Sunday, October 28, 2007

When is a song not a song?

I’ve just come back from a fantastic week away on a song writing for voices course. During the week I came up with several ideas for songs which never really came to fruition since I couldn’t see any way of realising them. One was for solo voice and Indian drone instruments, one a ballad in a Scottish style, and another which required a swampy backing groove from a horn section. I don’t have an outlet for any of these songs really since I’m not a solo performer, don’t have a band and am not planning to make a CD!

My outlet for songs is acappella harmony groups, both large and small. Many times a choir member will come up to me and suggest a song for us. Often the song is simply not appropriate for an acappella arrangement or just won’t work with a large group. Many recorded songs these days have really important instrumental backing and if you take those familiar riffs away, there is often not much left of the song! Personally I am not a fan of those acappella arrangements where the voice impersonates an instrument or has too many “dum dums” in the backing. I recently heard a version of a song from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It was an amazing effort, using the voices to replicate instruments and almost sounded like the original. However, my reaction was: what’s the point? why bother? Apart from admiring the singers’ skills, I’m really not sure where the artistry and creativity is here. Why not just listen to the original? Or if there’s a trumpet needed, then simply play a trumpet. I just don’t get it. I’m really not a fan of showing off skills for skills’ sake. For me there needs to be some element of creativity or the adding of something extra to an existing song, or why bother? Particularly when the human voice is concerned – I want to hear the humanity shine through, not be convinced that actually I’m not listening to a human voice at all, but really a keyboard!

Then there are wonderful, delicate ballads with many verses telling an extraordinary story. However, if arranged for a large choir the delicacy can be destroyed and the story and words completely lost in the mix. So the question is: when is a song suitable for a purely vocal arrangement and when is it not? I guess some of that is down to taste, but I don’t think it’s true that anything can be adapted for just voices.

My point also extends to cover versions generally. If you’re going to cover an existing song, then you have to add something to the original or else there’s no point. Just reproducing the original is a waste of time!

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Choosing songs for a concert

Once again a concert is looming. Time to figure out what songs to sing. WorldSong has a repertoire of around 190 songs so it’s not as though we don’t have many to choose from! However, some of these are warm-up songs, some are songs we’ve not done for many years, some we’ve done too many times recently, and some are only known to a few long-serving members of the choir. To make things slightly easier, this next concert is our Christmas one, so we’ll need to include all our Christmas songs. To date we have learnt 10 Christmas songs in WorldSong, and plan to learn two more this term. That makes choosing songs slightly easier, but it still means there’s lots of space to fill and doesn’t help with the running order.

My normal method is to look at what songs we’ve sung in the last concert and try not to duplicate that entirely. I always put all the new songs we’ve learnt this term into the concert. This means that any new members can join in with at least six or so songs without having to tackle any of our vast back catalogue. I also try and keep in songs that are relatively new, perhaps all those learnt in the last two terms. However, I do like to ring the changes so if someone comes to several concerts in a row they don’t just keep hearing the same set. I also try and accommodate those people who perhaps only come to see us once a year at our Christmas or Spring concerts.

I keep good records of the songs we’ve sung in each concert, so I look up the last couple we’ve done, and the same time slot a year earlier. I cut out songs that we’ve done in both of the last two concerts, plus most of what we did the same time last year. I add all our new ones, and a few that we’ve not sung for a year or more. Then I look at the spread of genres and countries of origin and try to get a good cross-section. Finally I look at the mix of upbeat versus gentle songs and again try to find a balance.

I have rough timings of all the songs in our repertoire, and I reckon that as a rule of thumb, we need about 2/3 of song material to fill a concert. So, for a 90 minute concert (two 45 minute halves), we’ll need 60 minutes of song material. The rest of the time is taken up with my between song banter and singers getting into position. I find that this formula is pretty accurate and we usually come in on time.

Since most of our songs are very short, we tend to get through 30 or so in a 90 minute concert, so the next problem is to find some sensible kind of running order. There is no one way of doing this, and I may use a different method each time. And as I pointed out in an earlier post (Order, order!) I wonder if the audience notice any way!

I did start a trend a way back of joining songs together. These segue ways only work if I can force several songs into the same key, and seem to work best (for some reason) with African songs. I guess if I tried a little harder I could squeeze enough songs together into some kind of medley that we could fill up a complete concert!

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Moving on

After ten fantastic years with WorldSong, man and boy, I have decided the time has come to pass the choir on to other capable hands. From January 2008 the new musical director of WorldSong will be Una May Olomolaiye.

As you probably know by now, I am rather over-sensitive to complacency and habit (see Fighting Habit and Complacency)! I am always on the lookout for different ways of doing things, new challenges, ways of keeping people on their toes, possibilities for development and improvement, ways of raising the bar and stretching people (myself included!). Some people resist this and would be more than happy to continue doing the same thing week in, week out. Unfortunately, I’m the leader (of the gang, I am!) and if you sign up for my choir, you sign up to my vision and my way of working.

I really do believe that by constantly reviewing the way that I do things, finding new ways of approaching familiar material, having high expectations, taking people out of their comfort zone, etc. then the group improve their individual skills, the overall quality of the choir is better, and we constantly improve and move forwards. The upshot of this philosophy is that (inevitably) there will come a time for me to hand over to someone else.

I characterised this change by saying to the choir last week that it’s time to take the training wheels off! Inevitably, any group of people working as a team with a ‘leader’ might come to believe that they can only do what they do because of the particular person leading them. Obviously, the way that any particular group functions is highly influenced by the style and approach of their leader (conductor, director, coach – whatever). That person (if they’re any good!) helps to mould and shape the group, helps them to work as a team. But I believe that there comes a point where that person should try to remove themselves from the picture, to make the group realise their own strengths and capabilities. Strengths, talents and abilities that have now become independent of whoever happens to be leading them. In fact, in terms of being a musical director and/ or teacher, I believe that my job is truly finished when I have succeeded in making myself redundant!

Whenever there is a strong leader of a group or enterprise (artistic director of a theatre, conductor of an orchestra, curator of a gallery) it is very easy to think that any and all successes and achievements are down to that leader. It may well be the case that a particularly strong individual leader can dramatically improve a group or project, but we must also realise that the individuals making up the group are also of vital importance and help to create the overall ‘flavour’. After all, if it weren’t for the members, then the enterprise wouldn’t exist at all! I strongly believe that any such job should only be held for around five years, after which the leaders could perhaps rotate and move onto other similar organisations. Otherwise galleries or orchestras (or choirs) can become stale and too much a reflection of one particular individual’s vision.

So now it’s time for a big change, and the choir will move forward without me onto different (and hopefully bigger and better) things. I am very sad to be moving on, and will always have a very soft spot for WorldSong as it was the first choir that I formed and directed. However, I am also very excited to see the choir grow in the future and to see what further delights are in store for all concerned. I won’t be completely disappearing however, and will stay in very close contact with both the choir and the new musical director Una May. Here’s to the future!!!!!

(I will, of course, continue to write this blog and to lead Woven Chords)

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Dress to impress?

Many choirs dress identically when they perform. Some have a choir uniform, some choose a particular colour for a particular concert, some have specially made t-shirts. I get requests sometimes from my own choir members for some kind of uniform when we perform. Unfortunately for them, I really dislike identically dressed choirs!

For me, wearing the same uniform removes any sense of individuality. I can only assume that is why some choirs do it: they want everyone to look identical so there is an overall sameness. I presume that this is to create some kind of overall identity for the choir, to show that everyone belongs to the same unit, that they are all part of the same team. It gives a clear indication that this choir is different from other choirs, that the chosen colour or design is some kind of logo or aid to recognition. Perhaps it gives individual choir members a sense of belonging, a kind of banner or flag to unite them and under which they perform for the honour of the choir. Perhaps it avoids distractions for the audience so they can concentrate on the music.

On the other hand, what I see is a group of clones, an attempt to wipe out any sense of uniqueness and to promote the (false) impression that everyone is the same. This is also carried over into the sound that such choirs make. There is every attempt to arrive at a perfect ‘blend’ of sound so that no one individual voice stands out. There is no scope for individual expression, there is a conscious suppression of any kind of difference. For such choirs I imagine that the prospect of actually cloning their best singer would produce their perfect choir!

When I see such choirs performing I wonder why I am there. Why not simply listen to the choir on the radio or on CD? There is nothing to look at: everyone looks and sounds the same, they’re even encouraged to use the same mouth shape and facial expression. If there is something special about hearing the choir live, then simply hide them behind a backdrop or have them perform in the gallery or from behind the audience. Perhaps there could be some kind of film or video projection or dance performance to watch whilst we’re listening. To my mind it is very much like watching an orchestra: a sea of identically dressed violinists all bowing at exactly the same time, all focused on their music and paying us no attention whatsoever.

It seems that this is what most people think of when they see the word ‘choir’ used. It represents a passive experience sitting for a couple of hours in fixed seats watching nothing much happening and hearing some ‘perfect’ rendition of a particular piece of music. It doesn’t really compare well with a rock concert or a stage musical or son et lumière or River Dance. So why bother? And in fact many people don’t bother. It’s very old fashioned and rather unexciting. Which is perhaps why the average age of audiences at concerts is quite old. It’s rather safe and non-threatening. There is a sense of control and order (identical costume, identical voices, no quick movements, no surprises).

Maybe we need a different word for ‘choir’. Maybe we need a different form of performance to bring in younger audiences and audiences who wouldn’t normally go to a ‘concert’. If we do that, however, I don’t think we can get away with static rows of identically dressed singers. To my mind, aiming for uniformity destroys the humanity inherent in a group of human beings coming together to give voice. I want to hear the individual voices which have chosen to work together as a group, I want to hear the tiny errors and individual accents that make people who they are, I want to experience the rich texture and spine-tingling harmonies that result when a group of people choose to share their voices together.

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