Joining the Dots Singing

Alan Bullard

Published towards the end of last year were the five volumes of my Joining the Dots Singing (ABRSM) – subtitled ‘A Fresh Approach to Sight Singing’. The Joining the Dots series now contains books for piano, violin, and guitar, but when the opportunity to do a series of sight-singing books arose, you couldn’t hold me back (though it took a long time to get it right!).

What have I enjoyed?
Sight-singing is such a useful skill – for all musicians – and I’ve always wanted to do my bit to help people with it. In the process of writing these books, I’ve very much enjoyed the logic of working out the best approach to improving skill and confidence in singing at sight.

How does the Joining the Dots approach work for singers?
The traditional approach of many singers to music learning and performing is different from the traditional instrumental model…

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Performances Christmas 2016

Alan Bullard: selected performances November – December 2016

There is an updated version of this list here

26 November 2016
A Light in the Stable
St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Cowling, Yorkshire
KVU Singers / Frank Smith

27 November 2016
There is a rose tree
Raydon Parish Church, Suffolk (Evensong, 5pm)
The Marenzio Singers

27 November 2016
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
Great Missenden Parish Church
Great Missenden Church Choir

3 December 2016
A Feast for Christmas
Davis High School, California
Davis Chorale

3 December 2016
O Come Emmanuel
St Mary’s Church, Ely
Ely Choral Society / Andrew Parnell

3 December 2016
A Light in the Stable
United Reformed Church, Billericay, Essex
The Choir for all Seasons / Michael Hewitt

4 December 2016
I saw a stable, Angel Alleluias
Wiston Church, Wissington, Suffolk, 6pm
The Marenzio Singers

5 December 2016
O Come Emmanuel
Mint Methodist Church, Exeter
Exeter Choral Society

10 December 2016
Scots Nativity, Glory to the Christ-Child
St Nicholas Church, Chadlington / Matthew Smallwood
North Cotswold Chamber Choir

10 December 2016
O Come Emmanuel
Papendrecht, Netherlands
Cantica / Henk Van Andel

10 December 2016
I saw a stable
Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge
Fairhaven Singers / Ralph Woodward

11 December 2016
This is the truth sent from above
Nottingham Hospitals Choir / Nicholas Milburn

12 December 2016
I saw a stable
Church of St John the Evangelist, Bridge Street, Derby
Sitwell Singers / Malcolm Goldring

17 December 2016
A Light in the Stable
St. Andrew’s Church, Surbiton
Kingston Choral Society / Andrew Griffiths

18 December 2016
There is a rose tree
Lion Walk Church, Colchester, evening carol service
Lion Walk Church Choir / Ian Ray

20 December 2016
Shepherds, guarding their flocks
Blackmore Church, Essex
Stondon Singers / Christopher Tinker

22 December and 24 December 2016
Glory to the Christ Child
Norwich Cathedral (Christmas Procession Service)
Norwich Cathedral Choir / Ashley Grote

24 December 2016
A light for today
Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis
Choir of Plymouth Congregational Church / Philip Brunelle

And looking ahead:

18 March 2017
Psalmos Penetentiales (First performance)
King Edward Grammar School, Chelmsford
Waltham Singers / Andrew Fardell

Passiontide 2017
Wondrous Cross
Nottingham Hospitals Choir / Nicholas Milburn

8 April 2017
Love on my heart from heaven fell
Leith Hill Festival / Jonathan Willocks

New recordings, Autumn / Winter 2016

And all the stars looked down
Song of the Nativity
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Coro COR16146
BBC Music Magazine Christmas Choice 2016
Details here

And all the stars looked down
There is no rose
Vocal Group Concert Clemens / Carsten Seyer-Hansen
Orchid Classics ORC100062
Details here

Hark Hark, the Lark
Sing Willow
Les Sirenes / Andrew Nunn
Albion Records ALBCD030
Details here

Joining the Dots Singing

Published towards the end of last year were the five volumes of my Joining the Dots Singing (ABRSM) – subtitled ‘A Fresh Approach to Sight Singing’. The Joining the Dots series now contains books for piano, violin, and guitar, but when the opportunity to do a series of sight-singing books arose, you couldn’t hold me back (though it took a long time to get it right!).

What have I enjoyed?
Sight-singing is such a useful skill – for all musicians – and I’ve always wanted to do my bit to help people with it. In the process of writing these books, I’ve very much enjoyed the logic of working out the best approach to improving skill and confidence in singing at sight.

How does the Joining the Dots approach work for singers?
The traditional approach of many singers to music learning and performing is different from the traditional instrumental model. Most solo singers aim to sing ‘away from the book’ as soon as possible, to facilitate performance and communication, and many are therefore just not so used to the concept of reading music in the way that instrumentalists are.
Therefore, Joining the Dots Singing is a structured, step-by-step approach to sight-singing. Like the other Joining the Dots books, it contains Workouts, opportunities for improvisation (Make Music), as well as rounds, duets, and songs to sight-read with piano accompaniment (of similar standard to the relevant sight-singing grade) – but, unlike the instrumental books, each book is designed to be worked through from beginning to end, to build on and develop the student’s skills over time.

What’s in the book?
It follows the carefully ordered structure of the ABRSM Sight-Singing syllabus, which leads from stepwise movement and simple rhythms using quavers, crotchets and minims (in Book 1) to leaps of up to a fifth, and a much wider rhythmic variety (in Book 5).

Workouts - Book 1

Workouts – Book 1

Workouts - Book 5

Workouts – Book 5

In each book the Workouts develop the rhythm and pitch skills required for the grade, and are taught both aurally and from the page. Each workout page introduces its particular topic in a ‘singing back’ exercise for teacher and pupil, followed by a number of short exercises to promote effective reading from staff notation, using tonic sol-fa, numbered degrees of the scale, or any suitable syllable.
Make Music - Book 1

Make Music – Book 1

Make Music - Book 5

Make Music – Book 5

The Workouts lead on the Make Music sections, which, using an approach which is not primarily notation-based, contains activities which will help to familiarise pupils with the ‘feel’ of a key centre and of different intervals. Further sections include It Takes Two, where pupil and teacher (or two pupils) can work together on the techniques used, building confidence through duets, rounds, and voice and piano songs, leading to the Read and Sing section which provides sight-singing exercises similar to those in the exam. And finally there is a page of Songs with Words for pupils to sing together, cementing what has been learned and preparing for the next book.
Thus, at every stage, each new concept is introduced aurally, notationally, and through creative work.

Did I bring any of my experience as a choral composer to this project?
As a composer of choral music, I’ve worked with many choral singers, and as a teacher, I have taught sight-singing and general musicianship for many years – and there is no doubt that quick and efficient sight-singing saves a great deal of time in choral rehearsals, and also helps instrumentalists to internalise the music they are playing – thus, in both cases, achieving more efficient learning and more time to develop the musical details and performance skills.

Instrumentalists and choral singers as well as solo singers, then?
Yes, I believe that that Joining the Dots Singing will be of use not only to solo singers taking examinations, but to all singers and instrumentalists who wish to develop these skills.

Joining the Dots Singing is published by ABRSM – the five volumes cover the sight-singing requirements of the ABRSM Singing exams, Grades 1 to 5.

Visionary Transcendence

As a student at the Royal College of Music in the 1960s, I took part in a performance of the American Randall Thompson’s short choral work, Alleluia. To be honest, I didn’t think very much of it at the time – a period when composers were experimenting with atonality, klangfarbenmelodie, aleatoricism, etc. – as this piece seemed to be predominantly diatonic, with few chromatic notes, and conventional modulations and suspensions, and with a text of only one word (two, if you include the final ‘amen’).

But now I know better.
image_307I’ve recently been listening to a beautiful new CD entitled The Eternal Ecstasy ( Performed by the excellent Chapel Choir of Selwyn College Cambridge, director Sarah MacDonald, and recorded in the warm acoustic of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, it is a selection of unaccompanied choral music by US and UK composers, mostly written in the last twenty years or so.

In the sleeve-note, the producer Gary Cole makes a persuasive case for this particular selection of music – ‘music of visionary transcendence’, which he describes as ‘a musical style that transcended previous national schools and earth-bound identities…..visionary music that removes the listener from the temporal bounds of everyday petty concerns, and transports them to a place of spiritual calm, and of timeless certainty’. And he makes a claim for Thompson’s Alleluia (1940) – beautifully performed and shaped on this disc – as one of the first manifestations of this style.

And he is right.
Re-listening to this piece several times, the juxtaposition of traditional harmonies and suspensions, within a varied and richly coloured choral texture, and where words are relatively unimportant, enables one to concentrate on the pure sound and be lifted, perhaps, to a different plane.

To me, the essence of this timeless music is like a knitted, patterned pullover – it contains strands of different coloured wool (harmonies), which are knitted together and appear to combine with each other in different ways as the pullover is stretched in different directions, but never lose their basic qualities however much they are pulled apart and re-shaped. And since the 1980s, in particular, that stretching of triadic musical material has become a stylistic trait of much music from Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, as well as the music on this disc. Take Penderecki, for instance, and compare his colourful aleatoric music of the 1960s with his later works. Or, from this disc, take Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God (1985), with its achingly beautiful sustaining and overlapping of primary triads – a brave return to diatonicism compared with his atonal music of the 1960s.

Not all the works on this disc are perhaps quite as consistently ‘transcendental’ as that (nor are they probably intended to be) – Cecilia McDowall vividly alternates a lively 6/8 with sonorous slow-moving chords in her Regina Caeli, my own The Spacious Firmament has some fast moving dramatic elements amongst the slow reflective and ‘timeless’ moments, and Paul Mealor contrasts a wide range of colourful textures and speeds within the four movements of his Now sleeps the crimson petal.

But the majority of the works are indeed mainly quiet, slow moving, viewing largely diatonic material from different angles, perhaps like my stretchy old pullover, and the inward calmness that the act of knitting can create. But there is far more to them than the rippling streams of ‘mindfulness’ or of ‘music for meditation, relaxing, and healing’ beloved of gift shops – in all the pieces there is a grit, a logic, a sense of colour and detail that keeps the mind active as well as spiritually calmed.

The title work, Philip Cooke’s The Eternal Ecstasy, certainly fulfils the ‘visionary’ brief, with a beautiful sense of mysticism in its response to Marcus Tomalin’s translation of St Teresa of Avila, and works by Eric Whitacre, James MacMillan, Iain Quinn, David Bednall, John Duggan all achieve, in their different ways, a captivating mood of quiet, reflective calm, with more to discover on each listening.

Finally, the disc contains two classics of the genre: the American Morton Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium – like Thompson’s Alleluia in a luminous D major, but with its diatonicism coloured by a poignant superimposition of primary triads, and the English William Harris’s Bring us, O Lord God – of the Randall Thompson generation, a beautiful, and forward-looking final flowering of the Edwardian choral tradition.

It’s perhaps a rather obvious thing to say, but sometimes those of us who have spent much of our lives teaching and composing forget about the sheer power of music to communicate, to calm, to colour the listener’s mood, even to change lives.

This disc reminds us of that.


Alleluia — Randall Thompson (1899–1984) 5:55
A Hymn to the Mother of God — John Tavener (1944–2013) 2:55
Regina Caeli — Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) 3:23
Lux aurumque — Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) 4:10
Adoremus in aeternum* — Iain Quinn (b. 1973) 3:24
The eternal ecstasy* — Phillip Cooke (b. 1980) 5:33
The law of the Lord* — David Bednall (b. 1979) 3:29
The spacious firmament* — Alan Bullard (b. 1947) 7:00
Christus vincit — James MacMillan (b. 1959) 6:50
Nunc autem manet* — John Duggan (b. 1963) 3:31
O magnum mysterium — Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) 6:47
Now sleeps the crimson petal — Paul Mealor (b. 1975)
i Now sleeps the crimson petal 3:46
ii Lady, when I behold the roses sprouting 3:04
iii Upon a bank with roses set about 1:57
iv A spotless Rose 6:02
Bring us, O Lord God — William Harris (1883–1973) 4:56

* first commercial recording
Total Playing time: 72:48

Health and Safety for Choirs

At the beginning of May I spent some time at the Cornwall International Male Voice Choral Festival, a massive affair with 70 choirs at 60 events in 50 venues all over Cornwall, packed into a long Bank Holiday Weekend. The mastermind behind this well-organised event was Festival Director Peter Davies, director of the Huntingdon Male Voice Choir. Over the 25 years or so that I’ve known him, he has worked hard, alongside many other colleagues, to encourage the development of the male voice choir tradition into a vibrant and forward-looking movement with a range of choirs, styles and approaches, with a wide appeal.

He has commissioned a variety of new pieces for male voice choirs (including some from me), and has lobbied publishers and promoters tirelessly on behalf of the male voice choir movement. Thirty years ago, such a festival would consist of a number of rather similar looking choirs, gentlemen of a certain age with matching blazers and ties, singing, from memory, largely homophonic (chordal) music, often inspired by hymn-tunes or folk-songs, and attempting a wide dynamic range, from a whisper to a rousing forte, with varying tonal control. Last week, in the two concerts and the competition that I attended I could still hear that tradition – but as well there was a flourishing youth presence, with choirs not only from all over the UK but from St Petersburg, and adult choirs from a similarly wide range of places including Estonia and the Czech Republic. And the style of music, too, was much more varied. There were some traditional male voice choirs, from Cornwall, Wales, and elsewhere, fervently singing the classic music of their genre with excellent blend, communication, and wide dynamic range, but alongside that there were jaunty barbershop choirs, small ensembles that skilfully combined comedy with artistic and characterful singing, boys choirs singing a good range of arrangements and original songs with great stage presence, and – the main reason I was there – Cambiata Choirs.

If you’ve not come across this rather odd term, a cambiata choir is for adolescent boys whose voices are changing (we don’t refer to ‘breaking voices’ any more) – and they are designed to encourage teenagers to keep singing by performing music which has been specially arranged or written for them. There has been much research into this in the US and the UK (for example by Martin Ashley, author of the recent book Singing in the Lower Secondary School published by OUP) and a standard format for cambiata pieces is developing, written in several parts, each of which cover a quite narrow but overlapping pitch range, so that voices are not strained or over-stretched at this important point in their development. Although, of course, there have always been choirs involving this age-range, those with changing voices have tended to be sidelined, and this movement is designed to put such voices centre stage.

I was privileged to be offered this year’s Festival commission – and it, was, for the first time, to be for cambiata choir. My initial difficulty was to find an appropriate text – a recurring concern for the choral composer, but for teenage boys in particular there are many no-go areas! So I hit on the idea of those many warning notices to be found – on packaged food, children’s toys, railway trains, and on the instructions that came with my new printer! And thus my suite of three short songs, for cambiata choir and piano, was born – entitled Health and Safety.

The start of the third movement of Health and Safety

The start of the third movement of Health and Safety

The first performance of Health and Safety was given by the excellent Warwickshire County Male Voices, conductor Garry Jones, on May 3 in the Hall for Cornwall, Truro, forming the finale of a wonderful concert of young men singers from all over the country. My thanks go to the performers, and to the Cornwall International Male Voice Choral Festival for this initiative in encouraging teenage boys to sing. Let’s hope that many more cambiata choirs will develop in the future, and that more music is written and arranged for them.

The next Festival, in 2017, will be directed by Rob Elliott, as Peter Davies, the Festival Director for many years, moves on to pastures new. But whatever Peter does next, I’m sure there will be some connection with choral singing!

My new wind band piece

I’ve recently been writing a new piece for wind band, commissioned by the London Youth Wind Band, conductor Geoff Harniess. They performed my ‘Procession’ last year so I was pleased that they wanted more!
I’ve not written for wind band for many years, and it first sight it is a daunting prospect – there are more staves in the score than the average orchestral piece, and inevitably the lack of a string section, and focus on wood wind and brass, requires a quite different approach to sonority, melodic lines, and balance than writing for an orchestra would require. The LYWB are an enthusiastic and skilful bunch of players, but the expectation for wind band writing is always that certain instruments are taken by the more experienced players and that some instruments are optional and thus need to be ‘covered’ in other instrumental parts: and the difficulty is to avoid the music becoming too bland colourless and unvaried in the doubling process. I hope I’ve succeeded – we’ll wait until the performance to find out!
Here’s an excerpt from the second movement – ‘The Shard’.London Landscapes extract
Much contemporary wind band music is inspired by a non-musical subject or title, and aspects of film music often figure quite heavily too. Rather than writing a continuous 8 minute piece, as I did in ‘Procession’, I decided to write a suite of three short pictorial movements, London Landscapes, which I hope would have an instant appeal. Given the circumstances of the commission, it seemed good to celebrate London, the city that I grew up in (my secondary school, no longer there, overlooked Tower Bridge and was next to what is now City Hall) but rather than dwelling on the past, to focus on aspects of the present. Thus the three movements focus on recent times: the first one is a portrait of the Millennium Bridge, with a steady procession of pedestrian sightseers (and the occasional wobble): the second describes the Shard, the 1000 ft. tower which is firmly on the ground, yet pierces the sky: and the final movement takes us to the vibrant and busy Canary Wharf financial district, though with a reminder of the watery docks on which it is built.
I’ve really enjoyed writing the piece and creating these three ‘picture postcards’.LYWB February 2015_Page_1

London Landscapes was commissioned with funding from the Leche Trust and the Friends of CYM, and the first performance is at 7.30 on Friday 27th February at St. Alfege Church, Greenwich, London SE10. This fine church has some history: it was rebuilt to designs by Hawksmoor in the 18th century, and substantially repaired after World War Two bombings, but the earlier building not only saw Henry 8th baptised, but also the burial of the sixteen-century composer Thomas Tallis.

Dyson, Bach, and Tower Bridge

Reading Paul Spicer’s excellent book on George Dyson (Boydell Press, 2014), and listening to some of Dyson’s choral music, reminded me of what a great effect it had on me when I first sung it in 1958, at the age of eleven, as a first-former at St. Olave’s School, London. Then in Tooley Street, in the middle of dockland between Hays Wharf and Tower Bridge, St. Olave’s had a very good musical tradition and, under the directorship of Desmond Swinburn, exciting works like Stanford’s ‘Revenge’, Dyson’s ‘In Honour of the City’, Vaughan Williams’ ‘In Windsor Forest’ were regulars for end of year concerts. For an eleven-year old with quickly developing musical tastes, the impact of these relatively modern works (remembering that Dyson was still alive and RVW had died just that summer) was powerful – the sheer sonority of Vaughan Williams, the drama of Stanford, In honour of the City but, best of all, Dyson’s In Honour of the City, which combined the richness of Vaughan Williams with a driving and forceful melodic style spiced with exciting dissonances. I don’t think I ever got the Dyson out of my head actually – but of all the works we performed at school it was perhaps St john Passion programmeJ. S. Bach’s St. John Passion that had the most lasting influence. We sung this every Easter so I probably sung all the voices over the years, and also played keyboard continuo, and the memory of that great work has stuck with me ever since; particularly the beautiful descending three-note phrases of the penultimate chorus and the joyous exultation of the final chorale. Somehow, and not really intentionally, these and other elements found their way into my Passion-tide work – Wondrous Cross (OUP 2012). Wondrous Cross

I wrote Wondrous Cross in 2011 for Lion Walk Church in Colchester, where I worship regularly. My aim was to write a Passiontide work which was dramatic and accessible to a range of choirs, by giving some flexibility with regard to solo voices and forces used. Our small amateur choir performed it during Holy Week 2012 with strings and organ, and in the same year it was performed with organ by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College Cambridge, director Sarah MacDonald, who later recorded it for Regent Records. Wondrous Cross CDIn presenting the Passiontide story I decided to focus on the crucifixion by using the ‘Seven Last Words’ of Jesus on the Cross and the Bible narration leading up to each. I set the narration for unison voice(s) and Jesus’s words for four-part choir, thus putting Jesus’s words into the mouths of all. I linked these passages by settings of other related texts and some traditional Passiontide hymns – and one spiritual. If it is performed in a worship situation, the congregation can join in with these. Underlying the whole work is the eighteenth-century hymn-tune ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross’ which appears in the Prelude, in the background at various points in the work, and complete at the end. Here’s a link on Youtube with me talking about it, in which you can see that I’m a more experienced composer than broadcaster!
Since publication in 2012 it has had a good number of performances – all over the UK and Scotland, but also in the Netherlands and the US, in concert halls, abbeys, cathedrals, and parish churches. I’m looking forward to hearing it again this Passiontide!

You can obtain the Wondrous Cross CD from all good record shops including and from Regent Records

You can obtain the Wondrous Cross score from OUP and all good music shops including Forwoods Music

I am doing a workshop on Wondrous Cross and other works, organised by the RSCM, in Hornchurch in Essex on 7 March 2015. Details here.