Sunday, March 25, 2007

How was it for you?

Our annual “at home” spring concert was a week ago at Stamford Arts Centre in a beautiful Georgian (that’s King George to you, not Republic of .. or the southern states!) ballroom which has featured in many a filmed costume drama. Beautiful surroundings complete with chandeliers and a wonderful acoustic. However, we have become victims of our own success and our almost 80-voice choir (of whom at least 60 turn up for any given concert) doesn’t fit on the stage any more! So we decided to do the concert sideways on along the long side of the very long and thin ballroom. This meant that we could stand in three rows, but the audience were only about four deep and very wide. The other unfortunate side effect was that there were no stage lights so we had to have the house lights on which meant that the choir could see the whites of the audience’s eyes! A scary prospect indeed. But we pulled it off and everyone had a great time.

Except me.

Well, that’s not strictly true, I did have a really good time, but not a great time. Of course, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether I have a good time or not. As long as the choir enjoy themselves and the audience has a good evening out and our standards remain high, it is of no consequence what I am feeling. It is strange though how unpredictable my experience is. I have had absolutely amazing, fantastic gigs where we’ve all been firing on all cylinders, the audience have been fantastic and everyone has had a great time. It is unpredictable though.

Which reminds me of my days as a performer on the stranger fringes of the theatre world. I could be totally prepared and really looking forward to a show, only to have a really bad time and end up feeling that the show had been rubbish that night. Yet afterwards in the bar audience members would tell me how fantastic it was, other cast members would say they thought it was one of our best shows. Then the other way round: I could feel that I was really flying, had never performed better, the connection between the performers would be electric, we’d never done the show so well, it was a triumph!! Only to come off stage to find a relatively empty bar, a lukewarm audience reception and fellow cast members drowning their sorrows in their beer and vowing to give up acting immediately.

It’s not so simple then. Even performers in exactly the same show can have completely different experiences. So I came to the conclusion that it is actually irrelevant how you feel about a performance. All you can do is be prepared and do your best, then it is simply up to the audience to take it or leave it.

As far as singing concerts go, there are several other factors involved. We always rehearse on the afternoon of the concert, so maybe I’m just too tired to enjoy the evening as fully as I might. Sometimes we have a cracking rehearsal, everyone’s relaxed, we have a bit of a laugh and the singing is wonderful. But come the evening and the nerves kick in (and they can see the audience in all their glory!) and perhaps the songs are not quite as good as they had been that afternoon. That just goes to show that we shouldn’t have expectations: be in the moment, the show will be what the show will be.

Then there’s the audience. As a performer (and now a conductor) I am badly affected by an audience’s response. We all want to be loved by the audience, we want to please them, we want them to think we’re the best thing they’ve ever heard, we want to see happy smiling faces lapping up every moment. And oftentimes that is what happens, but there will always be the few audience members who are looking a bit tired or bored or both (even though they may be having the time of their life) and they are the only audience members I see and I start to think “They’re not enjoying it. They don’t like me. I’m not doing very well. I should give up and buy a shop”. Then I start to doubt myself and perhaps the next song is a bit wobbly because I’ve taken my eye off the ball, which then spooks me a bit, which then means I might make a bigger mistake in the next song and so on. And all because perhaps a single audience member is not smiling enough! How shallow can you get??!!

After the concert last week lots of the choir mentioned how smiley the audience had been. I was beginning to wonder whether we had been playing to the same audience when I realised that the choir see a different audience to the one that I do. Why hadn’t I realised this before! When we are singing and the audience is smiling and enjoying themselves, I have my back to them and simply don’t see. Then when I turn round to announce the next song (or engage them with some so-called witty banter) they become serious because they’re concentrating and listening intently to what I’m telling them about some obscure Eastern European song about a red fez or handkerchief in a puddle. So I’ve decided to commission a pair of wing mirrors like the ones the moods used to have on their scooters. I’ll put one on each shoulder, then whilst I’m conducting I can glance in the mirror to see the rapturous, smiling faces of the audience have the best time of their life!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Get in line!

NB this is a fictional account based on truth and many, many rehearsals. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Any similarity to any choir or individual living or dead is entirely coincidental. No animals were harmed in the making of this blog.

Ours are not primarily performing choirs. The main emphasis is to sing with others and to have fun! However, we now sing to a very high standard (even though we don’t audition) and inevitably choir members look forward to sharing their songs with an audience. Rather than letting rehearsals take over our weekly fun sessions completely, we try to limit ourselves to three performances each year.

Unlike more traditional choirs, we don’t have fixed sections of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Of course, some people might prefer to sing higher or lower, but I always encourage people to move around, try different parts and explore different areas of their vocal range. Also we often have songs with more than four parts or some songs with only two or three parts, so it’s not possible to stick with the traditional divisions.

This is all very well in our weekly sessions where we are free to move about as we like, but when it comes to a public performance, then things get a little more complicated! Somebody might sing in one part for one song, then have to move right down to the other end of the choir for a different part in the next song (if they remember!). Sometimes this might involve most of the choir so the results can be pretty chaotic!

We pride ourselves on being a little different as choirs go: more relaxed, informal and fun, with a greater variety of song styles. Audiences like us for this and our obvious enjoyment and relaxed attitude carries over so that everyone ends up having a good time. We let our individual humanity shine through, whilst working as a team to produce a rich overall sound which is competent but not too polished. However, there is a fine line between being informal and being messy and undisciplined.

At the very least I reckon it’s always good to enter slickly at the beginning of a concert (and to take a neat bow at the end!). To this end, having decided to perform in a horseshoe shape (is this the best shape I wonder?), I always mark out where the front row will be standing by putting tape on the floor. However, getting the choir to stand in roughly the right shape to start with is an entirely different matter! It’s as if everybody leaves their individual sense of space at home, along with their ability to understand the difference between left and right. They also forget how to count, they go deaf and their legs stop working properly. Grown adults who can cope with tricky tunes, strange harmonies and foreign beats suddenly become four years old all over again.

“OK, let’s just get into two rows in a semi-circle”. They all look at me. Some of them go and stand somewhere they think is a good place to stand. They’ve stood there before, so why not try it again? It was a nice place. Another person sees this initiative and goes to stand next to them, even if they don’t sing the same part. Maybe they are friends. People begin to stand in rows of three or even four. Sometimes five. One person is vaguely wandering around because they’ve forgotten which part they sing in this song. “Which part do you sing in this song?” Middle. “But it’s a four part song” I always sing middle. "Yes, but it has four parts, there is no middle". I always sing middle.

One half of the choir is in a dead straight line, whilst the other is in a weird spiral shape. I point out where the front of the stage will be. They look at where I’m pointing, look back at me, then just carry on doing whatever they were doing before. “Two rows please, not three”. Those in three rows nod wisely because they know they’re doing the right thing. “Somebody’s going to have to move, we only want two rows”. Yes, they nod, and stay where they are. “This is the centre of the stage so you’ll have to move to your left. No, left. Not that left, the other left. Yes, you. And you. Not that way. A bit more please. No, not you, you’re fine where you are. Where are you going? You were in the right place!”

“Why is there a big gap between the tops and the altos? Do you not like each other?” Gap? They don’t see a gap. “Just move to your left a little. No, not that left …” “And why is there a big gap here?” That’s where Jane stands. “But Jane’s not doing the concert”. I know, but that’s where she always stands. "And this gap?" What gap? "This one". They look at each other and don't move. "Can we just fill this gap up please?" That's not our gap, we're in the right place. It's them. They point at the tenors. That's where Jane stands.

Finally – somehow – we end up in some semblance of a choir formation. I put tape down at the feet of those in the front row. “OK, now just remember who you’re standing next to, then when we line up to come in, you’ll all be in the right positions”. What song? they ask. “The first one, of course, the one we start the concert with”. Then I’m not in the right place (Neither am I!). So we start over.

These are intelligent, confident, experienced adults who have done this many times before. But something about standing in rows as a choir suddenly becomes very difficult. It’s what takes up most of our final rehearsal: finding our starting positions and moving around between songs. It’s always been like that. It’s maybe similar to the reasons behind bad rehearsal = good concert? At least it gives some of us a good laugh!

Does anybody else have the same experiences? And more importantly: does anybody have any good solutions??!!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, March 11, 2007

In you I trust

This week I had one of those “difficult” rehearsals when nothing seemed to go right! We have a concert coming up this weekend so we were running through the first half of the proposed set. However, I wasn’t feeling very well and certainly wasn’t at my best. The brain just wasn’t working properly! It’s at times like this that it feels like one of those horrible paranoid dreams: you find yourself in a situation where a huge crowd of people are looking at you wanting to know what to do next and you have absolutely no idea!! Fortunately most choir members have been here before and realise that it’s just a blip in our normal routine.

This is where trust comes in. All we can do is trust that we have done our preparation, both collectively (I have taught the songs well and we have rehearsed them sufficiently) and individually (choir members have done their homework, learnt their words and know their part). That is all we can do: prepare well. We then need to trust in the process and try to relax and enjoy the performance.

This same notion of trust comes in when people don’t think they can “sing”. If I behave as if everyone can sing and the song we are learning is not difficult, then it’s as if am giving permission for people to be their best. It is handing over responsibility to the individual, giving them space fully to be themselves, trusting that they can do it. And the results are usually marvellous!

Often people tell me that they can’t understand how I can be so patient. Patient when a song is just not working, patient when a group just can’t seem to get their part right, patient when a rehearsal is going pear-shaped. My response to that is: “what is the alternative?” I know some musical directors who shout or get cross, but from my experience that makes people tense and less likely to get things right! If you believe in the process, believe that people are capable and competent, believe that you are teaching reasonably well, then you just have to wait and it will all come good in the end. That’s my philosophy any way!

Trusting people doesn’t mean becoming complacent and not trying. You do have to do the work and make sure you prepare well. It doesn’t matter how many times we have performed well, I still need to make sure that we work hard to make the concert the best it can be (maybe even better than last time!). Otherwise we will just rest on our laurels and the whole thing may be a disaster.

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Where are all the male singers?

I ran a gospel workshop yesterday and unexpectedly there was a good show of men. Must have been around 15 men in a group of nearly 50. We did a song which I got from the Soweto Gospel Choir and it made such a wonderful difference to the sound having those strong bass voices on the bottom!

Most of the time in my one-day workshops, men are in the minority (I’ve had just the one before now!) so I always make sure that the “tenor” part is in the women’s range. But every now and then I get caught out. I did a Beatles workshop in Coventry a while back and ended up with 20 men in a group of 40 – I had to very quickly adapt the tenor part!

Why is it that more men don’t come to singing workshops? Even in the regular mixed-voice choirs that I run the blokes are in a small minority. It has taken many years to build the bass sections up to a reasonable size so that the male and female voices balance. And even when we do manage to recruit some keen blokes, they often don’t stay for very long!

Three years ago I decided to run an annual men-only harmony singing workshop. I figured that maybe some blokes might find it intimidating to come into a mixed group where they would be in the minority, but might feel more comfortable with just other men. I hoped that I could get more men interested in singing in general, partly so that I could recruit for my own choirs, but also just to get more men singing. One year I publicised the workshop on two local BBC radio stations, sent a mail shot to all the local choirs in the East Midlands region, sent press releases to the local press in five separate towns, used word of mouth through relevant choir members, but still didn’t get a single ‘outsider’ – all the men who came were already in choirs or singing groups. So although the workshop itself gets more popular each year and I’m getting at least 25 men each time, I’ve given up trying to recruit men who might not have sung before in a group.

Why is it so hard to get men interested in singing? I thought it might be that men didn’t like being vulnerable in front of women (hence the men-only workshop), but lots of male voice choirs are having recruitment problems too, and many of them have an average age of 70+. I thought maybe that some of the stuff I do was a bit too esoteric (Georgian and Balkan singing), but I still got hardly any ‘regular’ blokes coming to the Beatles or ABBA workshops that I run. I thought maybe singing wasn’t cool and there weren’t any role models for young men, but we have bands like G4, Westlife, Take That and others, all featuring close harmony singing. There are plenty of men-only groups in other cultures with a healthy mix of ages, so is it just a British thing?

As we all know, there are so many fantastic benefits to singing, not least the stress­ busting and health side-effects. You’d think this would apply to many men in high pressure jobs. I also know that if a man can actually be persuaded to come along to a workshop, he usually ends up enjoying it. One man joined Global Harmony who hadn’t sung before in his life, and had been dragged along by a mate. He now finds himself singing glorious tenor parts in Balkan songs and having the time of his life.

This lack of men is not restricted to punters, it also applies to choir leaders. Of 220+ members of the Natural Voice Practitioners Network, only around 30 are men. I imagine it would be more comfortable for some men if the workshop leader was also a man, so perhaps there are simply not enough opportunities or role models.

In 2003, Community Music Victoria in Australia hosted a gathering to examine why singing isn't an everyday part of the male experience. 20 men and Fay White sang and talked the day away. The results of some of their discussion can be found on the CMV website.

How can we get more men involved in singing? All ideas welcome!!

go to Chris Rowbury's website