Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Ballad of Jenny

The exam boards have for sometime chosen to give options for light songs. This includes musicals from 1900 right up until now. This is at all Grades from 1 - 8 and into diploma. When I was a student, the thought of singing 'commercial' or 'popular' music was unheard of, and, if I am honest, probably looked down upon. The school exam boards only allowed ' classical' music for O and A level, and so it was always considered a somewhat elitist subject.

This all altered with the introduction of the GCSE exam, when O Level was unceremoniously ditched! I was against, what I perceived as the dumbing down of the standard, and for a number of years whilst it and the Associated Board were experimenting with this whole new world of repertoire, it was a bit of a dumbed down mess.

I have moved on from my initial doubts, and now I really like the idea that a candidate has the opportunity, as the final fling of the exam, to show that they can entertain as well as use a solid classical technique. Many of my past pupils will use ballads such as 'Can't Help Lovin that Man' from Showboat, or
'Someone to Watch Over Me' by Gershwin, interspersed with some Flanders and Swann or Sondheim, as a final group of songs at the end of a recital, and it seems that nowadays young professionals must show that they can be versatile, and appeal to all audiences to earn their musical 'crusts' !

I have been introduced to some cracking songs over the last 10 years, and have often been astonished at what diverse sides of their personalities I have seen when students are given the opportunity to loosen up, and entertain the troops. If they are primarily the ubiquitous 'classical' singer, and if the repertoire is well chosen, then a world of vocal colours is added to the performance. If they sing this style within their own 'vocal box' it works fantastically well, it shows that vital versatility.

If, however the choices are not well made it takes away from the performance, and can leave the end of a concert or recital on a decided downer.

I was master classing a number of Undergrad students in Durham in May, and was very taken with a young woman whose voice is maybe not the most naturally startling in terms of vocal ability and technique, but she could give a song out with such conviction and commitment that we were all totally caught up in the moment. She sang
The Ballad of Jenny by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin :

Music: Kurt Weill
Lyrics: Ira Gershwin
Book: Moss Hart
Premiere: Thursday, January 23, 1941

Jenny made her mind up when she was three
She herself was going to trim the Christmas tree
Christmas Eve she lit the candles, tossed the tapers away
Little Jenny was an orphan on Christmas day

Poor Jenny, bright as a penny
Her equal would be hard to find
She lost one dad and mother, a sister and a brother,
But she would make up her mind

Jenny made her mind up when she was twelve
That into foreign languages she would delve
But at seventeen to Vassar, it was quite a blow
That in twenty-seven languages she couldn't say no
Poor Jenny, bright as a penny
Her equal would be hard to find
To Jenny I'm beholden, her heart was big and golden
But she would make up her mind

Jenny made her mind up at twenty-two
To get herself a husband was the thing to do
She got herself all dolled up in her satins and furs
And she got herself a husband--but he wasn't hers

Poor Jenny, bright as a penny
Her equal would be hard to find
Deserved a bed of roses, but history discloses
That she would make up her mind

Jenny made her mind up at fifty-one
She would write her memoirs before she was done
The very day her book was published, history relates,
There were wives who shot their husbands in some thirty-three states

Jenny made her mind up at seventy-five
She would live to be the oldest woman alive
But gin and rum and destiny play funny tricks,
And poor Jenny kicked the bucket at seventy-six
Jenny points a moral with which you cannot quarrel,
Makes a lot of common sense--
Jenny and her saga prove that you're gaga
If you don't keep sitting on the fence

Jenny and her story point the way to glory
To all man and womankind
Anyone with vision comes to this decision--
Don't make up your mind !

She was fantastic, and given that she wasn't the greatest voice, she almost completely stole the day. This, I have noticed is one of the real upsides of allowing young singers to incorporate a wider and lighter repertoire into their programmes. An upside which I have definitely taken too, since i would never never never have been allowed to go down that road - and I remember the past student, whose singers I was master classing, singing a humorous little something when she returned to sing in a concert with my then Ensemble in about 1995, give or take a year. I was astonished when she finished and at the end of the concert I said to her quizzically, 'I didn't know you could do 'funny' M', to which she replied in a rather terse and exasperated tone, 'You never gave me the opportunity to do anything funny Ann!'

Duly chastened, and in danger of flogging myself over the possibility of ruining her entire life, I have never forgotten that, and from that moment on, gave ALL my pupils the option and opportunity to show what they could do.

A close shave, that!

An amazing performance of this great song, by Julie Andrews, singing, gymnastics and real style!!

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