Sunday, November 25, 2007

Looking back – a year of blogging

Can’t quite believe it myself, but this is my 52nd post! When I started this blog way back in December last year, I kept it private for a few weeks to see if I was able to find something new to say each week. I didn’t want to set myself up for something that would become a difficult chore. But I have managed to find ideas from the weekly sessions with my choirs, and even have a list of topics that I’ve not yet covered in case inspiration doesn’t strike one week.

I’m very pleased with what I’ve come up with so far, and I hope I’ve managed to raise some questions and provoke some thinking. It’s a bit like being a late night DJ on some tiny local radio station in the back of beyond – I’m sending all this stuff out but have no idea who (if anyone!) is reading it! I get the occasional comment which is nice, but I could always do with more. One of the original aims for this blog was to promote discussion. As far as I know, there is nobody else out there who is blogging specifically about singing and/ or choirs. Which makes this blog pretty unique. Which is actually a problem as it makes it very hard to promote! I can’t go onto similar blogs and leave comments so that people will come and read mine.

I’m not arrogant enough to believe that everyone in a choir should read my blog, but I think that many more people will find it interesting if only I can get in touch with them. So … please tell anyone you know who is in a choir or who sings regularly about this blog. I really, really want to create a place for discussion and debate. As you can see from many of my past posts, I often come across a problem that I can’t solve on my own and would welcome input from others in the same situation.

Or maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’m preaching to the converted or to one man and his dog. Perhaps people don’t find the blog interesting at all! I simply don’t know. I look at the statistics each week, and it tells me absolute numbers of people who have visited, but it doesn’t tell me if they read the post or what they thought of it or even if they found it interesting at all. So … another request: please let me know if you can think of ways of improving the blog, or if there are particular topics that you would like to see discussed. I would really like some more feedback – even if it’s negative!

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Parts creep (or why there are always too many altos)

Does anybody else have this problem with their choir? Please say you do, and please say you have a sensible solution – it’s driving me nuts!

Partly because we’re a community choir, partly because of the kind of material we do, but mainly because I think it’s good for people to exercise the whole of their vocal range, I encourage people to swap parts for different songs. We don’t stick to the normal soprano/ alto/ tenor/ bass categories (we're never too high, and not too low!) and I don’t allocate people to a fixed part or role. We don’t use seats so people are free to move around. Some songs have three parts, some five or more, some the ‘standard’ four. Not everyone is present every week for a variety of reasons. This is the background to the problem.

When we first start learning a song I try to make sure each part is made up of roughly an equal number of people. The weeks go by, people come and go, I fit people who missed the first week into a part that is a little thin on the ground. Then suddenly, out of the blue, one week (usually when a concert is looming) EVERYONE seems to be singing alto! There are no tenors to speak of, the tops look pretty thin on the ground, and the basses are the usual suspects. This is parts creep. When I turn around people sneak from their part to another part without telling me. They do it on purpose (I'm sure of this!). What was once a supremely balanced and orderly choir is now entirely out of kilter. And they deny it! “I thought you guys were all singing tops when we started?” “Oh, no, we’ve always been altos for this song”. And so it goes.

Of course, some people are in the ‘wrong’ part, some people deny ever having learnt the song in the first place, and some are just doing it (I’m sure of this too!) to wind me up. What’s worse – yes, even worse – is that then half the tops tell me that they can’t even do the concert after all!!!!!

Apart from nailing people’s feet to the ground, labelling them with a barcode on their forehead, making them wear different coloured shirts to represent the different parts, compelling everyone to learn every part of every song equally well, forcing the excess altos at gun point to rejoin the tops, or even culling the spare voices, what does one do?? Suggestions on a postcard, or click ‘comment’ below. PLEASE!!!

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Being in a community choir PART 2

Following on from last week's Frequently Asked Questions, here are the rest.

Why do we spend so long on some songs?

There is only one way to learn a song by ear and that is by REPETITION! That is why we sing our new songs week after week. Then we sometimes have a little gap of a week or so, then we sing it AGAIN! Unfortunately for those with a low boredom threshold, singing the same songs again and again is part of the process (see Papa's got a brand new song for more about song learning and repetition).

Obviously some people pick up their parts quicker than others, so whereas some people get fed up doing the same songs repeatedly, others would appreciate more time spent on each song so we can be properly rehearsed for our concerts. I personally think I have the balance about right at the moment. If you get a bit bored doing the same song over and over again, why not take the opportunity to go and learn the other parts?

We always seem under-rehearsed for concerts. Why can’t we spend more time on the songs we’re going to sing?

This choir was never set up as a performing choir. You join in order to come once a week and have fun singing with other people. The concerts are an optional extra. If we were a performance choir, we would be rehearsing most of the time and not learning many new songs. Things would be a lot stricter and we would become just like all those other ‘normal’ choirs out there. I think we have the balance about right, and even though people might feel slightly under-rehearsed, we just keep on getting better and perform to a high standard.

Part of the problem is that many of our songs are very short, plus our concerts are 1½ hours long with just us performing – that’s a LOT of material!! I always try to include the songs we’ve learnt that term (so hopefully fresh in the mind), a few well-known ones that won’t need much rehearsal, plus a few “oldies” that we spend some time resurrecting. One option, to take the pressure off a little, is to do shorter concerts or joint concerts with someone else performing. I don’t want our terms to turn into just rehearsing for our next gig.

Why do you insist that we sit in rows, in parts? Can’t we be in one big circle for instance?

If a group is bigger than about 30 – 40 then circles don’t work very well. It’s difficult for everyone to hear me all the time, and it’s hard to hear the part that’s the other side of the circle. The sitting in rows was an attempt to find a way to keep everybody close together so you can hear each other. Also it was a way of keeping tabs on how many people are in each part. (I will be discussing the problem of so-called part creep next time.) The downsides are that people became reluctant to swap parts, and sitting down all the time saps the energy. Which is why we now stand up all the time!

Why don’t we do more moving around and physical stuff? I’d like to see more movement with songs in performance.

There are just so many reasons not to sit down when singing! Sitting down:

  • lowers energy levels (it’s just too easy to fall asleep);
  • compresses the diaphragm and makes it harder to breathe properly;
  • makes it hard to engage the whole body properly when singing;
  • doesn’t allow people to easily move around and sing their part against other parts;
  • promotes the tendency to always be singing next to the same person;
  • doesn’t make it easy to swap parts in a song;
  • generates a reliance on other people instead of taking responsibility for knowing the part yourself;
  • causes a hassle having to set out the chairs and put them away again at the end.

And I’m sure there are other reasons too!

There are two main reasons why I have used chairs in the past: (1) I am aware that it’s tiring (after a hard day’s work) to simply stand around whilst other people are learning their parts, and (2) if people are free to move around (and swap parts readily), it’s really hard to keep tabs on how many people are singing any particular part (see parts creep next time).

However, even though you’re tired, standing and moving around can really energise you and literally keeps you on your toes! For more about our difficulties with moving around, see Making a song and dance of it.

I like to hear my part against the other parts. Can’t we be mixed up so we can sing in closer proximity to the other parts?

Yes, it is much easier to learn your part if you’re surrounded by loads of people doing the same thing. The trouble is that you might end up depending on them for support, much better to know 100% what you’re supposed to be doing.

We learn harmony songs, so the greatest pleasure is (surely?) hearing your part sung against another part. If you’re in a large group of people singing the same part, you won’t have that experience. Much better to walk around and sing your part against someone else.

Why do people sit or stand in the same places every week? Wouldn’t it be better if you mixed people up so they don’t end up relying on the voices around them?

I think it’s just human nature that people head for the same place each week (see Fighting habit and complacency). It’s also comforting to be next to people you know well and are singing the same part. I agree, I think it’s a great idea to mix people up and for people to try different parts or sing next to different people. However, organising such a large group is hard and time-consuming so, in the past, I’ve left it up to individuals to challenge themselves. However, some weeks I do try and prompt this a bit in different ways.

Can’t we do more work on performance techniques? I feel we’re all a bit stiff and there aren’t enough smiling, animated faces!

I quite agree! Part of it is that we’re Brits and don’t tend to show our emotions that much, also in our cultures we don’t tend to be IN our bodies that much, and are slightly embarrassed about moving around. When people concentrate, they tend to frown and look serious. The secret is to stop concentrating and trust that you know what you’re doing, and then your enjoyment should carry over.

Many people don’t realise how glum and stiff they look in concert. I’m not sure this is about “performance techniques” – I don’t feel that I have to TEACH you how to smile – it’s more about self-awareness and letting go of inhibitions. That’s pretty much up to you! I do have an issue with choirs who have been told to smile. They often look very uncomfortable and unnatural. Better if it comes from within from a genuine joy of singing. One day I will video the choir and you can see what you really look like when performing!

Can’t we have a SMALL repertoire of songs that we always do so we can learn them properly and sing them really well?

On the whole, we DO have such a repertoire. It may not be quite small enough for you, but we do have a core set of “fave raves” that most people know and can sing at the drop of a hat. The trouble with a really restricted repertoire is that people would soon get bored at concerts!

I like to make up my own harmonies. Could we not have more space to improvise and experiment?

That’s not what this choir is. We do songs from around the world and I teach the harmonies. If that’s not quite what you signed up for, then maybe there are other choirs out there that would suit you better.

It’s also INCREDIBLY difficult to improvise in such a large group. It’s hard enough in a group of 12 or less (I know!). Also, many, many people in the choir would not feel confident doing this so would feel very much left out. I try to make the choir as inclusive as possible.

Can’t you insist that people who are going to sing in a concert have to attend a minimum number of rehearsals? Sometimes it seems like there are people who just don’t know what they’re doing!

How would one police this? There are some people, for various reasons, who have to miss a few weeks. One of these people may be an accomplished singer who has been coming to the choir for years and knows most of the songs inside out. Or it may be someone who has just joined and is having a bit of difficulty catching up. Many, many times I make it clear that performing is OPTIONAL and you don’t have to know every song in a particular concert. Also, if you don’t know a song well enough, DON’T SING IT in concert! Don’t make things difficult for yourself, don’t place these pressures on yourself – it’s supposed to be fun! I would rather use this form of trust than ask people not to perform. Otherwise we’ll turn into just another ‘normal’ choir!

Why don’t we sing more English language songs, contemporary “pop” songs and/ or songs that the audience are likely to know?

Because we’re a world music choir! We’re not here to pander to the audience. There are plenty of choirs who do this sort of stuff, so let them go and watch them. It’s interesting that this always comes up, that people SAY they want to sing more songs which are English, upbeat, familiar, pop, etc. Yet when I ask the choir what their favourite songs of all time are, it’s always the slow, lush, foreign, traditional songs that come in the top 10!! Also, when I’ve tried to introduce such songs (e.g. Good Vibrations, Don’t worry be happy, etc.) I’ve met with considerable resistance.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Being in a community choir PART 1

Being the democratic chap that I am, I occasionally send questionnaires round the choir in order to get feedback on how people are finding the weekly sessions, what songs they like best, how things can be improved, what people find difficult, etc. Of course, there are usually as many different opinions as there are choir members, and it seems that I am the only common denominator! However, it’s always useful to know what people struggle with and how things might be improved.

After a questionnaire last year, I wrote a series of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ which attempted to address some of the common themes which came up. I hoped that it would explain the reasoning behind why I do things in certain ways. Some were specific to the particular choir, but most would seem to apply to community choirs anywhere, so I thought I would share some of them with you. Part 2 next week.


Why do we never start on time?

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are always early/ on time, and those who are always late – and never the twain shall meet! Whatever type you are, you won’t ever turn into the other type.

I often delay the start of a session because I believe that the warm-up (which incorporates voice training and development) is of vital importance. If we started exactly on time each week, then only a small subset of the choir would ever get to do the warm-up! However, I am aware that as the start time slips, people begin to assume that we don’t start on time so they begin to arrive later, so I delay the start a bit more, and we get into a vicious circle! I now read the riot act every now and then and try to start exactly on time no matter how many people are there. I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon: the week after I read the riot act and ask people to be on time, the more people are late the following week! However, now most people are there on time, and if they are a bit late, they feel slightly awkward to come in on an activity that has already started so perhaps make more effort the next week to be on time (that’s my theory any way!).

What can I do while the other sections are learning their parts?

There are plenty of things you can do while waiting:

  • go over the words so you’ll remember them better;
  • sing your part in your head at the same time;
  • get a clear sense of the overall structure of the song;
  • get a better idea of how the harmony works;
  • go and learn another part.

Why is there so much talking when I’m trying to learn my part?

Part of it is lack of self-awareness (people just don’t realise they’re talking so loudly), part of it is that sometimes people are simply checking with their neighbours that they’ve understood what they’ve learnt of their own part so far, and part of it is that people get easily bored. I think the solution has to do with respect for your fellow choir members: if you expect them to be quiet while you are learning, then please have the decency to be quiet when they are learning.

You have to remember that learning songs like this, without music, is rather artificial. If you come from the culture that the song comes from you would have heard all the parts many, many times whilst growing up and have had plenty of opportunities to join in and try other parts. Unfortunately we only have a few weeks to learn what are sometimes very complicated songs.

The only fail-safe solution is for EVERYONE to be singing ALL the time. That means either don’t do harmony songs, or everyone learn ALL the parts. The trouble with the latter is that it rules out complex songs. People had enough trouble remembering the ONE part they had to learn. Can you imagine the confusion if everyone had to learn EVERY part!! So I’m going to rule that out except for the very easiest of songs. Of course, if you want to learn all the parts, please feel free!

Why don’t people swap parts more often?

Search me! Part of the reason is that people get confused and often forget which part they’re supposed to be singing, so they just stick to one part. Another reason is security, comfort and laziness – it’s much easier to stand in the same place each week next to the same people. Some people have a fixed idea in their mind about the range that they can sing, even though I swap things around and also make sure that (at least for the women) everyone is capable of singing any part in every song. Why not give it a try? You might surprise yourself! Sometimes I swap parts around wholesale, but that is not as interesting as mixing people up and having different groupings. So please, give it a go. Maybe try a different part in at least one song – but make sure you make a note of which part you’re supposed to be singing!

Why do we have to sing rounds and simple, repetitive songs?

The reason we move from simple rounds and easy songs onto more difficult stuff as the evening goes on is that it takes a while to get warmed-up in terms of listening, and also to become focused and forget the cares of the day. If we got stuck in straight away with a complex song, it would be very hard and not much fun! Starting with a simple round introduces harmony in an easy way without having to learn separate parts, and also gives the voice a chance to warm up by singing something simple and repetitive.

Why do we have such lengthy warm-ups at the beginning?

The warm-up is a very important part of the evening. It acts as a transition between your ‘normal’, possibly stressful, working day and being creative and relaxed. If you don’t sing regularly and go straight into using your voice, you can hurt yourself, and even in some cases damage your voice. Part of the ‘Natural Voice’ approach to singing is to reinforce the connection between voice and body, which is why we also do some physical exercises. I also include training exercises to help develop your breathing and singing voice. These build week on week, and I can certainly see the improvements when we perform.

Our warm-ups only take 10 – 15 minutes. Some choirs warm up for at least half an hour! It is an opportunity for you to tune into your own body and to notice tensions, difficulties, etc. which you can then take on board and try to avoid. If you have done a particular exercise many times before, don’t just do it half-heartedly, but behave as if you are doing it for the first time and see if you can discover something new about your voice or body.

Why can’t we sing without any words in concerts?

Difficult one this! Our aim is to sing without any words. It looks better, it means you can concentrate on me and the audience, and it’s more professional. However … we do many songs in weird and difficult languages. Some people find words harder to learn than others, and we’re none of us getting any younger! In order to not have ANY words in a concert, I would have to ban people from singing who hadn’t learnt their words. I don’t want to do that (we’re a fun, community choir after all). It’s not just that this seems unfair, but supposing most of one section hadn’t learnt their words, then the choir would be totally out of balance.

Why don’t we have name badges so I can learn everyone’s name?

It’s hard to remember everyone’s name, especially since we have new members all the time. However, I don’t think name badges are the solution. This is what happened in Global Harmony which I used to direct. I never bothered to learn anyone’s name because I could always look at their badge! Also, people used to lose them, or forget to wear them.

You could always try learning a different part, or being next to a different person for a change and make a new friend!

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