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??!!

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Chris Rowbury


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