Bethany Seymour is writing a monthly blog exclusively for Early Music Today to talk about her experiences as a BBC Performing Arts Fellowship Award winner. The young professional soprano is carrying out her fellowship at the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM) in York. The BBC Performing Arts Fund (BBC PAF) is a charity committed to developing new performing arts talent from across the UK in all disciplines, including early music.
This month marks the half-way point of my fellowship and it has certainly gone quickly! Looking back over my previous blogs life seems to have been a blur of concerts and tours, so this month it has been a real delight to begin the educational aspect of the fellowship. I was the vocal coach on ‘a musical play in a week’ run at the NCEM for children aged 9 to 14. This week is exactly as it sounds – the children arrive on Monday morning and are handed scripts; then by Monday afternoon the parts have been allocated and learning songs has started. As this was my first time taking part in something like this, I was intrigued as to how the children would cope with learning their lines and remembering all the songs. By Wednesday morning, most of the lines were memorised and more than half of the songs were note perfect. The speed at which the children worked really impressed me. I would very much like to have that sort of memorising ability!
This year’s music was based on compositions by William Lawes to tie in with the civil war theme of the play. The songs were arranged in to two and three parts, and the instrumental pieces tailored to the children’s ability and the wide variety of instruments that they play. I particularly enjoyed helping the children go from note reading to understanding phrasing and shape. I also enjoyed learning new things myself, for instance what a tenoroon is. (It’s a tenor bassoon)
That week was a good start in preparing me for my next educational project, which is conducting a choir for a Christmas concert to join the Minster Minstrels – a very popular youth ensemble that focuses on early music, based in York at the National Centre for Early Music. I will be conducting a group of young singers up to the age of 18 in music by Hassler, Praetorius and Buxtehude. This type of music will be completely new to the singers so I look forward to introducing them to a new style and phrasing. It will be challenging as the lines are both homophonic and melismatic, so will require a good technique and sense of security. If there are any young singers in the north wanting to take part in this project, do get in touch with the National Centre for Early Music for more details.
As I said in my last blog, I am recording the Matthew Passion in the next week and so I have spent the last month preparing for this. As a lover of Bach’s music, it has not been a chore to spend so long practicing one piece, but it has certainly been challenging. Those of you who have sung any of Bach’s pieces will agree when I say one of the hardest aspects is stamina. The lines are long and demanding with very few chances to breathe. Having said that, the reward when you do get it right is well worth it! The team of performers (mentioned in my last blog) will be very inspiring. There’s a great deal of discussion between the performers and conductor about the (early) version we’re recording – for example, about the accuracy of the manuscript itself (not Bach’s own), let alone which of Bach’s later thoughts might have been included in his own early performances. And, although we’re not trying to produce a museum piece reproducing what might have been heard in 1727 or 1729, we’re conscious that it has to be a performance which vividly communicates Bach’s understanding of the text … no pressure then!