We can sing, and how

David Benedict exercises his vocal cords at a BBC Young Musicians workshop with a difference
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"Everybody has the ability to recognise pitch, nobody is tone deaf, so potentially everybody can sing." The choral conductor Ronald Corp is supremely confident. Faced with 100 singers, most of whom have never sung together before, he has to be.

Most people think of the BBC Young Musicians events as a competition of Alfred Brendel wannabes, dedicated child prodigies whose lives are devoted to their instruments, but over the years the brief has widened considerably. In addition to the main event, there have been composition workshops, jazz events and now this, a day-long choral workshop ranging from Handel's "Zadok the Priest" to gospel singing.

The teenage participants fit no one's identikit of the all-pervasive Joyce Grenfell image of choral singing. Self-assured, well-groomed girls stand apart from gawky, reserved lads. Ex-choristers coolly survey the scene as cocky adolescents kid each other nervously. Ages range from seven to 22 and in terms of experience and skill that's vast. In the thick of it stand three adults: series presenters Sarah Walker and Christopher Warren-Green, and me, feeling like the proverbial pork chop at a Jewish wedding.

Ronald Corp's first priority is to weld everyone into a group, which he does with physical and vocal exercises. Self-consciousness and embarrassment evaporate as everyone begins to warm up and concentrate on the basics. Corp's 20-minute crash course in physical relaxation, vocal production, breath control, support and articulation comes as news to the less experienced singers. His suggestion that everybody place their hands on their lungs is met with responses that imply that anatomy lessons wouldn't go amiss. Hardly anyone has heard, let alone sung the triumphal "Zadok the Priest" but, in well under an hour, we're sounding eager, bright and attentive. With the addition of the orchestra, the collective pulse begins to race and the finished result springs with dotted rhythms and real power, exceeding everyone's expectations. Corp harnesses our energy to tackle John Ireland's "The Hills", which none of us has sung. With its gently shifting "squelchy" harmonies, this is all about vocal control and the difficulties of pianissimo singing.

The switch into the jazz and gospel session couldn't be more extreme. The American conductor Scott Stroman is working by rhythm, instinct and, above all, ear. He launches us into a warm-up which meets with smiles of disbelief but works wonders. Within minutes, singers trained in the Western tradition have abandoned their music and preconceptions and are learning to listen for natural harmonies. By the end of an extraordinary two hours we have belted our way through a complex gospel number, complete with a solo by Beth Lynch, an astonishingly unfazed seven-year-old, swung through a blues number, and by the end of a Zulu song, sung in Swahili to a riot of harmonies, the sense of achievement is completely exhilarating. As one of the girls said, more people should be able to take part next time. Let's hope the BBC is listening.

n Highlights of the workshop can be seen on BBC2 tomorrow at 6.05pm