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!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Chris Rowbury


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