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?

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Chris Rowbury


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