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?

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Chris Rowbury


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