Sunday, January 28, 2007

Words are flowing out like endless rain ...

Since we don’t use written music in the choirs and workshops I run, I always hope that people start to listen more carefully. However, we live in a very visual culture and it takes some time to develop the necessary listening skills. People can usually pick up a tune quite quickly, but words are another matter. For very simple songs with only one or two words, I try to simply teach by ear and let people learn virtually syllable by syllable. When there are perhaps half a dozen or so (and we are usually talking foreign words here!), then I’ve started to write them up on the wall (see last week’s The writing's on the wall!). But what if a song has several verses or many words — even English ones? Then I usually (reluctantly!) hand out lyric sheets – and here’s where the problems start!

The two main issues are:

  • once people have words in their hands, they are very reluctant to ever put them down
  • how do we become as familiar with all the verses as we are with the first verse?

Performing without words
My ideal is for any choir to perform without books or pieces of paper so they can really listen to each other and sing out to the audience and make a real connection (rather than looking down at a piece of paper). Once I’ve given out lyric sheets though, it’s very hard for people to put them down! many people put in the work at home and learn all the lyrics, but for some people, no matter how hard they try, the words just don’t seem to stick. Although the foreign words might seem strange and difficult at first, often these are the ones that are recalled more accurately as they have to be learnt syllable by syllable without direct reference to their meaning. English words (or even French ones – most of us have a little school French) are harder in some ways because it’s easier to remember the meaning and hence people end up paraphrasing (which often means the rhymes are lost).

So how does one enforce the “no words in performance” rule? One can be strict and insist on everyone learning all the words (“you can’t sing in the concert unless you’re word perfect”); one can drill the words endlessly, week after week; one can put the fear of God into people, and shout at them to learn or even physically take their words away from them. I don’t relish doing any of these! The emphasis in my choirs is on fun. Also, a scared choir is not a pleasant thing to watch.

So … does anybody have any bright ideas about how to dispense with words for those long African songs, or those 15-verse English ballads, or that Welsh hymn?

I also can’t think of any helpful hints to give people on learning words at home. The trouble is, learning words by rote off the page uses a different part of the brain than when you learn words and tune at the same time. One solution would be to sing all the verses for each part on the parts CDs that I make the choir. The trouble with this though is that I would then only be able to fit about a quarter the number of songs on each parts CD.

Beyond Verse 1
When I begin to teach a song, I usually use the words to the first verse when teaching the tune and harmonies. We often spend a few weeks on this until it’s locked into the brain properly. But then we realise there are four more verses to learn – and most often in a strange foreign language! These are always much harder to learn than the first verse. Often the syllables fit into the tune in a different way, sometimes the rhythm is even slightly different. No matter how often we sing the other verses, we never seem to repeat them as much as we did with the first verse. After Verse 1 people are just reading off the page and trying to fit words to a tune in a fairly abstract way rather than learning them together as we did the first verse. If I ask people to go home and learn the words, it’s with a different part of the brain and never seems to flow as well as Verse 1.

I’ve tried teaching new songs line by line (with all the harmonies), and doing the first line of every verse before we move onto line two. The trouble with this is that we never seem to get an overall picture of the whole song, and it ends up being bitty and also a bit of an overload to deal with so many foreign words.

I’ve tried moving straight onto Verse 2 as soon as we’re beginning to master Verse 1, but that somehow seems to push all knowledge of Verse 1 out of people’s brains in order to make sense of Verse 2! I’ve even resorted to adding one new verse each year – which does seem to work, but takes a very long time to finish the song!

Anybody got any bright ideas?

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

The writing's on the wall!

Well, it’s the second week back after the Christmas and New Year excesses. Loads of choir members always seem to turn up late to the first session after a long break, as if they’ve got out of the habit of going out on that night of the week. I’m always slightly worried that nobody will turn up at all! I try not to get complacent and don’t expect everyone to return, but am always pleasantly surprised when familiar faces arrive who have been coming for years and years. It’s surprising how quickly everyone gets back into the swing of things again and all are in fine voice.

I always try to introduce some new elements at the start of each term. This term I have written the words for simple foreign songs on large A1 sheets of paper which I then put up on the wall. There are always people who immediately write the words down, even if there is only one or two words in a new song, even though I ask them not to! To be fair, some people have a visual memory and need to see the words written down at least once (me included). However, many people simply don’t like to inhabit that strange space where they haven’t quite learnt something yet. It usually takes a few weeks before a new song begins to bed in, and rather than working through that difficult, eggy stage where you haven’t quite grasped it fully, people panic and rush to write the thing down, frightened that they won’t remember. The trouble is, once words are written down, it is very difficult to stop looking at them! Even if I know a song inside out and back to front, as soon as the lyrics appear in front of me, my eyes are drawn to the page (more next week in Words are flowing out like endless rain ...).

The “words on the wall” scheme seems to be working well though. Nobody so far has written down their own version – knowing that they’re up on the wall somehow allows people to relax. And very soon people have assimilated the words and no longer need to look at them on the wall. The question then becomes: when is the right time to take the words down?

There seems to be a different part of the brain involved in remembering song lyrics. Often, if someone asks me for the words of a song, I can’t speak them out but have to sing them. It’s as if the melody and lyrics have been stored together and inextricably linked. As opposed to when one learns a poem, say. This seems to get stored in a completely different part of the brain and is recalled in a different manner.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Natural Voice Practitioners Network

As well as being my birthday today (!), this weekend heralds the annual gathering of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network (NVPN) at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield. Each year a group of between 60 and 70 Natural Voice practitioners (from an overall membership of 240) from all over the UK gather for a weekend of peer group sharing, workshops, networking, dressing up and, above all, singing. The gatherings began as a way of celebrating the birthday of our founder and inspiration Frankie Armstrong.

All Natural Voice practitioners share a common philosophy towards voice work. Simply stated, we believe that singing is everyone's birthright, and that:

  • everyone can sing (whether they think they can or not!)
  • singing should be accessible to all (so many practitioners teach by ear rather than using written music)
  • the voice begins from the body and the breath.

Many members of the network run community choirs based on this philosophy, although we are a very broad church with members from all areas of voice work.

To get a good grounding in the Natural Voice approach, and a chance to learn how to set up and run a singing group, Frankie (along with her partner Darien Pritchard, a Feldenkrais and massage practitioner) leads an annual week's training workshop at Kinnersley Castle in Herefordshire. 2007's training week is 11th to 17th April. Full details can be found on the NVPN website under "Events/ Workshops".

One of the issues currently exercising NVPN members is how to put the network on a more professional footing. We're thinking of introducing a code of practice along the lines of the code recently introduced by Sound Sense, the UK development agency for community music.

As part of this exercise we are fine tuning our "unique selling point". How do we differ from, say, Sing for Pleasure, or the Association of British Choral Directors? And believe me we do!

I hope to go into these issues in more detail in a later blog.

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Minor Chords: women's singing ensemble

Going back to work yesterday was a bit of a shock for all concerned! After a surfeit of turkey, mince pies and rubbish films on TV, we were all a bit sluggish, but it was good to be back.

This was the first session in 2007 for the women’s group that I lead in Stamford. The group is called Minor Chords (a weak pun based on the fact that all members are also in the bigger choir Woven Chords) and consists of 12 women who have the singing skills and commitment to meet alternate Saturdays for three hours to tackle more complex and difficult material than the main choir does.

Minor Chords started in March 2001 and has seen a few personnel changes, but a substantial core of the original group are still with us. We took on four new recruits last February which injected a bit of new energy and dynamics. We don’t hold formal auditions, but require members to be able to hold a part on their own. Over the years the standard of the group has risen considerably and it’s becoming harder and harder to find suitable new material which is sufficiently challenging!

Our repertoire is eclectic, but we do like our Eastern European harmonies! On the go at the moment we have a Maori hymn, a Greek folk song, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”, a Bulgarian song arranged by Philip Kutev, and we’re just starting a stonking gospel number called “Get away Jordan”. As well as many traditional songs from Eastern Europe, we’ve also branched out a little and have the Beach Boys in our repertoire, as well as a lovely arrangement of “My Blue Heaven” by Primrose Music and a round by Moondog ("Nero's Expedition").

We’re always looking for challenging new material so if you know of any fab, interesting songs out there please let us know! Also, if you fancy having us perform in your area, we’re always ready and willing.

go to Chris Rowbury's website