All we that sing like sheep

On Saturday, I went to look at some sheep.  More specifically, new sheep, otherwise known as lambs. Normally when I am viewing lamb it is through the glass front of the meat counter at my local farm shop.  However, as my wife is vegetarian and my daughter is 2, we decided it would probably be best to go and see some lambs actually running about!  Or at least jumping around whilst contained in fenced off partitions.

Whilst watching the sheep and their new born lambs, I couldnt help hearing “All we like sheep” from Handel’s Messiah playing in my head.  Now, as I’m sure you will all know, this is taken from a biblical text, specifically Isaiah Chapter 53, verse 6.  The full verse, depending on your bible, reads something similar to:

All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

I find this a curious passage.  Initially it suggests that we are all sheep which is why we have gone astray.   This is presumably referencing the other common quote involving sheep which implied they ‘follow blindly’.  I’ve always assumed this is making reference to the moment when sheep are herded into a pen by a sheepdog, although i could be totally wrong on that point!  But then the second part of this passage from Isaiah suggests that we have ‘turned, every one to his own way’.  This implies adoption of a more independent line of thought.

Now fortunately, I am not a biblical scholar. I’m not even religious. So I have no intention of getting into a debate as to what this passage actually means.   But, as the tune from Handel was playing in my head and I was watching the sheep, who incidentally were neither following each other blindly nor being fiercely independent, I found myself considering the phrase of to ‘follow like sheep’. It occurred to me that essentially my choir’s all do exactly that!  Or at least they are supposed to!

At the beginning of 2015, I told all my choirs that, amongst other things, one of the areas I wanted to work on during the course of the year was the idea of ‘being together’.  Now, I don’t mean in the pub (although they do a lot of that!). But, rather, in a musical sense.  Of course, the notion of a choir singing together, is at the heart of choral singing. In fact it’s probably one of the most basic elements which make a good choir.  As all my choristers will tell you, there is in fact only ‘one voice’ in the choir.  Nevertheless it is still quite a challenge to get a choir to really sing together.

One of the more obvious indications that a choir is ‘together’, is their ability to produce a single well place consonants at the end of a word or phrase.   For me there is nothing worse than getting to the end of a quiet phrase to then hear a machine gun of consonants going off all around you. It’s almost better to leave the consonant out!  A lot of conductors will spend most of the rehearsals telling their choristers to watch!   Clearly this will help, but there are a number of things you can do as a singer to make sure the choir is together.

1. Watching

Ultimately the most obvious way of keeping together is to watch your conductor. The role of a conductor, at its basic level, is simply to keep everyone in time.  Most contemporary music groups or bands do this by employing a drummer.  I must admit sometimes when my choirs don’t watch I do resort to banging my head against a brick wall, which ultimately results in the same effect!

2. Listening

If you listen to the other singers around you this will help you sing together.  Being in a choir is all about teamwork and keeping in time with the conductor is only part of being together.  A good choir also needs to be together harmonically. Basically you need to be singing the right note at the same pitch as everyone else.   Listening will also help you keep in time along with watching a conductor.   There are some A Cappella choirs who can sing perfectly together just by listening to each other breathe.  In the same way that a choir needs to sing together they also need to breathe together.  Listening is a great way of achieving this.

3. Breathing

There are many A Cappella choirs who can sing perfectly together just by listening to each other breathe.  In the same way that a choir needs to sing together they also need to breathe together.  A good conductor should indicate where to breathe. Typically this will take the form of an up beat giving the choir a chance to take in air together.   This will not only set you up for starting the note together but will also give you ample breath for the phrase which means there is a better chance of finishing together.

So it would seem the conclusion I have reached this week is that all choirs are in fact just like sheep! In the same way that sheep seem to either follow one another, or go totally astray, the same could be said of choirs.   If you sing in a choir why not spend a bit of time at the next rehearsal really listening and watching to see if you are together with your fellow choristers. And then maybe you could let me know how you get on with that?

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Jules Addison is currently Musical Director for Cirencester Male Voice Choir, The BlueBelles, The GWH Trust Choir, The Pewsey Belles and Transeamus Chamber Choir.