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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Chris Rowbury


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