Sunday, June 24, 2007

Making a song and dance of it

From my experience with choirs and singing groups it appears on the face of it that we are a rhythmically challenged nation!

I often try to introduce a bit of clapping or steps or syncopation into our warm-ups and songs and am always amazed at the apparent lack of co-ordination and body-awareness amongst the group. As soon as I begin teaching some simple dance steps, or try to clap a simple rhythm that is not on the beat, several people just sit out and don’t even bother to try because they “know” they can’t do it. And some people sit out because “I’ve come here to sing, not dance!”

But of course, we do all have a good sense of rhythm, it’s just that we don’t practice it very often. Rather like people who think they can’t “sing” because they can’t immediately pick up a tune – they are simply out of practice with their listening skills.

It seems to me that this is a cultural phenomenon. Ours has become a very visual and rational/ mental culture. We use our eyes and thinking brains far more than our ears and bodies. Once people have sung in a choir for some time, they get in contact again with their innate listening abilities. They learn to trust their ears and not just their eyes. Similarly, given time and patience, I believe that people can re-discover their innate sense of rhythm and body-awareness.

In this culture we tend to compartmentalise different activities. So, for example, when we’re singing we’re singing, we’re not dancing, so we don’t need to pay any attention to our bodies. And when we’re dancing or clapping out a rhythm, we don’t need our voices. I came across this time and time again when I used to teach at drama school. The lessons themselves were compartmentalised: a movement class followed by a voice class followed by a tap class. When I arrived and tried to teach everything at the same time, there were a lot of confused students!

However, in many other cultures – notably many African cultures – there is very little if any separation between dance, vocal melody and rhythm. You only have to see a group of South Africans for instance singing a song and you cannot see where the dance ends and the song begins – it is all the same thing. So when teaching songs from these cultures, we often find it difficult. It is no good trying to count some complex off-beat rhythm in your head using your conscious brain, it’s just too hard. You have to let your body “dance” the rhythm and then the song’s timing will come automatically. Similarly with the complex 7/8 rhythms common in the Balkans – just learn the dance at the same time and it comes easy!

Often we have found ourselves carrying out a complex task such as patting our head whilst rubbing our tummy and find that sweet moment when it all falls into place. But then as soon as we begin to think (“great, it’s working” or “I hope I’m getting it right”) it all goes disastrously wrong! We need to trust our intuition, our body intelligence, our non-rational brain which is just getting on with the task quite nicely thank you.

The Natural Voice approach to singing which I follow places the relationship between breath, body and voice at its heart. We believe that you simply can’t separate these components to be fully in the song. And it’s no coincidence that much of our repertoire comes from cultures which don’t make these separations.

I once met an instrumentalist who wouldn’t even begin to learn tunes from another culture until she’d been to a few dance classes from that culture. She needed to embed the culture’s “dance” into her body before she even picked up her instrument.

A few years back I was taught an amazing Ysaye Barnwell gospel-like song called Lawd it’s midnight. This is an amazing song with some quite tricky rhythms. We learnt it by having the sheet music in our hands and it took a long time to get it right. Most of the difficulties were to do with the cross rhythms. It occurred to me afterwards that we probably would have learnt it a lot faster if we had put the music down and simply let the rhythms into our bodies!

So next time somebody asks you to move or dance at the same time as you're singing, they're not trying to make life difficult for you, they're actually making it easier for you to learn the song. Just go with it!

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

What is it that you do exactly?

Sometimes it’s easier to say what we don’t do!

This is what we DON'T DO
We don’t sing classical music (well, actually, we do sing the occasional “classical” song – like Plaisir d’Amour – but the bulk of our repertoire is not the typical Western classical canon).

We don’t sing pop songs (well, actually, I recently taught Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy”, and I have tried versions of U2 and the Beatles, but it doesn’t make up the bulk of our repertoire).

We don’t sing folk songs (well, actually, we do sing some English folk songs, although not many – and usually the arrangements are a little unusual – and most of our foreign songs could be said to be “folk” or traditional).

We are not a gospel choir (well, actually, we do sing quite a few gospel and spiritual numbers although we are not a church choir).

We don’t sing close harmony or barbershop (I’m not even sure what “close harmony” means! But as soon as you use words like acappella – which simply means singing without instrumental accompaniment – people immediately assume we sing barbershop).

We aren’t a religious choir (well, actually, we do sing many religious songs – who said the devil has all the best tunes! – but we are definitely a secular choir).

We aren’t like the local choral society or parish singers (now that is true, especially in the sense that we don’t stand in neat rows identically dressed with books in our hands).

We don’t do songs from the shows or easy listening music (that’s true too – mainly because I don’t like musicals!).

And this is what we DO do
So what is it that we do do, and why is it important?

We sing unaccompanied songs in harmony. That is, we don’t involve musical instruments, and most of the time we’re not all singing the tune in unison.

We sing songs from all around the world (in the original foreign language!), usually from cultures and traditions where there is a strong harmony tradition like Eastern Europe, New Zealand, USA, South Africa. That is why we hardly ever do songs from Asia or South America: they simply don’t have a harmony singing tradition. That’s also why we don’t often do British or Irish folk songs. Although there is a harmony singing tradition in this country, songs are often delicate and story-driven so don’t really work (in my opinion) with a large choir. Same with pop songs.

Now we know what we do, the trouble is it’s hard to explain it to potential audience members for our concerts, or participants in our workshops. I’ve tried many different ways over the years, but we still get audience members saying things like: “Oh, that’s what you do ! I really enjoyed it”. How come they were surprised? Hadn't we explained what we do before they came? We know by now that if we just get people along to our workshops or concerts that (usually) they really enjoy themselves. The hard bit is just getting them through the door.

Most people just don’t have the reference points for phrases like world music or acappella or unaccompanied harmony singing. There was a point when we could refer to adverts on television. At one point Ladysmith Black Mambazo (male South African singers, sung with Paul Simon) were used to advertise Heinz baked beans, and the Bulgarian state women’s choir (made a famous CD called Les Mysteres des Voix Bulgares) were used on a car advert. But it’s not happened recently.

So for concerts we rely a lot on word of mouth and friends bringing people along. For workshops, I went through a period of designing several more popular, accessible workshops just to get people singing in harmony (e.g. ABBA, Beatles, gospel, Paul Simon – see our workshops page for more details. Shameless plug: I will be running a residential weekend version of my Paul Simon Songbook workshop in September in the Cotswolds). Having got people along and introduced them to the joys of harmony singing, I can then slip in the odd Balkan song without them noticing!

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Playing catch up PART THREE

Following on from the last two posts, Playing catch up PART ONE and PART TWO, here are some more mundane mumblings looking back at my earlier posts from April and May. Now we’re up to date!

Sounds of silence
Rehearsals for our specially composed piece RUHE are proceeding apace. We are very grateful to Paul in Germany for his help with some of the pronunciation. Although the Koblenz accent is noticeable, at least the whole choir is speaking with one voice as it were. Also, at Fi’s suggestion (many thanks Fi for pointing us towards Sible’s 1999 restoration) we have added the percussion parts for single clave and empty maraca. We toyed with the idea of using Steve Reich’s recent addition of the sound of one hand clapping, but realised that we were simply taking too much on. So, stay tuned, and we look forward to your attendance at the premiere in July. (PS I promise to send the score out to the many of you who wrote in to request it. Unfortunately there has been a run on invisible ink recently, hence the delay).

Coach tour sing-a-long
I pointed out in Singing from the same hymn sheet that one of the reasons I had originally started a choir was that people would at least have some songs in common that they could sing together. So I was extremely heartened by our journey back from the Royal Festival Hall last Saturday. I was sitting in the middle of the coach and there was pretty much non-stop singing from the back half of the bus. Admittedly a few of the songs petered out or deteriorated into unison singing, but I was mightily impressed by the number of songs in harmony that the choir were able to sing without start notes and in full harmony! I could tell by the sound that people were really enjoying themselves and were really giving full voice to the songs. Yes, we had a few “Roll out the barrel” equivalents, but also loads of Georgian, Maori, gospel, African – and even Bosnian Sephardic songs. I was proud as proud could be!

Being in the moment
Many times things just go totally wrong in a rehearsal or at a performance. Often times it’s just not clear what the reason is so I’ve often blamed it on the weather in the past (well, you have to blame it on something!). Thinking about the phenomenon has made me believe more and more in the principle of “living in the now” or “being in the moment”. If you’ve done all your preparation and you come to the rehearsal or performance without expectation, you will always be rewarded – often in unexpected ways. But if you come to the warm-up or concert with a particular outcome in mind, you will almost always be disappointed. A hard skill to practice perhaps, but a very worthwhile one.

Different strokes for different folks
Undoubtedly the “flavour” of the three choirs Woven Chords, WorldSong and Global Harmony is very different (Vive la diffĂ©rence). So it was fascinating last Saturday to combine these three choirs into one large one and to see that the whole functioned as a completely different, fourth flavour of group. The only thing the singers had in common was that they had all learn the same songs (and many, not all, of them had been conducted by me at some point). I was worried that it would be hard to blend three disparate groups together, but it was as if we had been singing together for years! The audience on the South Bank couldn’t believe that we hadn’t really rehearsed together.

The other big difference for me in London on Saturday was the dynamics and make-up of the audience. It made me realise that so often we play to a white, middle class audience, and yet here was an audience made up of people with a much wider range of ages, races and cultures, all enjoying our varied programme. I do wish that the membership of the choirs reflected better the make-up of the community in which we work. Coventry for example is a multi-racial and multi-cultural city, and yet the vast majority of the choir are white. I really don’t know how to change this.

All those silent years
I still don’t know why so many people stop singing between school and their 30s and 40s, but I had another phone call this week from a bloke who wants to come to one of my workshops and said he hasn’t sung for 25 years!

Youth is wasted on the young
I got my copy of Sound Sense’s magazine today and almost all of the articles were about youth singing and music initiatives, or special interest groups like the disabled or the elderly. I know I might sound like some dyed-in-the-wool Tory, but I really wonder why the vast majority of people are seemingly ignored by the funding bodies. Or is it just me?

Mapping the song
I am still persisting with using a musical map to teach a version of La Bamba. I was rather wary when I first unveiled my attempt, but most people seemed to find it useful. We did seem to go faster after I started using the wall charts. Trouble is there are so many of them and it takes ages to put them up on the wall! I just hope that at some point the song will sink in and I can stop using the things. I have found though that since I’ve started putting song lyrics on wall charts, people learn the words much more quickly, even if I do end up handing out the lyrics.

Well, that’s the end of my trawl through my past posts. I hope it’s given you some food for thought and perhaps a greater overview of the topics that I’ve covered since last December. I do appreciate all of you who read this blog, even if you’re not moved to add comments.

However … do try to post a comment now and again, even if it’s just a one liner. I hope to create more of a dialogue and am always looking for new ideas and suggestions. Thanks for reading!

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Playing catch up PART TWO

Following on from last week’s post, Playing catch up PART ONE, here are some more random ramblings looking back at my earlier posts from February and March.

Choirs are still cool!
First off, I read an interesting article in the Guardian last week that chimed in with my very first post way back in December 2006: Choirs are becoming cool. The article is called Choral satisfaction and begins with the sentence: “First it was knitting and embroidery, now choir practice is cool.” The article covers several choirs and makes interesting reading.

Trust in your listening skills
The post Papa’s got a brand new song threw up a couple of comments. Fiona made the very valid point that “a player or singer who plays/ sings by ear is no less a musician than the one who reads the quavers and stave”. Yet we are still a mainly visual culture so people feel much more comfortable with something to look at. The majority of people find it very hard to just listen and take time to let something sink in. We want a quick fix and often don’t have the patience to listen again and again to a song, but expect to pick it up in a couple of goes (and then think we can’t ‘sing’ because we can’t learnt it fast enough!). The thing to remember is that in learning by ear, we’re trying to short-circuit a process that takes many years in most aural cultures. As Paul points out in his comment, a modern correlate to this is to use MP3s or a parts CD in the car, and simply listen to your part again and again. Although this is very effective, the main drawback, as Paul points out, is that it takes away the social and communal aspect of learning in a group.

Men’s songs
Where did you get that song? is uppermost in my mind at the moment as I’m trying to find suitable songs for my forthcoming men’s harmony singing workshop. This is a very specific area, so is a little harder to research. I’m trying to identify cultures where men sing together traditionally, i.e. there are special ‘men songs’ in the culture, rather than just a male voice version of a song. The obvious ones spring to mind: Republic of Georgia, chain gangs in the US, South African mbube tradition (e.g. Ladysmith Black Mambazo), Russian church music, sea shanties, etc. I’m sure there are more, and all suggestions will be gratefully received!

Harmony singing traditions across the globe
On a similar note, it would be really useful to identify those cultures in the world which have a harmony singing tradition. I’m often asked by choir members why we don’t sing songs from India or the Middle East for example. Sure, there may be Western choral arrangements of songs from those parts of the world, but there is not an indigenous unaccompanied harmony singing tradition. I’m very tempted to go back to college to study ethnomusicology just to find out! I remember a Georgian ethnomusicologist once telling me about a European country which is bisected by the Danube, and regions south of the river don’t have a harmony singing tradition, whereas those regions north of the river do. Go figure!

How the brain remembers songs
I’m still absolutely fascinated by the Singing memory. Again recently I have been in a position where I’m about to sing a song I’ve not sung for ages and have no idea how it goes, or what the words are, then I open my mouth and it all comes tumbling out! Does anybody else have the same experience? Also, I need to know the first word of a song sometimes to just remember how the tune goes, which proves to me at least that the words and melody are stored together in the brain. And the thing that never, ever ceases to amaze me is how the choir might leave a song alone for maybe a year or so which has not been going particularly well, then a year later, with no practice in between, they sing it perfectly! The secret is to leave the brain alone and it somehow manages to sort everything out without our conscious intervention.

Singing the oldies
Thinking of the new singers in our choir, I’ve recently made another parts CD for WorldSong as we have a big anniversary concert coming up in the summer. This means that we now have seven parts CDs available, covering around 90 songs. As time goes by therefore, it becomes more and more daunting for new members as they realise that they have such a lot of past repertoire to catch up with (WorldSong now have about 190 songs in our repertoire, including rounds and warm-up songs). I try to make it very clear that there is absolutely no necessity to learn any of the oldies. I always make sure that there are at least half a dozen songs that new members can join in with in their first concert. I suggest that people make a note of any old songs they hear that they really like, and then take plenty of time to learn them from a parts CD one at a time. Nevertheless, there are still people who feel that they need to catch up and buy all the parts CDs and try to learn everything!

Men singing (or not!)
I’m still wondering where all the male singers are and trying to get more men to sing by running an annual men-only harmony singing workshop. Knowing how quickly people get booked up, and also how often work intervenes in men’s leisure activities, I sent out a round robin email earlier in the year to let people know the date and place of my men’s workshop. I’ve recently sent out the final details and have had quite a few replies letting me know that they’re still interested, but unfortunately are busy on the day! I do find that women in general tend to prioritise their leisure and social activities more. I just hope I get enough blokes to make it worthwhile this year! It’s always fun and we end up making a great sound, so please spread the word to any guys who you think might be interested: Men's harmony singing workshop on June 23rd in Leicester .

Trust in me!
Been having some interesting conversations in Minor Chords recently about where we might go next, and how we might up our game a little. This has brought up the issue of trust again. A consensus seems to be that people want me to be stricter and not let them get away with so much! Well, that’s just not my style. I figure that we’re all adults now and it’s up to choir members to find their own motivation, self-discipline, professional attitude, etc. Part of me trusting choir members is that I believe it brings out the best in people, but the other side of it is that I don’t see it as my job to discipline people or to keep on their case. We’re not at school any more, so singers have to take their own responsibility. My job is as an enabler and facilitator. However, as Tony points out in his comment, being patient 99% of the time means that when I do let rip, people know that I really mean it!!

Standing up for yourself
Got quite a few comments about my Get in line post. Seems that lots of people enjoyed it and could really relate to it! This Saturday (9th June) I’ll be taking three choirs to the Royal Festival Hall’s ‘Overture’ weekend to make one big choir of 100 singers. We'll be doing a half hour set on the stage outside the Hayward Gallery at 3pm. Although I will have rehearsed two choirs personally, and the third knows the same songs, we will not have had a chance to rehearse together. Since I trust that everyone knows what they’re doing (see above), the singing should be fine. I’m most worried about how to get 100 people on stage into the correct places and not look like a right mess! It turns out though that we won’t have a chance to actually try out on the stage, but will just have to busk it. Wish us luck!

I had a great time actually
So maybe I didn’t have a great time at our Woven Chords concert in March. But I had an even worse time at our Minor Chords concert in April as part of Stamford’s Festival of Performing Arts. Our rehearsal was fantastic, but the actual performance was not a patch on it. Mind you, as always, I doubt if the audience noticed anything awry (except when we had to start a song again because it was so badly out of tune!). Apart from the fact that it wasn’t really our usual sort of audience, there wasn’t really any excuse. For once, I don’t think any of us really enjoyed it! Yet a few weeks later in a small village hall on a tiny stage, we performed a whole evening’s worth of songs and all enjoyed every minute of it. It’s such a subtle and uncontrollable thing that you just have to go into it with wide-eyed enthusiasm each time, and hope for the best. Let’s hope Saturday at the Royal Festival Hall is a good one!!

I’m going to stop there and cover my April and May posts in the final look back next week.

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