★★★  Inter Act  ★★★
with
Sarah Leonard
Sarah
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1
Emma:
You have such extensive experience in contemporary music, would you say that you prefer it to more ‘standard’ repertoire?  As your beautiful vocal qualities are almost tangible, would you have a favourite piece, composer or soundscape in your own performances? Do you get the shivers we get when you sing?
Sarah:
I have always sung standard repertoire alongside the contemporary music. I learnt lots of song, oratorio and some opera at the GSM but also loved Noelle Barker’s Contemporary Song Class. When I joined the BBC Singers 1976 - 81, it was the era of Boulez. We were expected to learn new music all the time. By the time I left the BBC I had a reputation for being able to sing difficult music, and I had some very high notes! Many composers were trying to extend the possibilities of all instruments including the voice so they came in very handy! As a professional singer needing to earn a living I naturally took the work offered which was challenging, and for which there was less competition. I did love the challenge of new music and of working with composers to create something completely new. When a new score lands on your doormat (which it did before everything was digitalized) it was impossible to tell if it was ‘great’ music until you had spent several months learning it. Memorizing Ligeti’s ‘Aventures et Nouvelles Aventures’ was an enormous challenge, but we gave over 30 performances of it, mostly in Europe, and each was a thrill. In between engagements I would always sing Mozart to check my technical abilities, and continued to have singing lessons until about 10 years ago. Now I really enjoy singing ‘tunes’ when I can, and my voice hasn’t suffered from years of unusual sounds. A sound technique will cope with anything the voice does. I am told by some that my voice is getting better, which is good news. I love to sing Mozart and Richard Strauss, and of course English Song. No I don’t “get the shivers” when I sing but love the feeling when the voice and the music become one.
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Emma:
Do you think your early violin studies assisted your sight-reading? Reading is a key skill for ensemble and smaller choir work - but many singers struggle with reading unless they have had the opportunity for choir and instrumental group reading at an early age.
Sarah:
Absolutely, starting early is the key. I started the violin aged 8 at school and the piano aged 9. Around this time I also joined a church choir as my dad sang in one and sang in regular choir practices and Sunday services up to the age of 18. (As a student I also sang in London church choirs). I seemed to have a good ear and picked the violin up quickly. You have to ‘hear’ the intervals so you know where to put your fingers. I think I learnt to hear intervals without realising that this is the skill you need for sight singing. At church we learnt a couple of different pieces each week and I’m sure I struggled, but with practice it came. Youngsters have fewer opportunities to develop these skills these days. My granddaughter learnt the cello for a year and that has helped her with sight singing. As a student this was a great advantage as there was always a sight-singing component to exams which helped me pass them! By the time I left Guildhall I could sight sing very well and that got me into the BBC Singers, and later into the session singing world, and many professional choirs and ensembles such as the London Sinfonietta Voices. I could earn a living as a singer whilst training privately and learning solo repertoire. I could also step in at the last minute in both opera and oratorio.
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Emma:
What music have you played most in 2020 to relax, distract or motivate you?
Sarah:
To be honest I listen to Radio 4 a lot, to the spoken word, just to give music a rest, but I loved watching the Wigmore Hall recitals last year. I couldn’t listen to Christmas carols this past Christmas, as it made me too sad.
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Emma:
How do you find online teaching ? (!)
Sarah:
I was very apprehensive about online teaching last March. Now I think it can work very well if you already know the student. New ones are harder to get to know as people and as voices. There are some advantages as technical work can be more detailed. Learning new repertoire is more challenging. My adult pupils generally send me the music they want to look at in advance. If I suggest songs they may find them, or I’ll scan them. As with my college students finding reliable copies of music in the appropriate key can be a challenge. Also finding reliable recordings of accompaniments can be hard. I use much more energy to keep lessons lively and enjoyable and I have to prepare more.
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Emma:
Do you think, as I do, that singers and voice coaches have a unique perspective on human interaction and, therefore, the gruelling effects of the isolations of 2020?
Sarah:
The voice is so revealing! I think it’s easy for voice teachers and coaches to tell how a person is feeling by the sound they are making. Maybe not quite so easy over Zoom though! For some of my adult pupils, and I have several who live alone, a weekly or fortnightly singing lesson is the best part of their week, and a lifeline. Singing lifts the mood.

Some pupils have taken the opportunity to learn completely new repertoire and don’t worry what the neighbours think! For others the technology is too much, or they haven’t felt like singing and have lost their mojo. I do touch base with all my pupils for time to time. The online solo singing courses I’ve done through Benslow Music have been such a joy, as people have been so delighted to get the opportunity to sing again. It’s been very moving. Everyone I meet agrees that singing is life enhancing and a vital part of their lives. Not to have a reason to sing can be deeply distressing.
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Emma:
Do you maintain a daily personal vocal exercise regime?
Sarah:
I always warm up – siren and scales – before I teach and I still sing most days. I wouldn’t call it a regime though.
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Emma:
Would you endorse appreciation of many genres in all singers, as part of their training?
Sarah:
Yes I would. There are good and bad singers in every style. Singers need to be versatile and explore the music of many genres. I think it is very useful for classical singers to know how to make more popular contemporary sounds and vice versa. We all have the same basic instrument and it’s infinitely flexible. I also teach on a Musical Theatre BA acting course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and the singers who have had a more classical training feel a great freedom exploring the MT sounds.
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Emma:
I am sure you've had thousands of special musical memories and moments - are there any you would like to share?
Sarah:
As a student I sang in an amazing performance of the ‘Symphony of Psalms’ by Stravinsky in the Royal Albert Hall, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. He was mesmerising!

Walking onto the stage at La Scala, Milan. The opera I was in had tough music which the audience didn’t like much, but it was magical just to look out into that auditorium.
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Emma:
Would you have changed anything along your singing path?
Sarah:
No, not at all. My only ambition was to sing for a living and I achieved that. I have had the most varied and exciting career, and met some of the world’s most extraordinary musicians.
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Emma:
Have there been some unexpected positives in the last twelve months?
Sarah:
I have been in touch with more colleagues and friends. Surprisingly, I can teach successfully via Zoom, and I’ve had more time to think about my own singing voice and practice more.
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Emma:
Can you offer any thoughts of positivity, or suggestions, to singers and performers in general, in these constraining and bizarre times?
Sarah:
Hang in there. Keep practising and learning and exploring music. Performers are optimists by nature so if you do solo work, keep planning programmes and concerts for the future. Auditions and exams will take place via Zoom for a while yet, so record yourself and watch it back.
I am so thrilled that Sarah's interview is the first of 2021 and I am grateful to her for all her insights, reflections and positivity.

If you'd like to visit Sarah's web site, here is the link:

https://sarahleonard.me

Return to Emma's Voiceblog
15th. January, 2021