited at the prospect of singing Softly by Will Todd once again after my moving experience singing it with St Thomas’ Church Choir at the 9 Lessons and Carols 2015 Christmas concert. In this song Ralph urged us to “get a bit of magic on”, referring in particular to the end of the song and in which the line, “Waken my soul” was to be sung with feeling and emotion. I was taken by Ralph’s direction to just “sing!” and not to worry about making mistakes. In fact during the last section of the song he exclaimed “if you’re going to hit the wrong note, then let it rip!”, to the delight of the choir!
A lovely lunch of potato and leak and tomato and lentil vegetable soup was served in the church hall from 1.00 – 2.00pm which all commented on as being delicious and so very healthy. Lunch provided a wonderful opportunity to talk to the fantastic variety of singers in attendance, to share in conservation with new, friendly people. The hall was filled with a warm buzz from talking, sharing and fellowship; we were all anticipating the afternoon workshop and performance.
After a filling lunch, we began the 2.00pm – 4.00pm afternoon workshop. We practised the five songs all the way through, learning from each other and Ralph. Despite my first experience with singing in such a large choir, singing on this day still felt intimate, moving and emotional. Many singers commented to me how moved they felt at particular moments and within certain songs. It reminded me of how personal and special music is, and particularly how affecting singing can be.
Audience members began arriving at 4.15pm for our performance. There was a sense of anticipation in the air as we began singing The Old Hundreth, now singing towards the audience. The choir’s massed voices also went up: it filled the whole church with such joy and happiness. I felt that “Softly” was sung beautifully by the choir and it was great to experience it being sung in a different setting. I very much enjoyed the performance part of the workshop as the feeling of singing collectively with such a large choir was much more touching than I had expected. Though it did feel strange not to be sitting in the choir pews, and instead the congregational seats to perform!
Below are comments singers wrote on their reflection forms about the day:
“I found all of it useful, especially singing some well known but challenging works. I also particularly appreciated singing under an excellent conductor. I’ve sung with many (and varied) conductors in many choirs in my life, and I also do some choir conducting myself, so there is always something new to learn from other conductors!”
“The choice of music was inspiring providing us with a lovely range of pieces to sing.The warm-up techniques were very interesting and effective. Ralph’s confidence boosting reliance on our ability to be able to sing the pieces unaccompanied after an initial run through was appreciated. His details about the composers and the background to the works was very interesting and gave further insight into how we should approach them. Paul is a great accompanist and organist proving to be sensitive to what was needed at any point in the day, it was a delight to hear him and having him supporting us”
“Ralph’s teaching eg explanation of how to approach certain words like Zzzzzzzzzzzzadok and The-King gave them resonance. His warm up techniques were also excellent”
Father Robert closed the day with a word of thanks to all in attendance. We took a group photo below:
I would like to give special thanks to Ralph Allwood, Paul Ayres, Father Robert, Izzy Chapman, Michael Mappin, David Gilbert, Saul Gilbert, Claire Dwyer, Paul Giles, Roger Grange, all in the St Thomas Choir for their fantastic support and everyone in attendance for supporting the day!