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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Chris Rowbury


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