Books, June 2014

Anthony Marks and Chris Fay · RSCM Press 200 pp. P/B F0120 £25.00 (affiliates £18.75)

It is difficult to overestimate the importance and usefulness of this new publication for choir trainers and conductors – and also for their singers, since, in addition to the printed 200-page book, there are no less than 163 pages of downloadable sight-reading tests and some aural tests arranged for each level and in treble and bass clefs, to print out and give to singers.
Andrew Reid’s introduction explains that ‘at the heart of Voice for Life is a requirement to sing both by ear and from notation, and a requirement to understand what is being sung. The activities in the workbooks ask students to sing, to listen, to read, to identify, to reproduce music; in short they emphasize good musicianship. At each level, the acquisition of musicianship and related skills is systematically assessed by means of targets.’ But many choir trainers must have been thwarted by the range of work covered by each level of the Voice for Life workbooks. In this new publication, aural tests and sight-reading tests are treated in parallel, with at each level a description of the technical requirements, specimen tests, hints on how to prepare the singers, details of how to deliver and assess the tests, and actual test materials. Now, at last, choir trainers have specific exam materials that they can use with each singer, and the possibility of some consistency so that the achievement at a particular level by a singer in one church should be comparable with that at the same level in a different church.
The motivation and sense of achievement for the singers must be increased if professionally produced tests are given to them, for which they have been systematically prepared, and marked according to specified criteria.And that is just for the White, Light Blue, Dark Blue, Red and Yellow levels, assessed by each choir trainer. A similar process is applied to the three RSCM Awards (Bronze, Silver and Gold) showing how the requirements for these dovetail into progress through the five levels. For the Awards, material is given for mock exams, including the exact wording spoken by the examiners, that will enable candidates to be fully prepared and confident.
Choir trainers who work through and tick off the targets in the Voice for Life workbooks will now find their task much easier: they are given the materials they need to work at a higher and more consistent level, and will surely find higher standards achieved overall by their singers. But for choir directors who do not use such a methodical assessment process, but prefer an informal scheme or have singers who are intimidated by formal testing, there is still a wealth of advice and teaching materials to apply to singers singly and in groups.
There is inevitably repetition between the different levels. Some of the teaching advice may seem obvious, but for every occasion that I said to myself ‘but of course, I don’t need to be told that’, there was at least one other to which I reacted, ‘what a good idea!’. And different choir trainers will appreciate different things. For more experienced people it may be a box of resources to be dipped into and adapted as they see fit – but with the added advantage that the specific tests give a much better idea than ever before of what should be achieved.
Andrew Reid notes how sightreading skills are often neglected because of a perceived lack of time in rehearsal. Yet a combination of aural work (to develop musical memory) and sight-reading will save rehearsal time ‘which can then be used to improve the choral blend, intonation, ensemble, phrasing and delivery of text and meaning.’ It’s a big claim if applied to this book, but well justified.
Julian Elloway