Sunday, July 29, 2007

Where does the music reside?

I met a painter in a gallery today and he asked me if I was an artist or had any interest in fine art. I told him that I didn’t paint, but that I worked with music and that I was also fascinated by the creative process. He then asked me: “Where do you think the music resides? Is it in the written score?”. I was rather lost for words at that moment and didn’t really understand the question. Finally I answered: “I believe that music resides in the humanity of the people creating it”.

We went on to talk about how some people are attracted to the purity of the written score and the idea of the perfect realisation of it in practice. Of course, one can never perfectly realise a written piece of music (not least because music notation is not an exact system) because the people who create the music are error-prone and not perfect creatures. But even if we could do that, wouldn’t that be rather like machine-produced music? I for one don’t really enjoy choral concerts where the singing is so, so, ever so precise. The enunciation is perfect, as is the blend of voices – so much so that it can sometimes sound like a single voice singing. No! Give me some humanity! I love the different textures of all the individuals in the choir, I appreciate everyone’s unique contribution to the overall sound. I enjoy it when not everyone is singing exactly the same pitch – that is where the harmonics, overtones and fullness of the sound come from. I adore it when each person’s timing is slightly different, when small errors are made. In short, I love it when all the imperfections that we human beings are made up of are fully expressed through the singing.

I have heard singers who have ‘beautiful’ voices, who sing perfectly in tune, whose technique and talent are remarkable, and yet they leave me unmoved. However, I can hear some rusty old recording of a group of elderly villagers in the Balkans giving voice to an age-old traditional song, and I can be almost moved to tears. They are communicating with me, they are telling me the story, they are working as one to express their humanity and their joy, and I in turn am moved.

This weekend I was in the rare position of running three entirely different workshops in three different places with three different sets of participants. It reinforced for me what happens in workshops. All three were open access, no experience necessary, no musical scores in sight, no real expectations (except to have fun!), and yet they all produced the most wonderful, magical sounds. The whole experience was uplifting both for me and the participants. It reminded me how universal singing is, and how egalitarian and levelling singing harmony together can be. I had no idea who these people were, what they did for a living, or if they had had any singing training or experience. The only instruction was to sing a part that they felt was comfortably within their own range. People ended up standing next to strangers who they had only just met, and yet they worked as a team helping to create an overall sound. Nobody was really worried about whether they had a ‘beautiful’ voice or not as they were soon taken over by the music itself. And I just stood back and listened to the most beautiful harmony singing and was moved once more by the power of the music. And where did the music reside at that moment? In the hearts and souls of every single person who made up the group.

Yet still – unfortunately – people believe that they can’t ‘sing’ or that music-making is not meant for them. One of the workshop participants wrote to me: “I’m completely new to this kind of thing, having believed all my life that singing in choirs was something that ‘other people’ do.” Luckily he realised that singing is open to all of us and has now joined a local choir.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Who is our audience?

WorldSong’s 10th anniversary concert last Saturday was a triumph — even if I do say so myself! At least in our terms it was a huge success and a big leap forward.
  • we had an audience three times our normal size (which made our 650-seat theatre look comfortably full)
  • we ended up with the biggest choir we’ve ever had on stage (all but two of the choir managed to be at the concert: two members volunteered to help front of house, whilst two others had already booked holidays)
  • we had a wide range of different configurations on stage (solos, men-only, women-only, conductorless, small groups, a big group filling the stage)
  • the vast majority of choir members had risen to the challenge and learnt the words to pretty much all of the 33 songs that we sang (the Welsh one was quite hard!)
  • we pulled off several challenging moves (entering from the back of the auditorium whilst singing, dancing to South African songs, being accompanied by drums)
  • several songs were sung without me having to conduct them

We had a varied and mixed audience including quite a few ex-choir members, and a few singers from our sister choirs Woven Chords and Global Harmony. In the interval I met some people from Swaziland, Slovakia and Uganda, and I know there were audience members from Poland, Lithuania and South Africa.

However, the most noticeable thing for me when the house lights went up at the end of the concert (I taught the audience a song as usual) was that the vast majority of the audience seemed to be well over 60 and mostly women! This is quite common and is often reflected in the choir itself and in the workshops that I run. Several of the choir had managed to persuade their children to come along, and almost without exception, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. So why can’t we attract a younger audience? There’s nothing wrong, of course, with having an older audience, but it would be nice to have a wide spread of ages, genders and nationalities. (This also applies to the choir and workshops: we sing songs from many different countries and cultures, and yet we attract mainly white, British singers).

Is it perhaps the words “choir” or “concert” which put younger people off? Do they simply have something better to do on a Saturday night? Is the make-up of our audience simply a reflection of the make-up of the choir? In which case, why can’t the choir attract younger people and people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds?

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

It's just a bit of hand waving

Sometimes I describe my job as simply being the guy who stands at the front of the choir and waves his arms about. “I point, you sing” is what I often tell the choir. That is basically what the job entails when we’re performing for the public, but it can all too often go wrong. There was a point in our concert last Saturday when I made a gesture which was misinterpreted and suddenly only one part was singing! We managed to recover quite well, and I’m sure the audience didn’t notice anything amiss, but it reminded me how important it is that the choir know exactly what I mean at any point.

Sometimes after a whole bunch of new people have joined the choir, I run through some of my basic hand gestures and tell them what they mean. When I first began conducting choirs, I thought that all my gestures were self-evident and that most conductors would use similar hand movements. How wrong I was! So since then I have regularly double-checked that the choir know what I intend.

As choral directors, we all do things differently, but the common point is that we need to be clearly understood by our choir. I use one gesture which I have been told is a real no-no, but which seems to work for me and the choirs that I lead. It is to raise my two index fingers vertically (as if pointing to the sky) which is a signal that something is about to happen. It’s a kind of “heads up” to people that they should pay attention because we’ll be doing something significant in a moment like coming to the end of the song, or repeating the last section, or speeding up. I have been told that this gesture is too subtle and vague to be useful. However I find it to be very effective, but only after you have rehearsed the song properly so that the choir know what to expect. It means that I can often dispense with counting in a performance (“how many times do we repeat that section?”) so everyone can really be in the moment, repeating parts as many times as it feels right to do them in any given concert.

I now realise that when I began this work I used to assume quite a lot. Now I work very hard to try and be aware of when I’m making assumptions. For example, when I’m teaching a song by ear I signal where the tune goes up and down by raising and lowering my horizontal hand. This is just a rough map of course, but it helps people when they’re learning. I can be slightly more subtle too by indicating big jumps in notes, and sometimes angling my hand slightly to indicate semi-tones.

Once I was running a workshop and a French guy asked my why I was moving my hand up and down in the air whilst teaching the song. I explained that as my hand moved higher it meant the notes were higher, and when I moved it lower it meant that the notes were lower. Then he asked what “higher” and “lower” meant! It was then that I realised that this is not innate knowledge but just a convention. If someone is familiar with a piano, then we could equally well describe notes as being more “left” or more “right”. It has become a convention (related to sound frequency) to talk about “higher” and “lower”, but we cannot assume that everyone knows what this means!

It’s good then to re-assess every now and then and to make sure that you are communicating with your choir members as clearly and accurately as you can. Do not assume that they always know what you mean!

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Order, order!

It’s that time of year when summer concerts come around and I have to think of a programme of songs. Selecting the songs is not too difficult as I always include all the new songs we’ve learnt this term (so new people can join in the performance), several that are relatively new to the choir (songs that we’ve learnt over the last year or so), some golden oldies which I revive from the past, and some choir and audience favourites.

However, I try and keep in mind audience members who perhaps have been to our last few concerts or maybe come just once a year to our summer concert. I don’t ever want an audience to feel that they come to the same concert each time so I try and keep ‘repeats’ to a minimum, but also balance that with the fact that it’s always nice to hear a few familiar songs. I like to think that I’ve got the balance right, but I haven’t ever had any specific feedback from audience members. I reckon that as long as there’s sufficient variety (and we do have lots of songs to choose from!) then there should be something to please everybody.

Also, WorldSong are about to release a new live CD so I’ve had to choose the songs for that. That wasn’t too difficult either as I was limited mainly by the quality of any recordings that we had (and, of course, whether we were singing in tune on that day!).

What I find harder though, having chosen the songs, is to find a suitable running order. There are many schools of thought: some people group songs from the same country or style, whilst others sprinkle the different genres throughout the concert or CD and focus on aspects such as the dynamics of a particular song, whether it is anthemic or gentle, smooth or rhythmic. I am of this latter school, although I do sometimes put two songs together if they are from the same part of the world, and maybe stick in a song with English lyrics if I feel there’s been a run of foreign ones.

I often wonder how much this matters. I spend a long time thinking of the running order for each of our concerts, and I’ve spent even longer on the new CD. But does it really matter to audiences? Do they notice the ‘journey’ through a concert, or do they just take the songs one at a time? And with the CD, people can jump about and play tracks in any order they choose, so is the running order of any importance at all? I guess I hang on to the fact that nobody has ever commented on the running order, and being the optimist that I am, I assume that means that I’m doing it right since it’s not noticeable!

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

What a performance!

None of the choirs or singing groups that I run were formed as performing groups. I’ve always made it clear that our main priority is simply to have fun and to sing together. However, life being what it is, performance opportunities arise and people like to perform! I make sure that everyone understands that performance is an added bonus and is totally optional and in no way compulsory. Yet almost all choir members always want to perform! That is the way of the world. I guess having put all that hard work into learning and perfecting songs, it’s inevitable that people want to share them with others.

So we perform. And we do – even if I do say it myself – perform to a high standard. We often sell out many of our regular local gigs, and have a strong following amongst our audience. But this brings its own problems. Whilst each week the emphasis is on learning new songs and having fun singing them, plus reviving a few “oldies”, there has to come a time when we “rehearse” for our upcoming concert.

Many other choirs are performing choirs and can have a dozen or more concerts each year. This means that their emphasis is very different from ours: each week’s session is a rehearsal for the next concert, always brushing up performance skills and honing songs drawn from a relatively small repertoire. We, however, have a repertoire well in excess of 150 songs to draw upon (not all of which are up to speed at any given time) and we perform usually only three times a year.

The skill then is to balance fun singing sessions with the more serious business of getting songs ready for the next concert. The usual plan is to introduce a bunch of new songs at the beginning of each term (roughly 12 weeks), whilst going over some golden oldies at the end of each session. As the concert approaches, I stop introducing new material and just focus on polishing the old stuff up. Two weeks before the concert we spend one session running through the first half of the concert and the next weekly session running the second half. On the day of the concert we have a full rehearsal in the afternoon running the whole concert in order.

Since many of our songs are relatively short (between one and three minutes long) it means we use up a lot of repertoire in a concert! Our usual concerts are two halves of 45 minutes each, which may mean we get through up to 30 songs – most of which are in foreign languages. That’s a lot of material to get through in a term whilst still trying to have fun!

There is always a slight frustration that if only we had a little more time to work on the songs, then the concert would be even better. And if we were a proper performance choir then we could work on performance skills each week and really get good! But I think we’ve got the balance right.

If we never performed, there would never be a need to really hone in on a song, get the subtleties right, play with the dynamics, find the right voice for it, really get to grips with the strange words, find the joy of actually singing the song rather than feeling that you never quite know it properly.

Yet if we performed all the time we would lose a lot of the fun from our weekly sessions, there would be more pressure to “get it right”, our performances might end up just that little bit too slick (our audiences really like our laid-back informal approach coupled with accomplished singing ability), we wouldn’t be able to keep adding fabulous songs to our repertoire, we couldn’t afford to experiment and play around with songs or to try to learn something really complex without the pressure of having to deliver at a certain time.

Why not come along to one of our gigs and see for yourself? Woven Chords annual summer concert at Grimsthorpe Castle on 14th July is sold out I’m afraid, but you can come and celebrate WorldSong’s 10th anniversary by helping us to fill a 650-seat theatre in Coventry on 21st July!

go to Chris Rowbury's website