Sunday, September 14, 2008

Singing together

Despite an apparent re-awakened interest in singing, we don’t sing together like we used to.

The plethora of TV programmes like X Factor and Pop Idol show how popular singing still is (but mainly they show us how desperate some people are for fame!). We buy CDs by the shed-load and download MP3 tracks like they’re going out of fashion. We love singing: we love to listen to it, and we love to join in with the karaoke down the pub or sing with our mates at the football match.

However, despite the interest in TV programmes like The Choir, The Singing Estate, and Last Choir Standing, we tend to sing alone in the bath rather than in choirs or communities.

In last Friday’s Guardian, Laura Barton wrote a fascinating piece about the Staithes fishermen’s choir (Laura Barton on the sweetest sounds she ever heard) (actually, it should be called the Staithes men’s choir since they say that “we are not a fishermen’s choir because there’s no bloody fish!”). At the end of the article she says that

it makes me a little sad to think of how we have lost each other’s voices, drifted too far now from those communities sewn together by song, where music is the thread that runs from generation to generation and from each to each, joining neighbour to neighbour, sacred to secular, land to sea.” (Laura Barton)

Back in April 2007 I wrote of the “good old days when we all used to gather round a piano and just sing for hours” (Singing from the same hymn sheet) and of the important part that religion played in providing a large repertoire of songs that everyone in the local community would have known. The Staithes choir was one of three that centred around the Methodist chapels of the 19th Century.

The fishermen all foregathered on the staith on a Sunday evening, in front of the Cod and Lobster, and they marched up the street singing at the tops of their voices ... and then as they come to the various chapels, which of course they all had their own ones, they peeled off still singing, and went into it. And it was then that if you come down at this village on a Sunday evening you’d practically hear them lifting the roofs off.” (from the article Staithes men's choir on

Today the choir has to spread its net wider to appeal to audiences, and they now include folk songs and more recent compositions. However, there has been some resistance to the choir’s more secular material, and audiences, particularly organisers, are not always in agreement with the choir’ diverse repertoire.

Unfortunately, like many long-established choirs (especially those relying on male voices), the Staithe’s men’s choir finds it hard to recruit new, young members. Slowly it will fade away as members gradually die.

“We aren’t getting youngsters in. And you find that wherever go, if you listen to the Welsh choirs, and see them on the telly, you don’t see many young ones in.”

I’ve written before on the subject of the difficulty of attracting young men to choirs, and why it’s difficult getting to men to sing in any case (Where are all the male singers?). It was very satisfying to see Only Men Aloud on Last Choir Standing. However, they were in a minority. All the other male voice choirs in the competitions were had much older members, and the mixed choirs were distinctly lacking in male voices.

I ran a Beach Boys workshop on Saturday and there were around 40 participants, of whom only six were men (and only one of these could have been called ‘young’!). I was chatting with a member of a barbershop group who said that they had run a series of free workshops for men to introduce harmony singing. They got about 4o blokes signed up for the short course, but afterwards, only two of them stayed and joined the barbershop choir. Something to do with the difficulty of making a regular commitment! But how come so many women in choirs manage to make a commitment? Why is singing more important to them? I don’t think I’ll ever figure out why more men don’t join choirs!

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