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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Chris Rowbury


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