The Trumpet Shall Sound...
Wise words from Brindley Sherratt
I chat to international bass and all round lovely guy Brindley Sherratt about singing, practice regimes, being “match fit” and his former life as a trumpeter.
Brindley recently gave a masterclass at the National Opera Studio which you can watch online here
JO: What was your path into singing and opera?
BRINDLEY: Gosh, not the normal route. I sang as a boy along with all my siblings, because we were all born into the Salvation Army up in Manchester. You sing and play everything from when your teeth come through. For me it was playing the trumpet or the cornet, and I did that all the way through my teens. I became a very good trumpet player and I went to the Royal Academy of Music. In those days, you had to have two studies, and my second study was singing – because my piano was so bad! And I was quite happy doing that, really. I mean I wanted to be a professional trumpet player – not a singer.
But about my second year, there was an internal opera prize which my teacher suggested I did for experience – it would be good for me to hear some proper singers. So I learnt my arias…and I won the prize. Which was a big shock to me and to everybody else really! That set the cat amongst the pigeons. I mean, I was a trumpet player, not a singer. Then I went and did another competition and won that one too. I thought it was great – it was a bit of a novelty, I felt like a bit of a celeb! I’d been slogging away at the trumpet for goodness knows how many years, practicing a couple of hours a day – and I didn’t win a thing. I then I went and sang two songs and somebody gave me money and said I’d got a prize.
I’d started to listen to opera singers and knew what voices I liked. And my parents had always had really good singing voices, and my sisters too. So I started to get very busy as a singer. But I was twenty, and people offered me stuff, and agents came – and I got really scared, actually. I thought, no, I can’t do this.
Then we got married around then, as students, when I was about twenty one – and a job came up at St George’s Windsor. And with the job came a house in the castle with a salary. So I auditioned and got the job, and I sang evensong every day – and we lived in Windsor Castle for two and half years.
JO: That’s a pretty nice first home.
BRINDLEY: It was fantastic! We had this beautiful old Tudor house in the horseshoe cloister. But vocally it was a bit of a wrecker for me – paring back my voice to sing Palestrina was vocal death for me. I could only last a couple of years until I got a job in the BBC Singers. I was still doing a lot of oratorio – Messiahs, Creations all of that, at quite a low level. But I wasn’t doing any opera at all – there was no opera on the horizon. And I stayed in the BBC singers for the next thirteen years, so I was thirty-six when I left to try and be an opera singer.
JO: You must have had some amazing people in the BBC Singers at the same time as you?
BRINDLEY: Yeah, well one was Nick Sears, who is now Head of Vocal at RCM, and also Sarah Connolly – we all joined in the same few months. It was great. There were some very good singers in the bass department, and it was really good fun. And we had kids. My eldest daughter has special needs and all kinds of health issues so having stability and having a routine was actually really good. I’m very grateful for that. You know occasionally in my wobbly moments I sometimes think, “Ooh, I wish I’d had a starry start – done the training, gone to the Young Artist programmes” but it’s all happened very late for me.
JO: That’s interesting to hear you say that, because I just think a career like yours is the dream! It’s not just the variety of what you do, but also the longevity. Sometimes people train for years and maybe have one break, but it’s difficult to maintain – and you’ve been able to do this over decades.
BRINDLEY: At times…in fact most of the time it just feels like I’m winging it. Every job feels like a new one. In one sense I got lucky. I mean firstly, I’m a bass and there aren’t that many of us around. But also I did a load of auditions, and some I got and some I didn’t – but I just sang well when I sang for Covent Garden. I got a lucky break with them, and they offered me quite a small role but it kind of put me on the opera map, singing at the Royal Opera House and I have a lot to be grateful to them for. It was terrifying, I have to say. I was singing at Covent Garden only two years after I left BBC Singers, without really knowing what on earth I was doing.
JO: Do you feel like you know what you’re doing now then?
BRINDLEY: Sometimes I do. If I’m doing a role that I’ve done many, many times…but even then, the hardest discipline I think we have is maintaining this [points to larynx]. Keeping your singing good through all the changing scenes of life – through your body aging, through your personal circumstances, all these voice changes you go through. Maintaining this voice and caring about how it sounds. It’s the longest discipline we have.
I always think of tennis players, athletes who won’t miss the training that they have to do every day to do their job. But they generally stop in their mid-30s. I’m in my 50s and I’m still doing it every day to keep my voice operating and functioning.
JO: You mentioned good singing – what is good singing?
BRINDLEY: Hah! Let’s have a stab at it. Ok – we are there to use our bodies to resonate. To communicate what the composer intended, what the director intends – we are there to use our voices, our bodies that resonate to communicate something. But what is also amazing about it is that we also mix ourselves in that sound as well. So for me great singing is creating a sound that affects someone. Where the singer has such a measure of their vocal technique that they can communicate freely, and everyone else in the room feels it.
JO: I like your word “resonate”. So we are ‘resonators’ who use our bodies, our instruments to communicate. And all the technique and so on is to enable that freedom of communication.
BRINDLEY: It’s a means to an end. All the coaching, the vocal exercises are so that we can communicate freely -or as best we can – the text or this feeling. That’s why we do what we do. That’s the discipline.
JO: I’m really curious as to what your practice or warm up routine is like. Say you are doing a role – what are you doing in terms of practice or technical work?
BRINDLEY: I have a little bit of a regime. With role preparation, there’s different stages. With early preparation, if you’re doing a long role…for instance, the first time I did Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier, that took me a year and a half. And coming up next year I’ve got the longest role in my repertoire in Parsifal, and I started it a year and half ago because, although my German is OK, there’s so much detail in the text that if I don’t start early enough, I’ll just have a panicked time learning it.
So there’s long range preparation. That’s a combination of translation, working with the text and then singing it – just singing it, singing it, singing it as much as I can to get it into my voice. I was doing it last night; I have quite a long break in the middle of Die Walküre [at English National Opera] so what I do is I sing through Parsifal in the break.
JO: In between – in the middle of the performance? Wow…that’s hardcore!
BRINDLEY: Yeah, I’ll sing a big, bleeding chunk of it, so that I can keep it in my voice, so that it becomes part of my brain and body. It’s very different for students, because you’re spinning so many flipping plates. You have so many different coachings on different repertoire in different languages all day, every day. It’s good preparation that for spinning lots of plates and learning different roles, because you’ve always got several different roles buzzing around your head. You’re maybe performing one role whilst you’re rehearsing another, but also learning the next role after that as well, on the back burner.
I have a routine though for performance days. I’m not one of these singers who says they don’t warm up – no, I have to warm up. I get to the theatre in good time – at least an hour and a half or two hours before. It depends on the role, actually; if I’m doing a really, long, tiring role, I tend not to warm up so much. Because you’ve been singing such a lot, during the rehearsal period the voice is pretty much there. But if I’m doing a short, difficult, loud role – which I’m doing at the moment, I have to really get my voice sung in before I brutalise it on stage…You know, it’s an angry role, so he’s always cross! I have to make sure that my voice is operating through all its registers before I go on.
I do vocal exercises or I sing through chunks of the role. And this is worth saying – if there’s a long gap between shows – sometimes you get gaps of three or four days – I would sing something the day before. I might sing for just 10 or 15 minutes the day before, just to keep it oiled. And then I find I don’t have to warm up as much on the day.
JO: You really talk about it like the vocal mechanism is a brilliant vintage car or something that you need to keep in optimal condition.
BRINDLEY: Yes, and I think also one of the flip sides of having a career of some note – a higher profile – is you’re expected to be good…
JO: Psychologically that must be difficult – because you are a human being and it’s impossible to maintain perfection at all times. How do you deal with the psychological/mental aspect of the career?
BRINDLEY: It’s a bit wobbly sometimes. There are times when I’m mentally fine. Then there are times when you have bad days, bad weeks, bad months sometimes, when you feel like you’re not performing at your best and the voice isn’t quite right. You may have personal circumstances that are testing, or illness. I mean Covid has been a massive blow, it’s shaken us to the core really. I got Covid at the beginning of the year, pre-vaccine and was very poorly. It took me about four months to get over it. I did some work after a couple of works and I don’t feel I sang well throughout that period. My chest still felt quite tight, I was not match fit – and also psychologically dealing again with adrenaline.
We get used to this cycle when you’re singing, rehearsing, performing all the time – there’s a level of adrenaline that is there. But when you’ve been at home making sourdough and banana bread, doing the gardening and going for long bike rides, suddenly you think “Dear God, I’m in a big hall and there are people listening to me!” It was a huge shock to the system. I don’t think I sang my best until September-time when we were doing Rigoletto at Covent Garden. Then I felt like I was flowing again, and the voice was working properly.
It’s like when you see Andy Murray for example – he may be training like mad at home and he may be very physically fit, but he was not match fit. Crowds. Adrenaline. Nerves. I did my vocal exercises at home and I kept singing, but having to sing in a big hall with a big orchestra again – that’s the match fitness bit. You didn’t have to project in your front room!
JO: I like that term: “match fit”. So there’s vocal fitness – but there’s also that extra level of being match fit.
BRINDLEY: Yes, and that’s not so much to do with the voice, but more to do with your support and your body. Because in order to stand on a large stage, in a large auditorium and sing over a large orchestra, it needs the body that has not been required in your front room. The anchor of how you stand and these muscles down here. You’re trying to resonate – to create a sound that resonates freely and projects.
JO: I really like the term “resonate” because it’s both a physical thing with the sound but also something that resonates with people – makes them feel something.
BRINDLEY: I think everybody has the capacity to touch people, to move people with their singing. Sometimes it’s just a case of discovering what that is. Some people just open their mouths and you just think: what a voice! But with some others, it’s how they colour the text. It may not be a technically perfect voice but it’s how they affect people. You don’t just have to have a monster voice. It’s just discovering what you do and doing as much as you can.
JO: How do you think the industry has changed during the time you’ve been working in it?
BRINDLEY: I would say, how opera has changed in this country is that there is just less work. In mainland Europe it’s very different, particularly in Germany because the opera houses are state funded. They can take far more risks with repertoire, productions – there are 80 odd opera houses there, whereas we only have five or six. But in this country in the time I’ve been doing it the amount of work and new productions the houses are doing has reduced drastically. There is just less work. The choruses are slightly smaller. That has changed and that is the bit that worries me.
And therefore they have less money to put on big, bold productions. For example when ENO said they were going to put on the Ring Cycle I thought: fantastic, somebody’s making a big, bold thing. And they’ve been incredibly innovative with the Drive In Live and ENO Breathe for people with Covid and the relaxed performances. Opera North are the same, very innovative. But putting Covid aside, there has been a general decline in the amount of new productions coming out of the UK. There used to be a lot of bigger operas, which they now can’t really afford. They can’t do big, bold new commissions, because they need to do the Toscas and the Bohemes to get the cash.
JO: Have there been any positive changes in the last twenty-five years?
BRINDLEY: I think what has been really great is that they are all offering very cheap tickets and making it far more accessible to younger people. You don’t have to have £100 seats – you can get in for £10 or £15 tickets – or in the case of ENO if you’re under 21 you get in free. They are also working harder at getting people in with relaxed performances, outreach and so on.
JO: If you weren’t a singer, what would you be?
BRINDLEY: I love teaching singing – if I was to stop singing professionally now, I would just teach it all the time. But if it was completely unrelated…no, I would want to be a teacher. I get a real kick and boost – even though I’m absolutely knackered – if I have a day of coaching at a college or NOS or Covent Garden. I don’t notice the time, I just love communicating and being around students – I find it incredibly life enhancing.