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Rugger Turned King’s Singer
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on February 17, 1999. All rights reserved.
In a sense, Nigel Short’s prowess at rugby is directly
responsible for his becoming a singer.
There he was at London’s Royal College of Music majoring in piano
and singing in the 1980s. His rugby background was excellent. As a
sixth form student in secondary school, he had a good rugby coach,
and made it into the English national trial for the sport before he
started his musical training. His rugby skills were good enough that
as a Royal College student, he managed, through a friend of a friend,
to get a place on London University’s rugby team. (In the United
just as a member of parliament need not be a resident of the district
that elects him, a member of a university rugby team need not be
at that university.)
Rugby is a rough sport. Although as notoriously violent as American
football, rugby players wear no protective clothing. "I kept
things," Short says in a telephone interview from his home in
the London suburbs. "One season I broke my nose three times. One
of those times I broke my jaw as well. Someone was standing on my
face. I broke my fingers all the time. This kept interrupting my piano
studies." Bowing to what seemed like the inevitable, Short
his college major down to singing.
Since 1994, Short has been a member of the King’s Singers, the six-man
a cappella ensemble with the repertoire that knows no boundaries.
The group appears at McCarter on Monday, February 22, at 8 p.m. The
program includes 16th-century English madrigals, and Spanish music
from the same period; music by South African composer Peter Louis
van Dijk; and contemporary pop music, including songs of the Beatles.
Members of the ensemble are Short and David Hurley, countertenors;
Paul Phoenix, tenor; Philip Lawson and Gabriel Crouch, baritones;
and Stephen Connolly, bass.
The group was formed in 1968. It takes its name from having been
by members of the King’s College choir at England’s Cambridge
The choir’s roots go back to the 15th century, when a royal decree
provided for an ensemble of 16 boys and 14 men trained to sing
services in the college chapel. Five of the six original members of
the King’s Singers were choristers at King’s College. There have been
17 King’s Singers since the group was founded; the last of the
members retired in 1993. The present member of longest standing is
bass Connolly, who joined in 1988. The newest is tenor Phoenix, who
joined in 1997. The ensemble has published more than 60 recordings.
It has a website, www.kingssingers.com, and a newsletter.
"It’s like a well-oiled machine," says Short. "When
new comes, there’s always a slight shift for six or eight months.
But he soon settles into the groove of learning the music, and takes
over one of the main jobs." His own entry into the King’s Singers
was a gentle affair. Both Short and baritone Lawson were designated
as members in 1994, creating what might have been a major cataclysm
because of the turnover of one-third of the membership of the
"The group was so well organized that it was not a problem,"
Short says. "Our predecessors announced a year ahead of time that
they would be retiring. We were appointed in July, and sang our first
concert in January. They flew us out to a couple of tours, and made
it as easy as possible. When we started doing the first concert, not
everything was new."
Each of the King’s Singers has a particular area of
responsibility. Short acts as librarian. That’s because, of all the
ensemble members, he lives closest to London, and the group’s library
is housed in the London offices of the King’s Singers management.
Short also sees to the distribution of King’s Singers CDs and sheet
music published by the ensemble. In addition, he looks after
arrangements for tours and master classes. He reports that he is
"Director of the Board of Trade" by the other King’s Singers
members, a group that hesitates to pass up an opportunity to tease.
Who’s in charge in the ensemble, I wonder. "There’s nobody who’s
in charge," Short says. "It’s a complete democracy. It works
very well. Six is the right number. Any more and it would be
To make programming decisions, says Short, "we literally sit down
around a table and discuss it. If there’s disagreement, we keep
the matter until a compromise is made. It’s very British."
Short was born in 1965 in Sulohill, part of Birmingham. He joined
the church choir at age seven. A choir outing when he was 15 took
him to hear the King’s Singers, and he was attracted by their close
harmony. His performance debut was in 1992 with the English National
Opera in Monteverdi’s "Orfeo."
Although rugby was prominent in Short’s life until he reached London’s
Royal College of Music, he has now found a place for other sports.
He played his last rugby game at age 21, but he’s considering playing
again. "When we were in Bermuda I heard about a festival for
rugby players. I’m thinking about it. If I don’t play now, I’ll never
play." Short’s other sports are squash, wind-surfing in the sea,
and skiing. "I would love for skiing to be the main one, but
not enough snow here," he says.
The sport club where Short plays squash is two minutes from his home
in Ealing, in suburban London. He still owns the thatched
house built in 1540 where he used to live. The house is 60 miles north
of London. "It’s extremely pretty," he says. "It’s on
the National Register. But it was impractical because we’re always
flying from Heathrow. I have a great arrangement now with my
During the current season the King’s Singers appears in 14 countries,
including eight in Europe and three in Asia. They celebrated their
30th anniversary with a special tour of Britain in collaboration with
dynamic Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who gave a solo
last year with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (U.S. 1, March 25,
1998). The tour was known as the Street Songs tour, reflecting the
title of a newly-released RCA Red Seal recording by the King’s Singers
In a rather learned explanation, the CD liner notes explain that the
music attempts to "create a sense of the original ceremonial and
ritualistic experiences" mirrored in the street games of children,
rather than presenting the tunes in their best-known forms. Actually,
the recording is a lot of fun, and includes more than street songs.
Glennie and the King’s Singers leap-frog over each other in a
of pieces that range from the propulsive and perky "Poor
to the dreamy "In a Far Off Place." With uncanny sensitivity
"Horizons" begins with humming by the King’s Singers that
blend seamlessly with Glennie’s playing, and finally emerge as text.
Glennie plays alone in some of the pieces, revealing her impeccable
sense of rhythm and mastery of sonic subtleties; she ends her flawless
"Reaching Out" with a flourish, the fate-knocking-at-the-door
rhythm of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The King’s Singers perform alone
in some of the pieces — including six settings of Zulu songs
from various Zulu contexts by Stanley Glasser — which display
their immaculate intonation and superb musicianship.
"Working with Evelyn Glennie was a real privilege," says
"She’s a consummate performer and makes it very easy for us. When
we’re singing as an ensemble there are six slightly different versions
of the tempo. But with Glennie we only had one. She’s such a driving
force. And she’s always right."
Habitually, the King’s Singers assembles programs with
far-flung musical styles from far-flung musical periods. Changing
gears musically is not a problem for the ensemble, Short says.
fair to say that people who join the group are pretty flexible
and have a flair for adapting to different styles. For me pop music
is a nonentity. I don’t feel at home with it. I got a lot of help
for my Sade solo on the `Spirit Voices’ recording. [This RCA Victor
recording consists of re-settings of popular pieces originating with
the Beach Boys, Paul Simon, and others.] I used to sing with the
Scholars so I can help others with medieval music. We’re always giving
each other helpful hints like `You can’t sing that like that!’"
Short has clearly gritted his teeth in order to convey the outrage
imbedded in the volunteered hint.
King’s Singer performances hew closely to the score. Their hallmark
is an "intuitive telepathy," wrote Rick Jones after their
appearance at the London Proms in 1997. But improvisation is not their
thing. "We’d like there to be spontaneity," says Short,
because there are six of us and a lot of the music we do is very
there’s not much room for messing around. Spontaneity, when it comes,
is a matter of performance. The only things that can change are
rhythm, and tempo." At first glance these three components seem
to cover all the musical choices, but they don’t. Short has to mean
that, unlike performing groups that improvise, the King’s Singers
do not wing it when it comes to melody or harmony.
"If some one takes the lead, the others will go for it," he
says about spontaneity in performance. "If something is very slow
and grinding to a halt and we’re having breathing difficulties,
will correct the tempo." He gives an example. "In Avery Fisher
Hall just before Christmas, it was the end of tour. We were highly
charged. We knew we would be going home and our performance became
a different animal."
As second countertenor in the ensemble, Short’s is the second highest
voice in the group. His vocal range is close to that of an alto.
goes from the E flat an octave and a third above middle C, to the
C an octave below middle C on good day," he says. "Sometimes
I’m drafted into pieces to sing tenor or baritone if there are five
parts. I sort of wander around."
Short considers his role in the King’s Singers to be a supporting
one. "I’m a filler," he says. "I don’t do much of the
melody line. I fill in the harmony. You won’t hear me in a concert.
I don’t like the exposure that some of these guys have to deal with
day-to-day. I like to fade into background."
Still, Short solos in "Love is Stronger than Pride" on the
"Spirit Voices" recording, and I ask for an explanation of
the exception. He attributes his starring role in the piece to his
being a team player. "They couldn’t find anybody to sing the
he says. "Normally, it would be sung by a woman’s voice. But it
was a bit too low for Hurley, [the first countertenor] and too high
for Chilcott [the tenor at the time the recording was made]".
The Short solo stands out in no way from the other pieces on the
There are no clues to give away that Short stars in the pop idiom
that he finds somewhat alien, or that he dislikes being a star.
Maybe it has something to do with his learning to be a team player
on the rugby field.
— Elaine Strauss
Place, 609-683-8000. Monday, February 22, 8 p.m.
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