Archive for the ‘Conducting’ Category


The dreaded SATTBB. Letters guaranteed to make a choral conductor’s heart sink. What a beautiful song, I think to myself upon hearing it. I wonder if there’s an arrangement available for Community Choir? There is, hurrah! And the difficulty level is Intermediate, you say? Perfect. And then, that string of letters. In my mind it’s an acronym for Sorry the Arrangement requires Twenty Tenors + a Battalion of Basses. 

Perhaps non-professional choirs in larger countries really are coming down with Tenors & Basses, apparently to the degree that they outnumber Sopranos & Altos. But in Ireland, forget it. I rarely encounter a community choir in this country that is not oversubscribed in terms of altos and, less commonly, sopranos – but so many Tenors and Basses that we have scope to subdivide the section? Not even if we physically dragged them in off the street. 

It took me a while, but after a period of time on the job I learned to let go of programming sublime choral music for the fantasy choir in my head, and to select repertoire appropriate for the choir I actually have, with all its strengths and weaknesses. The one where you have 3 Tenors, one of whom has another commitment on Tuesday nights, and one is on loan from the Alto section. Where you have 5 Basses, one of whom has never been heard to sing a note, while his immediate neighbour likes to sing a bar ahead, loudly, to show off his music reading skills. 

However, I didn’t write this post just to get this off my chest – though I’m feeling much better already, thank you – but rather with the goal of sharing some recommendations for (ahem!) SATB music I’ve conducted recently that is beautiful, singable and well arranged for non-professional singers. If you’re a choral person then you probably don’t need me to steer your attention towards the ‘rock stars’ of contemporary choral music, such as Eric Whitacre and Karl Jenkins. But you might like to give these your consideration…..

Sing to Me – Andrea Ramsey

Not often do you come across a choral piece so accessible and yet so beautiful. Not only are the choral lines intuitive and well written, the piano part is also rather lovely.

Scarborough Fair arr. Craig McLeish

The traditional melody plus Paul Simon’s Canticle, as recorded by Simon & Garfunkel. There are splits in this arrangement – but in the Soprano & Alto lines, a far more sensible proposition. 

Requiem by Eliza Gilkyson, choral arr. Craig Hella Johnson. Some breathing challenges for non-professional singers, but a very fine arrangement.

Calme des Nuits – Camile Saints-Saëns. A delight to sing, and surprisingly accessible.

Northern Lights Ola Gjeilo 

Caveat: You will need a strong Tenor section leader for this! There are some splits, and a tritone downwards shift at the ‘Pulcra Es..’ section that may challenge your Tenors’ ear as well as their vocal folds….but if they can handle it, it’s well worth it. Sublime. 

She Moved Through the Fair arr. Paul Sartin

It’s very hard to find decent choral arrangements of folk songs, but Paul Sartin appears to have created an entire volume of them! I can’t claim to have conducted all 50 of the songs in this collection, but can certainly recommend his setting of She Moved Through the Fair. 


Reward time

Posted: December 11, 2014 in choral, Conducting
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I’ve had a pretty good week on the choir front. Sandymount Gospel Choir were shortlisted for Lyric FM‘s Choirs for Christmas competition, with our version of Light of the Stable by Emmylou Harris airing on Niall Carroll’s show on Wednesday 10th December.

We had a cracking concert with Portmarnock Singers on Sunday 10th in St. Anne’s Church in Portmarnock, the culmination of a tough season’s rehearsing. And the Waltons Sing Your Heart Out Choir gave their end  of term concert last Thursday 4th, also a great success (that’s them in the rather dark photograph below…….luckily I’m much better at conducting choirs than at taking photos of them!)  Meanwhile in The Gospel Project we had the somewhat unusual experience last  Friday 5th December of performing in a warehouse in West Dublin…..have we had a career change, I hear you ask? Well, no, but it was certainly a little different to our usual weddings & functions; a retirement send-off for two obviously very popular figures in Kefron, both stepping down after having established the company and given it lifelong service. We sang a (somewhat altered!) version of Aloe Blac’s The Man  in honour of Tom & Mick.

The period from September-Christmas can be a bit frantic for choir directors, and I’ll admit that this year in particular it was taking its toll on my energies during the rehearsal period, but as  a choir member said to me this week, ‘it’s reward time now’. It’s all paid off. A good term’s work.




I’ve been re-evaluating some of my rehearsal strategies this week. Four and sometimes five nights each week I run rehearsals with different choirs and vocal harmony groups, but it’s quite important for me to remember that it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ type thing. Far from it. Every ensemble has its own culture and work ethic, and of course some of the groups I work with are professional and some non-professional.  The Gospel Project is a group comprised of professional singers, and I’m accustomed to being able to walk in to rehearsal, throw some complex harmonies at them and have the singers reproduce them pretty quickly. Another group I work with are highly committed amateurs and again are able to learn parts relatively quickly, or at least put in a lot of private practise time outside of weekly rehearsals. I have to be careful that this doesn’t lead to unrealistic expectations on my part when it comes to some of the other groups I work with; one is a group of complete beginners for whom the world of singing harmony is quite new and naturally they learn more slowly. Another group again is happy to show up and sing whatever can be managed in rehearsals but there is no culture there of individual practise outside that time. This is further complicated by the fact that many people regard singing as something you can either do or you can’t, and consequently don’t respect the idea of practising it.

It leads to some interesting questions regarding the role of the musical director; should you always attempt to push an ensemble to newer and more ambitious goals? In a recreational – as opposed to professional – singing environment is the optimal goal always a great performance, or is the process of learning and rehearsing just as important? If the choir are quite happy with things the way they are, do I have the right to insist that they should be doing better? Reaching for  higher standards enhances the experience for some singers and has the very opposite effect as far as some others are concerned, so this is not an easy thing to get right. There’s also the matter of how I fit into it as a professional musician with high standards  – the choir’s standard is a reflection on me, but they are my employers, so shouldn’t I serve their needs rather than my ambition? Who am I really doing it for when I demand more of the choir?

What a week. I’m used to running around a lot but these past few days were extreme even for me. Teaching, gigging, rehearsing Portmarnock Singers, The Gospel Project, Sandymount Gospel Choir, squeezing in a few committee meetings in between and, sadly, singing at a funeral on Thursday morning. And travelling from one of those things to the other. (The thing nobody warns you about when it comes to being self-employed is how much time you will spend just getting from one professional appointment to another – in Dublin traffic this is no joke! I sometimes envy people who go to work in the same place every day. Especially when I’m on the way to weddings in hard-to-find country churches……)

Highlights of the week for me:

1). Being introduced to a cracking Karl Jenkins piece, Adiemus,  which I’m going to be doing with Portmarnock Singers:


Can’t wait to get stuck in to this in rehearsal on Monday.


2). A very positive rehearsal on Tuesday with Sandymount Gospel Choir. As with many other areas of life, September is the time when choirs kick off again after the summer and new people often come on board – happily we’ve got a good few new choir members and, more importantly, they’re fitting in well and bringing new energy to the ensemble.

3). I discovered the existence of this organisation – the Wedding Band Association.  This is a long overdue initiative proposing a kind of Code of Practice for the wedding band industry in Ireland. I take my hat off to these guys; musicians tend not to be too wonderful about organising ourselves but this is a positive exception. Self-regulation. A great opportunity for honest, hard-working wedding bands.

New conducting job

Posted: July 29, 2014 in choral, Conducting

I’ve just learned this week that I’ve been appointed to the post of Musical Director with the Portmarnock Singers, a well-known choir in North Dublin. Looking forward to starting with them in September. Always good to have a new project to work on!

Portmarnock Singers

Portmarnock Singers