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Blogger in Residence: Rory Johnston

Rory Wainwright Johnston is a conductor and composer from Bradford-on-Avon, based in Manchester. He joined ORA Singers as our one of our ‘Bloggers in Residence’ in 2018, eager to share his experience of choral writing, singing, directing with the next generation.

About Rory...

Rory is a composer and conductor based in the rainy city of Manchester. Having just finished his Masters in Composition, he is gradually forging a path in the professional world of music.

Growing up within the English choral tradition as a treble at Bath Abbey, Rory’s musicianship was formed by composers like Howells and Byrd. Luckily having been played plenty of Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers on cassettes in his parents’ car as a kid, his taste broadened to encompass more than just the classical sphere. Nowadays, Rory enjoys listening to Renaissance polyphony and contemporary art music alongside R&B and 90's hiphop.

Rory is passionate about encouraging people to engage with contemporary music, opening their ears to new possibilities and sound worlds. He admires the ORA Singers for their commitment to new music and is thoroughly looking forward to working with them.

Tips for writing for amateur singers

For most of us, our first forays into writing choral music will come in the form of opportunities with ensembles we are associated with, whether that’s a school choir, a church choir - or even a children’s choir if you’re some kind of Mozartian genius…

When writing any music it is crucial to be thinking about how the performers are going to achieve what you’ve written, especially when writing for amateur musicians who may not have had an immense amount of musical training. It is therefore important to write as idiomatically as possible, which for singers means thinking about pitching, intervals, and line - and also the clarity of your intentions through notation. These tips are targeted at helping you write music that is more achievable by amateurs, but taking these ideas on board whenever you are writing choral music will only serve to make your music more enjoyable to sing and quicker to master.

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Pitching is the domain of most importance for singers. If one is writing for instruments pitch is not necessarily a parameter that requires too much forethought – a cellist can find an A with ease and a trumpeter knows how to go from a G# to a D and then down a minor 9th to a C# as there are fingerings and exact locations on the instrument for which to find these specific pitches, which isn’t to say it’s then easy… (please humour me trumpeters of the internets). However, when people sing things are not so simple. It is impossible, unless you are one of a small proportion of people with perfect/absolute pitch, to accurately magic up an A out of thin air. It is also equally as difficult to navigate large intervals without a lot of practice, and even then, it takes a lot of skill to make big, disjunct leaps cleanly.

When we write a vocal line, therefore, it is important think about three things:

-        How is the singer going to get their starting note?

-        Are there any large intervals and do they make sense within the context of the line/are they manageable?

-        Are the notes tonal/concordant, or within a tonal/concordant setting – if not, how does the singer approach that pitch?

The first of these is a potential massive point of frustration for a singer. As a piece progresses and the singer moves from one phrase to the next, they must find their note. If the piece is accompanied, then often there will be help from the piano or organ (or orchestra) to enable them to find their note. If the piece is a cappella, then a singer will do one of two things: they will either rely on their internal understanding of the key to pitch their note from, or they will listen to another line in the moments they are not singing and use another part’s notes to find their own pitch. Thinking about this in advance during the compositional process is really helpful, because it frees up the singers brain to think about all the musical things they want to do with the phrase, such as starting at the right dynamic, pronouncing that really tricky Russian word you decided to include, or remembering to sing the first two notes staccato, instead of having to do mental gymnastics to find their starting B# from the tenor’s Eb…

Large intervals aren’t inherently a bad thing, but making big leaps that don’t make sense within the context of the line can make the job of being musical very difficult. Having a big leap up and back down again can make a line sound uneven due to extra emphasis of the higher note, and it can also ruin any sense of legato phrasing. If the note is a melodic one, then it is a decision you have to make as to whether you want that effect or not, but if the note is purely for added harmony have a look in the other parts and see if there is any way of moving another, closer voice instead, even if it means – for example – splitting the altos into two parts for a bar.

Dissonance creates interest within music. The push and pull of dissonance against concordance can give shape to a piece of music, add emotive context to a word, and emphasise a high or low point in a musical phrase. When writing chords that are dissonant, questioning how a singer will get into that chord from the previous note is vital. Stepwise motion will always be your friend in this case. I have learnt over the years of writing for and working with amateur choir that even the most untrained of choral singers can sing some of the most abstract chord with the right approach -  and a bit of coaxing. I will often start with a unison note, or bare fifths and allow the singers to move in clear, obvious step-wise motion from there. This gives them something to lock on to – the solid, fifths chord or unison – and from there they can learn and remember their own line without too much need for reference as they have the reference of their original chord. So instead of having the singers jump randomly into a dissonance you have taken a liking to, first consider the chord and its surrounding context and think about how you can approach it in the most intuitive fashion.

Other than pitch there are lots of other things that can enable amateurs (and professionals also) to feel comfortable singing your music.

One thing that often puts singers on edge is the dreaded exposed line. When a vocal part has a line with no other parts singing it leaves them feeling unsupported and tentative (especially when the piece is a cappella), it is important in these moments to consider the work load of the singer in order that the singers don’t need to do lots of internalisation of rhythm or pitching. Being empathetic in these situations will lead to happier, more confident singers, who will perform that very quiet exposed line with assurance, instead of waiting for their neighbour to start the phrase.

Generally, when singers are singing together (not necessarily in homophony) they are more confident and happier to take risks with hard rhythms and difficult intervals. So, if you’ve got a really cool melody but it has some big leaps and tricky nested tuplets in it, consider giving it to the whole choir to sing in unison and then open out the harmony after that!

Above all, one tip that will never serve you poorly is this: Sing through your music yourself. If you struggle then it is likely another singer will also struggle, and if you don’t then you need to make a judgement call on whether it is difficult but manageable with practice or not.

There is so much more I could say on this topic, so perhaps we’ll touch on rhythm and meter another time…

What I’ve been listening to this week:

Duo seraphim – Francisco Guerrero

Riverrun – Toru Takemitsu

It was a lover and his lass – Madeleine Dring

Magnificat quinti toni – Guillaume Dufay

Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers