New project – How do I learn music?

People often ask me, “How do you learn your pieces?”. To me there is no mystery, of course, because I learn them. One thing I always bare in mind is that at some point I will have learnt it, it will be easy, and it will be in my body. Until that point I’m learning, and staying alive to all the possibilities of where I might be going with it and i find this such a fun time and really love finding out new things about the music and about myself as I do it.

I’ve decided to share a little bit about the process, starting today as I choose to learn a new song by Lili Boulanger. I’ve never sung anything before by her, and m really excited to get to know her music. Hopefully when I’ve learnt the piece, I’ll record it with my amazing partner / live-in pianist, David Bremner.

If you would like to download the song – have a look here.

Day 2:

Today I discuss Lili Boulanger’s life and works briefly. For more information read wikipedia – I also mentioned two works I listened to:

Psalm 130 and Faust et Héléne

I talk about the process of translating (I highly recommend the site as a wonderful resource of texts for so many songs) and exploring the images within the poem to help my performance. i give a brief reading in French of the text, so that we can compare how this changes as I become more familiar with the text and it becomes part of me.

Day 3:

Today I have a look through the images in the poem. I mention a few pictures: Here is the Wiliam Leech and here is one of Monet’s picture of the Water Lilies. I also was listening to Boulanger’s Vieille prière bouddhique. Below is the drawing I make during the video.


Day 4:

I mention the Laban method here. I have done some workshops with Sue Mythen at the Lir Academy in this. I reference the 8 action efforts here which deal with how Weight / Space / Time are dealt with in the images I discovered last week. With this I do a short of movement thinking (although on looking back actually mouthing) the words, and follow this with a read through of the words from memory. Through these different types of learning, drawing / moving, I’m beginning to feel that the words are becoming part of me, and that I’m starting to express the story of the song through the French words. I also have a little sing through of the song – as yet the notes are not right, I haven’t really looked at the rhythm so sometimes I was surprised at the lengths of the phrases. When this becomes more instinctual, I will feel that I breathe in the right amount to sing the song, without any conscious control, rather I will just allow it to happen, but it’s useful as as an idea of where I am now I think.


Who is Clavichord?

I was asked a strange question the other day – who is clavichord?. I thought perhaps I had misunderstood, and came out with the stock reply of “an instrument predating the piano – not a harpsichord, but something in between”. I could see this wasn’t good enough, and not just because my knowledge of non-standard instruments has definite holes in it, so I asked why he was asking. There was a poster with some pictures of instruments beside their names and composers beside their names. There were three composers – Brahms, Bach, and another gentleman, and four or five instruments with the one of the clavichord having a picture of a woman playing it. Clearly this woman was not named. Why would you need to name a woman – what do they do other than make the picture look appealing?

A work that has been going around my head since I heard it last Friday is Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’ Isola di Alcina. This, I believe, is the first opera known to be written by a woman (1625) and was performed for the annual Opera Briefs by the Royal Irish Academy of Music in association with The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin in association with Abbey Theatre. It is a fantastic piece and I have been asking myself why do I not know it already. My knowledge of baroque instruments might be sketchy, but this was an Italian opera composer who worked in the Medici Court – an area which I had surely studied in College and I had just not come across her.

And I was missing out on so much. The production on the Peacock Stage was thrilling. This was full of intrigue, mishaps, tragedy, sorrow but to the forefront really good fun -whether that was Vladimir Sima, excellent as Pastore, watering the people who have been magicked into plants, or was it the fantastic thunder sheets being played to evoke the fury of the scorned enchantress Alcina, (the commanding Clodagh Kinsella). Helene Montague as director enabled all of the singers to grab every opportunity to do something on stage to absolutely enhance the drama. Berus Komarschela as Astolfo was so miserable as the enchanted plant within the wheelbarrow, that his transformation into an exuberant young man dancing and singing was all the more powerful.

The music really was the star of the show, sung beautifully and with passion by all, and the playing of the baroque orchestra (conducted by David Adams from the Harpsichord) was exceptional. This did not feel like a student production but it was. The skills that all of these students will have learnt through their engagement with and performance of this unknown work will stand to them throughout their careers.

On Sunday I went to another concert of Baroque unknown works at a rare visit to the Hugh Lane Gallery for the Sundays at Noon series. This series has been running for over 40 years and programmes so many different types of music, now curated by Mary Barnecutt. The concert on Sunday was performed by Chant 21, a group founded by the tenor Jacek Wisłocki and lutenist Jerzy Żak, who specialise in performing rare masterworks of the Baroque era. This was my first time to hear the group and they were joined for this concert by recorder player Theresa Burton. There was a great understanding between Burton and Wisłocki, in this concert made up of solos, duos and trios I came to look forward to the great trios by Donati, Cima, Merula when I could relax and listen to this sublime music being played by three musicians who had taken such care to shape each line and had really collaborated in putting this music together. It was great to hear Jacek singing in his native Polish (three anonymous songs). Even without consulting the translation, I could understand the message in each of these, so well were they acted; Theresa’s performance of Taeggio’s works was stunning. Jerzy Żak, spoke at the start about the theme: that music has no borders. In the baroque era, musicians travelled everywhere, the concert was made up of music by Italian composers who had worked in Poland and also by Polish musicians who had worked in Italy. The virtuosity on display was a given but the communication and the artistry in performance was quite something to watch, and this was felt by all as there was a standing ovation to finish the concert.

Yet I keep coming back to that question “Who is Clavichord?”. Why did I not know anything of this wonderful opera by Caccini, why had I not heard of even one of these composers in the Sunday concert. It makes me realise that it is so so important to really notice where I get my thoughts and beliefs. How much of my “knowledge” is assumptions, how much is guesswork and how much just depends on what I have been exposed to. In this age of instant answers to questions (just google them) it is important to curate your own knowledge, to find new ways of engaging with material, to talk to different people, to find out what is important to others and so find out what is important to you, yourself.

Inappropriate Moments

I first came across Jennifer Walshe’s vocal ensemble music in 2012, when I performed The White Noisery as a member of Chamber Choir Ireland. My next encounter was when I was leafing through a pile of music in the Contemporary Music Centre on Culture Night 2013. The Folk Song Collection immediately grabbed my attention – I found myself singing the music out loud and I knew that I had to perform it. Caitríona Holohan (Librarian, CMC) was able to tell me that this was just one piece of a quite sizeable collection of vocal ensemble music by Jennifer. She also said that this music is often requested by groups from abroad, and so we started to plan this festival – Inappropriate Moments.

We, as in Béal, a production company run by myself and David Bremner interested in the relationship between the spoken and sung word; we’re fascinated by the capacity of words to be both pure sound and a means of communication, and our shows reflect this.

When myself and David approached Jennifer with our idea to perform her vocal ensemble music in the Project Arts Centre, I was delighted with all the amazing scores she sent me, but also that she suggested in creating a second collection of folk songs with 27 short songs. We will performed both of these collections as well as other works for between three and six singers in various spaces around the public areas of the Project during the afternoon of both the Friday 8th July and Saturday 9th July.  With texts from such varied sources as Edward Lear (the owl and the pussycat), Julian Assange (his dating profile) and Kanye West (his twitter feed), these pieces lasting between three and ten minutes give a flavour of what to expect in the evening shows.

The first night we performed three works for between five and seven performers. he wants his cowboys to sound like how he thinks cowboys should sound features five singers sitting on a bench, each in their own world yet still together within the same world. There is a sense of them all travelling to some other place, an expectancy, a sense of longing. WATCHED OVER LOVINGLY BY SILENT MACHINES, again with (a different) five people incorporates a myriad of styles, from a medieval vocal trio, to a video montage, to lecture which is then repeated with much of the sound removed. The interaction of the performers on stage is part of the music – towards the end of this piece there is a mainly silent rehearsal of a scene from a film, we see the reactions of different characters to each other. I really feel that this music can allow us to think about our own reactions to others and perhaps give an awareness of the many different ways that we can think about events in our own lives.

Our final concert featuring all sixteen performers of ensembÉal opened with our performance of The White Noisery: a virtuosic whirlwind through many varied types of material, from games, to a silent military drill, to telepathic messaging, to beautiful poised singing. This was followed by three amazing solo works and we are delighted to share the stage with Jennifer herself to perform these. She will perform G.L.O.R.I., 16 Haikus, and COMMENT ON DIRT AND RAVINGS. Our final work was Duration and its other modes. There are so many signposts here for what you looking at and listening to (actual signposts introduce the seven tableaux of scenes from renaissance painting and period opera productions). But can you trust signposts? The piece is structured almost like a Baroque concerto grosso – we have the soloist, but also small groups of performers working with clearly defined materials, and we also have the full tutti sound. The piece fluctuates between these different elements, in a style similar to channel hopping.

Living with this music for an extended period of time made me think about life and how we move through it – what if there is no difference between a short time and a long time. Time (or duration) can only be experienced by the living. Maybe you’ll see the music and feel something completely different and have a completely different experience with it and that’s ok.

To paraphrase Jennifer herself – we don’t expect polite clapping. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you’ll hate it, but that’s what makes this music so exciting for me.

Elizabeth Hilliard (Béal)







Yoga and Singing

Some exciting news – I start training as a Yoga Teacher this Saturday in Yoga Dublin, it is an intensive 200-hour programme which I will complete over the next four months.

I have been practising yoga on and off for about ten years. I started taking beginner classes with Luna in Yoga Dublin on Dartmouth Lane. I then started studying with Colm Walsh, and for a period was attending a mixed level 2 hour class on Friday morning. This was an amazing experience. As I remember I was pretty much a beginner and this Friday morning class was regularly attended by me and a couple of yoga teachers – it was always a very small class so had fantastic individual attention.

I think I then got busy for a while but at some point (possibly c. 2011) found myself again looking for regular classes and was often taking classes on Tuesday morning in the new building on Dartmouth Road with Michelle. It was in her classes that I was introduced to the concept of yoga nidra, which I have really taken on board and have done some reading around and listened to various types online.

Again, however life kind of took over and while I stopped attending regular classes I started buying the Yoga Journal most months from Reads and would tend to read through and explore various of the ideas within. Then in August 2013, I attended a week-long retreat with Kanta Barrios in the Burren Yoga Centre. This was in yoga and meditation with some walking also. It was my intention to build up a daily practice and also to really try to remember as much as I could of the cues – on the last day I drew a picture of various of the postures, including the spirals that Kanta was cueing, and the various modifications that Kanta she had specifically suggested I might work with.

From then I was more dipping in and out of various classes, but with this work and the reading I was doing in Yoga Journal, I was beginning to get a sense of the benefits that my yoga was bringing to my work as a singer in particular. I started to integrate my practice within my singing practice and my singing practice within my yoga practice. I started to explore various different options with the breath, rather than dogmatically sticking to the one favoured by pilates teachers in pilates classes, by that favoured by yoga teachers in yoga classes, by the ones favoured by singing teachers when singing – I suppose I was influenced by Feldenkrais also with the suggestion to explore a myriad of different ways of doing things to give your brain something new to do. Often singing practice can be like trying to perfect the exact way of doing something precisely through honing in on the specific skill and improving it all the time, whereas what I was starting to do was to forget all that to try lots of different things and just play around with the idea of just singing.

At the time I was as well as having an active performance career teaching singing and piano to mainly children and teenagers in one-on-one lessons and started to play about with introducing new concepts of mindfulness and interoception into my teaching. For many years I had been teaching with therabands and spiky balls in the class, but I was now starting to introduce more of this new way of practising with my students.

In summer 2016 I took a career break from all of my teaching due to having far too many commitments and starting to have a sense that I was somehow dividing myself in half and was not allowing myself enough headspace to see what was going on in my professional life, which obviously had a knock-on effect in my private life. Also, with music your professional life is truly part of your personality, at all times you are that little kid who got so taken up with creating magic and life out of sound that when that life come under stress and close to cracking point you get this sense of being lost and somehow outside oneself.

That year I decided to book in with The Elbowroom to study advanced yoga and anatomy, a module of the yoga 500 course run by Susan Church and Orla Crosse. I initially thought I would do part of one module on the pelvis / leg and walking, but ended up loving it and I also took part in the weekend modules on the core, the spine and the shoulder also. It was through discussions with the yoga teachers taking the course as well as the two tutors who all seemed to think it would be a viable option while I was not remotely thinking about it.

In early 2017 I took the decision to take a second year career break from teaching music. While I had had a brilliant year with lots of singing, I felt I could do with discovering more focus and to perhaps find something to make my music teaching really connected with the remainder of my work. It was suddenly I think over the summer that I started to really think about the possibility of training as a yoga teacher. For so many years I have been combining my yoga practice with my singing but now was contemplating the possibility of really engaging with the practice so that I can help others. I began reading a lot of different books about fascia and yoga – by Chaitow, Myers, Avison, Sabataini as well as Anat Baniel’s book – Move into Life which I had long intended on reading.

Ultimately I want to bring the sense of fun and enjoyment that I have experienced through both yoga and singing to others in a safe and helpful way. Doing this in both one-on-one sessions and also in group situations, working with budding professional singers, but also with people who just really want to sing, and for whatever reason find that there is something that is making that difficult.

I feel I have the skills to help people to find their authentic voice, to find the place where the sound is just effortlessly flowing and the singer feels at one with nature. The realisation that this isn’t somewhere magic or outside of one, but wholly grounded within you and the possibilities that are contained within you. I have seen the joy on many people’s faces, when they have felt unable to sing, and somehow with some guidance from me and assistance from them something transforms inside them and they produce what to them perhaps is something they thought they could never access. This is what excites me about teaching. Bringing something out of people that they never knew they had within them.

What to do when you’re feeling off kilter

Sometimes you wake up and you don’t feel quite right. Some days everything rights itself within minutes, and sometimes there is something not quite right following you about for the day.

This may just be how you are that day, it might be that you slept a bit funny. I have been dealing with recurring “flare-ups” in my neck for almost 20 years and have come up various ways that I can deal with this without allowing my singing to be affected.

Generally a mixture of pilates / walking keeps most problems at bay, but whenever I get any symptoms of faulty wiring in my nerves I will go to visit my amazing physio, Eoin Naughton at Peak Physio. I also am a big fan of both the Alexander Technique (taking lessons from Seán MacErlaine) and The Feldenkrais Method (taking lessons from Mark Keogh).

Today I have been working in Dublin City Centre as part of Tonnta’s residency supported by Dublin City Council. Part of my work today has been to document some of the physical work I do to maintain my voice in top condition. I believe it is vital to keep freedom and ease of movement in the neck and shoulders to allow me to successfully navigate what might otherwise be exceedingly difficult music.

One of the books I often turn to is Samuel H. Nelson and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller’s Singing with Your Whole Self – written by a feldenkrais practitioner in conjunction with a vocal pedagogue – it presents short lessons that can be followed by anyone looking to free up their vocal tract. Today I have made 2 videos of excerpts from this book, to allow me to follow the instructions more clearly.

I have also put together a video of short warmups that I might do on days when my voice is not feeling the most healthy. Sometimes it is best just to rest and allow the voice to settle, but at times,it can be good to have a routine. I have been attending yoga and pilates classes with Susan Church for many years (sadly she has now moved to Spain), and, last year, I was lucky enough to audit some modules of her Advanced Yoga modules at The Elbowroom, run in connection with Orla Crosse – I try to bring many of the principles from this work into my own singing (particularly within this video), such as mindfulness, never going to your end-range, allowing your body to be where it is while still enabling change.



Saluting the Feminists

I’m delighted to be performing this coming Friday as part of the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s Saluting the Feminists event. I will be performing with both Paul Roe and Dearbhla Brosnan at 6pm. Tickets  (free) are available from the academy.

As a member of Tonnta Music I am rehearsing in a great space in town, and I’ve put together a short video about what I’m performing this Friday. Please have a watch and share with your contacts.

During the day there will also be

10am – Panel Discussion – Women and Music in Ireland in the 19th and 20th Century
Ita Beausang and Laura Watson in Conversation with Jennifer O’Connor-Madsen

11:11 – Coffee Concert with post-concert discussion
Thérèse Fahy, piano performs works by Gráinne Mulvey and Siobhán Cleary; Sylvia O’Brien and Dearbhla Collins perform a selection of songs by Irish female composers performed by Sylvia O’Brien and Dearbhla Collins

3pm – Panel Discussion – Past members of staff from the RIAM Keyboard Faculty
in conversation with RIAM Director, Deborah Kelleher

6:00pm – Evening Concert

Elizabeth Hilliard, soprano; Paul Roe, clarinet; Dearbhla Brosnan, piano

Tickets for the event are free, but should be booked in advance.

Listening to explore

Sitting in a train terminal / airport terminal can be such a stressful occasion. One knows that amongst those there, there are people making journeys of great joy, of excitement, new beginnings and also there are those that are travelling out of hardship, in an emergency or perhaps to seek vital  healthcare abroad. I find just sitting and allowing myself to observe as much of the sounds I can hear and the scenes I can see to really relieve this stress. To become one with the environment, to just allow the sounds and sights to wash over can be very energising and yet calming at the same time – one experiences a different sense of time in these situation. At every moment in an airport someone is rushing / late / not going to make their flight, wishing time would slow down, while at the same time someone else is sitting / waiting / standing at the gate, wishing time would speed up and take them to their journey’s end.

I’ve long been interested in how we experience the sound all around us, and in the last few years have discovered the music of Karen Power. I am fascinated by the various layers of sound that surround us all the time, those we notice and those we choose / try to ignore. There are so many layers in our life and through art I try to find a satisfying way of sifting through different ideas and making sense of what can seem like chaos in the world around.

Karen’s use of the the unheard or ignored sounds that she amplifies in her work really resonates with me. I have found this video she produced after a trip to Arctic – stunning video footage and fascinating commentary and music.

Composing the Nation

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about women’s representation in music. It is staggering that out of almost 200 pieces being played to celebrate 100 years of composition in Ireland, merely 23 pieces are by women.

I have never consciously chosen to programme music by women. In fact a lot of the time when constructing concert programmes choices are made for a number of reasons: style, music, personal taste. I have looked through the list of works perfomed by myself and David in our programmes for the Irish Canon – we performed 3 recitals for this: the first songs by Bodley, Clarke, Barber, Moran, Bremner and Cleary – 3 women, 3 men. In our second programme we performed Bremner, Bodley, Cleary, Moran, Molloy, Lane – 1 women, 5 men. In our third programme we performed: Mulvey, Bremner, Cleary, Mulvey, Sholdice – 2 women, 3 men. In total we represented 6 men and 4 women.

In making our programme choices we agreed that it was important to choose repertoire from a wide variety of compositional style and background and also to represent different generations of composers. There was no intention to specifically include women composers. It just happens that half the people alive are women. One fifth of the composers represented by the Contemporary Music Centre are women. Music is a subject I would imagine studied in equal numbers by women and men and I think I know roughly the same amount of women composers as I know male composers.

It would seem to me that in choosing repertoire for a centenary of music, it would have been difficult to choose so few works by women. If there was an attempt to include more works by women, but for various reasons it was felt that the selected works represented Ireland better, it would I feel be right for those reasons to be spelt out. Unfortunately the exclusion of women composers not only colours my feelings about the event, but makes me think perhaps this is a reflection of the society we live in today when people will march on the streets to celebrate Ireland’s treatment of women.