Sunday, March 30, 2008

How long is long enough?

I had the unfamiliar experience of watching my first WorldSong concert as a mere punter last Saturday. This is their second concert under the new leadership of Una May Olomolaiye (Moving on), but the first that I have seen. It was a wonderful experience and great to see how the choir is progressing under a new leader. I usually make a good punter and just switch off my conductor brain, but on Saturday it was rather like being a front-seat passenger in a car and anticipating the braking of the driver. Unconsciously I found myself tensing my arms at strategic points in certain songs – it was exhausting!

Perhaps unusually for someone who runs a choir, I have never been in an adult choir (certainly not a choir with separate parts), nor do I often watch choral concerts as my taste is world music and there’s not much of that about. So Saturday was a rare occasion for me being in the role of audience member. Since I knew all the singers and the songs, I found myself engaged for much of the concert by watching individuals and getting pleasure from their own evident enjoyment. Una May also cleverly got the whole audience up towards the end of the first half to sing a song, which energised everybody (and woke up those few who had drifted off at the back!).

The first half was around an hour, and the second half seemed even longer! Even though the singing was fantastic and I am a real fan of that style of music, I did find myself flagging towards the end and wishing that the concert was over. This made me wonder how long an ideal concert should be so that people feel that they’ve had enough, but not too much. Leaving the audience to feel that perhaps they want more (so they’ll come to the next concert), but they don’t feel cheated and have got their money’s worth.

For a full evening concert, I usually work on a structure of two 45 minute sets with a 15 – 20 minute interval. The second half I make shorter than the first, but allow for an encore. But I do know some choirs who do as little as two 30 minute sets. It really is hard to know how much is enough, but not too much. This also taps into my bugbear of wanting there to be sufficient variety (of styles, presentation, numbers and distribution of singers, etc.) and something to watch on stage (see What are you looking at Part 1). If there is not much going on on stage, then the concert needs to be shorter. On Saturday everyone was totally engaged in the singing, the performers were alive, there was movement in their bodies, Una May was a charismatic leader, etc. etc. but still I got bored with seeing a group of people standing in a set formation for the whole concert.

If we do a concert on our own and have to fill up 90 minutes worth of singing, that’s a lot of songs! Most of our songs come from the traditional repertoire which means they can be as short as one minute. This means that most of our concerts contain around 30 songs which is a lot to rehearse given that we’re not really a performing choir (What a performance). In recent years I have begun to create segues or medleys of songs from the same part of the world which makes for more interest (and less talking from me between songs!).

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Low ladies

I’ve spoken before about the lack of men in many community choirs (Where are all the male singers?). One of the results of this is that the so-called ‘tenor’ section is mainly populated by women, or ‘low ladies’. This makes several differences to the choir:

  1. any arrangements for the tenor part must be pitched carefully – not too low for the women, but not too high for the few men present
  2. there is a definite difference in sound between men and women singing in the tenor range – whilst the women are towards the bottom of their range, the men are usually high up which gives a more powerful, distinctive sound
  3. it becomes more difficult to give the tenor section their starting note if it includes both women and men
  4. it can be quite strange standing next to a member of the opposite sex singing the same pitch as you – men perceive the women to be very low, whilst women perceive the men to be very high!

Arrranging for mixed tenor parts
For most of my community choirs I make sure that any tenor part doesn’t go much lower than F below middle C, and not much higher than F above middle C. This sometimes rules out great arrangements that really need a male tenor section. In fact, as a general rule, this is the overall range I use for a community choir. The tops (who are usually just high altos) don’t go much above F an octave and a bit above middle C, and the basses (who are usually baritones) don’t go lower than the F an octave and a bit below middle C. Basically, I assume that the men and women have similar ranges but an octave apart.

Where has the power gone?
Often the tenor part is the sexy, jazzy part, the part with the accidentals or different rhythm. I try and persuade people that the tenor is usually the coolest part of any song! In which case it’s really good to hear it punching out through the mix of other voices. Since women are often at the bottom of the range for the tenor part, they usually don’t have sufficient power in their voices, whereas men singing the same part tend to carry more.

Men giving starting notes to women
I took over two community choirs which had previously been run by women. The choir had got used to being given the exact pitch for the top, alto and tenor parts. However, since the bass was usually too low, the conductor would give the starting note an octave up and the men would automatically adjust. It seems to me that men and women make automatic adjustments for the roughly octave difference in their voices. If a woman pitches a note low in her range to a group of men, they assume that they need to sing a note that is also low in their range. They usually make an automatic adjustment and don’t even attempt to match the woman’s pitch exactly.

When I took over, the whole thing switched round: when I sang a note to the women in the choir, they automatically assumed that I wanted them to sing an octave up. However, when it comes to the tenor part, I can usually sing either at pitch, or an octave down. When the tenor part is mixed women and men, I usually give the note an octave down for the women and at pitch for the men. It only gets confusing occasionally!

The perception of men and women’s singing voices
When I’m singing harmony with a woman I can often be singing a part which is actually pitched lower than the part she is singing, but I perceive it to be higher because I’m singing high in my range whereas she’s singing low in hers. It takes a bit of getting used to!

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

A day in the life of a concert

I thought I'd give an account of a typical concert.

Woven Chords had their annual spring concert ‘at home’ in Stamford Arts Centre last Saturday. Since Stamford is about 1 ¼ hours drive away from where I live, I left home at 11.30am in order to arrive in plenty of time for our regular one o’clock rehearsal. We almost always have a rehearsal on the afternoon of a concert, definitely if it’s a whole evening by ourselves. I always feel safer! The rehearsal is mainly to make sure that people know the structure of each song, where to stand, what comes next, etc. I assume that the actual singing will be OK on the night! For a typical 1 ½ hour concert, we usually take 2 ½ hours to run through, including a warm up.

I guess if we were a performing choir with many concerts each year, then we perhaps would only need a short technical rehearsal on the day of the concert. But people come along each week mainly for fun, so I try keep actual drilling of songs to a minimum in our regular sessions. We try to do a concert at the end of each term, making at least three concerts a year. Since I now run just one choir, I was rather nervous on Saturday before the gig as the last time I had stood in front of a choir was our Christmas concert in 2007.

After the rehearsal I go and try to chill out somewhere and take some time to look through the running order, remind myself of any tricky bits in songs, and imagine myself starting each song (starting notes, timing, who to bring in first, etc.). We meet up again half an hour before the concert in order to finalise how we stand in the performance space (I usually put tape marks on the floor to ensure a nice semi-circle), to do a final warm-up, and perhaps to run through any tricky parts of particular songs.

The venue for the concert was the beautiful Georgian ballroom where we practice each week. It is long and thin with a stage at one end. Once upon a time we used to sing on the stage with a few stage lights, but now the choir is so big that we no longer fit! For the last two years we’ve performed sideways on which means a wide audience of around five rows. This gives plenty of room for the choir to stand in a wide semi-circle. Although we have 80 members on the books, about 70 turn up in any given term. However, this term we only managed 60. Of those, quite a few were ill (there’s been a vicious chest bug going around since January) or otherwise engaged, so we managed just 45 singers. However, it seemed very full and all the audience seats were full. There could have only been about 100 audience, but it felt full and comfortable. They were very attentive and we could see the whites of there eyes as the stage lighting doesn’t work sideways on!

For a full concert such as Saturday’s we get through about 30 songs. My yardstick is to multiply the total singing time by 1 ½ and that gives a rough estimate of the concert running time (i.e. it includes all my waffle between songs). So for two halves of 45 minutes each, we need 60 minutes of song material. And since our songs are usually so short, that means about 30 songs! For Saturday’s concert I tried to inject something a little different, so we began with the choir entering through two separate doors at the back, either side of the audience and launched into a call and response song from Polynesia (across the audience’s head). The choir then slowly moved into their proper formation and we neatly segued into a song from the Cook Islands.

In the first half we had a Corsican song which was started by a trio of singers, two songs sung by the women only, and one by the men. Finally, I taught a South African song to the audience with the choir adding the harmonies. I always teach a song to the audience, but usually at the end. I thought I’d catch them this time before they could run away! Apart from it being fun, I use it to demonstrate my belief that everyone can sing, and also to give the audience a short insight into what it’s like to be part of a choir singing unaccompanied harmony. We got about five new recruits at the end of the concert!

The second half began with a solo singer who was then joined by four other women, and finally by five other women to sing a beautiful Scottish round from the Hebrides. Gradually the rest of the choir joined in from behind adding drones. Next, the same women sang the old Medieval English round ‘Sumer is icumen in’ with the men behind them singing the ostinato. At the end of the second half I taught a final song to the audience, invited them to join in with the Beach Boys’ version of ‘Barbara Ann’, and then the choir exited singing a Zimbabwean lullaby. The audience seemed well-pleased, we sold a few CDs, and had some nice comments in the comments book.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Size matters

I've talked before about the issues of conducting (or not!) small ensembles (How many conductors does it take to lead a choir?), but today I’d like to focus on big choirs.

I absolutely love working with large groups of singers. One of my great pleasures is to run open-access workshops where we create a fantastic big harmony sound in a relatively short time. With such a group of widely varying abilities, the sheer numbers filter out any real problems, and everyone usually goes away on a real high due to the quality of the final result. I’ve always used the mantra the more the merrier when promoting my one-day workshops and when recruiting for my regular choirs.

However, there came a point with my regular choirs when I began to question this wisdom! It may be fine and dandy to do a one-off with a huge group of singers, but in regular weekly sessions it becomes very, very tiring. I’m really not sure why this is, but I noticed quite a big difference between 60 singers and 70 singers. I can’t figure out why it’s any more tiring teaching a part orally to an alto section of 20 than it is to 15. But that’s the way it is. My solution to this has been to limit the size of the choir. We now have 80 members on our books, of which around 70 turn up in any given term. We also have a waiting list of around 15 singers. I really don’t like doing this as I believe that singing should be available to all, and I don’t like turning people away (what my choirs do is quite specialised, so it’s not as if they can just go and join a different choir).

There is certainly a difference in group dynamics as a choir gets bigger. I remember my first ever concert 10 years ago when I managed to muster 12 singers to do a 20 minute set. Some of the songs were in four part harmony and pretty much all the singers were beginners. At the time I thought we looked and sounded impressive and that it was a good turn out. Looking back, I now realise that it’s much harder to get a good sound out of such a small group and it was a pretty mad and brave thing to do! We were such a small group that everybody knew everybody equally well, no matter what part they sang.

As my original choir WorldSong grew, I managed to remember everyone’s name since only a handful of new people would join each term. As time went by, the social side of the choir became stronger and people made lasting friendships. For the two choirs that I took over, I’ve never managed to learn everyone’s name (sorry guys!), because it was just too overwhelming being faced with such a large group to start with. Despite my own shortcomings, many friendships have developed within the choir, yet not even the choir members know everybody’s name. Most people make closest friends within the part that they sing. This means that sometimes there has been slight resistance in the choir when I have taken on new members and it has grown in size. Many choir members hark back to the good old days when there were only 40 members, etc. etc.

One way of dealing with a large choir size is to have more than one musical director and/ or conductor. In the UK two choirs spring to mind, both having more than 120 members: the Manchester Community Choir and the Gasworks Choir in Bristol. Both have (or had) two choir leaders. Having never experienced this myself I really have no idea how it works! But I am soon to find out. In April there will be a large community choirs’ festival locally where around 20 community choirs will gather to learn some songs together as well as sharing songs they already know. This means that there will almost certainly be a choir of several hundred singers. There will be four people to teach each song – one to each part – with one taking overall responsibility. I am really looking forward to finding out how this works!

On a final note, if one does go down the route of co-leading a choir, I wonder how this works financially – doesn’t it simply cut your own income stream in half in one fell swoop??!!

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Picture this

One of the many bees in my bonnet is the subject of photographs of choirs. I have yet to see any photo of a reasonably sized choir (say, over 30 members) which is of any interest to me whatsoever. Almost always the photo is of serried ranks of identically dressed people looking straight to camera. It screams CHOIR in the most stereotyped, dull, predictable way. I pick up the newspaper and read an article about an upcoming choral concert or maybe a review of one, and most of the time it is accompanied by a photo of a choir. I’ve just read that fact, and now to reinforce it (in case I hadn’t grasped what the word ‘choir’ means!) I’m confronted with an amazingly boring photo which adds nothing to the piece. Why say the same thing twice?

I believe this does the choral world a disservice. It perpetuates the conservative old-fashioned view of what a choir is. I really don’t think it helps attract audiences (if an audience already knows what a choir looks like, it’s not going to mean anything, and if they don’t, it will almost certainly put them off!). Why, oh, why can’t we have interesting photos of choirs??!!! (OK, I’m sure there are some out there and I would love to be inundated with exciting examples).

As with most successful marketing, the image used in publicity doesn’t necessarily have to be a literal interpretation of the thing being sold. Very often in the performing arts, the publicity photo is not a still from rehearsals (this is reserved for the world of amateur dramatics or the photo display in the foyer), but a carefully thought-out image that somehow sums up an overall impression of the performance. For example, when WorldSong performed at Coventry’s main theatre, their marketing department told us that, from years of research, they had discovered that images of nature helped to sell musical events most effectively. Our posters were based around the image of a tree and it was so successful that we stole the idea for our first CD cover!

Yet some media outlets will still insist on an actual photo of the choir itself. OK. Fair enough. Local press is usually interested in the ‘human interest’ side of things, so let’s give them a photo of the people in the choir. But why in a static, formal, boring pose? Why not something different and exciting? Of course, there is a problem here in that it is difficult in practice to get every member of a large group in a photo at a decent scale (so we can see their faces). The easiest solution to this is the typical group or school photo: stand in rows with the tallest at the back, the shortest in front and maybe even some people right at the front sitting on the floor. Yes, it gets everyone in the photo, but it is very predictable and not exciting in the slightest. The only use for such a photo is that little Johnny’s mum can actually see her darling boy.

Some people try to use photos of their choir in performance. It's a great idea, but trying to capture the energy and spirit of a choir in full voice is very, very hard. Most often we catch people in mid song with their mouths open, but their eyes half shut looking completely gormless. I have many examples of this, but won't inflict them on you!

There are, however, other solutions. I’m not going to be specific here because I want to keep hold of some good ideas to use with my own choir! Suffice it to say, there are interesting ways of photographing choirs. However, it’s difficult finding good photographers who agree with me! Please, please send me some good examples of choir photos.

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