Sunday, December 30, 2007

OK, you win – facing the competition

As a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network (NVPN), I share with them the philosophy that everyone can sing and that “vocalising, creativity and song should be accessible to all regardless of previous musical ability or experience”. This means that “creating a sense of an accepting community is an essential element of our approach in working with groups”. Too often, adults who (re-)discover singing have been put off as children, told to stand at the back and shut up or just mime. Many people are also put off by musical jargon and the belief that you can only sing if you understand musical theory and can read music. Then there are others who look at our culture’s role models – pop bands, opera singers, TV stars – and think that because they don’t sound like them, then they can’t ‘sing’.

Expressing one’s self vocally is a very liberating thing, but is also very personal and puts us in a very vulnerable position. It is all too easy to scare people into not opening their mouths at all! As NVPN members we do all we can to encourage people to find their own voice, to not compare themselves to others or to carry around a false notion of some kind of singing ‘standard’ that they need to adhere to. In our draft code of practice there is the following statement: “I will always work in ways that are unlocking, freeing, allowing, releasing, discovering rather than imposing, stress-free, forgiving, non-judgmental and encouraging”.

So, in the NVPN spirit of trying to encourage as many people as possible to sing and believing that everyone can sing – regardless of talent or experience – how am I to respond to the notion of singing competitions?

I don’t know if it’s just that time of year, but I’ve been inundated recently with unsolicited emails inviting my choirs to attend various singing competitions across Europe. And recently the NVPN has been contacted by a BBC researcher who’s working on a new reality TV programme called Choir Wars. This is to be a “new Saturday night primetime entertainment show”. It is a “nationwide search to find the nation’s favourite choir”.

Over the last few years, TV has done quite a good job of making singing in choirs popular again (see my first ever post Choirs are becoming cool). Most of these programmes were very encouraging and seemed to promote the idea that everyone can sing (although there was always some kind of selection process and the necessity to read musical scores at some point). But why jump on the X-Factor/ Battle of the Bands/ Stars in Their Eyes/ Fame Academy reality bandwagon and make the whole thing competitive? And why on earth use a word like war??!! Sure, maybe it makes good TV as we get to see choirs being humiliated by the judges and singers in tears as they fail to reach the final, but what good does it do to try and encourage the public to believe that everyone can be a music-maker? I really don’t think people are going to rush off and join choirs after seeing Choir Wars!

I guess I can understand the idea behind sporting competitions – you’ve put a lot of work into training and the only way to see if it has paid off is to try your luck against somebody else. But where the arts and music is concerned, isn’t creating a beautiful sound and having pleasure whilst doing it enough in itself? (in a recent Guardian online poll, 65% of respondents thought that Choir Wars was one reality show too far).

I’m not doubting that different people have different amounts of talent and ability, but why does there have to be competition in the arts? Why can’t they make a TV show that takes any group of adults, without auditions and without using written music, and show that it is possible to create a fantastic group sound. This is what I’ve been doing over the last 10 years. I have worked with hundreds of adults over that time, and not one of them couldn’t sing. We have performed to acclaim in a variety of venues and made CDs which sell well and receive considerable praise. All this without awarding points or prizes, setting one person or choir against another, or telling singers that they just aren’t good enough. Why not celebrate an approach that is non-judgmental and encouraging rather than one which is all about competition, failure, confrontation, conflict, hostility, value judgments, humiliation, etc.?


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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Read all about it!

I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but here in the UK it’s notoriously difficult to get any kind of review of a concert in the press — local or national. When I approach the local papers, they tell me that they won’t review any concert that’s not on for at least five days. I can see their point I guess if you think that the only point of a review is to attract more punters to come to shows. By that view, there’s no point in printing a review if, by the time it’s printed, the show has finished its run. But aren’t reviews more than that? I enjoy reading reviews in my daily paper (The Guardian) which has national coverage. I regularly read reviews of theatre, pop concerts, opera, classical concerts, etc. in places far from where I live to which I am very unlikely to go. It keeps me in touch with what’s going on, even if I never get to see the live show.

A review can stimulate new ideas; introduce me to new critical language; bring a new artist to my attention; make a connection with other things that I might otherwise not have made; by making comparisons, introduce me to a new book/ film/ piece of music/ artist that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of. I’m sure there are 101 other things I get from reviews, but way, way down the list is an urge to go and see the show. Most reviews these days (of any medium) are basically of the 5-star type: does the reviewer think it’s worth your while to go and see it? There doesn’t seem to be any space for more critical, analytical reviews of the arts if a show is on for one night only – except, of course, if the director/ conductor/ performer is suitably famous!

What are your experiences with the local press where you are? Can you get your concerts reviewed easily?


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Sunday, December 16, 2007

What are you looking at? PART 2

OK, we did a little dance at our Christmas concert on Sunday. It was to two South African songs and (hopefully!) matched the energy and spirit of the song. Not everyone danced, just six brave souls (and me – since I’d choreographed the thing I had to dance at the front to make sure everyone was getting it right!) in front of the rest. Oh yes, and we swayed (in unison of course) to our New Zealand Maori song. So not a lot of movement, nothing much to look at really, and certainly none of that naff choir ‘choreography’ where everyone looks awkward and never really get the simple movements right. I’m certainly not advocating that. I’m not suggesting that choirs find ways of jazzing up the fairly traditional “standing in rows to sing one song after the other”. What I am suggesting is perhaps a new context or a new form within which songs can flourish and entertain (without distracting from the music).

Ah! Distractions he says. Which brings me another bugbear of mine. I really do think people want something to look at in a concert as well as simply listening. Most people seem to welcome some kind of distraction from looking at row upon row of identically dressed choristers. And some people just get bored! This is where the programme comes in.

Sometimes when we’ve done a significant gig (choir anniversary, charity event) or played a posh or ‘proper’ (you know, the ones where they do ‘real’ music and everyone is formal, dressed up and well-behaved) the issue of programmes comes up. I don’t like programmes at concerts. In my view it stops people from listening to the singing. I guess it’s OK if you’re doing a classical piece which lasts 30 minutes, but if you do short songs like we do (our Christmas concert had 31 songs in it this year), then the song’s over before anyone’s read about it in the programme!. There will be shuffling, digging in bags for spectacles, craning necks and extending arms to throw a bit of light on the programme so it can be read, etc. etc. All very distracting for us singers on stage, and totally distracting for the audience member.

I always give lengthy and detailed background (delivered, I hope, in a light-hearted and witty manner) to each of the songs that we do. Then people can focus on the song itself when we sing it. If they need to take the information home with them, then they can buy a CD (with extensive information booklet). Alternatively, we could sell programmes after the concert has finished. A little souvenir of the evening to take home. Because of our repertoire and style of singing, there is seldom mention of composers, never mention of soloists (there aren’t any) and no mention of instrumentalists (we don’t have any). What people get in our programmes (the rare times that we do produce them) is a little piece about the choir and information about each of the songs we’ve sung. Maybe we should put a few pictures in too so people have even more to look at and entertain them whilst we’re singing!

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

What are you looking at? PART 1

Not being a regular concert-goer myself (there aren’t that many world music choirs around here other than the ones I lead!), I often wonder why people make the effort to go to concerts. What is it that they look at? I went to an orchestral concert once and got thoroughly bored (even though I loved the music) as the seat was uncomfortable and there was nothing to look at save a sea of identical-looking violinists in the far distance (we had cheap seats!) sawing their violins in unison. So I shut my eyes to focus on the music, then wondered why I hadn’t simply stayed at home and listened to a CD: the seats are more comfortable and the drinks cheaper!

I’m personally fed up with seeing choirs and singing groups just standing on stage singing (and – if they can get their noses out of their books – occasionally looking at us). If I make the effort to go out to a live concert, then I want all my senses to be stimulated, especially my aural AND visual senses. And yet in most concerts – sung or otherwise – there is simply nothing to see! This issue has been on my mind a lot of late and I am trying to do something about it. One of my aims next year is to make our choir concerts more theatrical, to try to find different ways of presenting each song mainly through different physical configurations of singers on stage, but also through lighting and other theatrical devices.

So I’m hoping that some of you out there who regularly make up audiences can enlighten me as to what the attraction of going to a concert is. Apart from the applause (or not!) after each song, the fact that audiences seem to want to keep coming back, and the rare comment in our comments book, we don’t tend to get much feedback as to our choice of repertoire, presentation, audience involvement, length of concert, etc. I’m rather flying blind and hoping that what we have to offer is attractive. Maybe if I tweaked things a little we would get better audiences? So do tell: what is it that you get from going to a concert that you don’t get by staying at home and listening to a (possibly live) CD?

There is, of course, something else that the audience can look at whilst we’re singing, and that is the programme. More on this next week (What are you looking at PART TWO)!

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

But I can't sing!

The other day I was reading one of the few blogs out there about choirs and singing – Podium Speak – which mentioned a guy who seldom hits a wrong note, knows lots about music and how it works, is very keen, but who can’t ‘sing’. (Do check the post out as it has a really good description at the end of what it means to be part of a choir)

It got me thinking about what people might mean by ‘sing’. In the Podium Speak blog entry, the point being made was that the guy couldn’t really sing musically. i.e. it’s not just enough to sing on pitch, get the notes in the right order, be exact with your timing, etc. there’s also a need for musicality. It’s partly to do with phrasing, feeling, going with the flow, expression, meaning it, etc. – things that are somewhat intangible (although you can teach some of them!) but which we notice very clearly as an audience. It’s like the X-Factor: you know immediately when someone’s got it, but also when they haven’t. This particular guy seems to approach the whole act of singing very mathematically and technically whilst forgetting the humanity that needs to lie behind the singing voice.

This ability to bring musicality to a song is something that we all want and is the main thing that we look for when auditioning people. (I’m going to be writing about auditions in a later post) But what about open-access community choirs where everyone is welcome? All the choirs that I run are open-access and founded on the principle that everyone can sing. However, there are still people who won’t join such a choir because they believe that they can’t sing, even though there are no auditions, no particular standard to adhere to, and no expectations other than to have fun! Why is this?

It’s clear that such people believe that they can’t ‘sing’. Whatever that means. When asked, it turns out that they each have their own particular notion of what being able to sing actually is! Some people believe that real singers only have to hear a song once and will then know it (and the words!) perfectly; some people think that the only proper singing is professional or opera singing and anything less is forbidden; some people think that because they can’t hit a particular high note it means that they’re no good at singing; some people don’t like the sound of their own voice and because they don’t sound exactly like the singers on TV they shouldn’t ‘inflict’ their voice on anyone else; and some people think they can’t sing because they think they can’t hold a tune, even though they can sing Happy Birthday note perfectly.

All these are, of course, myths. But quite prevalent and persistent myths. It’s quite hard to disabuse some people of these erroneous beliefs. One way (which I have tried!) is to offer workshops to organisations but don’t tell them that you’ll be doing singing. Start off with a few warm-up games, some running around and being silly, being playful with the voice (call and response silly sounds, for example), then quickly teach them a very simple three-part round. Afterwards I point out that they’ve just been singing unaccompanied three-part harmony which is a very, very difficult skill. In the process they’ve proved that they’re all excellent singers, so now I’m going to teach them a song. Always works!

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