Sunday, February 25, 2007

New singers, old songs

When a choir first starts up, everyone learns the same songs and the choir slowly builds up a small repertoire. But as time goes on, choir members leave, new singers join, the choir (hopefully!) increases in size, and the repertoire grows. Then one day a concert comes up and you want to sing some of your best-loved, older songs only to find that most of the choir don’t know them! What do you do?

Some choirs simply learn a new bunch of songs each term, then consign them to the dustbin of history, starting with a clean slate the next term. This can be very frustrating for singers who’ve put the time into learning a new song, only to have it removed from the repertoire.

Other choirs have a small, core repertoire that they stick to and constantly re-teach to new members. These choirs usually perform a lot, don’t have much time to learn new repertoire, and have concerts in different venues so they can get away with singing the same songs each time. Our choirs don’t perform that much though, and members always look forward to learning new songs (as well as singing the “oldies”).

Some choirs use written scores and expect their members to be able to sight read. When a new singer joins the choir, they are simply handed the sheet music and expected (with a little rehearsal) to join in with the regular members. We don’t use written scores though, and rely on learning by ear.

Other choirs (most often barbershop choirs) don’t actually teach songs in their weekly meetings, but provide parts CDs for their singers to take home and learn their part in their own time. New members of the choir are just given a parts CD and are expected to get up to speed in their own time. Weekly sessions are then spent rehearsing and honing the songs. Our choirs enjoy the learning of songs in the weekly sessions. It is less mechanical than learning a part at home on your own, it gives people a chance to experience the harmonies as they are evolving, and most importantly, it’s a social activity.

So what is our solution? WorldSong and Woven Chords have both been going for around 10 years and now have repertoires in excess of 150 songs each, which is a rather daunting back catalogue for any new choir member! When someone joins the choir (which is always at the start of a term), I emphasise that there is no compulsion to learn any of our old repertoire. It is possible to be a full member of the choir without knowing any of the old songs. I always make sure that every new song that term will be in our next concert, plus a few easy songs which I revive or re-teach to new members so they will be able to participate in at least half a dozen songs in the concert if they choose to.

I also make available to all new members a full set of lyrics of all the songs that the choir has in its repertoire. Each week for the last 20 minutes or so, we sing some “oldies” just to keep the repertoire alive. At the very least, new members can follow the lyrics as we sing, and sometimes, if a song is relatively easy, they can pick up a part on the fly.

The main solution to the past repertoire problem is that I make available a series of parts CDs to choir members. I make roughly one per year with around a dozen of the more complex songs we’ve learnt over the past three terms. Each part is on a separate track with all the starting notes given on each track as I encourage people to sing against the other parts as they are learning. These parts CDs can be useful for revision when people have learnt a song in our weekly sessions, but we haven’t sung it for a while, or there’s a tricky bit that they’ve had problems with. It’s also valuable for new members to be able to learn songs in their own time for when a concert is coming up, or to get to grips with an old song they might have heard the rest of the choir sing at the end of a session one week. I try to make it very clear that new members don’t have to learn any of the back catalogue if they don’t want to, but if they do want to try, just pick a couple of songs each time and then it’s up to them to learn their part in their own time.

Another way of keeping our back catalogue alive and to introduce old songs to new singers is to find new ways of doing a song – a slightly different arrangement, adding a new part, extending a song with a new section, etc. This also has the advantage of keeping an old song fresh and alive for long-serving choir members.

I would be very interested to hear what solutions other choirs have found for keeping their old repertoire alive for new members.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

The singing memory

We’ve just had our half term break for a week, and then on Saturday it was back to rehearse for our forthcoming concert. Always after a short break from our regular weekly sessions, it’s as if people forget much of what they’ve learnt – even the songs they’ve known for years! Unlike, say, riding a bicycle, just a short break from regular singing and it’s as if that part of the brain ‘forgets’ everything that it’s known. Even if we’ve been going over a song every week for the last few weeks, just a week off and the singing mind goes blank.

It seems though that this mainly affects short-term memory for tunes. Sometimes we’ve really struggled with a song and never quite got it right. Then perhaps a year later, without re-visiting it at all in the meantime, we decide to sing it again and it comes out perfectly! There has been no extra practice or rehearsal or repetition, it’s just lain dormant in the brain, and yet the subconscious seems to have been at work in the interim.

These phenomena point to something about how the brain remembers melodies and lyrics, but I’m not sure what! A short break of just a week may have devastating effects, but a whole summer off and the choir often comes back sharp as nails. Understanding this better might help us find more effective ways of teaching and learning songs. After learning a new song for a few weeks, we then just sing it through for a few more weeks, then I allow a few weeks to pass before we try it again in the belief that the subconscious has been squirreling it away more effectively in the memory. But maybe I’m kidding myself??!!

There is definitely a different part of the brain involved in learning songs than that used to learn melodies for instruments and learning ‘lines’ (e.g. poetry, plays, etc.) off by heart (see The writing's on the wall!). Many times I can be asked what the lyrics to a song are and can only recall them by singing them. I can’t speak them or I’ll forget what’s coming next. The brain has stored the sounds and the words together, inextricably linked. Similarly, when someone is struggling with a tune, sometimes just reminding them of the first few words is enough for the whole thing to kick in. Many times, when singing a song we’ve not done for a while, I’m convinced I don’t know the words (or the harmony). But I trust the process and just open my mouth and – as if by magic – the whole thing comes out almost despite me. There is even a conscious part of my brain that can observe this process taking place and marvels at where the words and tune are actually coming from.

At our rehearsal on Saturday somebody asked for clarification of their harmony part so I sang it to them (believing that I knew it). Afterwards they said that they weren’t sure that’s exactly what I’d taught them. This sowed a doubt in my mind and I went to get the written score to sing it again. The second time round I realised that I had been absolutely spot on the first time! It was my subconscious brain that had remembered it. I just opened my mouth and trusted what came out. But as soon as someone asked me a question, my rational brain kicked in and I began to doubt myself.

I often see people singing hesitantly because their conscious mind is telling them that it’s not sure that they know what they’re doing. However, 9 times out of 10 they’ve got it right, if only they’d trust themselves and the learning process. At times like that I tell people to behave as if they know what they're doing and invariably it will come out right.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Where did you get that song, where did you get that song?

I’m often asked by concert-goers and choir leaders alike “Where do you get all your songs from?”. Well, here’s the short answer to this simple question: “From everywhere and everyone”. Now for the longer answer!

When I started my first choir back in 1997 I reckoned I had enough songs to last me for one term (about 10 weeks) after which I was seriously thinking about panicking or retiring. But now, somehow, after teaching in excess of 500 songs over the last ten years, I have another 600 waiting to be taught!

Like most things, when you become seriously involved in something new, your radar begins to pick up signals from previously unnoticed sources. I listen to a lot of CDs in the car (all that driving between Coventry and Stamford!) as well as Late Junction on Radio 3. I also used to listen to World Routes on a Saturday afternoon on my way over to Stamford, but now that they’ve moved it to 3pm, I have to miss it. I occasionally listen to Andy Kershaw usually by using the BBC’s “listen again” facility.

Often on one of these programmes I might hear a wonderful track that might be suitable for the choir, so when I get home I use the internet (a wonderful tool!) to look at the track listings for the programme. Then I track down the CD on the web (using Google) and try to listen to a few more tracks before possibly buying the CD (again, over the internet).

So I have ended up with loads of world music and roots CDs in my collection. If I want to teach one of the songs I can often work out the parts from the recording (if it’s already in a harmony arrangement) or I work out the tune and put my own harmonies on. Often I do background research on the internet to try and find the lyrics (I will never teach a song phonetically from a recording unless I can find the proper lyrics in the original language, and preferably a translation or a rough meaning). Sometime I might stumble across a written score or arrangement which I can buy or copy (anything for an easy life!).

You have to be very careful when searching for lyrics and song information on the internet. Never believe everything you read! Rather like finding a builder, I always look for at least three independent sources. I stress independent, because some sites just copy and paste information from other sites! I have sometimes found the background to a song which seems a bit suspicious and have ended up tracking down the individual who wrote it and asked them for their source. Often it’s just hearsay!

I also collect many written scores. I buy books from a variety of sources (again the internet is a good place to start). Fortunately I read music so can usually pick out the tune on my guitar, but some traditional music has fiendishly difficult rhythms or harmonies so I really need to hear a recording first and then use the score as an aide memoir and basis for teaching and harmonising.

Being a pretty poor musician, I often type a score into the notation programme I have on my computer (Finale PrintMusic about £70) simply so I can transpose it (lame, I know!). Sometimes the transposition is not straightforward (the bass becomes too low, or the tenor part is no longer suitable for women, or the top part becomes too high for a community choir) and I need to tinker around and move parts about (which means sometimes the bass get the tune for a change!).

Some people out there do wonderful acappella arrangements for choirs, but don’t write music or choose to make their work available for people who don’t read music. This ranges from the wonderful Dee Jarlett (of Naked Voices and the Gasworks Choir) to Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock (“Singing in the African American Tradition”). Some arrangers make both available, i.e. written score accompanied by a CD with all the parts on.

I learn a lot of songs by attending workshops (this year I’m going on a Northern Harmony workshop in Wales, and a fantastic world harmony week at Laurieston Hall). Sometimes I record the workshop whilst I’m there (although increasingly I just want to be a punter and enjoy the workshop), but sometimes I can get the written score or a recording from the workshop leader (or at least they might point me in the direction of a useful source).

Over the years I have also started to do more of my own arranging. I might find a lovely tune in a old music book (I get lots from second hand shops) or hear an old folk song on a CD that I’ve borrowed from the local library.

A good place to start is the Natural Voice website which has a resource section of members’ stuff (Nickomo’s books are particularly useful and he also transcribes songs taught at the Unicorn summer singing camps). Northern Harmony books and recordings can be bought from their website (they take sterling cheques as payment). There are various world music publishers out there (e.g. World Music Press), publishers of particular genres (e.g. Bulgarian) and general acappella publishers (e.g.

So there you have it. A mix of listening to CDs and the radio, going to workshops, buying songbooks and written scores, going to the local library, and also receiving suggestions from choir members.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Papa's got a brand new song

The beginning of any term is always shaky as I usually start three or four songs at the same time. We don’t finish a song in a single session, but keep a few on the go for several weeks. I personally believe that this variety is a better way of learning (but what do I know??!!). Hence in the first few weeks of term we often don’t have a clear grasp of where a song is going or what the final version will actually sound like. Some people have suggested that I play the choir a full version of the song before I start to teach it, but often I don’t have a recording or perhaps it’s a new arrangement that I’ve not tried before.

Another issue is that I’m not familiar enough with the song yet, despite the fact that I’ve spent ages on it at home! I practice and practice and think I know it inside out, but then in front of the choir when everyone’s a bit tired and we’ve already begun two new songs that evening, I suddenly realise that I’ve not totally nailed a particular interval or part of the harmony and it all goes pear-shaped

Unlike most people in the choir, I get to learn all the parts of every song. This is mainly due to simple repetition. I now know all the parts to over 500 songs! People often ask: “how do you manage it?”, “how do you remember them all?” Maybe I have some talent for it, and I know I have a good ear, but the main thing is that I get to repeat each song/ part at least four times when teaching a new song – that’s four times more than most people!

So here’s a hint when learning a new harmony song: listen to the other parts attentively while they’re being learnt (resist the temptation to natter!), you then learn the words more easily and can also sing your part in your head at the same time and see how the harmony works. In short, you get to repeat the new song/ part more times.

In many of the cultures that we source our songs from, people start “learning” songs from when they are children. They repeatedly hear others singing the same song, over and over again from a very early age. Even if there’s no conscious effort to learn it, a song will get into the brain of those around despite themselves. We see a similar effect on children of choir members who hear their parents singing their parts around the house, and before we know it, they know the song better than we do!

Basically, we are trying to short circuit years of repeatedly hearing a song in different contexts, so what we are doing is slightly artificial. To make things easier, musical notation was invented and people started using written scores instead of really listening and relying on their own memory. But then you never really get the song inside you!

It turns out that some people believe that they can “sing” because they think that “proper” singers only have to hear a song once before they’ve learnt it perfectly. It often comes as a surprise when I tell them that even professional singers take a few months before they really get to grips with a new song.

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