Looking after the semitones with Run By Singers

During a week of singing in southern Spain I lost count of the times maestro Jeremy Jackman exhorted us to look after the semitones. There were plenty of other musical elements to look after as well, of course: timing, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, balance and diction, especially bearing in mind that the programme dictated getting our teeth and tongues around no fewer than seven languages, each with their own quirks when it came to pronunciation of vowels, consonants or both. But attention to semitones, especially of the downward variety, cropped up time and again in the pursuit of accurate tuning. Each time we sagged, up would go the plea from Jeremy: “Look after those semitones!”

It occurred to me that there was scope for many other aspects of being looked after or doing the looking after during such a week. The music-making clearly had to be a collective effort and active listening and two-way communication was encouraged to produce the right blend and overall sound: we needed to look after each other. But away from the rehearsal room, meeting up with friends old and new, it was important to recognise the time to speak and the time to listen too, being aware of everyone’s place in the group dymamic. Nobody needed to feel left out and yet equally nobody would mind if you took a moment for yourself; during such an intensive schedule, I was happy to slope off for a bit of exploring on my own or simply have a siesta during the hottest part of those oh so sunny days. Sometimes you need to look after yourself.To help keep us cool in our lovely monastery rehearsal space in Puerto de Santa María, Nick had requested some fans from the obliging authorities, envisaging the electric variety. There was much hilarity when a collection of narrow boxes turned up containing the colourful type that Spanish ladies deftly flick open. This was where you needed to know your ventilador from your abanico.

At the monastery we were watched over by a security guard, but maybe it was the building he was looking after rather than us singers. He seemed to enjoy hearing the music and even recognised that we occasionally sang in his mother tongue. I asked him if he would come to the concert; I didn’t spot him there but perhaps he looked different out of uniform. By the same token, at that point we’d all scrubbed up well and poured ourselves into performance black.

By definition, concert gear tends to require decent bodily coverage. This may have felt a bit on the warm side but in some cases had the advantage of disguising any remaining insect bites. Those of us who hadn’t anticipated some al fresco dining were very grateful that others were generous with their repellent wipes, even if the resulting aroma didn’t give off the nicest notes.

Whatever the local insect population may be up to, Run By Singers participants never go hungry or thirsty on holiday, and this time we were looked after especially well by the Osborne sherry family. The first afternoon’s bodega tour and sherry tasting, accompanied by appetising ham, cheese and nibbles, proved a great ice-breaker. There were four varieties of sherry one felt obliged to try; it was delightfully relaxing and that evening’s rehearsal seemed none the worse for our imbibing! The same couldn’t be said for Thursday morning, when everyone had hit that point of tiredness and the music could politely be described as the dregs of the barrel. Jeremy was sensitive enough to recognise that it wouldn’t be a great day for too many admonishments and by the following morning we’d got over it. In any case, he would always encourage us to look after our voices by helpful gentle warm-ups, beginning with humming and progressing through a succession of exercises for consonants and vowels that sometimes sent us climbing as far as G♯, “otherwise known as Top X”.

We were given a masterclass in tuning and performance – and our entertainment needs were well looked after – by RBS regular Amanda and her close harmony group, DCHQ (Devon Close Harmony Quartet). It was lovely stuff, the artistes truly connecting with their audience and enunciating every word of their original arrangements. Having put so much into our own music-making every day, it was a total treat to be serenaded between courses at our special Friday dinner back at the Osborne bodega. The whole choir also returned the hospitality of the Osborne family by presenting the world premiere of Jeremy’s specially-commissioned “A Sherry Trifle”, a multi-layered confection extolling the characteristics of a multitude of sherry varieties. They liked it and asked about copyright…

The audience at our final Saturday concert were also delighted with what we offered, whether all those semitones were spot-on or not. After enthusiastic applause of the standard variety they got to their feet and embarked on a special rhythmic clapping which might have stirred the odd flamenco dancer into action. Nick’s ‘fixer’ Vicente afterwards told me that it’s rare to be granted this type of applause, so clearly they’d enjoyed the performance very much. This came as no surprise, though, as you could tell there was real communication of the music, and we were pleased to give them their just deserts (desserts?) with an encore of “A Sherry Trifle”. Finally we filed out down the length of the red-carpeted church, with applause ringing until the very last of the 60+ singers had emerged into the mercifully cool air.

Until we meet again, look after yourselves.

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