null Paul Hillier: Ensemble skills will make you a better musician

The English conductor and barytone Paul Hillier was one of the three founding member of the world-famous Hilliard Ensemble and artistic director of the ensemble for almost two decades. In 1990, he moved to the US, and established the vocal group Theatre of Voices.

"I wanted my ensemble to tell stories though music, to integrate spoken and sung word in different ways, and to have a flexible group that would always put together the best forces suited to any given work."

So, the Theatre of Voices came to be. Today, the ensemble has been established in Denmark for nearly 15 years and offers an extensive repertoire covering several decades of Western classical music history.

“It is not a completely fixed ensemble - it has a core of mainly Danish singers, but I still wanted to have the liberty to vary the ensemble somewhat.”

Hillier visited the Sibelius Summer Academy course with four singers from the Theatre of Voices. They taught a group of approximately 40 students – three established vocal ensembles and individual singers divided into ensembles before and during the week-long course.

"For quite a few years we have mainly been focusing on concert performances, but nowadays, in addition we are focusing more and more on teaching and other collaborative forms of activity. A residence visit like this now in Helsinki is really enjoyable for all of us.”

Sibelius Summer Academy course is built around ensemble singing, and Hillier says the standard on the course has to be quite high.

"We have encouraged the ensembles to prepare our selection of works, but also to bring their own repertoire to work on. We listen, work with them and try help them improve. There will be a difference in the process at first between existing groups vs. individuals – but the students very quickly work at pretty much the same level, just from different starting points.”


Getting the vocal ensembles heard

Hillier has been working in and with vocal ensembles for the good part of his career. He reminds us that the vocal ensemble is basically equivalent to for example a string quartet.

"Everyone takes string quartets seriously, and they don’t have existential problems like vocal ensembles still sometimes have. Instrumental ensembles have a known, established standard repertoire – but actually, so do the vocal ensembles, dating back to very early music. From my point of view, it seems odd that you sometimes still have to explain that ensemble singing can be a way of making a living – since I’ve been doing it so long."

Hillier explains that the difference between singing in a chamber ensemble and in a choir is that in a small group everyone is totally responsible for their own part. The same applies to playing in a string quartet as opposed to a symphony orchestra.

"Ensemble singing is a very challenging and rewarding way of making music. Unfortunately, many singers are not exposed to this idea and are surprised to find out what opportunities it offers — and usually discover this (if at all) only quite late in their education and professional life. Ensemble skills will enhance your employment possibilities and make you a better musician.”

During the Sibelius Summer Academy course the members of the Theatre of Voices have each been working with the ensembles. Paul Hillier says that he has especially enjoyed seeing tentative groups or individuals early in the week start to blossom, develop their understanding of what the music is about, and what they can do with it.

"That is what makes it worthwhile! We’re trying to show what we do, and how we do it in Theatre of Voices. The participants might not want to go in that particular direction, but I hope that they take in some of the musical input, and also some things about the mechanisms of ensemble singing: being together in a group, accepting different ideas and how to bring them together. That is also what chamber music is about! I hope that they can take that experience with them in whatever they are going to do in music.“