Sunday, January 27, 2008

We are not here to serve the music

The Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network new code of practice is still exercising me greatly! I’ve been getting a lot of feedback on it which has given me food for thought. Some people simply don’t understand some of the points even though to me they are self-evident. For example:

“I will always work in ways that are focusing on the person rather than the music.”

There are many choirs and musicians who put the music first and attempt to create a perfect rendition of a written musical score (see Where does the music reside?). Some even claim to be trying to re-create “what the composer intended” as if that were in any way possible! In these cases the focus is on the music and the singers and musicians merely vehicles for the expression of something. There is, of course, a place for this. My approach, and that of many other community choirs and Natural Voice practitioners, is somewhat different.

I always explain to new choir members that there are three important considerations to take in to account when performing. In order of priority, these are:

  1. Enjoyment and fun come first. If you are having a good time, this will communicate to the audience and result in lots of happy and (naturally) smiling faces — both in the choir and in the audience. It also means that there will be less tension in your body which can only result in a better sound.
  2. Getting the notes in tune and in the right order is an advantage. However, the odd wrong note here and there will not always be noticed. Don’t get hung up about it. Nine times out of ten you will be right. By not worrying too much about getting it right, the chances of hitting the correct note are much higher.
  3. It would be fantastic if you didn’t have to look at your lyric sheets, but I’m not going to shout at you if you do. I’d much rather have somebody with a discreet set of words in their hand which acts as a kind of security blanket, than have someone dry or go completely wrong. By not insisting that words cannot be used, it’s surprising how much people remember and don’t have to look at all. If I ban words entirely it usually all goes terribly wrong!

My thinking behind these considerations is that we’re a community of human beings often singing songs from folk traditions where people are not ‘singers’ in any formal sense. Our aim is not just to serve the music in order to make a ‘perfect’ rendition.

Being in a choir means working as a team. Every individual is important, and yet the result is always greater than the sum of the parts. I am always listening to the overall sound, so even though you may notice the person next to you is slightly out of tune, it usually doesn’t matter in the overall mix. I’m not here to criticise or teach people how to sing ‘correctly’. I will pick people up if I think they’re getting something wrong, but usually I deal with a whole section of the choir. I can sometimes hear that something is not quite right, but not often able to spot exactly who it is!

My personal taste is such that when I hear a choir who are note ‘perfect’, all in exact time with each other, voices blending as one, then I may as well be listening to a machine. I feel that the heart and soul have been removed. I like to hear the humanity of a choir shine through, with all its human imperfections and mistakes. I’d rather hear guts and passion than note perfection. My philosophy is that we use music as a vehicle for the soul, and are not here to serve the music regardless.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Blind to the joys of singing in a choir?

I was listening to Radio 4 last Saturday morning and caught the end of Saturday Live. A listener, Annie Rimmer, was talking about her Inheritance Tracks: the music that she had inherited from another person, and the track that she would like to pass on. For the latter she chose part of Monteverdi’s vespers of 1610: Nisi Dominus.

Annie has a disease which means that she is slowly losing her sight. Despite this, she joined a local choral society three years ago. She said: “It thrills me to sing with that group of people. There are about 150 of us, all of us amateurs. You’re all equal. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got the most beautiful voice or the most average voice, everybody’s got a part to play. It’s the totality, everything coming together, that’s such an amazing experience”.

What a brilliant way to sum up the joys of singing in a choir!

Annie had sung the Monteverdi at a concert which coincided with her 50th birthday and said that she couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “It’s so joyful. It’s not about the words, it’s about the music”.

Because she is losing her sight, it takes Annie many, many hours to prepare the music so that she can see it. However, she knows that she’s not going to be able to do that forever. “I know that there’s going to come a time over the next few years when I’m going to have to stop. I know that’s going to feel like the most enormous loss”.

Having discovered the joys of singing and the obvious pleasure it gives her, this was the point in the programme that made me very sad (and angry!). WHY does Annie have to give up singing in a choir???!!! Once again someone has been led to believe that they have to have a written score (and be able to read it) in order to sing. Which makes me wonder how the many, many oral singing traditions throughout the world continue to exist and thrive. And did people simply not sing before the invention of musical notation?

Other than the most complex of pieces (see Complex songs and learning by ear), almost every song can be taught be ear. Even relatively complicated pieces and those in several harmony parts. In fact, when the rhythms of a piece are very difficult, it’s often easier to learn by ear!

Having heard the complexity of the Monteverdi piece mentioned above, I am convinced it would be possible to learn by ear. But if Annie finds the local choral society’s repertoire to be too difficult, then she could easily find a local Natural Voice choir to join.

There are many wholly blind choirs out there as a quick Google will show. They seem to manage OK!

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mind your language!

Unlike many ‘traditional’ classical or church choirs, Natural Voice choirs hardly ever use written scores, nor do we expect participants in our workshops to have had a musical education. Since we want access to music to be as wide as possible, we don’t assume any particular expertise or prior knowledge or training from our workshop or choir participants. Hence we most often teach songs by ear in the age-old traditional manner, and hardly ever use any musical jargon.

Recently I’ve been trying to write a code of practice for Natural Voice practitioners which captures the essence of how we differ from other choir or workshop leaders. I have put a phrase in the code which reads:

“I will strive to make my work as accessible as possible by ensuring that I use straightforward language and avoid musical jargon”.

This has exercised the minds of several of our members who feel that by including such a statement we are somehow being asked to ‘dumb down’ our work. Of course, there is nothing wrong with musical jargon as such. What is wrong is making the assumption that everyone understands it and that if participants don’t understand it, then they are somehow lesser beings. Those clever musical people who do understand it become superior and seem to hold the key to a magic kingdom full of secrets that mere mortals cannot enter. I have known of individuals who have tried out certain choirs only to find themselves feeling excluded and made to feel stupid because they can’t read music and don’t know what a minor 3rd is. It is that experience that we, as Natural Voice practitioners, are trying to avoid.

In fact, it’s not just musical jargon that can exclude people, it’s any jargon, be it anatomical (‘diaphragm’), musical (‘octave’), mathematical (‘count 7 beats as one group of 3 followed by 2 groups of 2’), foreign (‘andante’), Western convention (‘that note is higher than that one’), and so on. What we need to do is to not make assumptions, and to not have our teaching or choir leading relying on jargon, at least not without having explained it. At its best jargon is a short-cut to be used amongst a group of people ALL of whom know its meaning. Which is why people outside any particular discipline are often bemused or even exclude by its specific jargon.

I suppose the trick is to feel free to use any kind of language as long as you don’t expect everyone to understand it and to make sure it is not the sole basis for your teaching or choir leading. As good teachers and choir leaders we should use a variety of language, teaching styles and material to maximise everybody’s involvement. If we don’t use jargon at all, then some participants who do have a musical training might feel patronised. But if we rely solely on jargon, we may end up excluding almost everybody.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Start as you mean to carry on

OK, I’ll admit it up front: I’m a charlatan. I have no training for the job which gives me my income. I have not had any formal musical education other than a few guitar lessons when I was around 10 years old. All that I know about music has been gleaned from years of listening to recordings (from which I developed an innate ability to harmonise), attempts at arranging a variety of songs for unaccompanied harmony singing (where my knowledge of guitar chords is invaluable), sourcing new songs from various songbooks and online resources (thanks to my guitar teacher, I can sight-read music and play it on the guitar), and – perhaps most importantly – all the valuable lessons I have learned from leading choirs and singing groups for the last 10 years.

When I used to work in theatre (as performer, director and teacher) I was always attracted to practitioners who had come to theatre from other backgrounds. My first company in London was made up of a chemist, architect and dancer, along with me, a computer scientist and mathematician. It is often the outsider who can bring new insight to a discipline because they aren’t hampered by the rules of their new subject. They can transgress, blunder about, be naughty, do things that can’t be done, and many times re-vitalise the discipline or even discover something new about it. But of course there do need to be rules to underlie any discipline. I know many of the ‘rules’ of music and musical composition, but there’s one that stumps me and I’m genuinely asking for some help from all you qualified and experienced people out there!

It’s to do with starting notes. I have a little blowy thing (a chromatic pitch pipe) which I use to give the starting notes to the choir. We always sing unaccompanied and I don’t have perfect pitch, so that’s what I’ve come up with. I give each part their separate note and off we go. However, what I would really like to do is to just give one note to the whole choir and each section will find their own harmonising start note. Of course, it’s much simpler when all parts start on the same note (pay attention song arrangers!), but often each part has a separate note of the first chord.

Now, my question is, what note do I give the choir? The part which has the tune doesn’t necessarily start on the key note of the chord. The first chord is not necessarily the root chord of the key signature. Personally I find it quite hard in a concert when we move from one song to the next. I can't seem to wipe the key of the last song out of my mind, so am I expecting too much from my choir?

What really impresses me are those conductors who bring out a tuning fork, tap it gently on their elbow, figure out the key note of the song from the tuning fork note, give just that one note to the choir and then they all burst out with an amazing first chord! How can I achieve such a cool and professional effect?

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