Thursday, 10 November 2016

Arundel and the Poor Clares

I had a very early start on Monday morning being booked on the 06.45 flight from Inverness to London Gatwick. This necessitates leaving Paradise at 3am. I made this horrifically early start for the whole five years I commuted to London every week and thought nothing of it, I find that quite remarkable now, and frankly by the time I reached my destination I felt as if I was suffering from jet lag ! Fortunately the lovely sisters here at Arundel understand that fact, and when I arrived and was shown to my little cottage opposite the main building, they left and said not to pop over to see anyone until I had had a snooze ! 

Two hours passed in a flash, a long hot shower eased my aching shoulder and after a strong cup of tea I went over to the convent building and felt ready for the usual pre teaching chat, and catch-up on all the Poor Clare news. There was indeed much news to hear about, including the return of the Abbess from the Poor Clare foundation convent in Kenya and the serious theft of a passport on the day they were travelling home. The return of another sister who was just returned after a six month course learning Italian in a convent in the south of Italy, the diagnosis of a rather nasty condition of another sister whom I have taught for the 15 years I have been coming here, and much other thankfully less startling news !

It was a good start to the working day when I opened the curtains to find the sun shining, and a hoary frost was glistening on the grass and berry trees just outside my window. I made my way over to the convent at 9.45 and we began at 10. The central heating boiler is being replaced in the convent as I write, and you can imagine that in such a huge building quite 150 years old, this is a mammoth task ! The sisters have been without heating for the last week, and will be for another two weeks to come whilst this complex job is completed, so I am working in the sister's recreation room which has an ornate and sizeable Victorian fireplace in which a large and crackling log fire was merrily burning away. They are holding all the office services in that room until the completion of the boiler replacement, so we were warm and cosy in there !

I am pacing myself a little more than usual, so we did a choir practice for 45 minutes and after the usual scales and warm ups we tackled a rather lovely Christmas piece by Richard Shephard. This was yet another setting of the 15th century words 'I sing of a Mayden' it is a piece officially for unaccompanied SATB with some solo lines, but I managed to arrange it so it was very successful for ladies voices and altos instead of a baritone solo ! These sisters learn very quickly - a perk of their job in reality. They sing the Office and specific music for the sacred turning of the year, they regularly sing new psalms, settings, anthems and hymns which mean they a) have a very extensive repertoire and b) they must be able to learn quickly, read competently and memorise melodies fast ! Many tell me, as do my own ladies, they 'cannot read music' and I say the same to them as to all pupils I teach who are not proposing to become professional singers - it is almost MORE important to have the ability to follow the pattern of the black dots, than the knowledge to work out if it is 'd' or an 'f' ! Following the patterns means the geography of the piece becomes easily visible. I have been reading music in the truest sense of the word for so long I cannot remember not being able to do so, this leads to a compromise, whereby I have almost lost the ability to learn 'by ear' and I lose track of where I am if the black dots are not in the correct arrangement exactly in my eyeline ! I rely totally on my ability to read the guessing and no performing 'by ear' !

I had a very nice, and rather nervous new sister from a London convent who seems to have had a very tricky time vocally speaking. These difficulties are not because she found singing hard - quite the opposite - I got the feeling she was rather 'squashed' and not at all encouraged to sing out ! Well she had a truly lovely voice, ringing and round and full. She will find only encouragement and joy at her ability to sing well and join the other confident sisters in this very liberated and welcoming environment.

The two French sisters,  both of whom have delightful voices, a fantastic sense of pitch and a delicate approach to the music, both came and sucked up the lessons with such pleasure and enthusiasm it makes them a joy to teach. 

I ended my day with the Abbess, who is another natural soprano and she almost danced up and down when I got her to a top B flat ! These notes are almost never used in a convent, none of the Office music is written for such extremes, so I like to push them hard when I come so at least these notes have an airing and can be enjoyed for the simple feel good factor! 

I taught only five sisters in the afternoon and then after a chat retreated back to my gorgeous cottage. I may stay. I may just have to squat illegally.......not really ! 

Onwards to tomorrow!

In the shadow of the ever powerful chapel tower - the view from the front window

My cosy and warm cottage !

The morning frost from the windows at the back of the cottage




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