Helen Porter, vocalist with local jazz quartet Misbehavin’, will sing thought-provoking songs at her concert on the 5th October.
Helen finds humour in Brexit and performs a poignant piece about climate change during her eclectic show. And her Saturday morning choral workshop will encourage locals to pretend they are in the bathroom to improve their singing.
Helen Porter is no stranger to the Shaftesbury area. She got involved with local choirs during her three-year residency in East Knoyle. “I moved there in 1998 from Holland, to be part of a project with Common Ground, the environmental company. Then in 2011, we went to live in Cornwall,” Helen said.
Helen is known locally for jazz, but she says that this concert cuts across many musical genres. “I’m a classically trained pianist with a background in theatre as well. It’s quite an eclectic mix,” said Helen, who accepts that promoting a show that cannot be pigeonholed can sometimes present a challenge. “It isn’t jazz. It isn’t musical theatre. It’s not strictly classical. That does make it really hard to define. I hope that makes it really interesting for audiences. There are a lot of different styles brought together through the fact that I’m one performer,” she said.
Like most forms of popular music, jazz songs often deal with love and romance. Helen’s set-list isn’t soppy or sentimental. “I do a few jazz standards, songs that I love and I feel fit in the programme. People come up to me at the end and say, ‘I’m so glad they’re not all love songs’. There is a wide range of subjects that I hope will interest people.”
She has been juggling her time working with a 40-strong choir she formed in Cornwall, with a long UK tour of her one-woman show, ‘Constant As The World’. It’s an interesting title. “I quite like the openness of it, because the world isn’t constant in many ways, but it is also very constant in others. The sun rises every day and the moon comes up at night, so there are consistencies.”
Helen’s song choices reflect issues that she feels are important. “They’ve come about through conversations with people and through things that interest me, like current events,” said Helen. And there’s one song that the audience might still be thinking about after they leave the hall. “I’ve got a song called ‘Cars In The Water’, which seems to really strike a chord with people. They find that quite moving. It is hard-hitting in its way. It was taken from an internet headline about a year and a half ago when I started writing for the project. There were images of cars being where they shouldn’t be and boats on dry land, because of what’s happening in the world environmentally.”
Helen laughs that she ‘hardly dares to admit’ that she has a Brexit song. I asked her whether she is constantly needing to revise the lyrics. “I thought I’d have to but, at the moment, I still don’t have to,” she smiled. “I have thought about actually adding to it. This might be its very last outing,” Helen added. “I think it just makes everybody laugh at the end actually, believe it or not.”
Playing the piano as part of a public performance is a new experience for Helen. “The very first show that I did, I sat at the piano and in my head I was thinking, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ At the same moment I thought, ‘I’ve actually been doing this since I was five years old’. My mum taught me before I went to school. I teach as well so I’m always playing the piano for singers. It’s just that I’ve never gone out there as a solo performer before,” she said.
I asked Helen whether she concentrates more on her piano playing or her singing. “I’m absolutely immersed in both. Both parts are one thing. It’s about concentrating and committing fully as a performer so that there’s no separation between the two. I think it’s helpful to accompany yourself because it means I’m always in charge of the speed and feel of the piece. It’s never quite the same performance twice, particularly where there’s an element of improvisation.”
Helen’s show could well inspire budding singers when they hear how years of practice and experience have honed her vocal performance. If you want to improve your singing, Helen is hosting a vocal workshop in Shaftesbury Town Hall on the morning of her concert.
“It is for anybody who just really enjoys singing. I’ve always found that a little tiny bit of advice or help with technique really makes a huge difference. I’ve worked with a lot of singers in the Shaftesbury area in the past. A friend of mine, Karen Wimhurst, has a choir called Palida. I’ve worked with the choir and I have had a lot of students here,” said Helen.
She promises that attendees won’t need to read music. “No matter what standard you are with your own singing, however experienced or inexperienced you are, there’s always something extra to be gained. I work with professional singers. Sometimes they need to go back to their teachers. It’s very easy to slip into bad habits,” she said.
I asked what they will learn from the session. “When you’re not looking at yourself in a mirror, you can’t really see if your mouth is open fully. Just a tiny bit more openness in the mouth gives extra ‘bathroom inside your mouth’, as I like to call it.”
We laughed at Helen’s non-technical term. “I’ve always called it that,” she replied. “When you sing in the bathroom it’s really resonant and everybody sounds wonderful. You have to think of your mouth as that resonating space. It’s not the room that’s resonating. It starts within yourself. You just have to make that extra space. It makes a huge difference for one person. If you’ve got thirty or forty voices, it makes a massive difference to the choir. I do a lot of work with choirs all over the country, coaching, just to give them that extra boost of the sound,” she explained.
Helen told me that she loves that fact that the Shaftesbury area has so many choirs. She wants to help locals become more confident about singing in public. There are, of course, people who would like to give it a go but who are terrified at the thought of singing with anybody else hearing.
I recounted a schooldays experience with Helen. I had a teacher who used to walk up and down the line of the choir and bend her ear towards the children, telling pupils who were singing flat to stop and sit down.
“That also happened to me at junior school,” said Helen. I was surprised. “I was sent to the back of the class. Even then I had the confidence to know it was the girl next door who was out of tune. It is an experience that many people have. I was lucky. I was born a musician and singer. 75% of my students say that they were put off from singing at school. I’ve never come across a student who does sing really out of tune or who can’t be helped. You have to put those horrible experiences right behind you and come and have a sing at any workshop, not just my workshop,” she said.
Helen says that some would-be choir members can be intimidated when they hear the choir sing. “People listen to a choir and when they sound fantastic, they think, ‘That’s not for me. I couldn’t ever do that’. Just go along,” Helen enthused. “You’ll find actually that everybody starts like that. You just need to pluck up the courage to make a start.”
Helen’s Port Regis School performance is at 7.30pm on Saturday 5th October in the Farrington Recital Hall. Tickets are £10 and are available on HelenPorterMusic.co.uk. The choral coaching session at Shaftesbury Town hall is on Sunday morning, 6th October. “It’s on from ten o’clock until one o’clock in Shaftesbury Town Hall,” said Helen. “You can book that through my website, or you could just turn up. It’s £20 for the workshop.”