Although not strictly from the archives, this post is based on an article I wrote for the Woven Chords’ newsletter in September 2005.
I want to share with you how I view open-access community choirs.
I’d like to think that the choirs I run are a bit different from most other ‘choirs’ and that my approach to singing and songs is a more relaxed and laid back (but maybe I’m kidding myself!).
it’s all about having fun!
The groups I run are primarily for people to come along each week to have fun by learning and singing songs together. I try to create a relaxed atmosphere and keep a good sense of humour flowing at all times (sometimes harder than others!).
Following the ethos of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network, my community choirs are all open-access: there are no auditions and anybody of any age, flavour or shape is welcome, regardless of experience or background.
Aiming to be as inclusive as possible, I don’t assume any musical knowledge at all, so I teach everything by ear and we don’t use written music. I might drop the odd musical term in now and again for those who know what I’m talking about, but it’s not necessary to participate fully.
People come to sing, so the aim is to keep the learning to a minimum but I don’t always succeed at that! Some of the most enjoyable songs to sing are the most difficult to learn.
sharing songs with outsiders
Performing is not part of the deal, but inevitably there comes a time with most choirs when people want to share what they’ve learnt with friends, family and even a wider public.
The choirs that I’ve led have all ended up performing regularly and to a high standard. The hardest thing is to balance our regular fun sessions with the drilling and rehearsal required to polish our songs.
For me, there are three important considerations to take into account when performing. IN ORDER OF PRIORITY, these are:
1. Enjoyment and fun come first. If you are having a good time, this will communicate to the audience and result in lots of happy and (naturally) smiling faces – both in the choir and in the audience. It also means that there will be less tension in your body which can only result in a better sound.
2. Getting the notes in tune and in the right order is an advantage. However, the odd wrong note here and there will not always be noticed. Don’t get hung up about it. Nine times out of ten you will be right. By not worrying too much about getting it right, the chances of hitting the correct note are much higher.
3. It would be fantastic if you didn’t have to look at your words, but I’m not going to shout at you if you do. I’d much rather have somebody with a discreet set of words in their hand which acts as a kind of security blanket, than have someone dry or go completely wrong. By not insisting that words cannot be used, it’s surprising how much people remember and don’t have to look at all. If I ban words entirely it usually all goes terribly wrong!
My thinking behind these considerations is that we’re a community of human beings often singing songs from folk traditions where people are not ‘singers’ in any formal sense. Our aim is not just to serve the music in order to make a ‘perfect’ rendition.
it’s all about team work
Being in a choir means working as a team. Every individual is important, and yet the result is always greater than the sum of the parts.
I am always listening to the overall sound, so even though you may notice the person next to you is slightly out of tune, it usually doesn’t matter in the overall mix. I’m not here to criticise or teach people how to sing ‘correctly’. I will pick people up if I think they’re getting something wrong, but usually I deal with a whole section of the choir. Sometimes I can hear that something is not quite right, but can’t spot exactly who is out!
My personal taste is such that when I hear a choir who are note ‘perfect’, all in exact time with each other, voices blending as one, then I may as well be listening to a machine. I feel that the heart and soul have been removed.
I like to hear the humanity of a choir shine through, with all its human imperfections and mistakes. I’d rather hear guts and passion than note perfection. My philosophy is that we use music as a vehicle for the soul, and are not here to serve the music regardless.
All things considered, we make a fantastic sound and improve year on year, so I must be doing something right! Sometimes on a choir night I am so tired that I’m just not looking forward to the session, but then as soon as those gorgeous harmonies begin, I am lifted and forget my tiredness and am swept away on the wonder of it all.