Monday, April 14, 2014

Can open-access choirs cater for every kind of singer?

As a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network I share their belief that everybody can sing and nobody should be excluded from music-making. Which is why no ‘natural voice’ choirs hold auditions or use unnecessary musical jargon.

odd one out
adapted from a photo by Brian Robert Marshall

But can such open-access choirs ever be truly inclusive? I don’t believe they can and I think we need to be clear about that when promoting our work.

‘no auditions’ does not mean ‘beginners only’

Many people think of choirs which have no entry restrictions as “beginners choirs”, for singers who don’t have much experience.

There are many choirs around that consciously call themselves something like “Singing for the Terrified” or “Singing for Fun”. The names are non-threatening and attract people who perhaps lack confidence or experience and want to have a go at singing for the first time.

But just because a group is open-access doesn’t mean that it has to be only for beginners.

When I started The OK Chorale in 2011, I decided to set the bar fairly high from the start and not treat it as a beginner’s group. Although I don’t hold auditions, we do tackle fairly complex material and I find that the singers always rise to the challenge.

working with mixed-ability groups

Pretty much all the singing workshops I run are advertised as needing no previous singing experience. They tend to attract a wide range of singers with a variety of backgrounds and experiences: from complete beginners who maybe have not sung since school, to singers who attend a choir regularly, and even sometimes professional singers, teachers and other choir leaders.

The skill is to choose material that is accessible but challenging. If the songs are too easy, the experienced singers will get bored. If they are too hard it might put of the first-timers forever. Whichever songs I choose I always need to find a way of challenging each singer in the workshop whatever their level, but not to push them too far outside their comfort zone.

Therefore, much of the time I am dealing with a group with very mixed abilities. Usually it’s not a problem and the majority go home happy, feeling they have achieved something.

But sometimes the balance is skewed to one extreme or the other. Either the majority are novices and a few are very experienced singers, or it’s a pretty advanced bunch with one or two complete beginners. That’s when it becomes difficult.

when ‘beginners’ become ‘intermediates’

Many choirs start off as beginners choirs or singing for the terrified groups. But over time, singers will inevitably become more confident and accomplished and start to tackle more complex material. What started out as a singing for fun group might end up as an experienced performance group.

The description of the group and the entry requirements (e.g. “no experience necessary, everyone welcome”) might no longer be accurate. If a complete beginner were to join the group now, they may well find themselves out of their depth. See my earlier post: Beginners choir or established choir: time to re-evaluate?

I’ve always thought that running singing for the terrified groups is a terrible business model if you want to make a living because your measure of success is how many people leave the group and go on to join more advanced choirs!

don’t pretend that open-access choirs cater for every singer

There is a myth that any choir which doesn’t hold auditions welcomes singers of all abilities with open arms who then join together in joyous music-making which is deeply satisfying for all concerned.

Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. If it does work, it usually only works for a one-off session or for a short time.

Every choir has a particular flavour and level. When a singer joins a choir they will soon find out if it is pitched at them. If it isn’t, they will leave and find another choir which suits them better. Because we, as choir leaders, don’t necessarily notice the ones and twos who might not stay, we assume that our choir is accessible to everyone.

Some singers will leave because of the repertoire (too many foreign words perhaps, or too much wishy washy chanting); some because the standards are too high (complex harmony songs with unfamiliar chords); and some because the songs are just too easy and repetitive (and therefore not challenging or interesting enough).

Although we may not hold explicit auditions, individual singers will self-select and realise whether they ‘belong’ or not.

points to take away

Here are some thoughts that you might want to take away with you.

  • Just because a choir doesn’t hold auditions doesn’t mean it has to be a beginners’ choir or can’t perform to high standards.
  • Even though you don’t hold auditions and is open to anyone, your choir is not suitable for every singer.
  • Working with a mixed ability group is usually fine unless the balance of abilities is seriously skewed in one direction.
  • Be clear when promoting your choir or singing workshop what kind of group it is and if there are any implicit membership requirements – don’t be lazy and say “open to all” when you know you’re pitching it at a particular level.
  • A choir that tackles difficult material may well put off singers who are just starting out. But also be aware that an open-access group can also put off experienced singers because the material is too easy.
  • Your group might have started off as a beginners group, but there’s a good chance that your singers have become more experienced. You might want to change your advertising blurb.
  • There is nothing wrong with saying that your workshop or choir is pitched at a particular level. Even without saying that explicitly you will be excluding some people.

Chris Rowbury