Sunday, December 31, 2006

Fighting habit and complacency

The end of another year and often a time to reflect on the year which has just passed. For me though, I always seem to end up looking ahead to the coming year and thinking about new goals and challenges for both me and the choirs.

It’s still holiday time at the moment and I am resisting the temptation to knuckle down and begin planning next term’s programme (or am I just procrastinating?!!). I try not to think of myself as just a song factory and try very hard to build in some kind of training and development from week to week whether it be vocal technique, rhythm work, or simply more challenging harmonies. It’s nice for choir members to look back and see how far they’ve come over the years. To this end I need to remember to regularly feedback to the choir how much they’ve improved. Often it suddenly occurs to me in the middle of a session that a year or so ago they had great difficulty with a particular exercise or song and now they are finding it easy.

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about habit and complacency, which is why I always try to do something new and different at the start of each term. For example, in the past I’ve tried different seating configurations, changing them from week to week. Last term I dispensed with seats altogether (which upset some people!). We also did quite a lot of movement and “dancing” to help with awareness of rhythm and to put some life into bodies whilst singing. This was well outside some people’s comfort zones, but I hope that people have enough trust in me by now to realise that it will ultimately be beneficial.

Complacency (“the last gig went really well, so the next one should be a doddle”), habit (“but I always sit in that seat and can only sing if the altos are on my left side”), familiarity (“that’s the way we’ve always done this song”), expectation (“in concerts the altos will stand next to the tenors”), safety and comfort (“I like being in the midst of the bass section as it helps me stick to my part”), and so on … are — I believe — the enemies of learning, development and improvement. They can lead to a loss of vitality in concerts, blandness and lack of energy in performance, and an unwillingness to try anything new.

So watch out people, a new term is starting soon and who knows what’s in store??!!

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Preparing for a new season

Well, Christmas is upon us and it’s over a week since my last choir performance. As usual, I am exhausted after a busy term and looking forward to two completely free weekends. I seem to be able to keep the energy up during term-time, but then my body realises it’s holiday time and just falls into a heap! Time to take a well-earned rest for two whole weeks, but already my mind is turning to the week after New Year when I will have to begin planning songs (and new ideas!) for next term. It’s a task I look forward to: finding songs from countries which we perhaps haven’t done before; making new arrangements of songs that I’ve recently discovered; trying to put a new slant on some of the old repertoire; developing my arranging skills by taking some simple songs and making them work for a choir; thinking up new ways to keep the choir invigorated and to help people develop confidence in their voices; coming up with new challenges for the choir so that we have something to aim for.

Unlike many choirs who might start preparing their Christmas concert in the summer, we try to leave things until at least November. This means that we only add two new Christmas songs to our repertoire each year. We now have about a dozen Christmas songs in our repertoire, so if you come and see us in 2020 we should be able to manage a complete concert of seasonal fare!

This is one time of year when most people sing. Even those who don’t think of themselves as “singers” find themselves singing along to well-known carols. Of course, way back when there was far more community singing going on. Nowadays though somebody might try to start a song and even if other people recognise it and sort of know the tune, it’s almost guaranteed that nobody remembers anything beyond the first verse. Which is one reason I started these choirs in the first place. I love to sing with other people, especially in harmony, so I figured that if I taught a load of people the same songs, at least we’d have some repertoire in common. This is indeed true, but it did take a long time before somebody could start off a song and all the other parts joined in without having to find their words, or stand next to someone in the same part, or check the starting notes. In fact I remember the very first time it happened in Coventry. A bunch of us had gone to the pub as usual after our Wednesday session when somebody began the call to a Georgian song that we knew. Whether by luck or judgement we’ll never know, but it was roughly in the right key and all the other choir members there were able to join in. A magic moment and one which I will always treasure.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

How audiences affect us

The Woven Chords Christmas concert was in our home town of Stamford last night. As is often the case, we were performing in a church, in this case a modern refurbishment of a beautiful old Methodist Church. There must have been almost 60 people in the choir so we took a while to get on stage. Usually people start clapping as soon as we enter, then it wanes a bit as they realise how many of us there are! But this time we entered to complete silence. There were around 120 people in the audience and you could have heard a pin drop.

Audience dynamics are a very strange thing. Sometimes it’s as if you’re performing to the living dead, and yet afterwards you might have loads of people coming up to you saying how wonderful the concert was. At other times the audience is far more animated and full of smiling faces, and yet there is hardly any feedback when the concert is over. But however the audience are feeling, the first few moments of a concert tend to set the feel for the rest of the night. The silence was deafening!

In the early days of WorldSong, we once played in a church and after the first song there was no applause at all. This was very unexpected and threw us a little. I realised that perhaps the audience weren’t used to seeing performances in churches, so without trying to fish for applause, I did point out that it was allowed, and from then on the concert went with a swing!

So last night I decided to make a joke of it and tiptoed from one side of the choir to the other asking in a loud stage whisper if the singers were OK. Gradually the audience began to laugh and warm to us, and when the final singer took their place, the whole audience applauded.

It was a great concert – one of our best – but a very unresponsive, sleepy audience. The trouble with new churches and refurbishments is that the heating can actually work for a change! Last night the heat was oppressive and there were plenty of red faces on stage. We had loud encore calls though, and the whole audience joined in with carols at the end.

I suppose with confidence and experience it is possible to not be affected by an audience’s response, but it still affects me after over 20 years as a performer. There I am up on stage trying my hardest and enjoying myself, but I only have to catch the eye of a seemingly disinterested or bored-looking audience member and all the doubts start creeping in: maybe they don’t like me; perhaps I’m not performing very well; it’s not their taste and there’s another hour and a half to go! etc. etc. Of course, as a choir leader I have my back to the audience most of the time, but I do try to get them on my side with a bit of banter between songs and it sometimes feels like I’m a stand-up comic who’s dying! Usually, of course, it is our own internal critics talking and the audience are actually having a great time.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bad rehearsal = good concert?

There’s a strange thing that happens in choirs just as a concert is coming up. Very often, in the session the week before, or even sometimes in the rehearsal on the day of the concert, it appears that everyone in the choir has forgotten what songs they know, which parts they sing, and what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s as if some group amnesia has spread like a virus, as well as knocking the energy out of everyone. Directing the choir in these situations is like climbing uphill through mud and always makes me despair, even though I know it’s just part of the process and everything will (probably) be all right on the night. But it doesn’t stop me from despairing and wishing that I was somewhere else and really worrying if we’re ever going to pull the concert off. In fact, I even worry if people are ever going to learn to sing again at all!

Then the concert arrives and (usually) everything goes swimmingly and we all forget the awful rehearsal the week before. Then, like a dog with a short memory, we start looking forward to the next concert and hope that everything will go smoothly, until that is, we get to the dreaded rehearsal the week before and it all happens again. Then we remember: “Ah, yes, this is what happened last time”. But there is nothing we can do, and we despair again and we plod on again and we pray that it will all turn out fine.

The other strange thing is, if we have a regular weekly session in the week following a concert, loads of people are usually absent. It’s as if everyone has given their all the previous Saturday, and even if it’s now the next Thursday, it’s just too soon to begin to summon the energy needed to sing!

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Choirs are becoming cool!

Welcome to my new blog!

This is a space for me to share views, thoughts and questions that arise from leading two community choirs weekly.

It seems to me that choirs and singing are becoming the new aerobics! First we had the Can’t Sing Singers on BBC TV in December 2004, then The Singing Estate on Channel 5 in June of this year, the recent series The Choir on BBC2 followed by the 2006 BBC Choir of the Year Competition and on Channel 4 a documentary about the amazing Young@Heart Chorus) from the USA (

All these events were covered widely in the press and on TV and have generated much comment on the internet. For example, Ivor Setterfield (the conductor in The Singing Estate) wrote an article in The Guardian on choirs in general, and the BBC2 series The Choir in particular. There was also an article in The Times pointing out that the plethora of reality TV choir programmes has spawned a mini industry creating choir CDs for the Christmas market.

Of course this exposure can only be a good thing and show that choirs can be cool and fun and are not all stuffy old people. I do wish though they would stop promoting the angle that “even plebs can learn to appreciate classical music”!

We’ve also had the fascinating series Howard Goodall’s “How music works” on Channel 4 which gave excellent insights into the areas of harmony, rhythm, melody and bass.

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