Finding my voice (part 3)
In previous parts of this blog, I've talked about the influences and experiences that have had an impact on my vocal ability and style. In part 3, it's off to university.... again!
Adjusting to the move to Huddersfield university was difficult. You know how I said previously that Lancaster had a great music society with so many bands to join, full of people from every course available? Well, it was quite different at Huddersfield.
For a start, all the ensembles were under the music department's management and a part of the music course itself. This meant you would only find music students in the ensembles. Every now and then, a student from a different department would go through a vigorous audition process to join the ensemble (and only if their instrument was needed i.e. oboe) but since these bands were course-based and assessed, the atmosphere could be quite intimidating and intense, to the point where that non-music student would leave because they couldn't handle the pressure and had only wanted to do this for fun.... for fun... ha!
Don't get me wrong, the ensembles were enjoyable. The fellow music students were great people and good fun. The music performed varied from classical pieces, popular music, to film scores of amazing quality, but the directors were also your lecturers and they wanted absolute perfection, since good marks in the assessments meant kudos for them.
The first year didn't see me do much singing apart from in the university choir where it was compulsory for every first year music student to join, in which I joined the altos and met another counter-tenor. Finally, I wasn't the only one! The reason why there wasn't much singing in that first year was due to a very severe hierarchy system. Because these were department-based ensembles, the 3rd years were given the main parts since their assessments were more important than those of 1st or 2nd years.
Second year was quite the contrast however. The 3rd year singer from the big band had left and when the director asked if anyone knew a singer who could audition for the band, I gingerly raised my hand. One audition later, I was singing Paul Anka's version of 'Jump' and Sinatra's 'Under My Skin' in the 2nd year concerts. I also joined a small singing quartet, Dinner With Elgar as alto, in which we sang songs like Bennett's 'Weep, O Mine Eyes', Parry's 'There Rolls The Deep', and Tallis' 'If Ye Love Me'.
As well as the big band and the quartet, I joined the chamber choir as an alto where we sang various medieval and early renaissance works; started a barbershop quartet and choir as well, singing tenor in songs like Hercules' 'I Can Go The Distance' and Lion King's 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight'; and, with a few others, created the band North, East, South, West, in which we performed covers of songs like Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky' and Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition'. This was just the singing. I was also in the wind ensemble on clarinet, the saxophone ensemble on tenor sax, and in a saxophone quartet on soprano sax. 9 ensembles... And there were a few more that appeared briefly but quickly dismantled due to everyone having no free time. That was the thing, as well as all these ensembles, we still had to go to lectures, seminars, instrumental lessons, and fit in solo practice too.
By the final term of 2nd year, I was really stressed and stumbling about with lack of sleep. My personal tutor took me aside and told me straight: 'You're doing too much. Drop a couple of these ensembles as your grades are starting to decrease'. Damn, it was a harsh wake-up call but I needed it. I dropped chamber choir and the barbershop choir. Only 2 but it made all the difference. THE ED BROWN SHOW
Final year had been quite intense but I had managed to find a perfect groove, finishing with a 2:1 and a 1st in solo performance. I was really pleased and all that was left to do was the end of year 'Showcase' concert. By this point I was on the 1st part in every ensemble. With each band practising separately, I hadn't really noticed what was forming but when it came to the night of the concert, I realised with, well embarrassment to be honest, that the concert itself would be, as quite a few people said afterwards, 'The Ed Brown Show'.
In the space of 2.5 hours, in a concert that had 3 ensembles perform, the audience witnessed me perform 3 solos on saxophone with the big band, one of which was a whole 6-minute song, Mingus' 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat'; sing 4 songs with the big band: 'Somethin' Stupid', 'Beyond The Sea', and 'Mack The Knife' from Robbie Williams' 'Swing When You're Winning' album, and Jamiroquai's version of 'I'm In The Mood For Love'; perform 2 solos with the saxophone ensemble; and sing 'You've Got A Friend In Me' from Toy Story with the wind band (with my 15-year-old Woody and Buzz dolls as props).
The time spent at Huddersfield had been absolutely incredible, full of musical experiences everywhere. After 3 years of singing in choirs, quartets and solo in front of bands, my voice had developed into an adaptable and strong instrument, capable of high, sustained pitches in 'head voice' and resonant, projected notes in 'chest voice'.
The sheer intensity and richness of activities at Huddersfield was never surpassed. I took a year out, visiting Australia, then went to Bristol university to study a Masters in composition. I joined the big band there but again, since I was a post-grad not doing anything performance related, I was shunned to the back when it came to saxophone. I had the opportunity to sing Sinatra's 'Lady Is A Tramp' but the social aspect wasn't particularly friendly so I left the band after the first term. I also wrote and recorded a harmonic composition with 8-part harmony, using my voice, for my final portfolio of the Masters.
Since then, the singing has taken a back seat. Occasionally, I'll help Dad out in the local choir at Christmas, record myself singing in some of my compositions, and for a recent anniversary, I recorded an album of jazz crooners for my wife. These included: 'All Of Me', 'Blue Moon', 'Easy Living', 'Misty', and 'Summertime' among others. Other than that, it's singing around the house and in the shower. I would love to sing more regularly but as I often say to my students when they've found it difficult to practice, life tends to get in the way. I will always look back on my experiences appreciatively, and the skills gained from them will never leave me.
Were there any moments in your life you feel had a positive effect on your skills and ability needed in your career?