Sunday, December 30, 2007

OK, you win – facing the competition

As a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network (NVPN), I share with them the philosophy that everyone can sing and that “vocalising, creativity and song should be accessible to all regardless of previous musical ability or experience”. This means that “creating a sense of an accepting community is an essential element of our approach in working with groups”. Too often, adults who (re-)discover singing have been put off as children, told to stand at the back and shut up or just mime. Many people are also put off by musical jargon and the belief that you can only sing if you understand musical theory and can read music. Then there are others who look at our culture’s role models – pop bands, opera singers, TV stars – and think that because they don’t sound like them, then they can’t ‘sing’.

Expressing one’s self vocally is a very liberating thing, but is also very personal and puts us in a very vulnerable position. It is all too easy to scare people into not opening their mouths at all! As NVPN members we do all we can to encourage people to find their own voice, to not compare themselves to others or to carry around a false notion of some kind of singing ‘standard’ that they need to adhere to. In our draft code of practice there is the following statement: “I will always work in ways that are unlocking, freeing, allowing, releasing, discovering rather than imposing, stress-free, forgiving, non-judgmental and encouraging”.

So, in the NVPN spirit of trying to encourage as many people as possible to sing and believing that everyone can sing – regardless of talent or experience – how am I to respond to the notion of singing competitions?

I don’t know if it’s just that time of year, but I’ve been inundated recently with unsolicited emails inviting my choirs to attend various singing competitions across Europe. And recently the NVPN has been contacted by a BBC researcher who’s working on a new reality TV programme called Choir Wars. This is to be a “new Saturday night primetime entertainment show”. It is a “nationwide search to find the nation’s favourite choir”.

Over the last few years, TV has done quite a good job of making singing in choirs popular again (see my first ever post Choirs are becoming cool). Most of these programmes were very encouraging and seemed to promote the idea that everyone can sing (although there was always some kind of selection process and the necessity to read musical scores at some point). But why jump on the X-Factor/ Battle of the Bands/ Stars in Their Eyes/ Fame Academy reality bandwagon and make the whole thing competitive? And why on earth use a word like war??!! Sure, maybe it makes good TV as we get to see choirs being humiliated by the judges and singers in tears as they fail to reach the final, but what good does it do to try and encourage the public to believe that everyone can be a music-maker? I really don’t think people are going to rush off and join choirs after seeing Choir Wars!

I guess I can understand the idea behind sporting competitions – you’ve put a lot of work into training and the only way to see if it has paid off is to try your luck against somebody else. But where the arts and music is concerned, isn’t creating a beautiful sound and having pleasure whilst doing it enough in itself? (in a recent Guardian online poll, 65% of respondents thought that Choir Wars was one reality show too far).

I’m not doubting that different people have different amounts of talent and ability, but why does there have to be competition in the arts? Why can’t they make a TV show that takes any group of adults, without auditions and without using written music, and show that it is possible to create a fantastic group sound. This is what I’ve been doing over the last 10 years. I have worked with hundreds of adults over that time, and not one of them couldn’t sing. We have performed to acclaim in a variety of venues and made CDs which sell well and receive considerable praise. All this without awarding points or prizes, setting one person or choir against another, or telling singers that they just aren’t good enough. Why not celebrate an approach that is non-judgmental and encouraging rather than one which is all about competition, failure, confrontation, conflict, hostility, value judgments, humiliation, etc.?


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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Read all about it!

I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but here in the UK it’s notoriously difficult to get any kind of review of a concert in the press — local or national. When I approach the local papers, they tell me that they won’t review any concert that’s not on for at least five days. I can see their point I guess if you think that the only point of a review is to attract more punters to come to shows. By that view, there’s no point in printing a review if, by the time it’s printed, the show has finished its run. But aren’t reviews more than that? I enjoy reading reviews in my daily paper (The Guardian) which has national coverage. I regularly read reviews of theatre, pop concerts, opera, classical concerts, etc. in places far from where I live to which I am very unlikely to go. It keeps me in touch with what’s going on, even if I never get to see the live show.

A review can stimulate new ideas; introduce me to new critical language; bring a new artist to my attention; make a connection with other things that I might otherwise not have made; by making comparisons, introduce me to a new book/ film/ piece of music/ artist that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of. I’m sure there are 101 other things I get from reviews, but way, way down the list is an urge to go and see the show. Most reviews these days (of any medium) are basically of the 5-star type: does the reviewer think it’s worth your while to go and see it? There doesn’t seem to be any space for more critical, analytical reviews of the arts if a show is on for one night only – except, of course, if the director/ conductor/ performer is suitably famous!

What are your experiences with the local press where you are? Can you get your concerts reviewed easily?


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Sunday, December 16, 2007

What are you looking at? PART 2

OK, we did a little dance at our Christmas concert on Sunday. It was to two South African songs and (hopefully!) matched the energy and spirit of the song. Not everyone danced, just six brave souls (and me – since I’d choreographed the thing I had to dance at the front to make sure everyone was getting it right!) in front of the rest. Oh yes, and we swayed (in unison of course) to our New Zealand Maori song. So not a lot of movement, nothing much to look at really, and certainly none of that naff choir ‘choreography’ where everyone looks awkward and never really get the simple movements right. I’m certainly not advocating that. I’m not suggesting that choirs find ways of jazzing up the fairly traditional “standing in rows to sing one song after the other”. What I am suggesting is perhaps a new context or a new form within which songs can flourish and entertain (without distracting from the music).

Ah! Distractions he says. Which brings me another bugbear of mine. I really do think people want something to look at in a concert as well as simply listening. Most people seem to welcome some kind of distraction from looking at row upon row of identically dressed choristers. And some people just get bored! This is where the programme comes in.

Sometimes when we’ve done a significant gig (choir anniversary, charity event) or played a posh or ‘proper’ (you know, the ones where they do ‘real’ music and everyone is formal, dressed up and well-behaved) the issue of programmes comes up. I don’t like programmes at concerts. In my view it stops people from listening to the singing. I guess it’s OK if you’re doing a classical piece which lasts 30 minutes, but if you do short songs like we do (our Christmas concert had 31 songs in it this year), then the song’s over before anyone’s read about it in the programme!. There will be shuffling, digging in bags for spectacles, craning necks and extending arms to throw a bit of light on the programme so it can be read, etc. etc. All very distracting for us singers on stage, and totally distracting for the audience member.

I always give lengthy and detailed background (delivered, I hope, in a light-hearted and witty manner) to each of the songs that we do. Then people can focus on the song itself when we sing it. If they need to take the information home with them, then they can buy a CD (with extensive information booklet). Alternatively, we could sell programmes after the concert has finished. A little souvenir of the evening to take home. Because of our repertoire and style of singing, there is seldom mention of composers, never mention of soloists (there aren’t any) and no mention of instrumentalists (we don’t have any). What people get in our programmes (the rare times that we do produce them) is a little piece about the choir and information about each of the songs we’ve sung. Maybe we should put a few pictures in too so people have even more to look at and entertain them whilst we’re singing!

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

What are you looking at? PART 1

Not being a regular concert-goer myself (there aren’t that many world music choirs around here other than the ones I lead!), I often wonder why people make the effort to go to concerts. What is it that they look at? I went to an orchestral concert once and got thoroughly bored (even though I loved the music) as the seat was uncomfortable and there was nothing to look at save a sea of identical-looking violinists in the far distance (we had cheap seats!) sawing their violins in unison. So I shut my eyes to focus on the music, then wondered why I hadn’t simply stayed at home and listened to a CD: the seats are more comfortable and the drinks cheaper!

I’m personally fed up with seeing choirs and singing groups just standing on stage singing (and – if they can get their noses out of their books – occasionally looking at us). If I make the effort to go out to a live concert, then I want all my senses to be stimulated, especially my aural AND visual senses. And yet in most concerts – sung or otherwise – there is simply nothing to see! This issue has been on my mind a lot of late and I am trying to do something about it. One of my aims next year is to make our choir concerts more theatrical, to try to find different ways of presenting each song mainly through different physical configurations of singers on stage, but also through lighting and other theatrical devices.

So I’m hoping that some of you out there who regularly make up audiences can enlighten me as to what the attraction of going to a concert is. Apart from the applause (or not!) after each song, the fact that audiences seem to want to keep coming back, and the rare comment in our comments book, we don’t tend to get much feedback as to our choice of repertoire, presentation, audience involvement, length of concert, etc. I’m rather flying blind and hoping that what we have to offer is attractive. Maybe if I tweaked things a little we would get better audiences? So do tell: what is it that you get from going to a concert that you don’t get by staying at home and listening to a (possibly live) CD?

There is, of course, something else that the audience can look at whilst we’re singing, and that is the programme. More on this next week (What are you looking at PART TWO)!

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

But I can't sing!

The other day I was reading one of the few blogs out there about choirs and singing – Podium Speak – which mentioned a guy who seldom hits a wrong note, knows lots about music and how it works, is very keen, but who can’t ‘sing’. (Do check the post out as it has a really good description at the end of what it means to be part of a choir)

It got me thinking about what people might mean by ‘sing’. In the Podium Speak blog entry, the point being made was that the guy couldn’t really sing musically. i.e. it’s not just enough to sing on pitch, get the notes in the right order, be exact with your timing, etc. there’s also a need for musicality. It’s partly to do with phrasing, feeling, going with the flow, expression, meaning it, etc. – things that are somewhat intangible (although you can teach some of them!) but which we notice very clearly as an audience. It’s like the X-Factor: you know immediately when someone’s got it, but also when they haven’t. This particular guy seems to approach the whole act of singing very mathematically and technically whilst forgetting the humanity that needs to lie behind the singing voice.

This ability to bring musicality to a song is something that we all want and is the main thing that we look for when auditioning people. (I’m going to be writing about auditions in a later post) But what about open-access community choirs where everyone is welcome? All the choirs that I run are open-access and founded on the principle that everyone can sing. However, there are still people who won’t join such a choir because they believe that they can’t sing, even though there are no auditions, no particular standard to adhere to, and no expectations other than to have fun! Why is this?

It’s clear that such people believe that they can’t ‘sing’. Whatever that means. When asked, it turns out that they each have their own particular notion of what being able to sing actually is! Some people believe that real singers only have to hear a song once and will then know it (and the words!) perfectly; some people think that the only proper singing is professional or opera singing and anything less is forbidden; some people think that because they can’t hit a particular high note it means that they’re no good at singing; some people don’t like the sound of their own voice and because they don’t sound exactly like the singers on TV they shouldn’t ‘inflict’ their voice on anyone else; and some people think they can’t sing because they think they can’t hold a tune, even though they can sing Happy Birthday note perfectly.

All these are, of course, myths. But quite prevalent and persistent myths. It’s quite hard to disabuse some people of these erroneous beliefs. One way (which I have tried!) is to offer workshops to organisations but don’t tell them that you’ll be doing singing. Start off with a few warm-up games, some running around and being silly, being playful with the voice (call and response silly sounds, for example), then quickly teach them a very simple three-part round. Afterwards I point out that they’ve just been singing unaccompanied three-part harmony which is a very, very difficult skill. In the process they’ve proved that they’re all excellent singers, so now I’m going to teach them a song. Always works!

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Looking back – a year of blogging

Can’t quite believe it myself, but this is my 52nd post! When I started this blog way back in December last year, I kept it private for a few weeks to see if I was able to find something new to say each week. I didn’t want to set myself up for something that would become a difficult chore. But I have managed to find ideas from the weekly sessions with my choirs, and even have a list of topics that I’ve not yet covered in case inspiration doesn’t strike one week.

I’m very pleased with what I’ve come up with so far, and I hope I’ve managed to raise some questions and provoke some thinking. It’s a bit like being a late night DJ on some tiny local radio station in the back of beyond – I’m sending all this stuff out but have no idea who (if anyone!) is reading it! I get the occasional comment which is nice, but I could always do with more. One of the original aims for this blog was to promote discussion. As far as I know, there is nobody else out there who is blogging specifically about singing and/ or choirs. Which makes this blog pretty unique. Which is actually a problem as it makes it very hard to promote! I can’t go onto similar blogs and leave comments so that people will come and read mine.

I’m not arrogant enough to believe that everyone in a choir should read my blog, but I think that many more people will find it interesting if only I can get in touch with them. So … please tell anyone you know who is in a choir or who sings regularly about this blog. I really, really want to create a place for discussion and debate. As you can see from many of my past posts, I often come across a problem that I can’t solve on my own and would welcome input from others in the same situation.

Or maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’m preaching to the converted or to one man and his dog. Perhaps people don’t find the blog interesting at all! I simply don’t know. I look at the statistics each week, and it tells me absolute numbers of people who have visited, but it doesn’t tell me if they read the post or what they thought of it or even if they found it interesting at all. So … another request: please let me know if you can think of ways of improving the blog, or if there are particular topics that you would like to see discussed. I would really like some more feedback – even if it’s negative!

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Parts creep (or why there are always too many altos)

Does anybody else have this problem with their choir? Please say you do, and please say you have a sensible solution – it’s driving me nuts!

Partly because we’re a community choir, partly because of the kind of material we do, but mainly because I think it’s good for people to exercise the whole of their vocal range, I encourage people to swap parts for different songs. We don’t stick to the normal soprano/ alto/ tenor/ bass categories (we're never too high, and not too low!) and I don’t allocate people to a fixed part or role. We don’t use seats so people are free to move around. Some songs have three parts, some five or more, some the ‘standard’ four. Not everyone is present every week for a variety of reasons. This is the background to the problem.

When we first start learning a song I try to make sure each part is made up of roughly an equal number of people. The weeks go by, people come and go, I fit people who missed the first week into a part that is a little thin on the ground. Then suddenly, out of the blue, one week (usually when a concert is looming) EVERYONE seems to be singing alto! There are no tenors to speak of, the tops look pretty thin on the ground, and the basses are the usual suspects. This is parts creep. When I turn around people sneak from their part to another part without telling me. They do it on purpose (I'm sure of this!). What was once a supremely balanced and orderly choir is now entirely out of kilter. And they deny it! “I thought you guys were all singing tops when we started?” “Oh, no, we’ve always been altos for this song”. And so it goes.

Of course, some people are in the ‘wrong’ part, some people deny ever having learnt the song in the first place, and some are just doing it (I’m sure of this too!) to wind me up. What’s worse – yes, even worse – is that then half the tops tell me that they can’t even do the concert after all!!!!!

Apart from nailing people’s feet to the ground, labelling them with a barcode on their forehead, making them wear different coloured shirts to represent the different parts, compelling everyone to learn every part of every song equally well, forcing the excess altos at gun point to rejoin the tops, or even culling the spare voices, what does one do?? Suggestions on a postcard, or click ‘comment’ below. PLEASE!!!

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Being in a community choir PART 2

Following on from last week's Frequently Asked Questions, here are the rest.

Why do we spend so long on some songs?

There is only one way to learn a song by ear and that is by REPETITION! That is why we sing our new songs week after week. Then we sometimes have a little gap of a week or so, then we sing it AGAIN! Unfortunately for those with a low boredom threshold, singing the same songs again and again is part of the process (see Papa's got a brand new song for more about song learning and repetition).

Obviously some people pick up their parts quicker than others, so whereas some people get fed up doing the same songs repeatedly, others would appreciate more time spent on each song so we can be properly rehearsed for our concerts. I personally think I have the balance about right at the moment. If you get a bit bored doing the same song over and over again, why not take the opportunity to go and learn the other parts?

We always seem under-rehearsed for concerts. Why can’t we spend more time on the songs we’re going to sing?

This choir was never set up as a performing choir. You join in order to come once a week and have fun singing with other people. The concerts are an optional extra. If we were a performance choir, we would be rehearsing most of the time and not learning many new songs. Things would be a lot stricter and we would become just like all those other ‘normal’ choirs out there. I think we have the balance about right, and even though people might feel slightly under-rehearsed, we just keep on getting better and perform to a high standard.

Part of the problem is that many of our songs are very short, plus our concerts are 1½ hours long with just us performing – that’s a LOT of material!! I always try to include the songs we’ve learnt that term (so hopefully fresh in the mind), a few well-known ones that won’t need much rehearsal, plus a few “oldies” that we spend some time resurrecting. One option, to take the pressure off a little, is to do shorter concerts or joint concerts with someone else performing. I don’t want our terms to turn into just rehearsing for our next gig.

Why do you insist that we sit in rows, in parts? Can’t we be in one big circle for instance?

If a group is bigger than about 30 – 40 then circles don’t work very well. It’s difficult for everyone to hear me all the time, and it’s hard to hear the part that’s the other side of the circle. The sitting in rows was an attempt to find a way to keep everybody close together so you can hear each other. Also it was a way of keeping tabs on how many people are in each part. (I will be discussing the problem of so-called part creep next time.) The downsides are that people became reluctant to swap parts, and sitting down all the time saps the energy. Which is why we now stand up all the time!

Why don’t we do more moving around and physical stuff? I’d like to see more movement with songs in performance.

There are just so many reasons not to sit down when singing! Sitting down:

  • lowers energy levels (it’s just too easy to fall asleep);
  • compresses the diaphragm and makes it harder to breathe properly;
  • makes it hard to engage the whole body properly when singing;
  • doesn’t allow people to easily move around and sing their part against other parts;
  • promotes the tendency to always be singing next to the same person;
  • doesn’t make it easy to swap parts in a song;
  • generates a reliance on other people instead of taking responsibility for knowing the part yourself;
  • causes a hassle having to set out the chairs and put them away again at the end.

And I’m sure there are other reasons too!

There are two main reasons why I have used chairs in the past: (1) I am aware that it’s tiring (after a hard day’s work) to simply stand around whilst other people are learning their parts, and (2) if people are free to move around (and swap parts readily), it’s really hard to keep tabs on how many people are singing any particular part (see parts creep next time).

However, even though you’re tired, standing and moving around can really energise you and literally keeps you on your toes! For more about our difficulties with moving around, see Making a song and dance of it.

I like to hear my part against the other parts. Can’t we be mixed up so we can sing in closer proximity to the other parts?

Yes, it is much easier to learn your part if you’re surrounded by loads of people doing the same thing. The trouble is that you might end up depending on them for support, much better to know 100% what you’re supposed to be doing.

We learn harmony songs, so the greatest pleasure is (surely?) hearing your part sung against another part. If you’re in a large group of people singing the same part, you won’t have that experience. Much better to walk around and sing your part against someone else.

Why do people sit or stand in the same places every week? Wouldn’t it be better if you mixed people up so they don’t end up relying on the voices around them?

I think it’s just human nature that people head for the same place each week (see Fighting habit and complacency). It’s also comforting to be next to people you know well and are singing the same part. I agree, I think it’s a great idea to mix people up and for people to try different parts or sing next to different people. However, organising such a large group is hard and time-consuming so, in the past, I’ve left it up to individuals to challenge themselves. However, some weeks I do try and prompt this a bit in different ways.

Can’t we do more work on performance techniques? I feel we’re all a bit stiff and there aren’t enough smiling, animated faces!

I quite agree! Part of it is that we’re Brits and don’t tend to show our emotions that much, also in our cultures we don’t tend to be IN our bodies that much, and are slightly embarrassed about moving around. When people concentrate, they tend to frown and look serious. The secret is to stop concentrating and trust that you know what you’re doing, and then your enjoyment should carry over.

Many people don’t realise how glum and stiff they look in concert. I’m not sure this is about “performance techniques” – I don’t feel that I have to TEACH you how to smile – it’s more about self-awareness and letting go of inhibitions. That’s pretty much up to you! I do have an issue with choirs who have been told to smile. They often look very uncomfortable and unnatural. Better if it comes from within from a genuine joy of singing. One day I will video the choir and you can see what you really look like when performing!

Can’t we have a SMALL repertoire of songs that we always do so we can learn them properly and sing them really well?

On the whole, we DO have such a repertoire. It may not be quite small enough for you, but we do have a core set of “fave raves” that most people know and can sing at the drop of a hat. The trouble with a really restricted repertoire is that people would soon get bored at concerts!

I like to make up my own harmonies. Could we not have more space to improvise and experiment?

That’s not what this choir is. We do songs from around the world and I teach the harmonies. If that’s not quite what you signed up for, then maybe there are other choirs out there that would suit you better.

It’s also INCREDIBLY difficult to improvise in such a large group. It’s hard enough in a group of 12 or less (I know!). Also, many, many people in the choir would not feel confident doing this so would feel very much left out. I try to make the choir as inclusive as possible.

Can’t you insist that people who are going to sing in a concert have to attend a minimum number of rehearsals? Sometimes it seems like there are people who just don’t know what they’re doing!

How would one police this? There are some people, for various reasons, who have to miss a few weeks. One of these people may be an accomplished singer who has been coming to the choir for years and knows most of the songs inside out. Or it may be someone who has just joined and is having a bit of difficulty catching up. Many, many times I make it clear that performing is OPTIONAL and you don’t have to know every song in a particular concert. Also, if you don’t know a song well enough, DON’T SING IT in concert! Don’t make things difficult for yourself, don’t place these pressures on yourself – it’s supposed to be fun! I would rather use this form of trust than ask people not to perform. Otherwise we’ll turn into just another ‘normal’ choir!

Why don’t we sing more English language songs, contemporary “pop” songs and/ or songs that the audience are likely to know?

Because we’re a world music choir! We’re not here to pander to the audience. There are plenty of choirs who do this sort of stuff, so let them go and watch them. It’s interesting that this always comes up, that people SAY they want to sing more songs which are English, upbeat, familiar, pop, etc. Yet when I ask the choir what their favourite songs of all time are, it’s always the slow, lush, foreign, traditional songs that come in the top 10!! Also, when I’ve tried to introduce such songs (e.g. Good Vibrations, Don’t worry be happy, etc.) I’ve met with considerable resistance.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Being in a community choir PART 1

Being the democratic chap that I am, I occasionally send questionnaires round the choir in order to get feedback on how people are finding the weekly sessions, what songs they like best, how things can be improved, what people find difficult, etc. Of course, there are usually as many different opinions as there are choir members, and it seems that I am the only common denominator! However, it’s always useful to know what people struggle with and how things might be improved.

After a questionnaire last year, I wrote a series of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ which attempted to address some of the common themes which came up. I hoped that it would explain the reasoning behind why I do things in certain ways. Some were specific to the particular choir, but most would seem to apply to community choirs anywhere, so I thought I would share some of them with you. Part 2 next week.


Why do we never start on time?

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are always early/ on time, and those who are always late – and never the twain shall meet! Whatever type you are, you won’t ever turn into the other type.

I often delay the start of a session because I believe that the warm-up (which incorporates voice training and development) is of vital importance. If we started exactly on time each week, then only a small subset of the choir would ever get to do the warm-up! However, I am aware that as the start time slips, people begin to assume that we don’t start on time so they begin to arrive later, so I delay the start a bit more, and we get into a vicious circle! I now read the riot act every now and then and try to start exactly on time no matter how many people are there. I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon: the week after I read the riot act and ask people to be on time, the more people are late the following week! However, now most people are there on time, and if they are a bit late, they feel slightly awkward to come in on an activity that has already started so perhaps make more effort the next week to be on time (that’s my theory any way!).

What can I do while the other sections are learning their parts?

There are plenty of things you can do while waiting:

  • go over the words so you’ll remember them better;
  • sing your part in your head at the same time;
  • get a clear sense of the overall structure of the song;
  • get a better idea of how the harmony works;
  • go and learn another part.

Why is there so much talking when I’m trying to learn my part?

Part of it is lack of self-awareness (people just don’t realise they’re talking so loudly), part of it is that sometimes people are simply checking with their neighbours that they’ve understood what they’ve learnt of their own part so far, and part of it is that people get easily bored. I think the solution has to do with respect for your fellow choir members: if you expect them to be quiet while you are learning, then please have the decency to be quiet when they are learning.

You have to remember that learning songs like this, without music, is rather artificial. If you come from the culture that the song comes from you would have heard all the parts many, many times whilst growing up and have had plenty of opportunities to join in and try other parts. Unfortunately we only have a few weeks to learn what are sometimes very complicated songs.

The only fail-safe solution is for EVERYONE to be singing ALL the time. That means either don’t do harmony songs, or everyone learn ALL the parts. The trouble with the latter is that it rules out complex songs. People had enough trouble remembering the ONE part they had to learn. Can you imagine the confusion if everyone had to learn EVERY part!! So I’m going to rule that out except for the very easiest of songs. Of course, if you want to learn all the parts, please feel free!

Why don’t people swap parts more often?

Search me! Part of the reason is that people get confused and often forget which part they’re supposed to be singing, so they just stick to one part. Another reason is security, comfort and laziness – it’s much easier to stand in the same place each week next to the same people. Some people have a fixed idea in their mind about the range that they can sing, even though I swap things around and also make sure that (at least for the women) everyone is capable of singing any part in every song. Why not give it a try? You might surprise yourself! Sometimes I swap parts around wholesale, but that is not as interesting as mixing people up and having different groupings. So please, give it a go. Maybe try a different part in at least one song – but make sure you make a note of which part you’re supposed to be singing!

Why do we have to sing rounds and simple, repetitive songs?

The reason we move from simple rounds and easy songs onto more difficult stuff as the evening goes on is that it takes a while to get warmed-up in terms of listening, and also to become focused and forget the cares of the day. If we got stuck in straight away with a complex song, it would be very hard and not much fun! Starting with a simple round introduces harmony in an easy way without having to learn separate parts, and also gives the voice a chance to warm up by singing something simple and repetitive.

Why do we have such lengthy warm-ups at the beginning?

The warm-up is a very important part of the evening. It acts as a transition between your ‘normal’, possibly stressful, working day and being creative and relaxed. If you don’t sing regularly and go straight into using your voice, you can hurt yourself, and even in some cases damage your voice. Part of the ‘Natural Voice’ approach to singing is to reinforce the connection between voice and body, which is why we also do some physical exercises. I also include training exercises to help develop your breathing and singing voice. These build week on week, and I can certainly see the improvements when we perform.

Our warm-ups only take 10 – 15 minutes. Some choirs warm up for at least half an hour! It is an opportunity for you to tune into your own body and to notice tensions, difficulties, etc. which you can then take on board and try to avoid. If you have done a particular exercise many times before, don’t just do it half-heartedly, but behave as if you are doing it for the first time and see if you can discover something new about your voice or body.

Why can’t we sing without any words in concerts?

Difficult one this! Our aim is to sing without any words. It looks better, it means you can concentrate on me and the audience, and it’s more professional. However … we do many songs in weird and difficult languages. Some people find words harder to learn than others, and we’re none of us getting any younger! In order to not have ANY words in a concert, I would have to ban people from singing who hadn’t learnt their words. I don’t want to do that (we’re a fun, community choir after all). It’s not just that this seems unfair, but supposing most of one section hadn’t learnt their words, then the choir would be totally out of balance.

Why don’t we have name badges so I can learn everyone’s name?

It’s hard to remember everyone’s name, especially since we have new members all the time. However, I don’t think name badges are the solution. This is what happened in Global Harmony which I used to direct. I never bothered to learn anyone’s name because I could always look at their badge! Also, people used to lose them, or forget to wear them.

You could always try learning a different part, or being next to a different person for a change and make a new friend!

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

When is a song not a song?

I’ve just come back from a fantastic week away on a song writing for voices course. During the week I came up with several ideas for songs which never really came to fruition since I couldn’t see any way of realising them. One was for solo voice and Indian drone instruments, one a ballad in a Scottish style, and another which required a swampy backing groove from a horn section. I don’t have an outlet for any of these songs really since I’m not a solo performer, don’t have a band and am not planning to make a CD!

My outlet for songs is acappella harmony groups, both large and small. Many times a choir member will come up to me and suggest a song for us. Often the song is simply not appropriate for an acappella arrangement or just won’t work with a large group. Many recorded songs these days have really important instrumental backing and if you take those familiar riffs away, there is often not much left of the song! Personally I am not a fan of those acappella arrangements where the voice impersonates an instrument or has too many “dum dums” in the backing. I recently heard a version of a song from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It was an amazing effort, using the voices to replicate instruments and almost sounded like the original. However, my reaction was: what’s the point? why bother? Apart from admiring the singers’ skills, I’m really not sure where the artistry and creativity is here. Why not just listen to the original? Or if there’s a trumpet needed, then simply play a trumpet. I just don’t get it. I’m really not a fan of showing off skills for skills’ sake. For me there needs to be some element of creativity or the adding of something extra to an existing song, or why bother? Particularly when the human voice is concerned – I want to hear the humanity shine through, not be convinced that actually I’m not listening to a human voice at all, but really a keyboard!

Then there are wonderful, delicate ballads with many verses telling an extraordinary story. However, if arranged for a large choir the delicacy can be destroyed and the story and words completely lost in the mix. So the question is: when is a song suitable for a purely vocal arrangement and when is it not? I guess some of that is down to taste, but I don’t think it’s true that anything can be adapted for just voices.

My point also extends to cover versions generally. If you’re going to cover an existing song, then you have to add something to the original or else there’s no point. Just reproducing the original is a waste of time!

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Choosing songs for a concert

Once again a concert is looming. Time to figure out what songs to sing. WorldSong has a repertoire of around 190 songs so it’s not as though we don’t have many to choose from! However, some of these are warm-up songs, some are songs we’ve not done for many years, some we’ve done too many times recently, and some are only known to a few long-serving members of the choir. To make things slightly easier, this next concert is our Christmas one, so we’ll need to include all our Christmas songs. To date we have learnt 10 Christmas songs in WorldSong, and plan to learn two more this term. That makes choosing songs slightly easier, but it still means there’s lots of space to fill and doesn’t help with the running order.

My normal method is to look at what songs we’ve sung in the last concert and try not to duplicate that entirely. I always put all the new songs we’ve learnt this term into the concert. This means that any new members can join in with at least six or so songs without having to tackle any of our vast back catalogue. I also try and keep in songs that are relatively new, perhaps all those learnt in the last two terms. However, I do like to ring the changes so if someone comes to several concerts in a row they don’t just keep hearing the same set. I also try and accommodate those people who perhaps only come to see us once a year at our Christmas or Spring concerts.

I keep good records of the songs we’ve sung in each concert, so I look up the last couple we’ve done, and the same time slot a year earlier. I cut out songs that we’ve done in both of the last two concerts, plus most of what we did the same time last year. I add all our new ones, and a few that we’ve not sung for a year or more. Then I look at the spread of genres and countries of origin and try to get a good cross-section. Finally I look at the mix of upbeat versus gentle songs and again try to find a balance.

I have rough timings of all the songs in our repertoire, and I reckon that as a rule of thumb, we need about 2/3 of song material to fill a concert. So, for a 90 minute concert (two 45 minute halves), we’ll need 60 minutes of song material. The rest of the time is taken up with my between song banter and singers getting into position. I find that this formula is pretty accurate and we usually come in on time.

Since most of our songs are very short, we tend to get through 30 or so in a 90 minute concert, so the next problem is to find some sensible kind of running order. There is no one way of doing this, and I may use a different method each time. And as I pointed out in an earlier post (Order, order!) I wonder if the audience notice any way!

I did start a trend a way back of joining songs together. These segue ways only work if I can force several songs into the same key, and seem to work best (for some reason) with African songs. I guess if I tried a little harder I could squeeze enough songs together into some kind of medley that we could fill up a complete concert!

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Moving on

After ten fantastic years with WorldSong, man and boy, I have decided the time has come to pass the choir on to other capable hands. From January 2008 the new musical director of WorldSong will be Una May Olomolaiye.

As you probably know by now, I am rather over-sensitive to complacency and habit (see Fighting Habit and Complacency)! I am always on the lookout for different ways of doing things, new challenges, ways of keeping people on their toes, possibilities for development and improvement, ways of raising the bar and stretching people (myself included!). Some people resist this and would be more than happy to continue doing the same thing week in, week out. Unfortunately, I’m the leader (of the gang, I am!) and if you sign up for my choir, you sign up to my vision and my way of working.

I really do believe that by constantly reviewing the way that I do things, finding new ways of approaching familiar material, having high expectations, taking people out of their comfort zone, etc. then the group improve their individual skills, the overall quality of the choir is better, and we constantly improve and move forwards. The upshot of this philosophy is that (inevitably) there will come a time for me to hand over to someone else.

I characterised this change by saying to the choir last week that it’s time to take the training wheels off! Inevitably, any group of people working as a team with a ‘leader’ might come to believe that they can only do what they do because of the particular person leading them. Obviously, the way that any particular group functions is highly influenced by the style and approach of their leader (conductor, director, coach – whatever). That person (if they’re any good!) helps to mould and shape the group, helps them to work as a team. But I believe that there comes a point where that person should try to remove themselves from the picture, to make the group realise their own strengths and capabilities. Strengths, talents and abilities that have now become independent of whoever happens to be leading them. In fact, in terms of being a musical director and/ or teacher, I believe that my job is truly finished when I have succeeded in making myself redundant!

Whenever there is a strong leader of a group or enterprise (artistic director of a theatre, conductor of an orchestra, curator of a gallery) it is very easy to think that any and all successes and achievements are down to that leader. It may well be the case that a particularly strong individual leader can dramatically improve a group or project, but we must also realise that the individuals making up the group are also of vital importance and help to create the overall ‘flavour’. After all, if it weren’t for the members, then the enterprise wouldn’t exist at all! I strongly believe that any such job should only be held for around five years, after which the leaders could perhaps rotate and move onto other similar organisations. Otherwise galleries or orchestras (or choirs) can become stale and too much a reflection of one particular individual’s vision.

So now it’s time for a big change, and the choir will move forward without me onto different (and hopefully bigger and better) things. I am very sad to be moving on, and will always have a very soft spot for WorldSong as it was the first choir that I formed and directed. However, I am also very excited to see the choir grow in the future and to see what further delights are in store for all concerned. I won’t be completely disappearing however, and will stay in very close contact with both the choir and the new musical director Una May. Here’s to the future!!!!!

(I will, of course, continue to write this blog and to lead Woven Chords)

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Dress to impress?

Many choirs dress identically when they perform. Some have a choir uniform, some choose a particular colour for a particular concert, some have specially made t-shirts. I get requests sometimes from my own choir members for some kind of uniform when we perform. Unfortunately for them, I really dislike identically dressed choirs!

For me, wearing the same uniform removes any sense of individuality. I can only assume that is why some choirs do it: they want everyone to look identical so there is an overall sameness. I presume that this is to create some kind of overall identity for the choir, to show that everyone belongs to the same unit, that they are all part of the same team. It gives a clear indication that this choir is different from other choirs, that the chosen colour or design is some kind of logo or aid to recognition. Perhaps it gives individual choir members a sense of belonging, a kind of banner or flag to unite them and under which they perform for the honour of the choir. Perhaps it avoids distractions for the audience so they can concentrate on the music.

On the other hand, what I see is a group of clones, an attempt to wipe out any sense of uniqueness and to promote the (false) impression that everyone is the same. This is also carried over into the sound that such choirs make. There is every attempt to arrive at a perfect ‘blend’ of sound so that no one individual voice stands out. There is no scope for individual expression, there is a conscious suppression of any kind of difference. For such choirs I imagine that the prospect of actually cloning their best singer would produce their perfect choir!

When I see such choirs performing I wonder why I am there. Why not simply listen to the choir on the radio or on CD? There is nothing to look at: everyone looks and sounds the same, they’re even encouraged to use the same mouth shape and facial expression. If there is something special about hearing the choir live, then simply hide them behind a backdrop or have them perform in the gallery or from behind the audience. Perhaps there could be some kind of film or video projection or dance performance to watch whilst we’re listening. To my mind it is very much like watching an orchestra: a sea of identically dressed violinists all bowing at exactly the same time, all focused on their music and paying us no attention whatsoever.

It seems that this is what most people think of when they see the word ‘choir’ used. It represents a passive experience sitting for a couple of hours in fixed seats watching nothing much happening and hearing some ‘perfect’ rendition of a particular piece of music. It doesn’t really compare well with a rock concert or a stage musical or son et lumière or River Dance. So why bother? And in fact many people don’t bother. It’s very old fashioned and rather unexciting. Which is perhaps why the average age of audiences at concerts is quite old. It’s rather safe and non-threatening. There is a sense of control and order (identical costume, identical voices, no quick movements, no surprises).

Maybe we need a different word for ‘choir’. Maybe we need a different form of performance to bring in younger audiences and audiences who wouldn’t normally go to a ‘concert’. If we do that, however, I don’t think we can get away with static rows of identically dressed singers. To my mind, aiming for uniformity destroys the humanity inherent in a group of human beings coming together to give voice. I want to hear the individual voices which have chosen to work together as a group, I want to hear the tiny errors and individual accents that make people who they are, I want to experience the rich texture and spine-tingling harmonies that result when a group of people choose to share their voices together.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Not enough venues to go round

As I mentioned last time, a few of us sang at a friend’s wedding the other week. It was in a beautiful old village church with a wonderful acoustic. We managed to just about squeeze 18 people in front of fixed pews, next to a stone pulpit and between two tall pillars. (I chose not to sing from the choir stalls. Why on earth do they have these things? Don’t the two halves of the choir just end up singing to each other? I really can’t see the reasoning behind the design!). The organist reminded me that the main Woven Chords choir had sung there one Christmas and been very well received. Of course, those were the days when we had less than 40 members (and it was a tight squeeze even then!). He wondered why we hadn’t come back and I had to explain that it would be impossible to fit 80 singers into such a small church. In the early days we used to frequent such small village churches and hence manage six or so concerts each year. Those were the days!

It has always been difficult to find suitable venues for choirs. Churches are usually very welcoming (and often free!), but with their fixed architecture they can normally only accommodate small singing groups or choirs. Some of the more modern Methodist and Baptist churches have a more flexible layout and some even have stages, but not every town has one of these. Apart from large regional theatres (which tend not to take local community groups, or whose auditorium is just too large to fill), there are really not many venues available to us. Hence churches, which I now see more and more as a valuable community resource independent of any religious affiliation.

There are, however, certain small-minded individuals who think that, just because we perform in a church, that we must be a ‘church choir’, and since they’re not religious they wouldn’t want to come and see us would they? This is despite the many laudable local and rural music touring schemes (e.g. Music in Quiet Places) which see small instrumental and vocal ensembles regularly performing in churches. It’s a shame that these ‘certain people’ are so small minded, as they just don’t know what they’re missing!

The fact that we’re often performing in churches adds yet another stereotype image to what we do in addition to the word ‘choir’ which itself puts lots of people off. Which is why I’m more and more tempted to try and find theatrical rather than musical venues. I have a current bee in my bonnet about making singing performances more varied and interesting as I don’t think it’s enough these days for an audience to just see a static semi-circle of identically dressed singers standing on stage. More on this later!

Are there any other large choirs out there who have found a solution to finding suitable venues?

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Thank you, thank you – you’re too, too kind!

There have been several times when performing that it’s not been appropriate for the audience to show their appreciation. Once was at a funeral, and most recently, at a wedding. There was also a time when we did a concert in a church and the first song was met with silence. I subtly mentioned to the audience that they were allowed to clap if they chose to and from then on it was just like a normal concert. I guess people thought that since they were in a church it wasn’t appropriate to clap!

To be fair, at the recent wedding there was applause after we had finished our little set when the vicar thanked us for singing. Of course, at the funeral, it simply wasn’t fitting. I was singing at the funeral and it was then that I realised how much I had become used to applause after each song. It was very, very strange to perform a song and have no feedback whatsoever. It can be similar when performing outdoors in a public space and people are just passing by.

Why do we need the applause? After all, it’s pretty much a convention. It’s quite rare that people don’t applaud at all. Sometimes it may be more enthusiastic or longer, but usually there’s some kind of smattering. So it’s not as if we need approval since the audience will probably clap under most circumstances. Maybe it’s just for us to know that they’ve actually heard us, whether they’ve enjoyed it or not.

In many cultures the idea of the separation between audience and performers is an alien one. Everybody is a performer, and everyone is an audience at the same time. The ‘performers’ are not special in any way, they haven’t spent time rehearsing and polishing, they just perform – singing, dancing, whatever – because that’s what everybody does in that culture. So the notion of applause and appreciation is not relevant.

Sometimes applause can be a little embarrassing. Many of our songs are very, very short so we can get through up to 30 songs in any one concert. On those occasions it feels like we’re expecting the audience to clap every few minutes (which they do), but it does feel a little like overkill. Also, with a big choir like Woven Chords which has around 80 members, it can be a little awkward when we make our first entrance. As the first few singers enter onto the stage there is enthusiastic applause which slowly but surely begins to die out as the audience realise that there are many, many more choir members to appear yet

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Natural Voice approach

What exactly is the Natural Voice (note the capital letters!) approach to singing and voice? It’s something we’re struggling with in the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network as I mentioned in an earlier blog (The Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network). It may seem to many outsiders to be some kind of wishy-washy organic wholefood let-it-all-hang-out way of singing, but is in fact a very specific discipline or approach to voice work (not just singing by any means).

When practitioners join the network, they state on the membership form that their “approach to teaching voice and song is in harmony with the Philosophy and Working Principles of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network”. Which is all very well and we had hoped then to form a network of like-minded individuals who all approached voice work in a similar way. However, over the years as the network has grown, we have become a very broad church which includes practitioners who focus primarily on sound healing, running community choirs, spiritual chanting, working with pregnant mothers, using voice for therapy, singing contemporary compositions, etc. etc. Although many practitioners working in these areas do use a Natural Voice approach, there is a danger that the term itself is becoming a catch-all phrase of convenience which is beginning to lose its strict meaning.

I am currently helping to formulate a code of practice which encapsulates more accurately what it means to use the Natural Voice approach. It is far from complete, but I thought I’d mention some of the key points here in order to try and clarify for people what our approach to voice is.

Currently the code is divided into four main areas:

  • physicality
  • accessibility
  • cultural context
  • style and approach

This is the foundation stone to the Natural Voice approach. It reminds us that the voice is connected to and rooted in the whole body, and that each person’s voice is unique. The whole body supports the voice and needs to find a subtle balance between relaxation and alertness. An understanding of the body, breath, emotion and sound connection is central to our approach and demands physical awareness and exercising.

Basically nobody should be excluded from music-making. Singing is our birthright and should be accessible to all. Hence we don’t assume any prior knowledge, try to steer clear of jargon, use a variety of teaching styles to maximise everyone’s involvement, and try to accommodate those with physical and other restrictions.

Cultural context
We often use material from other cultures than our own and wherever possible, we find out and explain the historical and cultural context of a song or piece and credit its composer or source. We also choose material for our work which will be culturally accessible to everyone in the group.

Style and approach
We approach our work in ways that are unlocking, freeing, allowing, releasing, non-judgmental, and encouraging.

This is only a first stab and will need a lot more work, but I think it’s a step in the right direction and should hopefully clarify a little what is meant by the Natural Voice.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Preparing to sing

As a Natural Voice practitioner each workshop or choir session that I run begins with a physical and vocal warm up. I slowly prepare people’s voices for singing as well as making a strong connection between their voice and their body. This is something I do regularly so it has become second nature.

However, many people who have not worked with me before often comment on the warm ups: “That was fun and different!”, “I’m not used to doing a warm up like that”, and even “Why do you bother to do a warm up? We never do in my choir”. This has often set me to thinking about what kinds of warm ups other choirs do (I can’t imagine! Just scales perhaps?), but also why do I bother to do warm ups at all?

In my regular weekly sessions with choirs the warm up is also a vocal training session. Over the weeks I can help people improve their breathing for singing, help them to connect with their body, increase their vocal range, improve the richness of their voice, etc. But for one-off sessions it is simply a warm up. My angle is that most people don’t sing regularly and also lead fairly stressful, unnatural and sedentary daily working lives. They need to be eased into singing so they don’t hurt their throat, they need to relax from the muscle tensions and stresses of the day, they need to re-connect to their bodies, they need to become aware again of their physical presence. The warm up acts as a transition from daily life to that attentive, relaxed, listening state we need to be in when we sing with others.

To demonstrate this quite clearly, I sometimes skip the warm up entirely and launch straight into a song. Then afterwards I do our usual warm up and then sing the same song again, asking if people notice any difference. Usually everyone notices something significant and enthusiastically join in with the warm up for the next few weeks!

In the late 1980s two Georgian ethnomusicologists (Edisher Garakanidze and Josef Jordania) came over to work with a group of singers in Cardiff for a week. After a couple of days of singing together, somebody asked if we could perhaps do a warm up before we launched into the songs each day. Both Georgians were rather confused, didn’t know what a warm up was, but said it was fine to go ahead. They watched in some amusement as we went through our paces! Which leads me to the following heresy: I don’t think you need to warm up every time you sing. If you sing regularly, every day perhaps, as people do in many cultures, then there is probably no need unless you want to access the limits of your vocal range.

Of course, the easiest way to find out whether you need a warm up or not is just to try without one next time and see what difference it makes. Me, I enjoy them!

Next week I’ll be writing in more detail about the Natural Voice approach to singing (The Natural Voice approach).

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sing it like you mean it

I have to admit that I’m not really a lyric person. I might have been listening to a particular pop song in English for years when I suddenly realise what it’s actually about! Or someone might point out the really obvious meaning to me, which until that point has totally gone over my head.

I’ve read quite a few books on working with choirs and singing in general, and without exception they all talk about how to convey the meaning of the song and how the meaning affects the vocal delivery. I have one such book in front of me now: Choral Charisma: singing with expression by Tom Carter (I’m not singling this book out, just that it’s fairly typical of its type). There is page upon page of stuff like “Connecting to the meaning”, “Analysing the text”, “Plot and character”, “Making an authentic personal connection with the text”, “Matching music and meaning”. There is just one paragraph in the whole book called “When the language is foreign”. The author says: “The dilemma for singers in such situations is clear. If they want to connect to the texts, they need to know their meanings”.

Many of the songs in our repertoire come from traditions where the expression and communication is mainly through the music rather than the words. Often cultures with rich harmony traditions have songs with very simple – even banal – words. In contrast, traditions where the lyrics are important – such as ballads and storytelling songs – the song text is not complicated by harmonies or complex musical accompaniment. Some of the songs we sing don’t make much sense, even if we do have a translation! So how do we go about singing such songs?

For example, the following are rough translations of a few love songs that we have in our repertoire:

“My sweetheart is wearing a red fez.” Crven fesić (Bosnia)

“Oh, Dobric, your cool waters flow to three towns. There, gather the young boys and girls of Sibenik.” Oj Dobriću (Croatia)

Girl with the black eyes, come here and marry me or give me a knife.” (the implication being so he can kill himself). Gogo shavtala (Georgia)

“As my own I graze you, and you are dragging yourself behind me, little doll.” (to a sheep!) Ja Helo (Helokane) (Czechoslovakia)

“There’s a handkerchief on the road where my dear one passes. He made a new cart with two horses and no driver.” Maramica na stazi (Croatia)

Maybe something of the poetic nature of the lyrics has been lost in the translation, but I personally don’t find that these English translations help me to sing the song! In any case, there are often cultural differences. What to our ears might sound rather like a military march, or a dirge, or an upbeat dance song might just as easily be a love song or a song of loss and grief.

Some people say that as long as you stay true to the spirit of the meaning of a song, then it’s OK. But I believe that every song has its own unique feel which cuts across cultures. I believe that as long as you stay true to the music of the song, then you can’t go far wrong. The sound of the lyrics (even if you don’t understand them), the melody and the harmonies all go to make up a whole which suggests a mood or feeling, regardless of what the song means (if it’s a well-written song!). Sometimes it’s even useful to do this with a song that you can understand. Why not try singing a song with English lyrics using nonsense syllables and try to find the underlying musicality of the song? Sometimes the music can get lost beneath the words and the desire to communicate the meaning of the lyrics.

Even though I’m not a lyric person, I try very hard to never teach a song unless I know what the lyrics mean and have some sense of the background and cultural context to a song. We may not use the meaning to help us sing, but it’s important that we respect the tradition that the song has come from.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fitting into the right musical box

I regularly get emails out of the blue from various singing groups scattered across the globe. Only yesterday I had one from a Russian ensemble, and a few weeks ago I had one from a women’s group in the US. They all ask if I can help them to set up a tour in the UK. I’m afraid that I almost always turn down their offer. I’m not a producer, I don’t have any particular connection with any venues, and besides which, I really don’t know whether this kind of stuff goes down well in the UK.

The US has several well-known “world music” singing groups, for instance Kitka, Northern Harmony and Libana. They regularly gig in the US, have a large following and release CDs on a frequent basis. Northern Harmony has toured the UK several times, but even though their gigs are well-attended, they’re usually off the beaten track, often in churches and small village halls. I was once told by a local rural touring producer that “acappella just doesn’t sell”. So not only is it hard for groups such as Artisan and Coope, Boyes and Simpson from the folk world to get gigs, but virtually impossible for any groups who sing so-called “world music”.

There may well be audiences in London for specialist groups like the London Bulgarian Choir and Maspindzeli, but elsewhere groups like this are few and far between and seldom seen at gigs or festivals. I once approached a big summer festival only to be told that they want “music that people can dance to”. i.e. loud and boppy. So is there no room for those gorgeous unaccompanied harmonies from Georgia, Bulgaria, Russia and beyond? Do African songs always need big dances and accompaniment, or can we do the occasional Zimbabwean lullaby?

How come there are more groups in the US and they get regular audiences? Is it because they have a bigger imigrant populations from harmony singing countries like Croatia and Macedonia, for example?

I always used to think that the sort of choirs that I run are unique in their repertoire, and hence something special and different. That may well be the case, but instead of that being a selling point, it seems to be a drawback because nobody knows exactly which ‘box’ we fit into. I use the tag “world music choir”, but either people don’t know what the phrase “world music” is or think it has to involve guitar playing from Mali. I get loads of requests from people wanting a choir for their wedding and I think we offer a really interesting alternative: South African wedding songs, church songs from Georgia – all to make your day special and unique. But when I write back, I never get a reply because most people want the standard Ave Maria or the gospel singers that they saw in the movie Sister Act. (We are, however, doing a wedding in the near future for a choir member who really appreciates what we do!).

Hence I say that I can’t help these groups from abroad looking for gigs. I simply don’t know who to approach, which venues or producers may be interested. It’s taken WorldSong 10 long years to build up a half-way decent following in our own back yard, I just hope that there are enough similar groups out there that we can build awareness across the whole UK and get to see more “world music” singing. Spread the word!

Of course, this presupposes that we can clearly describe exactly what it is that we do do. Many people aren't familiar with terms such as “world music” or “roots music”. This was the subject of an earlier post: What is it that you do exactly?

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hidden culture

I’ve just spent the last two weeks travelling through the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I was really looking forward to catching some traditional singing since I had been told that all three countries have a rich and well-preserved history of song.

The Lonely Planet Guide said: “Song is the soul of the Balts. And nowhere is this expressed more eloquently than in the national song festivals that unite Estonia, Latvia and Lithuanians worldwide in a spellbinding performance of song. The crescendo is a choir of up to 30,000 voices, singing its heart out to an audience of 100,000 or more, while scores of folk dancers in traditional dress throw a bewitching kaleidoscope of patterns across the vast, open-air stage”.

And the Rough Guide said: “The characteristic Baltic singing festivals – hugely popular events – played a major role in expressing the national identities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during their move to independence.”

Unfortunately most of the big folk song festivals had already happened earlier in the year!

In the 19th century, great collections of folk lyrics and tunes were made: over 1.4 million folk lyrics and 30,000 tunes have been written down in Latvia and the largest archive in Lithuanian folklore alone contains over 400,000 collected songs.

I also read in a local guide book that if you ask a Lithuanian about his country’s traditional culture, you would most likely hear about Lithuanian songs and love of singing. Apparently, only a few decades ago, most women of the Dzukija region still knew a hundred songs; the most accomplished singers remembered as many as four hundred. Often, people sang more than they spoke!

The choral folk and runo-song arrangements of Estonian composer Veljo Tormis are very popular, having influence as far away as the Estonian community in Australia! And it’s not just old, dyed-in-the-wool folk fans who follow the traditional songs, the annual Viljandi folk festival in Estonia each July attracts a young audience to see a variety of roots bands.

So how come in the restaurants and shops the music was Russian pop or Bob Marley or classical muzak, and the new Baltic MTV was full of Baltic rock of the bad 1970s kind? Where was this vibrant traditional culture that I’d been reading so much about?

I was also yearning to see some kind of authentic folk craft in the shops rather than the usual watered-down tourist rubbish (is that what people really want, or do we buy it because it’s the only thing on offer?).

It got me thinking about how visible so-called traditional culture is in any particular society. There is clearly a rich and vibrant folk tradition in the Baltics in both music and applied arts, yet on an everyday level it is invisible. What happens to all those thousands of people who join in the song festivals the rest of the year? Do they simply stop singing? What is a culture’s folk tradition any way? I guess you could say that the derivative Baltic pop music on the radio, and the buying of cheap Russian clothes imports in the markets is an expression of today’s traditional culture. Yet my background reading suggests that there is a lively, current interest in songs and music that has been handed down over generations – songs for every occasion: weddings, rye harvest, summer solstice, funerals. It is an integral part of Baltic society and runs deep. So why did I have to go hunting in modern record shops to try and find recordings of folk music hidden amongst the stacks of death metal and American pop?

What would a foreigner’s impression of our folk traditions be if she arrived at Heathrow, took the tube into London and wandered down Oxford Street? Sure we have many lively and well-attended folk clubs throughout the country, but they’re not that visible at first glance.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Holiday time!

No blog this week as I'm off sunning myself in 30°C temperatures in the Baltic states! Stay tuned for more next week.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

It does exactly what it says in the blurb – or not!

Just a quick one this week as I’m just about to leave for two weeks travelling in the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It’s supposed to be a holiday, but I’m hoping to pick up some songs for future use! I won’t be posting next week as I will be somewhere in the middle of a Latvian national park and I’m not taking any technology with me. Normal service will be resumed on Sunday 19th August.

Last week I ran an open workshop for the Warwick Folk Festival. It was billed as “World Songs” with a sub-heading “community choirs”. Rather an odd way of describing what I do, but nevertheless we had a healthy 40+ people turn up and they seemed to enjoy themselves. I’m always very nervous before a workshop, no matter how many times I’ve done them, especially when there are no advance bookings. I had absolutely no idea how many people would turn up, and convinced myself I would be happy with just six or so. Hence I was very pleasantly surprised by the turnout, even attracting about eight blokes.

As is often the case, the first few people through the door were a bit hesitant as they too did not know what to expect. I always try to put people at ease and usually ask: “Have you come to sing?” (just in case they had expected to attend a ceramics class and had wandered into the wrong room by mistake). I get many responses to this question. Often: “Oh, no, I’m just here with my friend. I can’t sing”. More often than not I persuade them to join in and they end up having a good sing by the end of the workshop. This time a couple of women looked especially hesitant and said something like: “Yes, I think so, but it depends what it’s going to be like”. They went on to say that the day before they had been on a ballad workshop and had been made to feel rather inferior and left out as they didn’t know all 30 verses of a particular song!

I tried to put their minds at ease, and very soon they were smiling and joining in wholeheartedly with the African songs. It made me realise that there were still people out there who somehow managed to put people off singing, even when those people had made the effort to turn up to a workshop and were looking forward to sing. I wonder what would have happened to those two women’s confidence if they had not come to my workshop, but just left the festival with their first experience to take away with them.

It also made me think that it’s very important to try and explain exactly what a workshop is going to be. To try and give it an appropriate name and a bit of blurb so that people know what to expect. Sometimes that’s hard as people perhaps don’t have any reference points to the subject you’re going to be covering, but you should at least make the attempt to be clear.

I ran a Beatles workshop a while ago. I advertised it as Beatles acappella and had some blurb explaining that I would be teaching some well-known Beatles songs in three and four part harmony. A couple of young women came along, but only stayed for the morning. They explained that they had quite enjoyed themselves, but it wasn’t really what they had expected! I really don’t know how to be any clearer with that one!!

On another occasion I ran a workshop called The Paul Simon Songbook. Again, explaining that I would be teaching well-known Paul Simon songs in three and four part harmony. During the warm-up I made a joke that Paul Simon was stuck on the M6 and he had phoned me to ask me to carry on with the workshop until he arrived. Everyone laughed. Except – I later realised – for two women who thought I was serious and complained to the box office when Mr. Simon hadn’t arrived by lunchtime! So we can always try to describe what to expect, but we’ll never get it exactly right!

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Where does the music reside?

I met a painter in a gallery today and he asked me if I was an artist or had any interest in fine art. I told him that I didn’t paint, but that I worked with music and that I was also fascinated by the creative process. He then asked me: “Where do you think the music resides? Is it in the written score?”. I was rather lost for words at that moment and didn’t really understand the question. Finally I answered: “I believe that music resides in the humanity of the people creating it”.

We went on to talk about how some people are attracted to the purity of the written score and the idea of the perfect realisation of it in practice. Of course, one can never perfectly realise a written piece of music (not least because music notation is not an exact system) because the people who create the music are error-prone and not perfect creatures. But even if we could do that, wouldn’t that be rather like machine-produced music? I for one don’t really enjoy choral concerts where the singing is so, so, ever so precise. The enunciation is perfect, as is the blend of voices – so much so that it can sometimes sound like a single voice singing. No! Give me some humanity! I love the different textures of all the individuals in the choir, I appreciate everyone’s unique contribution to the overall sound. I enjoy it when not everyone is singing exactly the same pitch – that is where the harmonics, overtones and fullness of the sound come from. I adore it when each person’s timing is slightly different, when small errors are made. In short, I love it when all the imperfections that we human beings are made up of are fully expressed through the singing.

I have heard singers who have ‘beautiful’ voices, who sing perfectly in tune, whose technique and talent are remarkable, and yet they leave me unmoved. However, I can hear some rusty old recording of a group of elderly villagers in the Balkans giving voice to an age-old traditional song, and I can be almost moved to tears. They are communicating with me, they are telling me the story, they are working as one to express their humanity and their joy, and I in turn am moved.

This weekend I was in the rare position of running three entirely different workshops in three different places with three different sets of participants. It reinforced for me what happens in workshops. All three were open access, no experience necessary, no musical scores in sight, no real expectations (except to have fun!), and yet they all produced the most wonderful, magical sounds. The whole experience was uplifting both for me and the participants. It reminded me how universal singing is, and how egalitarian and levelling singing harmony together can be. I had no idea who these people were, what they did for a living, or if they had had any singing training or experience. The only instruction was to sing a part that they felt was comfortably within their own range. People ended up standing next to strangers who they had only just met, and yet they worked as a team helping to create an overall sound. Nobody was really worried about whether they had a ‘beautiful’ voice or not as they were soon taken over by the music itself. And I just stood back and listened to the most beautiful harmony singing and was moved once more by the power of the music. And where did the music reside at that moment? In the hearts and souls of every single person who made up the group.

Yet still – unfortunately – people believe that they can’t ‘sing’ or that music-making is not meant for them. One of the workshop participants wrote to me: “I’m completely new to this kind of thing, having believed all my life that singing in choirs was something that ‘other people’ do.” Luckily he realised that singing is open to all of us and has now joined a local choir.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Who is our audience?

WorldSong’s 10th anniversary concert last Saturday was a triumph — even if I do say so myself! At least in our terms it was a huge success and a big leap forward.
  • we had an audience three times our normal size (which made our 650-seat theatre look comfortably full)
  • we ended up with the biggest choir we’ve ever had on stage (all but two of the choir managed to be at the concert: two members volunteered to help front of house, whilst two others had already booked holidays)
  • we had a wide range of different configurations on stage (solos, men-only, women-only, conductorless, small groups, a big group filling the stage)
  • the vast majority of choir members had risen to the challenge and learnt the words to pretty much all of the 33 songs that we sang (the Welsh one was quite hard!)
  • we pulled off several challenging moves (entering from the back of the auditorium whilst singing, dancing to South African songs, being accompanied by drums)
  • several songs were sung without me having to conduct them

We had a varied and mixed audience including quite a few ex-choir members, and a few singers from our sister choirs Woven Chords and Global Harmony. In the interval I met some people from Swaziland, Slovakia and Uganda, and I know there were audience members from Poland, Lithuania and South Africa.

However, the most noticeable thing for me when the house lights went up at the end of the concert (I taught the audience a song as usual) was that the vast majority of the audience seemed to be well over 60 and mostly women! This is quite common and is often reflected in the choir itself and in the workshops that I run. Several of the choir had managed to persuade their children to come along, and almost without exception, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. So why can’t we attract a younger audience? There’s nothing wrong, of course, with having an older audience, but it would be nice to have a wide spread of ages, genders and nationalities. (This also applies to the choir and workshops: we sing songs from many different countries and cultures, and yet we attract mainly white, British singers).

Is it perhaps the words “choir” or “concert” which put younger people off? Do they simply have something better to do on a Saturday night? Is the make-up of our audience simply a reflection of the make-up of the choir? In which case, why can’t the choir attract younger people and people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds?

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