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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Chris Rowbury


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