Stephen Hatfield On Expression Markings

Non-choristers can be forgiven for not knowning about Stephen Hatfield. We, the heathens of the vocal folds, know him well.  His work focuses on vocal music with a subfocus on Canadian folklore. As a prime example, his chamber Opera, Ann and Seamus, is a piece for young voices that tells the true story of an Irish immigrant ship running aground in Newfoundland. Ann, the seventeen year old girl of the title, and her family saved over a hundred of the sailors and Hatfield’s piece offers a dramatic retelling of the rescue efforts and her relationship with the other titular character, Seamus.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I was drawn to his music, not from hearing it, but by reading it. The composer writes very unorthodox expression markings.  Very unorthodox.  Some might use the word eccentric.  In one of my weaker moments, I may have used the phrase “bat-s***-insane”.   I’m slightly more ashamed to admit it, but I and my other choristers laughed long, loud, and lavishly at such gems as:

“the piano part should swing like a hiker’s kilt – free, but not sloppy”

“basses, you are velvet drapes in a dark, high-ceilinged room”

(…and who can forget….)

“Oxygenate the canon!”

As the laughter died away my curiousity got the better of me and I finally had to get in touch with the composer and ask him, “Why?”. I had my own inklings, as the answer clearly wasn’t comedy, but I wanted to hear the composer say it in his own words….


Sivak: You’re well known as a very dynamic music leader.  It might be a case of this experience as a director shining through as your expression markings often strike me as inventions of spontaneity. I think every chorister can recall a particularly memorable one-liner from a director that simultaneously inspired and focused the group to the task at hand. I’m wondering if your distinct markings are perhaps an effort to chase this instinctive from-the-gut feeling and infuse it into the page.

Hatfield: “You are right that my off-the-wall directions grew out of spontaneous comments I made when working with choirs, but my approach became more conscious and calculated in response to the enormous amount of positive feedback that my comments generated. Singers repeatedly said that my imagery appealled not only to the cognitive, ‘understanding’ part of their brain, but also to the instinctive and non-linear part, since my comments are deliberately metaphoric, and ask that the singers’ own creativity come into play when the ‘meaning’ of the direction is discussed. I am very keen on finding ways to appeal to the musicians’ creativity, as rehearsals often become much more literal-minded than the musicians realize or intend. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve adjudicated or cliniqued a choir that doesn’t have a single idea or opinion about the piece that they’re singing. My directions are in part an attempt to rouse the creative faculties into action.”

S: I’m also wondering if you have ever felt the urge to pull back lest there be too many cooks in the kitchen. This might tie into the previous question a bit as some of your markings strike me as instructions we’re accustomed to hearing from the conductor rather than the composer. I don’t want to lead the question too much, but I have a suspicion that, since writing your own arrangements seems to be part and parcel of what you bring to directing, that perhaps you see less of a line between composer and conductor?

H: “You are right that I do see less of a line between conductor and composer, not just because as the composer or arranger I have my thoughts as to how I want the score to come alive, but also because I think that when you sing Bach you think and feel like Bach. When I work with a choir I repeatedly call the singers ‘composers’.”

S: Also, could it just be about practicality? We have a whole lexicon of symbols and verbage in multiple languages at our disposal so could you perhaps be just cutting to the chase and, “telling it like it is”?

H: “As you say, we do have a standard lexicon, and that suffices for some.  But it goes back to the practical nuts and bolts of my experiences with choirs, whom I found often needed a creative jolt in order to sing with emotional and psychological conviction. I think it reflects the different ways that different conductors get results.. There’s more than one bus that gets you downtown.”

“I like the Emily Dickinson poem, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant / Success in circuit lies.’  My comments are often elliptical because that is how I can get the singers’ brains to work for themselves.  You asked if my comments were in part a desire to ‘tell it like it is’.  In a way, yes.  But some of my directions deliberately go in the opposite direction, and present the singer with something that is more of a riddle than a direction – because the riddle lights up parts of the brain that a direction can’t reach, parts of the brain a singer needs to access – that all people should access – but which often lie dormant.”

“In summation, my approach, however ‘artsy’ in its surface style, arises out of the very practical considerations of, what worked? What got results from the singers?”

There’s more to the story.  I, and a colleague of mine, actually compiled a list of the markings for entertainment purposes.  I was a little torn about posting it online as it was put together in the spirit of jest.  After getting Stephen’s side of things, I felt that I should eat my words (Or in this case, HIS words).   In any case, I feel that there is a goodness to be had from a compilation of the markings that reaches beyond comedy.  As it happens, that goodness clearly found me.

The Expression Markings Of Stephen Hatfield

Compiled by Jessica Irvine and Chris Sivak

“buoyant and celebratory – bright, but with lots of dark frequencies in the tone, like fireworks in the night sky”

“not loud, but with the excitement of a sneak attack about to be launched”

“with the sense of a great weight suddenly gone”

“feel free to vamp ’til you cramp”

“both a groan of pain and a moan of joy”

“crescendo, with the sense of a fountain about to erupt”

“loud and proud – a crackling forward propulsion combined with a disciplined unrushed pulse”

“a mixture of angles and curves, aggression and graceful swing”

“campy and vampy – detached and boppy”

“proud and humble, angry and joyful, with a sense of tribal solidarity”

“the tone is crouched and ready to spring”

“a full-hearted allargando”

“hot-blooded and haughty – a mixture of delight and disdain”

“flight the notes!”

“feline, sly and supple, but keep stoking the fire”


“not fast, but with a powerful, moaning groove – a two-fisted intensity of tone, even when soft”

“let this modulation hit like a nail going through a hand”

“with a bluesy lilt – accented but never brittle – flowing and bouncing at the same time, like a slinky walking down stairs’

“distant voices in misty wind”

“a dreamy mf”

“as if you were walking on the shore, singing half to yourself”

“sweet and full as a spring tide”

“a heart-expanding crescendo”

“falling asleep completely happy”

“with a lilt – tender, but with an underlying jauntiness”

“the piano part should swing like a hiker’s kilt – free, but not sloppy”

“a dramatic, mischievous, deadpan decrescendo”

“gentle, undulating: like unhurried waves, or the deep breath of sleep”

“lilting, like wheat in the wind – smooth, but still with the ring of harp strings”

“with relentless, single-minded energy”

“a deep, unrushable groove with a Strong back beat”

“soft, but crackling with electricity: blue sparks in a darkened room”

“in this section, sopranos are moaning ghosts: soft but scratchy, edgy and full of pain”

“maintain killer bee intensity”

“let the air out in a soft but vigorous, half-vocalized sigh”

“dignity without self-importance – regal, but with a youthful rhythmic energy”

“cresc. – bloom from within”

“basses, you are velvet drapes in a dark, high-ceilinged room”

“a lullaby sung to yourself, right, sweet, very soft”

“oxygenate the canon”

“cool and clear, with a steady pulse and a stomach full of soda water”

“maintain a deep pile in the carpet of your tone”

“an enticing allargando”

“sing the refrain as if you were the ghosts of love”

“slow motion streamers on perfumed air”

“weightless ghosts of incense in icy air”

“sad, suppliant and graceful as the neck of a Medieval princess”

“a golden drop more ardour”

“a processional – half court, half carnival”

“like stained glass – translucent, with soft light pouring through”