Sunday, May 27, 2007

Playing catch up PART ONE

I thought I would take this opportunity (it being our half term break and all) to look back over my posts to this blog and discuss any developments or comments that have arisen. In this post I’ll cover December and January, then continue in the next post rather than make it too long!

We have a big and exciting gig coming up on Saturday 9th June at 3pm. We (that is Woven Chords, WorldSong and Global Harmony) have been invited to perform at the Royal Festival Hall’s re-opening Overture weekend. We will be doing a half hour set of songs that all three choirs know, but have not performed together before. We won’t get a chance to rehearse together, and maybe very little time to even work out how to stand on stage as a 100-piece choir! We will be performing outdoors on a stage outside the Hayward Gallery.

Singing outdoors
Looking back at my post How audiences affect us, reminds me that I really really don’t like performing outdoors. Not only are the acoustics often lousy so the singers can’t hear each other properly (hence we go out of tune and out of time easily), and maybe it might rain, but the audience are free to stay and listen or wander off as they please. Unlike the audience who have come especially to hear the choir, have paid for a ticket and will be seated throughout the performance. Maybe it’s just me, but my heart does sink when I see even one audience member look bored and walk away! It is, of course, the acid test to see if you can keep an audience interested, but we are not primarily performing choirs so haven’t really spent enough time on developing our performance skills, since that is not our main focus.

Then, of course, there will be the problem of getting 100 people to stand in the right places and not fall off the stage (Get in line!)!

Standing to sing
This is the third term now since I’ve dispensed with chairs during our weekly sessions (Fighting habit and complacency). The vast majority of people have now got used to this and are actually enjoying it! They have discovered the benefits to their voices and overall energy levels, and also the flexibility of being able to move around the space and sing their parts to other people. Any change takes a while to bed in, but I think this has generally been a change for the good.

Minor Chords
Minor Chords recently had their annual “at home” concert in Stamford. We had been noticing that often the our rehearsals went really well, but the standard dropped in performance (the opposite of Bad rehearsal=good concert?). We discussed the various reasons why this might be, and the result was a greatly improved performance and a well-received concert which we all enjoyed. We are going to take stock at our next session and decide where we go next. We have been together for six years now, so maybe it’s time to shake things up a little and approach things in a different way!

Performance skills
One of the difficulties in improving the performance standards of any of the groups that I lead is that we are not primarily performing groups. When you join any of these open access singing groups, you basically sign up for regular sessions to learn harmony songs and to have fun. The performance opportunities are purely voluntary (although in practice, pretty much everyone wants to perform when the opportunity arises!). This means that we always seem to be performing by the seat of our pants. We do rehearse a fair amount, but I try not to disrupt our weekly sessions too much, and try very hard to keep the emphasis on fun. This may result in people feeling under-rehearsed.

The only solution to this that I can think of is that our weekly sessions effectively become rehearsals for our end of term concerts. We would not learn any new material, but go over and over the songs we will be performing. We would focus on performance skills, how to stand and present ourselves, staying on pitch, etc. etc. But to my mind, this would radically change the nature of the group and we would lose a lot of the fun element. There are many groups who function like this, who maybe perform a dozen or more times each year with pretty much the same repertoire. However, I feel that our groups have a somewhat different flavour. The challenge then is how to develop performance skills and stretch ourselves as a group whilst keeping the basic nature of our weekly sessions, and only performing a few times a year?

Learning words
For the last two terms I have continued to experiment with putting words on large sheets of paper rather than handing out lyrics (The writing’s on the wall). This has worked fantastically well with relatively simple songs, but the jury’s still out on the slightly more complex or very foreign-seeming lyrics. Also, I’m not sure yet how long and complex lyrics can be and still be learnt by this method. I’ve bottled out on a few songs (those with more than two verses, and songs like the Welsh national anthem – in Welsh, of course!). When I first introduced this method, people did pay attention and focused on the words on the wall, but increasingly people are beginning to write the words down as soon as they go up, which kind of defeats the object!

Not using words in concerts
I still haven’t figured out a method of getting people to learn their words and not have pieces of paper in concerts (Words are flowing out like endless rain … ). WorldSong have a big concert in July to celebrate their 10th anniversary. It will be in a 650-seat theatre and we’re going to try and make it something really special. So I have given plenty of notice that I really, really don’t want people to use words. They now have loads of time to put the work in and learn them. But some people are already coming up to me and saying they are finding some songs just impossible. So what do you do? I don’t want to put the fear of God into people (as some choir leaders do), but I can’t think of any sanctions to use either (“if you don’t learn the words you can’t sing in the concert”). I really can’t think of any other approaches, but would gratefully hear of any suggestions!

Beyond verse one
I have tried with several new songs to teach a musical phrase, then to practice it with words from all the verses of the song and not just the first. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the other verses get remembered equally well, but it does mean that people get familiar with the other words, and tend not to stumble over the foreign ones quite as much.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

How many conductors does it take to lead a choir?

It dawned on me recently that my job as musical director of the women’s ensemble Minor Chords is to make myself redundant! I research, arrange and teach a variety of songs to the group, but there are only 11 singers, so when it comes to performance, in theory, they shouldn’t need a conductor. My reasoning is that with a group of this size it would encourage the singers to really pay attention to each other and work as a team rather than focusing on me. Also, on a very practical level, since the group is so small, I feel very conspicuous standing in front of them and believe that I often block them from the audience’s view.

However, the group as a whole seem reluctant to let me go! I wonder if this is just because they are used to me conducting and haven’t yet developed the necessary skills to “lead” themselves, or does size matter? Is there a minimum size of singing group below which a conductor is simply not needed (at least not one who stands out the front and waves their arms)? Or to ask a slightly different question: how big can a group get without having someone lead them out front?

I have seen several examples recently which have made me think. Although I didn’t see them personally, the Russian Ensemble Hermitage have recently toured. The ensemble consists of six men, all very accomplished with years of opera and conservatory training behind them, and yet one of them acts as conductor. On the other hand, I recently saw Northern Harmony on tour with 14 singers and they had no conductor out front. One individual is usually responsible for giving a starting note, but different individuals “lead” from where they happen to be standing. It might simply be to count in, or they may subtly move their hand to keep the song in time.

Another group I saw last year, The Shout, had about a dozen singers on stage. Their musical director Orlando Gough often sings with them, but when he’s not, he simply sits in the auditorium watching rather than conducting. The trio that I used to sing with had no conductor. I used to give the starting notes, but we used to watch and listen to each other very closely to keep time and tune.

At the other extreme, I know of two large community choirs (the Manchester Community Choir and the Gasworks Choir) who have had two conductors/ leaders. The two leaders also run the rehearsals jointly.

So maybe with a group of just 11 it is possible to go either way: with or without a conductor. But is one way better? Does a conductor mean a better, tighter performance? Or does not having a conductor lead to a more accomplished, together group who are really listening to and paying attention to each other?

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Complex songs and learning by ear: musical maps

The choirs and workshops that I lead are run on the principle that music should be accessible to all. One of the outcomes of this is that I don’t use written music to teach since I can’t assume that everyone can read music. This also chimes in with the kind of material that I use which often comes from cultures and traditions where songs are passed down from generation to generation through the oral/ aural tradition. Many such songs are quite short and fairly repetitive without many words, so lend themselves to being taught by ear. This kind of material is particularly suitable for short workshops as the songs are quite easy to learn and I can offer a range of different styles in a relatively short period of time.

However, in a choir which meets regularly, singing such “easy” short songs soon becomes unsatisfying and we like to add something more challenging to our singing diet. One obvious development is to use songs which have several verses which we can then build up in performance by adding harmonies as the song progresses, thus adding interest for an audience. We can also tackle longer pieces that are basically several shorter songs tacked together, different “movements” if you like. Many South African songs fit into this category (e.g. Nkosi sikelel'i Afrika, Ladysmith Black Mambazo's version of Amazing Grace, Akanamandla). We can learn a new part each term and gradually extend the song as time goes by. We’ve also tackled longer church songs from Eastern Europe. In these, the melody lines go through a few subtle changes as the song progresses, but the individual units of melody are quite easy to learn and the overall effect is to add interest and texture to a song.

But then we come to more complex (usually modern) arrangements of songs, or songs which are fairly intricate and yet each part is frustratingly similar so very hard to learn. Recently I tried to teach Samuel Barber’s vocal version of his famous Adagio for Strings (Agnus Dei), but had to give up because there were so many long sustained notes and no easy way of knowing how long they should each be held. Then with a big choir I wanted to teach Ysaye Barnwell’s Lawd it’s midnight. I had originally been taught this using the written score, but the timing is complicated and I am convinced it will be much easier to teach the timing by ear and by allowing the rhythm into the body. The trouble is, the melody and parts are too complex to do this way!

Currently I am teaching a four-part arrangement of the Mexican song La Bamba. It is a fairly straightforward arrangement in that it follows the well-known tune and there are no weird chords, but there are lots of backing parts with short riffs that are repeated, then a short filler phrase, then the riff repeated again but with minor variations. It is very easy to lose track of how many times you’ve sung a particular riff, and exactly when you have to put the little filler parts in. We are progressing, but very slowly. The question in my mind now, is do I persist teaching it by ear or is there another (better?) way? Can I find a more effective way of teaching it by ear, or do I need something visual to help the singers know where they are?

One way to tackle complex songs would be to record all the parts on a CD and give it out to the singers to learn at home. But this removes the fun and community spirit of learning together in our weekly sessions. Also, some complex songs would still be hard to learn like this by just listening, even if singers can hear the other parts at the same time. I don’t want to end up in concert with singers counting on their fingers to know how many times to sing a particular riff!

In many cases it seems it would help to have some kind of map to help the singers learn the overall structure of the song. “Why not simply give them the music?”, you ask. Well, I suppose I could. Even if people can’t read music very well, they could at least use the scores to see where their part changed and how many times bits repeated. I’m reluctant to do this for several reasons. One is that it’s a slippery slope and there may be a demand to have the music for all the songs we sing (I know some individuals would be much more comfortable if this were the case!). This somehow goes against the spirit of the choir and the fun learning experience we have each session. But perhaps more worryingly, having given out the music which represents a complex song, how can I persuade people to put it down when it comes to performance? It’s hard enough getting people to learn the words to songs!

The other weekend I did a workshop with Northern Harmony. For some of the Georgian and Corsican songs in their repertoire, rather than produce a complete written score, they used a schematic technique to show a map of the melody lines of each part:

This was fairly easy to follow once a line had been sung to us a few times. (Strangely enough this is exactly the kind of notation that many bass partsin my choirs invent independently. It's usually the bass part because they don't often have an easily recognisable tune. When I point out that this is a music notation, they usually deny it, somehow believing that written music must be something far more difficult and clever!) This method is very effective for mapping out melody lines, especially when they vary just slightly throughout a piece, but not very useful when we're dealing with the overall structure of a complex song.

At the moment I am experimenting with a variety of visual maps that might help the singers navigate their way through a complex structure and help them to learn their part. I'm not quite sure what their final form will be, but at the moment I'm thinking of different shapes (boxes, ovals, etc.) and colours. My first experiment with this method will be to put them up on the wall in rehearsal rather than hand them out to individuals. I hope this will mean they won’t need pieces of paper in the concert! I’ll keep you posted on my progress. In the meantime, if anyone else has any ideas …!

My question to you is: what is the limit in complexity that can be taught by ear? Can we teach anything by ear given enough time? If we need to resort to some kind of map or written score, how do we then get it out of people’s hands for performances?

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Children and special interest groups first?

Following last week’s post, somebody reminded me that the name of the BBC Radio programme which taught traditional songs from different cultures was Singing Together. It dates back to the 1950s at least, and was still on the radio until recently (2004).

There still is an abundance of music activities available to children, and in particular there is a big movement on at the moment to revive singing in schools. In January the Dept. for Education and Skills announced a £10 million package to boost music and singing for young people and appointed composer Howard Goodall as the new singing ambassador. The initiative is part of the government’s response to Music Manifesto’s report: Making Every Child’s Music Matter.

I am, however, very sceptical. It seems to me that this is another case of pendulum swinging: there was once vibrant music provision in schools which has since been cut back, and now the government want to re-instate it. But how will this affect the place of music in people’s lives as they get older? It’s all very well pumping money and effort into kids’ 12 or so years at school, but what then? Why do people not keep up singing through their 20s and 30s in general?

There are so many initiatives these days for particular, well-defined groups like the young, the disadvantaged and the old. But what about the people in the middle? All that money and effort goes into introducing young people to music, then they’re left to their own devices when they leave school. Choirs are often seen as a little fuddy duddy and formal, and evening classes are for grown ups (besides, who wants to go back to studying so soon?!). There are youth orchestras, youth bands, youth choirs, young people’s workshops, song writing initiatives for young people, studios for kids, etc. etc. But then what?

Apparently the dark ages of music and singing in schools is over. No more: “stand at the back and mime”, or “you’re not good enough to be in the choir”. But us Natural Voice Practitioners still get people coming to us who were thoroughly put off by their experience of music teaching in schools.

It could be argued that singing in a group is just not cool enough for young people once they’ve left school. But what about all the role models in pop music of boy and girl bands singing in close harmony? And how come that when people do eventually come back to singing, they say how much they’ve missed it?

Answers please, on a postcard to …

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