The original members met whilst studying at King’s College, Cambridge, where they were choral scholars. Soon after graduating, they started working as a group and needed a name – and the rest, so they say, is history.
No. Although it’s important to us that each member appreciates where the original group came from, we now choose to cast our net wider than simply the small pool of male singers who have sung as choral scholars at Oxford and Cambridge. We look for the same standards of musicianship, but have found that successful candidates can come from many different institutions. As long as they are familiar with the English choral tradition, they are ambitious, we get on with them and, of course, they have a great voice, they’re right for the job no matter where they trained.
Since 1968 there have been twenty-six King’s Singers – the original six and twenty replacements, each joining as somebody else leaves. The replacements have been one at a time, with the exception of Nigel Short and Philip Lawson who joined together, replacing two of the group’s founding members, Alastair Hume and Simon Carrington, who left together in 1993.
No. There are only ever six King’s Singers at any one time.
We carry on! It is not a pleasant feeling to be on stage when you are not at your best, but (curiously) we have done some of our best shows when someone needs ‘carrying’ on stage. The group’s awareness is heightened at times like these.
There isn’t one. We operate by democratic, collaborative leadership – everyone has an equal say in what happens in our work. We do have individual responsibilities, however, and individual areas of expertise (whether musical or otherwise). It makes sense to us to defer to those who have special interests or skills, so we try to value what each member brings to the group and allow new ideas that help the group grow and thrive both on- and off-stage.
Vacant positions are not advertised in the normal way for fear of a deluge of applications! Instead, when a member decides to leave, we draw up a list of singers we would like to approach, having taken lots of advice. Copies of The King’s Singers’ pieces are then sent out to the candidates, along with recordings to aid the learning process. Prepared solo pieces are not required – the audition is all about making the same sounds as the people around you and displaying flexibility. The candidate steps into the shoes of the outgoing member – in effect joining the group for the duration of the audition. It’s also important for us to work out what a person is like socially – with seven months of the year on the road, it’s very important that there is a good rapport between us. Eventually, after a number of auditions, the group makes its choice. The new member-elect then has a few months to learn repertoire and, if possible, travel with the group and rehearse with them, before he takes up his post.
Our seasons contain somewhere between 120 and 130 concerts, and we spend about seven months of the year away from home, in bursts ranging from a day to four weeks. We also record at least one album a year, feature in radio and TV programmes, and lead workshops for vocal ensembles around the world. It is, as you might expect, our full-time job.
Many people are surprised when we tell them that we rehearse for no longer than two hours before each performance. The reason for this is rooted partly in our education, where we learned to read music very quickly and put performances together at short notice as cathedral choristers. A point which is perhaps more important, however, is that we don’t view rehearsals as the time to learn notes, but instead to hone and fine-tune performances. Each singer will spend many hours learning music alone, during rest periods at home and on tour. We then come together knowing all the notes, and spend our rehearsal time working on subtleties – or getting ahead with new repertoire for upcoming performances.
Once we get together and start working on a piece, outsiders are often amazed at how little singing seems to take place, and how long we spend working on, say, a single phrase in detail. As mentioned above, rehearsals are for fine-tuning – so we spend a lot of time discussing and not always much time singing! Each member has to feel fully invested in every performance, so we encourage even the newest members to have their say and to contribute to how each performance is created. We also spend a lot of time on sound-work: building up chords, making sure our blend, balance and intonation are as good as possible, and maintaining ‘The King’s Singers Sound’ that was pioneered back in the early 1970s, and to which the group owes its success.
Not really, but as individuals we each have our preferred musical genres: both to listen to and to perform. This variety within the group helps to keep the group’s artistic life developing. We find comfort in knowing that in a certain style one or more of us will have expertise to call on, and those of us who might not know as much can learn from the knowledge and passion of others. Life in The King’s Singers is about always learning new things, and drawing from the experience of other members.
What repertoire we choose to perform in any given concert is informed by a number of variables: where the venue is; whether we’re performing as part of a series that already has a theme; what the acoustics are like in the venue; what kind of programme the presenter would like; and what music suits particularly the current line-up of the group. We also check our programme archive to check that we’re not repeating repertoire in a given venue or town in a short time-frame. Armed with this information, we try to piece together an appropriate programme that will keep the audience’s interest for the duration of the concert. Over the group’s history, we have realised that what works in one place may not work so successfully in another. We also like to be kept on our toes by ensuring that we have a wide range of repertoire at our disposal at any given time.
We are fortunate to have a long-standing relationship with Hal Leonard Publishing, one of the biggest publishers of sheet music in the world. Over the past two decades we have sold over two million piecesof sheet music, and you can find many of our favourites in the Shop section of our website, or in the USA from DJ Records.
Copyright law prevents us sharing manuscripts which have not been published
The King’s Singers have a discography of over 150 recordings, some of which are sadly no longer available. The copyright on the recordings is owned by the record labels, but we continue to work with them to make as many of the old recordings as possible available for digital download. Many of our most popular (and all of our recent) albums are available for sale through our online Shop, but older recording can occasionally be found on the DJ Records and Archiv Music websites.
The vocal make-up of The King’s Singers is distinctive and unusual, consisting of a bass, two baritones, a tenor and two countertenors. The countertenors sing as falsettists, using the upper register of their voices, which is a kind of head voice. Falsettists first arose from two main areas of need: the church, where women were banned from taking part in services, necessitating a male alto line; and in opera, where men were needed to sing roles previously assigned to castrati. It’s not uncommon for there to be raised eyebrows when people hear The King’s Singers for the first time, but it’s because we have two countertenors that the group has been able to develop its special sound, and we’ve been able to explore repertoire meant originally for mixed voices.
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