Cantabile

Tales of a 2nd soprano imposter by Leslie Robinson

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to join the amazing Willliam Byrd Singers, one of the North West of England’s leading chamber choirs. Although I felt very proud at the time, I now frequently find myself suffering from imposter syndrome!

I think I may be the only member of the choir who doesn’t play an instrument and/or teach music; unless you count my spell in the primary school recorder group accompanying morning hymns (I was quite adept at avoiding any hymns with more than two flats in its key signature), and my dabbling with the violin for a year aged 13 (before my dabbling turned distinctly boy-ward).

At age 40ish, I had eventually exhausted the novelty of such distractions and sat my grade 5 music theory exam, the only person in the room whose knees didn’t fit neatly under the two-foot high desks. I felt like some BIG Tom Hanksian character in a very small world. I also took singing lessons and discovered I had a passable voice once it knew what it was doing. My sight-reading though is still decidedly dodgy.

Armed with this stunning array of musical skills I audaciously applied to join the Byrds; audition (including sight-reading) compulsory. I got in! How did I do that? I think it was a fluke; a) it was the end of the rehearsal, b) Keith (MD) was tired, c) the sight-reading test piece was somewhat predictable in style, d) they heard I could bake decent cakes, e) any other flukish explanation you might want to insert.

So, Sunday afternoon rehearsals are always approached with a frisson of anxious anticipation. Will today be the day I’m rumbled? Sight-reading, performing each of the (wide range of) pieces in their appropriate genre style, being able to enunciate a range of impossible languages (the first performance pieces I had to learn were in Hungarian and Russian) and hoping beyond hope that I haven’t been picked for a solo when my musical inadequacies would surely be found out (early on I was actually chosen to be cuckoo in Banchieri’s Contrapunto bestial alla mente nevertheless since it only required articulation of two notes, of not unfamiliar interval, I think I may have got away with it).

But on the plus side, my Sundays are always a massive learning opportunity. Each week I note down joyous facts and titbits; new to me but which the others greet with sagely nods of comprehension and a masterly flourish of pencilled choral short-hand. Today’s (secret) mission was to discover the meaning of ‘cantabile’. I’ve heard the word quite often, might have even attempted to drop it into a conversation once or twice with varying degrees of success. But its true definition escaped me.

Well apparently it means ‘songlike’ or in a ‘singing’ style. As a direction for a musical instrument I can sort of get what it means but not terribly useful as a direction for singers since I’m sure we would all like to think we are singing in a, well songlike, way. So what’s it doing as a direction in a choral manuscript? After much searching on the Internet I found a credible source and fuller explanation in W.E Haslam’s (1911) Style in Singing

“ in cantabile phrases the stream of sound, notwithstanding its division into syllables by the organs of articulation—lips, tongue, etc.—should pour forth smoothly and uninterruptedly. The full value of each tone must be allotted to the vowel; the consonants which precede or end the syllables are pronounced quickly and distinctly. In declamatory singing, on the contrary, the consonants should be articulated with greater deliberation and intensity”

So there we have it. Another lesson learned which I hope will help others. Next week I shall be concentrating on those vowels. If that fails, I’ll bring in some nice cake and all will be well again.

My gooey chocolate cake

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