I’m often asked by concert-goers and choir leaders alike “Where do you get all your songs from?”. Well, here’s the short answer to this simple question: “From everywhere and everyone”. Now for the longer answer!
When I started my first choir back in 1997 I reckoned I had enough songs to last me for one term (about 10 weeks) after which I was seriously thinking about panicking or retiring. But now, somehow, after teaching in excess of 500 songs over the last ten years, I have another 600 waiting to be taught!
Like most things, when you become seriously involved in something new, your radar begins to pick up signals from previously unnoticed sources. I listen to a lot of CDs in the car (all that driving between Coventry and Stamford!) as well as Late Junction on Radio 3. I also used to listen to World Routes on a Saturday afternoon on my way over to Stamford, but now that they’ve moved it to 3pm, I have to miss it. I occasionally listen to Andy Kershaw usually by using the BBC’s “listen again” facility.
Often on one of these programmes I might hear a wonderful track that might be suitable for the choir, so when I get home I use the internet (a wonderful tool!) to look at the track listings for the programme. Then I track down the CD on the web (using Google) and try to listen to a few more tracks before possibly buying the CD (again, over the internet).
So I have ended up with loads of world music and roots CDs in my collection. If I want to teach one of the songs I can often work out the parts from the recording (if it’s already in a harmony arrangement) or I work out the tune and put my own harmonies on. Often I do background research on the internet to try and find the lyrics (I will never teach a song phonetically from a recording unless I can find the proper lyrics in the original language, and preferably a translation or a rough meaning). Sometime I might stumble across a written score or arrangement which I can buy or copy (anything for an easy life!).
You have to be very careful when searching for lyrics and song information on the internet. Never believe everything you read! Rather like finding a builder, I always look for at least three independent sources. I stress independent, because some sites just copy and paste information from other sites! I have sometimes found the background to a song which seems a bit suspicious and have ended up tracking down the individual who wrote it and asked them for their source. Often it’s just hearsay!
I also collect many written scores. I buy books from a variety of sources (again the internet is a good place to start). Fortunately I read music so can usually pick out the tune on my guitar, but some traditional music has fiendishly difficult rhythms or harmonies so I really need to hear a recording first and then use the score as an aide memoir and basis for teaching and harmonising.
Being a pretty poor musician, I often type a score into the notation programme I have on my computer (Finale PrintMusic about £70) simply so I can transpose it (lame, I know!). Sometimes the transposition is not straightforward (the bass becomes too low, or the tenor part is no longer suitable for women, or the top part becomes too high for a community choir) and I need to tinker around and move parts about (which means sometimes the bass get the tune for a change!).
Some people out there do wonderful acappella arrangements for choirs, but don’t write music or choose to make their work available for people who don’t read music. This ranges from the wonderful Dee Jarlett (of Naked Voices and the Gasworks Choir) to Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock (“Singing in the African American Tradition”). Some arrangers make both available, i.e. written score accompanied by a CD with all the parts on.
I learn a lot of songs by attending workshops (this year I’m going on a Northern Harmony workshop in Wales, and a fantastic world harmony week at Laurieston Hall). Sometimes I record the workshop whilst I’m there (although increasingly I just want to be a punter and enjoy the workshop), but sometimes I can get the written score or a recording from the workshop leader (or at least they might point me in the direction of a useful source).
Over the years I have also started to do more of my own arranging. I might find a lovely tune in a old music book (I get lots from second hand shops) or hear an old folk song on a CD that I’ve borrowed from the local library.
A good place to start is the Natural Voice website which has a resource section of members’ stuff (Nickomo’s books are particularly useful and he also transcribes songs taught at the Unicorn summer singing camps). Northern Harmony books and recordings can be bought from their website (they take sterling cheques as payment). There are various world music publishers out there (e.g. World Music Press), publishers of particular genres (e.g. Bulgarian) and general acappella publishers (e.g. Acappella.com)
So there you have it. A mix of listening to CDs and the radio, going to workshops, buying songbooks and written scores, going to the local library, and also receiving suggestions from choir members.