This blog post was first published on the Making Music website: La Nova Singers reflect on their first Adopt a Composer meeting. 

Updated April 2020: in its 20th year, Making Music have reimagined their ‘Adopt a Composer’ project to become ‘Adopt a Music Creator’. The scheme is open for applications now.

Dorset has some beautiful, historic churches, rich with architectural merit. This was not one of them.

The venue for our first Adopt a Composer workshop with Ed Scolding was resplendent in orange and brown patterned wallpaper, of the type popular in the 1970’s. This was paired with turquoise paintwork, and with a curious musty odour.

As the choir gathered in this inauspicious place, we all had questions about what was about to happen!

The fifteen members of my choir, La Nova Singers, are trained in a specific vocal technique by our musical director Michelle Nova. She specialises in ‘bel canto’, which translates as ‘beautiful singing’. Because of this, our rehearsals are usually focussed on sound production and perfecting our tone. Always preparing for the next concert means we don’t often get the chance to take a step back and work on other aspects of musicianship. This workshop, as well as helping ‘our’ composer get to know us musically and personally, would be a welcome break from routine.

Michelle Nova and ‘adopted composer’ Ed Scolding at Christchurch Priory

Michelle Nova and Ed Scolding at Christchurch Priory

Fascinating Rhythm

It was refreshing to work with Ed on rhythm – first through clapping, and then adding vocalisation into the mix. A simple exercise of splitting the choir into two groups, and having each sing ‘ah’ on a different beat, produced a pleasingly hypnotic effect.

We moved on to working in small groups, devising brief phrases of notes and vowel sounds. Su B, the choir Secretary, recorded these for posterity using her trusty dictaphone. Ed explained that he might use parts of our short ‘compositions’ as raw material for his composition – that they wouldn’t necessarily be recognisable in the finished piece, but could serve as a jumping-off point. Or they might not be used at all – at this stage, everything is fluid and open to change.

Singers Liz, Debbie and Jennie work on their short musical phrase, watched by Ed and Fraser

Singers Liz, Debbie and Jennie work on their short musical phrase

Michelle, being a soprano soloist as well as a singing teacher, was already thinking about interpretation: if we take a breath in this five-note phrase, she suggests, it should be an ’emotional breath’.

“All my breaths are emotional”

“All my breaths are emotional,” says Fraser. Fraser Trainer, as Ed’s mentor, is a welcome presence: acting as a mediator between choir and composer and helping us to communicate on the few occasions where confusion arises. That said, it’s clear that Ed is a teacher as well as a composer, and he leads the workshop confidently.

A Moment of Insight

One of the most interesting exercises turned out to be the discussion at the end. Ed had sent round a questionnaire to all the singers, asking what songs they particularly enjoyed singing or found moving, and why. This led to a lengthy chat about why we’re all in La Nova Singers, and not another choir. What is it that makes us unique? There’s our use of the bel canto technique and our training from Michelle; but there are also certain traits we all seem to share, and a determination to create the best possible standard of performance.

La Nova Singers female choir performing in Christchurch Priory. The singers wear elegant black evening gowns and sing in front of a large stained glass window

La Nova Singers in Christchurch Priory, the venue for their ‘Adopt a Composer’ concert

This will hopefully stand us in good stead for the rest of the project. Our aim is to present Ed’s composition as part of a concert at Christchurch Priory in July – the first time we’ve performed a full-length programme in this respected Dorset concert venue. The loose theme of the concert is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in honour of the Bard’s 400th anniversary in 2016, but we’ve left a lot of room for interpretation – summer, dreams and the night itself will all make an appearance in the programme.
Maybe Ed will choose to work with one or more of these when he writes his piece – or maybe not. However, one thing is certain: this collaboration will produce something unique. And we’re all intrigued as to where it will go next!