Sunday, September 30, 2007

Not enough venues to go round

As I mentioned last time, a few of us sang at a friend’s wedding the other week. It was in a beautiful old village church with a wonderful acoustic. We managed to just about squeeze 18 people in front of fixed pews, next to a stone pulpit and between two tall pillars. (I chose not to sing from the choir stalls. Why on earth do they have these things? Don’t the two halves of the choir just end up singing to each other? I really can’t see the reasoning behind the design!). The organist reminded me that the main Woven Chords choir had sung there one Christmas and been very well received. Of course, those were the days when we had less than 40 members (and it was a tight squeeze even then!). He wondered why we hadn’t come back and I had to explain that it would be impossible to fit 80 singers into such a small church. In the early days we used to frequent such small village churches and hence manage six or so concerts each year. Those were the days!

It has always been difficult to find suitable venues for choirs. Churches are usually very welcoming (and often free!), but with their fixed architecture they can normally only accommodate small singing groups or choirs. Some of the more modern Methodist and Baptist churches have a more flexible layout and some even have stages, but not every town has one of these. Apart from large regional theatres (which tend not to take local community groups, or whose auditorium is just too large to fill), there are really not many venues available to us. Hence churches, which I now see more and more as a valuable community resource independent of any religious affiliation.

There are, however, certain small-minded individuals who think that, just because we perform in a church, that we must be a ‘church choir’, and since they’re not religious they wouldn’t want to come and see us would they? This is despite the many laudable local and rural music touring schemes (e.g. Music in Quiet Places) which see small instrumental and vocal ensembles regularly performing in churches. It’s a shame that these ‘certain people’ are so small minded, as they just don’t know what they’re missing!

The fact that we’re often performing in churches adds yet another stereotype image to what we do in addition to the word ‘choir’ which itself puts lots of people off. Which is why I’m more and more tempted to try and find theatrical rather than musical venues. I have a current bee in my bonnet about making singing performances more varied and interesting as I don’t think it’s enough these days for an audience to just see a static semi-circle of identically dressed singers standing on stage. More on this later!

Are there any other large choirs out there who have found a solution to finding suitable venues?

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Thank you, thank you – you’re too, too kind!

There have been several times when performing that it’s not been appropriate for the audience to show their appreciation. Once was at a funeral, and most recently, at a wedding. There was also a time when we did a concert in a church and the first song was met with silence. I subtly mentioned to the audience that they were allowed to clap if they chose to and from then on it was just like a normal concert. I guess people thought that since they were in a church it wasn’t appropriate to clap!

To be fair, at the recent wedding there was applause after we had finished our little set when the vicar thanked us for singing. Of course, at the funeral, it simply wasn’t fitting. I was singing at the funeral and it was then that I realised how much I had become used to applause after each song. It was very, very strange to perform a song and have no feedback whatsoever. It can be similar when performing outdoors in a public space and people are just passing by.

Why do we need the applause? After all, it’s pretty much a convention. It’s quite rare that people don’t applaud at all. Sometimes it may be more enthusiastic or longer, but usually there’s some kind of smattering. So it’s not as if we need approval since the audience will probably clap under most circumstances. Maybe it’s just for us to know that they’ve actually heard us, whether they’ve enjoyed it or not.

In many cultures the idea of the separation between audience and performers is an alien one. Everybody is a performer, and everyone is an audience at the same time. The ‘performers’ are not special in any way, they haven’t spent time rehearsing and polishing, they just perform – singing, dancing, whatever – because that’s what everybody does in that culture. So the notion of applause and appreciation is not relevant.

Sometimes applause can be a little embarrassing. Many of our songs are very, very short so we can get through up to 30 songs in any one concert. On those occasions it feels like we’re expecting the audience to clap every few minutes (which they do), but it does feel a little like overkill. Also, with a big choir like Woven Chords which has around 80 members, it can be a little awkward when we make our first entrance. As the first few singers enter onto the stage there is enthusiastic applause which slowly but surely begins to die out as the audience realise that there are many, many more choir members to appear yet

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Natural Voice approach

What exactly is the Natural Voice (note the capital letters!) approach to singing and voice? It’s something we’re struggling with in the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network as I mentioned in an earlier blog (The Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network). It may seem to many outsiders to be some kind of wishy-washy organic wholefood let-it-all-hang-out way of singing, but is in fact a very specific discipline or approach to voice work (not just singing by any means).

When practitioners join the network, they state on the membership form that their “approach to teaching voice and song is in harmony with the Philosophy and Working Principles of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network”. Which is all very well and we had hoped then to form a network of like-minded individuals who all approached voice work in a similar way. However, over the years as the network has grown, we have become a very broad church which includes practitioners who focus primarily on sound healing, running community choirs, spiritual chanting, working with pregnant mothers, using voice for therapy, singing contemporary compositions, etc. etc. Although many practitioners working in these areas do use a Natural Voice approach, there is a danger that the term itself is becoming a catch-all phrase of convenience which is beginning to lose its strict meaning.

I am currently helping to formulate a code of practice which encapsulates more accurately what it means to use the Natural Voice approach. It is far from complete, but I thought I’d mention some of the key points here in order to try and clarify for people what our approach to voice is.

Currently the code is divided into four main areas:

  • physicality
  • accessibility
  • cultural context
  • style and approach

This is the foundation stone to the Natural Voice approach. It reminds us that the voice is connected to and rooted in the whole body, and that each person’s voice is unique. The whole body supports the voice and needs to find a subtle balance between relaxation and alertness. An understanding of the body, breath, emotion and sound connection is central to our approach and demands physical awareness and exercising.

Basically nobody should be excluded from music-making. Singing is our birthright and should be accessible to all. Hence we don’t assume any prior knowledge, try to steer clear of jargon, use a variety of teaching styles to maximise everyone’s involvement, and try to accommodate those with physical and other restrictions.

Cultural context
We often use material from other cultures than our own and wherever possible, we find out and explain the historical and cultural context of a song or piece and credit its composer or source. We also choose material for our work which will be culturally accessible to everyone in the group.

Style and approach
We approach our work in ways that are unlocking, freeing, allowing, releasing, non-judgmental, and encouraging.

This is only a first stab and will need a lot more work, but I think it’s a step in the right direction and should hopefully clarify a little what is meant by the Natural Voice.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Preparing to sing

As a Natural Voice practitioner each workshop or choir session that I run begins with a physical and vocal warm up. I slowly prepare people’s voices for singing as well as making a strong connection between their voice and their body. This is something I do regularly so it has become second nature.

However, many people who have not worked with me before often comment on the warm ups: “That was fun and different!”, “I’m not used to doing a warm up like that”, and even “Why do you bother to do a warm up? We never do in my choir”. This has often set me to thinking about what kinds of warm ups other choirs do (I can’t imagine! Just scales perhaps?), but also why do I bother to do warm ups at all?

In my regular weekly sessions with choirs the warm up is also a vocal training session. Over the weeks I can help people improve their breathing for singing, help them to connect with their body, increase their vocal range, improve the richness of their voice, etc. But for one-off sessions it is simply a warm up. My angle is that most people don’t sing regularly and also lead fairly stressful, unnatural and sedentary daily working lives. They need to be eased into singing so they don’t hurt their throat, they need to relax from the muscle tensions and stresses of the day, they need to re-connect to their bodies, they need to become aware again of their physical presence. The warm up acts as a transition from daily life to that attentive, relaxed, listening state we need to be in when we sing with others.

To demonstrate this quite clearly, I sometimes skip the warm up entirely and launch straight into a song. Then afterwards I do our usual warm up and then sing the same song again, asking if people notice any difference. Usually everyone notices something significant and enthusiastically join in with the warm up for the next few weeks!

In the late 1980s two Georgian ethnomusicologists (Edisher Garakanidze and Josef Jordania) came over to work with a group of singers in Cardiff for a week. After a couple of days of singing together, somebody asked if we could perhaps do a warm up before we launched into the songs each day. Both Georgians were rather confused, didn’t know what a warm up was, but said it was fine to go ahead. They watched in some amusement as we went through our paces! Which leads me to the following heresy: I don’t think you need to warm up every time you sing. If you sing regularly, every day perhaps, as people do in many cultures, then there is probably no need unless you want to access the limits of your vocal range.

Of course, the easiest way to find out whether you need a warm up or not is just to try without one next time and see what difference it makes. Me, I enjoy them!

Next week I’ll be writing in more detail about the Natural Voice approach to singing (The Natural Voice approach).

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sing it like you mean it

I have to admit that I’m not really a lyric person. I might have been listening to a particular pop song in English for years when I suddenly realise what it’s actually about! Or someone might point out the really obvious meaning to me, which until that point has totally gone over my head.

I’ve read quite a few books on working with choirs and singing in general, and without exception they all talk about how to convey the meaning of the song and how the meaning affects the vocal delivery. I have one such book in front of me now: Choral Charisma: singing with expression by Tom Carter (I’m not singling this book out, just that it’s fairly typical of its type). There is page upon page of stuff like “Connecting to the meaning”, “Analysing the text”, “Plot and character”, “Making an authentic personal connection with the text”, “Matching music and meaning”. There is just one paragraph in the whole book called “When the language is foreign”. The author says: “The dilemma for singers in such situations is clear. If they want to connect to the texts, they need to know their meanings”.

Many of the songs in our repertoire come from traditions where the expression and communication is mainly through the music rather than the words. Often cultures with rich harmony traditions have songs with very simple – even banal – words. In contrast, traditions where the lyrics are important – such as ballads and storytelling songs – the song text is not complicated by harmonies or complex musical accompaniment. Some of the songs we sing don’t make much sense, even if we do have a translation! So how do we go about singing such songs?

For example, the following are rough translations of a few love songs that we have in our repertoire:

“My sweetheart is wearing a red fez.” Crven fesić (Bosnia)

“Oh, Dobric, your cool waters flow to three towns. There, gather the young boys and girls of Sibenik.” Oj Dobriću (Croatia)

Girl with the black eyes, come here and marry me or give me a knife.” (the implication being so he can kill himself). Gogo shavtala (Georgia)

“As my own I graze you, and you are dragging yourself behind me, little doll.” (to a sheep!) Ja Helo (Helokane) (Czechoslovakia)

“There’s a handkerchief on the road where my dear one passes. He made a new cart with two horses and no driver.” Maramica na stazi (Croatia)

Maybe something of the poetic nature of the lyrics has been lost in the translation, but I personally don’t find that these English translations help me to sing the song! In any case, there are often cultural differences. What to our ears might sound rather like a military march, or a dirge, or an upbeat dance song might just as easily be a love song or a song of loss and grief.

Some people say that as long as you stay true to the spirit of the meaning of a song, then it’s OK. But I believe that every song has its own unique feel which cuts across cultures. I believe that as long as you stay true to the music of the song, then you can’t go far wrong. The sound of the lyrics (even if you don’t understand them), the melody and the harmonies all go to make up a whole which suggests a mood or feeling, regardless of what the song means (if it’s a well-written song!). Sometimes it’s even useful to do this with a song that you can understand. Why not try singing a song with English lyrics using nonsense syllables and try to find the underlying musicality of the song? Sometimes the music can get lost beneath the words and the desire to communicate the meaning of the lyrics.

Even though I’m not a lyric person, I try very hard to never teach a song unless I know what the lyrics mean and have some sense of the background and cultural context to a song. We may not use the meaning to help us sing, but it’s important that we respect the tradition that the song has come from.

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