Sunday, April 29, 2007

When and why do we stop singing?

The average age of people who attend the choirs and workshops that I run must be in the mid-40s. I would say that about a third of any group is of retirement age, and the majority of the rest are in their late 30s/ early 40s. Most of these people sang at school.

There were always plenty of opportunities (certainly in my early school days in the 1950s): morning assembly, “music & movement” on the radio, the school choir (especially at Christmas), cubs and scouts, local church choir. I sang in all of these regularly. I even persuaded my Mum to go to my primary school and complain when I didn’t get into the school choir! They relented (my Mum is a force to reckon with) and I joined.

When I was about 15 or 16 I started a band with my mates and we sang lots of Beatles songs. I distinctly remember sitting in the garden on the swing singing along with “I wanna hold your hand” on the radio when it first came out. I loved singing and used to harmonise automatically with all the pop songs on TV (“Juke Box Jury”, “6-5 Special”) and radio. So it’s not as if there weren’t any role models for adolescents.

Then it all stopped and I didn’t really come back to singing until I was working in theatre in the early 1990s. They say it’s often because boys’ voices break and during that embarrassing transition they find something else to do. But I have heard similar stories from many women who join choirs or come to my singing workshops. Only this weekend at an open workshop a woman came up to thank me and said it’s the first time she’d sung for 50 years!

These people obviously love singing, but have let it lie dormant for such a long period. There is clearly a strong desire to re-connect with their singing voice as it’s quite a brave thing to walk into an open workshop when you’ve not sung for such a long time. I often wonder what has compelled that person to come back to singing at that specific moment. After 50 years, why now? Why this particular weekend?

Many people who come back to singing were put off in some way when they were kids: “stand at the back and mime”, “will you stop that awful racket!”, “you can’t be in the choir, you’re not good enough”. We have such a personal relationship with our voices that this can cause a huge set-back and put people off singing for a long time. But the desire must still be there to express ourselves through our voices otherwise people wouldn’t come back to singing in their later life.

One approach is to “catch ‘em young”. The theory being that if we turn kids onto singing and music, then it’s a lifelong bug that will stay with them. But clearly it’s not as simple as that. Next week I’ll talk a bit about the government’s new school singing initiative and why I feel that it’s misguided (Children and special interest groups first).

In the meantime, if you came back to singing later in life, perhaps you’d like to let us know your story. Why did you stop singing from when you were a kid?

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Vive la différence!

I currently run three singing groups: Minor Chords (12 women); WorldSong (around 60 singers, of whom about a dozen are men); and Woven Chords (over 80 singers with only around nine basses!). I therefore have to think quite carefully when choosing which songs to do with which group. It’s great to be able to do big, lush arrangements with the 80-piece choir, but it’s just as wonderful to be able to do more subtle, quieter material with just 12 voices or less.

This is made very difficult however when I run a one-day singing workshop as I usually have no idea how many people will turn up, nor what the male/ female mix will be. I usually assume that we won’t have many blokes, so always adapt the “tenor” line so women can sing it. However, at one workshop a couple of years ago about half the group (20 or so) turned out to be men! I had some quick re-arranging to do.

What I have found really surprising though is the difference in “flavour” of the community choirs I have run. When I used to lead Global Harmony in Melton Mowbray, I then had three mixed community choirs of roughly the same size and composition. They were all founded on the same principles (i.e. that anyone can join regardless of experience), covered the same sort of repertoire, and met for the same amount of time each week. And yet each choir had its own distinct “personality” and dynamics. Some songs would work really well with one choir, but not with another. One choir might be able to cope with a tricky rhythm or harmony, yet another choir (which perhaps had been going for longer) would find it just too difficult. Over time I started to realise which songs would appeal to which choir. So when I am sourcing material, it is usually quite obvious which choir I will teach a particular song to – regardless of mix of voices or size, just because that choir will appreciate it and enjoy it more. Some songs which have just not worked with one choir, will come alive with another.

Why is this? How come two groups of adults formed in exactly the same way can end up having such a different group personality? The only difference being the geographical location! The gender and age mix of each choir is very similar; the tastes of the singers is similar (i.e. they’re all attracted to the kind of repertoire that I offer); everyone enjoys the way that I teach and is now very much used to it; there is the same mix of members who have been with the choir for some time together with people who have joined this term. So why the difference?

Can the demographic of a town account for such a different group dynamic? Or is it that a very small group of individuals can have a big effect on a large group?

I remember once doing a theatre show which was very funny (all audiences so far had laughed a lot each time we’d performed the show), yet one night we got hardly a titter. There must have been about 40 people in the (capacity) audience (it was a very small venue!), yet hardly any audible laughs. When we talked to some friends about it afterwards, they said that although they had found it very funny, they had felt that the atmosphere in the room somehow meant that they couldn’t laugh out loud. Similarly, when we played to around 120 people at our Stamford Christmas concert last year, we walked on stage to complete silence! Not a single person clapped. It was as if they had all discussed it beforehand and come to an agreement.

I find group dynamics endlessly fascinating. It may be that when I tried to blame it on the weather in last week’s post, it was simply the group dynamic having a strong effect on one particular evening. I wonder how many individuals it takes to affect a large group? Can one person influence a whole choir or does it need a small group?

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Blame it on the weather

Sometimes we’re just out of tune. All of us. Whether it’s six, or sixteen or sixty singers, sometimes everyone is out of tune. They’re out of tune with each other, the harmonies just aren’t working, the pitch is dropping dreadfully – it just isn’t working.

Now if this were just one or two people then OK, perhaps they’re having an off day or are tired or had a difficult day at work. But the whole group??!! What’s going on here? A few out of tune voices might have a slight knock-on effect to those around them, but how come the whole team is off key? This doesn’t happen often, but it’s happened enough times for me to realise that it’s a recognisable phenomenon. There is nothing one can do about it (I’ve tried!). So I just blame it on the weather. It’s not the singers’ fault, it’s something outside them that’s affecting the whole room. Maybe it’s the full moon, or we’re in a high pressure area, or the humidity’s low – whatever it is, it’s nothing to do with us.

This is very different from those rehearsals where things seem to be going wrong, but it’s just a case of a bit of a pep talk, a heightening of focus and attention, or simply running the song again and everything's back on track. This we can fix. In those cases we get back in tune OK. But not on bad weather days.

It’s happened enough times now for me to just point it out and try to get everyone to accept the situation. “It’s just one of those nights! Next week will be fine” At first it really spooked me. We had such a good session the previous week and now it’s all going pear-shaped. It must be my fault, I’m not teaching very well or maybe I should be doing something different. Then I remembered my days as a runner.

I used to be a long-distance runner, culminating in a half-marathon before I had to give it all up (don’t ask!). Most nights I would go out jogging for a good few miles come rain or shine. Many times I’d get back home on a real runner’s high. No matter how wretched or tired I felt when I set off, I’d come back glowing and full of energy. The next night I’d set off perhaps feeling a bit low but knowing that at the end of it I’d feel great. Only sometimes I didn’t! I began to realise that how I felt at the end of my run was kind of random. Many times I’d feel good, but sometimes I’d feel lousy. If I tried to hang onto the memories and feelings of the last good run and expect to come back feeling wonderful, I’d only get doubly disappointed. So I learnt to have no expectations. What happened would happen, despite me.

I think this is what Zen calls beginner’s mind. The idea that each time you do something, no matter how many times you’ve done it before, you approach it as if it were the first time. This also connects with my time as an actor. I used to do a lot of improvisation and at first would try to repeat the things that went well the last time. But of course it’s never as good or as spontaneous the second time round. So I learnt to approach each improvisation as if it were the first time (which of course it was!).

This can be applied not only to “bad weather” sessions, but also to warm-ups and performances. I try to vary the warm-ups and vocal training each week, but inevitably (and usefully) we often repeat the same exercises. There are two ways of dealing with this: either you can just go through the motions because you’ve done it loads of times before and you just want to get through it to get onto the singing (the fun part!), or you can have a beginner’s mind and approach the exercise as if you have never done it before. You may then discover new things about how your body and voice work, you will stay engaged and fascinated, and you will benefit from the warm-up much more.

Similarly, when a concert comes along, you can try to re-create the wonderful performance that you had the last time, or you can behave as if you have never done this before, be totally in the moment, and move into the unknown, learning, wondering and developing as you go.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Singing from the same hymn sheet

I’m not a religious man myself, but I happened to spend Passover with a Jewish family last week. I also ran a workshop entitled Sacred Songs to Soothe the Soul (and they say the devil has all the best tunes!). And this weekend it’s Easter, a time (along with Christmas) when many non-churchgoers go to church. What unites these seemingly disparate events is song. An important part of the Passover Seder (the ritual feast which takes place on the eve of Passover) are the traditional songs. Every Jewish family will have learnt these as part of growing up. Similarly, most people brought up as Christians, even though they don’t attend church regularly, will know many of the familiar hymns. So, as well as being religious events, Easter and Passover are two examples of several cultural occasions where people come together to sing songs that they have in common.

What was interesting at my first Passover Seder was that when the rituals had ended there was a desire to continue singing. However, once the few Hebrew and Yiddish songs that everyone knew had been exhausted, it became increasingly difficult to find songs that everybody knew. Gradually the songs moved back into childhood: simple rounds, clapping games, playground songs, and finally theme tunes from children’s TV programmes, until eventually the whole enterprise fizzled out.

I’m sure it would have been the same after church on Easter Sunday. Even if people wanted to continue to sing, they would find it difficult (after they’d all sung Robbie Williams’ Angels and then perhaps Roll out the barrel) to find songs in common. The desire is there, the willingness to join in and let the voice loose. The feeling of community and shared endeavour carries over from the hymn singing, but doesn’t last because we simply have so few songs in common other than those in a religious context. I suppose the nearest equivalent in our increasingly secular society are the sing-alongs during rock and pop concerts and festivals where everyone there knows the lyrics and tune.

Many people look back to the good old days when we all used to gather round a piano and just sing for hours, or all join in a good sing-song down the local pub. I do think this might be a bit of romantic wishful thinking though. I have a book called “Daily Express” community song book which came out of the Daily Express’s Community Singing Movement launched at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1926. This movement seems to have been an attempt to get people singing together again. The News Chronicle Song Book was a similar venture published around the same time. At the very least it shows that even then there was a desire for people to learn the same songs in order to sing them together in community settings. The implication being that the singing of songs together had started to die out.

It was this joy of singing together that prompted me to start my first choir back in 1997. I would often try to start a sing-along whenever a group of like-minded people gathered, but inevitably we would have no songs in common or would only know the words for the first few lines. So I thought I would start a group and teach some songs so at least we’d have a bunch to call on whenever we were down the pub or fancied a good sing. It did take some while however before the first time we just burst into song in a pub without the need for lyric sheets or starting notes! Things are getting a lot better now, and there is even a short list of songs known by an increasing number of community choirs across the country. So wherever we go in the UK and come across another choir, there’s a very good chance we’ll have at least one song in common that doesn’t need an associated religious ceremony!

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Quiet at the back please!

I find it hard to believe, but I started my choir WorldSong way back in October 1997, so this is our tenth year of operation! We are planning several events this year to celebrate our 10th anniversary.

photo by Foxtongue

One of these involves a song commissioned especially for the choir.

We thought it would be great to try something really different, so we have commissioned Klaus Santas, a well-known choral composer based in London, to write us an extended choral piece that is possible to learn without written music. Santas studied with John Cage in Frankfurt in the 1980s, and has composed several operas which are regularly performed in his native Paraguay.

We are very excited by this new piece written in German and Spanish which we have recently started working on. The main difference for us is that we will be singing mainly without using our voices. This presents particular challenges to a community choir who usually express themselves vocally. Another added difficulty is maintaining a strict tempo whilst remaining completely silent. I have spent quite a lot of time developing particular warm-up exercises to help people keep time with each other by counting in their heads. At first it was almost impossible, but I’ve found that by engaging the body the choir are becoming tighter and more accurate by the week.

The new piece, entitled RUHE, is in three “movements”, each in a different key and each at a very different tempo. All three sections are in four part harmony, so there is quite a lot of new material to learn! Given that there is no actual noise coming out of the singers mouths, it is proving to be very difficult to pitch the harmonies accurately, even though they are fairly traditional major keys.

One final challenge for us is the length of the piece: 4 hours and 33 minutes. We are hoping to premiere it at our grand summer concert in Coventry, but are slightly worried that we won’t be able to fit enough other songs in to make for a varied evening of entertainment.

If you are interested in receiving a score of this piece so you can sing it with your own community choir, one will be available after our concert in July. In the meantime, listen out for sound clips on our website.

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