Lakeland Voices at Tarn Howes on a summer evening singing walk
Whenever I run a workshop on a sunny day people always ask if we can sing outdoors and I always say no because it’s hard to do well (see Performing outdoors – tips and tricks). But David Burbidge has been singing and walking outdoors regularly for many years and writes here about the joys of doing both together.
guest post by David Burbidge of Lakeland VoiceThe scouts and girl guides have been doing it for years. Indigenous people in developing countries not having houses or towns to live in don’t even have a choice. Even the army do it while training outside to keep them in step.
And if you live in the Lake District or Slovenia you’ve probably seen our singers singing outside surrounded by majestic views as we go on our singing walks throughout the summer evenings, or on our longer Lakeland Songlines through the mountains, dropping down into fell side villages and pubs to do a lightning concert before hoisting our rucksacks onto our backs and striding off into the hills again.
I can understand why many singing leaders aren’t keen on singing outside — there’s not the acoustic to support the voice; the singers get easily distracted by things going on around them; and if they’re walking, many of the singers are often puffed.
But I’ve found that these reasons are attractions for outdoor singing as much as they as they detract.
Because there is no acoustic, the singers have to stand closer together to hear each other — the harmony they make, and the circle they stand in, becomes the space for their singing, a purer form of space than a village hall or indoor room.
Because there are distractions the singers concentrate harder on the singing — and some people are built like this anyway — the more distractions the better they can concentrate. It’s meant to be a test of whether you are an extravert or introvert.
For years I worked as a journalist and put in an office with about 50 reporters tapping away, sharing jokes, school parties walking through the office, the editor running off to some meeting — I could very easily tap off 1,000 words on whatever I had to write about. When I went freelance, sitting at home in the quiet, I couldn’t do anything at all.
And if you’re walking up a hill, teaching a fairly short three- or four-part part song, it works very well to combine the outdoor walking with the singing. The ones who arrive first are kept busy by learning their part, and can then sing it when the others learn theirs, so the harmony builds up easily. The ones who come later who are often less fit prefer to take their time and can learn the last part when they arrive. No one loses out.
Anyone who has ever been hill walking will know that the walking is as much about spirit as it is about fitness. If you are gloomy and depressed, it’s very likely you won’t bother getting out of bed. Singing helps to raise the spirits making the walking easier. Walking on the other hand helps with expanding the breathing, making the singing easier — a virtuous circle.
Another thing hill walkers recognise is the camaraderie of the hills. Planinska, the Slovenian choral anthem to mountain walking, sings about this — about how your fellow walkers are your brothers and sisters united in a love of the open hills.
Community choirs recognise that the singing helps create community — the singers are united in a common purpose, and the harmony reminds them they are equal and different. When the sense of community is strengthened by another common activity like mountain walking then this is even more pronounced.
Our groups in the Lake District — Lakeland Voices in Kendal, and the Ambleside and Penrith Community Choirs — find that not only are we not denied a good acoustic when we go on our singing walks, we get an even better one than if we had stayed indoors. We often visit the vast caves at Rydal and in Little Langdale where the acoustic seems to ring out for several seconds after we have finished singing (see the videos on YouTube of our singers and visiting Georgian and Slovenian choirs singing there).
I have long found that with community choirs the singing together, the learning of the songs, the social events are all easy to arrange. But getting an audience for concerts has not always been so. On our walks this hasn’t been such a problem.
With a visiting Georgian choir walking over the fell from Grasmere we met a school party who were delighted to hear the impromptu concert we gave in Rydal Caves. At our Spring Sing Thing, in deep snow in Martindale near Ullswater, no one could get through the drifts to attend our concert — but having walked over from Ullswater, we did find a party of Outward Bound school children sheltering in a church who we sang to — and asked them to join us in a couple of songs.
And on the island of Jura, where one of our previous concerts in the village hall attracted an audience of only two, we more than doubled our audience numbers by walking a few miles to some cottages near where we were staying in the north end of the island, and singing outside the front door. A sort of springtime carol singing outing.
Weather can sometimes be a distraction, it’s true. On one occasion, while staying in the remote youth hostel at Black Sail in the centre of the Lake District’s most magnificent mountains, we ended up singing Nkosi Sikelel ’iAfrika on top of Haystacks in a force 10 gale. Being close enough so we could hear each other wasn’t the main issue — it was staying upright which we could only do by holding each other round the shoulders in a circle.
But sometimes it’s to our advantage. In mid-December we go up Loughrigg Fell to sing folk carols (and other songs) in the candlelit caves, after which we have our traditional cave food and refreshments. One winter we walked up through four-foot snow drifts in the dark, on a night with temperatures of -15C and stars so bright they cast shadows. The intense frost and stillness made an astonishing outdoor acoustic which we later discovered made us audible from over a mile away.
On another occasion it can lend an amusing extension to our singing — like last night near Ambleside singing “You would think I had seen a meteor show” as the meteors flashed by overhead. And then you’ve got a raft of songs which can make a similar sympathetic resonance with the environment — bells ringing, rivers flowing, mountains going back to the sea.
Although I’ve always sung as I’ve walked — like on my two-month journey from Lands End to John O’Groats where the singing helped to distract me from blisters or the ache in my shoulders — my own interest in outdoor groups started when I was walking the Corsican long distance footpath the GR20 through those extraordinarily beautiful granite mountains. Coming down off one mountain, a crescent moon rising into the turquoise sky, I heard an Italian choir singing arias into the evening. I camped nearby and have rarely heard such a perfect combination of voice and place.
I could of course go on for another few thousand words — but if you want to find out for yourself how special it is to sing outside, and especially in places of great natural beauty — do come and join us in the Lake District, or on our many trips to Slovenia and the Scottish island of Jura. Details are usually on my website www.lakelandvoice.co.uk — you will be most welcome, but don’t forget to bring your walking boots.