It takes someone rather special to turn a small group of mature women who have never sung together before into a respectable a capella group, says JANE SLADE after experiencing a singing holiday in Salzburg
This wasn’t a typical Run By Singers holiday. In fact it was the first time the company had offered a trip for women only.
The challenge of taking 12 ladies of a certain age and moulding them into a singing group capable of performing in one of Salzburg's most prestigious venues in just four days, is something even Gareth Malone might have baulked at.
But international singing coach Ghislaine Morgan seemed to relish the opportunity of teaching our group, who had come from all over the UK and Canada, to sing a mixed repertoire of sacred, medieval and spiritual music she had chosen especially for us.
Most of us had never been on a singing holiday before. We were a mixed group of experienced choral singers and some who had never sung classical music before.
We were obviously nervous; with just 12 voices there was nowhere to hide.
So how lucky were we to have a warm, unflappable, experienced hand guiding us through a diverse repertoire of some 15 pieces.
Ghislaine had us ‘finding our voices’ in ways none of us imagined.
“Imagine a boomerang shape, keep it aligned with good head and back posture and imagine singing backwards to the audience in the cheap seats,” she instructed.
We made hissing and shooshing sounds; we stretched our arms to the ceiling to stretch our intercostal muscles, we trilled our Rs, exhaled to 'brrrrr', and impersonated the cries of seagulls and peacocks.
“Pretend you are a complaining aristocrat,” Ghislaine told us as she tilted her head down and pulled in her chin.
“That’s how you can access the higher notes.” It worked.
She had us pretending to cry, laugh silently, laugh heartedly and focus on our vowels and our breathing.
Ghislaine studied music at Oxford University and the Royal College of Music and has sung all over the world as a soprano with the world’s top choirs including the Tallis Singers, and Monteverdi Choir. She has conducted workshops for professional groups including the choir of St Mark's in Venice and summer schools for people like us – enthusiastic amateurs.
Set up 13 years ago by Nick Couchman and Jane Osgathorp Run by Singers is designed for people who love singing.
Most are aged over 50 and come from all walks of life. Some come on their own, with their partners or friends.
RBS holidays are usually a week long. They attract some 50 or 60 male and female voices with the purpose of performing a major choral work at the end in an historic hotspot such as; St Francis Basilica in Assisi, the church of La Madeleine in Paris, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and St Mark's in Venice.
“Run by Singers is for people who want to perform, learn, sing and be part of a family,” explains Nick, a former newspaper journalist, who sings with his partner Jane in a choir near their home in Cambridgeshire.
“We like to think of ourselves more as a club than a tour operator. Singers tend to be very sociable and like to eat and drink so it's good combination.
“Normally people sing in a church hall once a week – we offer a bit of a contrast giving them the chance to sing in wonderful places all over the world. We like to make a connection with what we are singing with where we are too.”
Carol Buxton, 71, has been on 26 RBS holidays including the very first one back in 2004. “I keep coming because I love the repertoire,” she said. “Also because we sing in some fabulous places and the teaching is always top quality.
“I don’t consider myself a great singer, but singing makes you feel good. We perform choral works and music from an eclectic repertoire so it's very wide ranging.”
Carol travels with her non-singing husband Jeremy, 71. “He likes to do some painting and enjoy the sights,” she added. “And listen to the concerts.”
What better place to discover your voice than in Austria's alpine city of Salzburg; Mozart’s birthplace and where the greatest musical was filmed, The Sound of Music.
Fortunately we had lots of time to visit some of the locations used in the film in between rehearsals – as well as some historical sights.
We attended a Mozart three-course concert dinner held in the oldest restaurant in Europe where the composer used to dine; the stunning Baroque Hall of St Peter’s Monastery. Here a string quintet performed in 18th century costume while a baritone and soprano sang duets from Mozart operas. Tickets for this candlelit nightly event cost €56.
We also roared around the Mirabell Gardens in the city centre visiting the Sound of Music location spots. We impersonated the Von Trapp children singing Our Favourite Things and Do-Re-Mi round the celebrated fountain, on the stone steps and through the leafy arbour.
We even went on a Sound of Music Tour and sung in a side chapel at St Michael’s Church in Mondsee where Captain Von Trapp and Maria got married in the film. We were so good some of the tourists thought we were nuns!
Our hotel was functional but unspectacular. Its advantages were that it was a 15-minute walk to the city centre and had a light and spacious practice room where we rehearsed for three hours each morning and two hours in the evening.
I think we all felt a tingling of nerves as we prepared to perform our concert a cappella in the lofty marble hall in the Mirabell Palace, with its huge windows, stunning gold stucco works and incredible acoustics. I imagined Mozart entertaining Salzburg royalty here and his music resonating through the doors up the huge sculpted staircase beyond.
Our concert of 10 works ranged from joyful medieval sacred music to more modern arrangements of negro and white spirituals. To our amazement we attracted quite an audience – most of whom stayed to the end!
The course cost £795 for five nights B&B, and two dinners but excluded flights, Mozart Concert Dinner, Sound of Music tour and private singing lessons with Ghislaine. For more information about other singing holidays visit www.runbysingers.co.uk