Last Choir Standing

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Interview with Mike Brewer

17th July 2008

Mike BrewerAcclaimed choral director and workshop leader Mike Brewer OBE has been director of the National Youth Choir since 1983. He is a consultant to over 20 award-winning UK choirs and travels the world to teach vocal and conducting techniques. We talked to him about singing, conducting, teaching and the Last Choir Standing events he'll be leading in August.

Give us a summary of your music background

"I had piano lessons when I was small, but I didn't practice enough! Then I got really interested in jazz when I was 12 and formed a jazz band that performed in lots of little concerts round Birmingham. When I found I could sing a bit, I took lessons and singing became my first subject."

How did you get into conducting?

"It started with a little church choir in my teens – I got landed with that! When I moved on to university in Wales I ended up conducting the choir there, and then as a teacher I led school and youth choirs and choral societies. I took the famous Latymer School choir to victory at the BBC's 'Let the People Sing' which is now the 'Choir of the Year' competition. In 1980 I was invited to conduct the National Youth Choir and it's all gone forward with that."

Did you have any training?

"In common with so many English people, because we have such a scarcity of good conducting training, I had to pick it up on the job. What I did was to visit lots of people and their choirs to get tips.

"What's really exciting is that there are some fantastic MA's in choral conducting sprouting up at places like The Royal Academy, Trinity College and Roehampton. They're doing some really good work and it's a great start, but we're still behind countries like America, Sweden or even Australia."

In a nutshell, what is that conductors do?

"I call it the 'sound in your hand'. It's like you're sculpting with clay; you actually create the sounds you want, then the expression you want and of course whatever style, colour and magic you want from a piece of music. So you are actually an artist – you create the music."

Do you need a technical music background to conduct a choir?

"It's really important that conductors learn the basics of beating time and leading a choir.

"You do need technique and you do need a musical background and skills. You need to be able to read music if you're performing that kind of repertoire, although I’ve seen some marvellous conductors, of gospel choirs for example, who claim that they don't read music. But you need music inside you."

Are the conductor's hand gestures and movements really important?

"The hand gesture creates the whole of the music so it's everything to do with expression, how loud or soft it is, which section is more important and which voice is more important. But it's more than that; it's how the conductor conveys the mood of the music through body language, facial expression and relationship with the singers."

"If the singers are very good and it doesn't need a conductor to hold it together, if it's music with a driving beat for example and everybody feels it together, then the conductor can really take a back seat, and some conductors actually join in. I do sometimes, join in at the side – just off and leave them to it, that's always a good trick!"

What are the key elements that make a good conductor?

"First thing is knowing your stuff! You have to know what you want, you have to have ideas, and then you have to be able to express them and build up the relationship with the people you're working with. Conductors who are bad tempered or negative won't get the results of conductors who inspire people.

"Conductors now are collaborators, members of the team. You do need to have a leader, but the essential thing is any strategy to bring out the music with the performers."

Tell us about your teaching and what you've learnt from working abroad

"I teach very much about left and right brain. The expressive and energetic right brain is sometimes what's lacking in English music-making and you see it all over the rest of the world.

"Half my life now is travelling around the world and giving workshops for choral directors and choirs, working with as many different choirs as I can. For example, last weekend I was working with an amazing South African choir with a mixture of Afrikaners and Zulus. They had phenomenal music skills, a wonderful awareness plus a fantastic natural repertoire... They can offer us so many things!

"When I travel around the world I'm always finding new influences - from Mexico and Venezuela to Hong Kong and New Zealand. I love to pick up new ideas."

What's the biggest choir you've ever conducted?

"I say up to 5000 is ok, anything over that gets a bit tricky! I suppose the biggest would be a full Albert Hall with the audience singing – which is about 6 or 7000. Big numbers are wonderful, especially when you play games and have them competing, but I also have a chamber choir of 16 voices, and everything in between!"

What type of choir do you most enjoy working with?

"I enjoy them all differently... With large choirs you get the wonderful thrill of the circus, the huge sounds you can create and the pure energy from such vast numbers when everybody's switched on. But when I'm working with Primary School children and introducing them to new styles and sounds – that's another kind of a thrill. If I'm working with my senior chamber choir then it's totally different because it's performing difficult music with great focus and concentration.

"So there are different styles, but it's the same excitement at making music and in teaching, which I think all conductors revel in."

You must get a buzz from getting non-singers to sing?

"Absolutely yes! It's always a challenge when you meet a group of people who say they're tone deaf or can't sing, because it's nearly always NOT the case, except in very rare instances where people have some problem with the ear or with the muscles used for the voice.

"Everybody can progress and when somebody couldn't sing a tune at all, and now they can – that's the most amazing feeling!"

What do you get from singing and conducting?

"A big part of it is sheer fun. I remember persuading the Cathedral Organists Association to make gorilla noises at their annual conference – that was fantastic! Obviously the idea is to develop their awareness of singing and breathing and posture, but it was wonderful to see these very distinguished people in their suits leaping around!

So it's for fun, enjoyment, fellowship and community. But also it's striving to get better and better at what you do and reaching the power of great music. That's why I'm in the business and all the fun is part of the journey towards that!"

What can people look forward to with the Last Choir Standing events you're leading in August?

"First of all – having a very good time singing music which they won't expect! We're having two very different choirs leading each day and they're going to be mixing with the other singers and performing something from their own repertoire.

"It's all based on singing tips, but in the guise of games and fun within the music, so it's not serious at all. People will come away with quite a few new ideas about singing which they maybe hadn't thought of before.

"The idea is to start music absolutely from scratch and extend people's perceptions of what they can do in an hour or so! And at the same time enjoy themselves enormously!"

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