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!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Chris Rowbury


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