Sunday, October 16, 2011

Are singing workshops just a middle-class pastime?

I run singing workshops all over the place (why not book me and try one?!).

singing workshop

Photo by C. Moses

At some places the workshops are full and there is a waiting list. At others it’s a struggle to muster a dozen singers. Why is this?

my experience

When I first moved to Suffolk I thought I would have to start more than one choir in order to earn a decent living. I moved to a relatively small town (Woodbridge, pop: c. 12,000) which I assumed would only support a small choir (it already has a choral society). So I was totally amazed when over 100 singers turned up to our first meeting.

Not so long ago I ran a one-day workshop in Bury St. Edmunds (pop: c. 36,000). I spent a lot of time and effort publicising the workshop, hoping to attract people who didn’t already sing or belong to choirs. On the day we just about managed 15 singers, many of whom had travelled from Cambridge and were already in choirs.

I set up a one-off project in Ipswich this summer to create a choir from scratch to perform at Jimmy’s Farm. 60 singers turned up and it was a fantastic experience.

Over the years I have been invited by several choir leaders to run workshops for their choir and the public at large. Sometimes we’ve had only 12 singers turn up. When I used to run workshops regularly at Stamford Arts Centre in Lincolnshire, I used to regularly sell-out with a maximum of 70 participants.

What’s going on here? It obviously has something to do with geography.

where are all the choirs?

If you look at the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network website, you will see that there are no Natural Voice choirs in Northamptonshire, Kent, Staffordshire, Cleveland, Durham and several other counties.

That’s not to say that there are no choirs there at all (see British Choirs on the Net for a geographical listing of choirs), just that there are no choirs doing the kind of work that I do.

On the other hand, some individual towns have six different choirs or more.

There are several factors which might affect the number of choirs in a particular area:

  • size of the town/ village and density of population in the area (are there enough people near a particular location to actually make up a choir?)
  • local demographics (can people afford to travel, are they interested in the arts, do they have spare leisure time, etc.?)
  • nobody has ever thought to set up a choir (perhaps no voice practitioners live in the area)
  • there is no tradition of choirs or singing in the area.

why don’t more people attend singing workshops?

Theory 1: Poor people can’t afford it. In these days of recession more people than ever are ‘poor’. That leaves only the middle classes with enough disposable income (and time on their hands) to attend leisure classes.

Theory 2: Locals are just not interested in the arts. It’s the mobile bohemian types who like the arty stuff. Most locals don’t care about the swanky new arts centre up the road. Pretty much all the members of my choir are ‘incomers’ and not locals.

Theory 3: We’re just speaking different languages. If I run an ABBA workshop the hoards will descend. Something a bit more esoteric like ‘world music’ and the average person just doesn’t have the same reference points so won’t turn up.

Theory 4: The X Factor factor: most people don’t really understand what it is we do in these singing workshops. Their only reference points are popular telly programmes. If we could only get them through the door they would enjoy it.

what’s the real story?

None of these theories actually pan out (and some are rather patronising and stereotyping!).

There are tons of examples of working class choirs all across the country and strong, local singing traditions. Many local arts centres thrive on the local population visiting regularly and taking classes.

And even if there was a tiny bit of truth in these theories, it still doesn’t explain the dramatic geographic differences that I’ve experienced.

Are local demographics that powerful? Will an Eastern European singing workshop work in one part of the country but not another? Do we have to use different publicity tactics for different towns?

What’s your opinion? Do you find differences in different places? Do you have any theories or answers? I’d love to hear what you have to say. Do leave a comment and let’s start a discussion.


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