Sunday, May 25, 2008

Wot, me worried?

I reckon I’m a fairly experienced teacher and workshop leader. I’ve been teaching in one form or another since 1978 (computer science to undergraduates). I started running theatre workshops in 1984 and since 1997 I’ve been leading choirs and teaching singing workshops.

Like all good teachers I spend a major part of my time preparing workshop and rehearsal sessions, sourcing material, learning songs, etc. I try to make sure that I am as prepared as I possibly can be, but I also know that I can improvise when necessary. So I go into a workshop feeling pretty confident and reasonably sure I know what I’m doing. How then to account for the lack of sleep the night before and the anxiety dreams?

The other week I ran a singing workshop in London for an hour on a Wednesday evening at 6pm. It’s about a 1 ¼ hour train journey from where I live, plus maybe half an hour on the underground. I left in plenty of time in case there were any rail problems (in the end I arrived over 1 ½ hours early!). I didn’t have to make an early start, only needing to be at the train station by 3pm.

The night before I had a very restless night, tossing and turning, waking up every now and then to check the clock. I also had an anxiety dream:

I had arrived at the venue in plenty of time, so decided to go and have a coffee. I was feeling extremely relaxed and laid-back and was enjoying just chilling and drinking coffee. I glanced at my watch to find it was 6.20pm – the workshop was supposed to start at 6pm! I rushed to the workshop room and found it empty except for one young man sitting at a desk doing his homework. Then I saw the organiser and apologised for being late. He said not to worry as there were two long queues of people waiting outside to come in!

On the surface I had no anxieties about the workshop at all, and yet deep-down I was clearly worried that I would not arrive on time and that nobody would turn up.

I met a colleague after the workshop and she mentioned that she too gets hardly any sleep before a workshop, even though she is very experienced and always well-prepared. That means that many of us may be running our workshops on just a few hours sleep. Imagine how much better they might be if we got a good night’s sleep beforehand!

Despite the lack of sleep, I really wouldn’t have it any other way. Being somewhat anxious before a workshop (or rehearsal or gig) means that we care about it and are keen to get it right. Much better that than being complacent and thinking it will be a breeze. I truly believe that it’s the sign of a good teacher to remain worried about doing a good job, even though you may have done it many times before. The day I stop being nervous just before a concert is the day I should give up the job!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Extra, extra, hear all about it!

An extra post for a shameless plug! BBC Radio 4 have been running a 5-part documentary series on choirs this week, and the choir WorldSong which I founded in 1997 was one of the featured choirs. Interestingly, out of more than 25,000 choirs in the UK, they also chose another Natural Voice choir to feature: the London Bulgarian choir. We must be doing something right!

For those of you who missed the broadcast or who live outside the UK, it’s possible to use the BBC’s Listen Again service to listen to the programmes on the internet for up to a week after the broadcast. Tune in now – don’t delay!

The series is called Joan Armatrading’s favourite choirs and the WorldSong part went out on Tuesday 20th May.

Singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading visits outstanding choirs around Britain with special stories to tell. From a male voice choir on a peace mission to a children’s choir with members as young as three, Singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading discovers there’s a lot more to being in a choir than just the singing.

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Get over there!

Tom Carter made this comment on last week’s post Hey, you at the back!

This post has me intrigued, since I know of NO American choral director who doesn't place the singers(!). Whether it is through a complex process of experimentation and close listening (a la Weston Noble), or it’s a more random assignment by height and voice part, never have I sung in or worked with a choir which allowed the singers to stand wherever they wanted.

I’m intrigued, and am now wondering if your practice applies to other Natural Voice directors, or even other British (as opposed to American) directors.

Now, I’m sure I can’t answer for British choirs in general (never having been in one!), and I can’t really comment on how other Natural Voice choirs are run since everyone approaches rehearsals and performance differently, so this reply is very personal.

From all that I’ve read and seen, I really believe that the choirs that I (and many other Natural Voice practitioners) run are not ‘choirs’ in the sense that most people think of them. In fact, I would be very happy to use a different term if only I could think of one! Many people are put off joining any kind of singing group that uses the term ‘choir’ because it has so many negative associations. One of which is its formal nature and the fact that there’s an emphasis on performance and a notion that there is a ‘right’ way of doing things. I can only imagine this to be the case, for otherwise why on earth would any choir leader want to place the singers!

I imagine this placement is to do with the blending of voices and the overall sound as heard by an audience. I can’t think of any other reason (please correct me if I’m wrong). However, my approach is that we are a group of people gathered to enjoy singing together and making as good a noise as we can. It is a communal event and a team process. The joy is had from the harmonies we make with each other. Why not let people sing whichever part appeals to them and why not let people stand wherever they want? Surely the main point of harmony singing is to actually hear the harmonies, in which case it’s really cool to stand right next to people singing a different part (the only reason that I ask people in the same part to stand together is that it makes the initial learning of a song much easier. In fact, let’s walk around the space and try out our part and our voice next to different parts and different voices! What an amazing sound!!

This is much nearer to how people sing in cultures, communities and traditions where the singing experience comes first, and often there is no notion of ‘performance’. In many such cultures there is simply no distinction between ‘performer’ and ‘audience’. Wouldn’t it be great if we could to that here in our British culture? As a small step in this direction I try to make all the concerts we do as relaxed and as informal as possible whilst trying to maintain the highest musical standards. I often make reference to the fact that we’re not an auditioned choir and that everybody can sing. And I always teach the audience at least one song to prove to them that they can sing unaccompanied in harmony.

However, this does not mean that we don’t make a good overall sound as can be heard by listening to samples from the recent live WorldSong CD.

So that is the spirit of the choirs that I run. In which case, I don’t see why I need to be placing singers. I would love to hear from people in other choirs who do this so I can understand why choral directors do it!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hey, you at the back!

Life in the back row

Unless you’re in a fairly small choir which can rehearse in a circle, there is usually more than one row of singers, especially in concerts. Typically taller singers stand on the back row, and shorter singers at the front. I also encourage those who don’t know the words off by heart to stand at the back as it doesn’t look so good when they’re holding pieces of paper! Other than that, why do some people choose to be on the back row and others on the front?

Slow in coming forward?

It’s an understandable reaction for people who are less confident or new to a choir to avoid the spotlight. Hence they often end up on the back row. Their tendency is to be as far away from the action as possible. I have even seen them backing away from the choir so there is a huge gap between them and the ‘real’ back row! However, this obvious tendency is counter-productive. The back row should be reserved for those who really know what they’re doing since there is very little reinforcement of the part from other singers. In contrast, the front row is the place to be if you’re not sure since you can always see and hear the conductor clearly and you have all the other singers singing your part into your ears.

Into the stretch zone

Dawna Markova and Mary Jane Ryan (Can you become a creature of new habits?) have identified three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. The comfort zone is where we usually live and is the realm of existing habit (see Fighting habit and complacency). It is where we feel safest and most familiar. However, if we constantly stay in that zone then we are unlikely to learn, grow or develop. At the opposite extreme, stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. So we don’t really want to go there very often!

It’s the stretch zone in between the extremes – activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar – where real learning and development of skills occurs. So if you are an under confident singer in general, or just not sure about the song that we’re learning at the moment, don’t stay at the back. Step up your game to where your colleagues can help and support you, but maybe not right up to the front. Move into the thick of things into the middle row where you can stretch yourself a little whilst being supported by those around you.

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The bigger picture

Kind of obvious really, but a choir is a large organism made up of lots of individuals who are working together. Part of the joy is to be part of something greater than oneself. Each singer has the responsibility to sing their part ‘correctly’, and yet the overall sound doesn’t depend on any one singer. However, each singer is as vitally important as the next. The effectiveness of a choir lies in the ability to balance these, apparently contradictory, requirements.

Often less-confident choir members stand at the back singing quietly, thinking that it doesn’t really matter what they do as they’re not really that important. Yet if all the singers thought that, there would be no choir! These less-confident singers believe that if they don’t turn up for a concert, it won’t make any difference, yet at the same time they believe that if they make a mistake it will spoil the whole sound of the choir! So there is a fine balance between each singer being of equal importance, and yet the final result doesn’t depend on any single individual’s contribution. Somewhat of a paradox.

Often I get singers coming up to me after a rehearsal to tell me that somebody next to them has been singing the tune incorrectly, or that within their part there were several versions being sung at the same time. Usually I haven’t noticed this at all! Standing out front it is my responsibility to get the overall sound right. Since the choir is a large group of people, any small imperfections tend to disappear in the mix. Yet the resulting sound is a combination of the wide range of different vocal qualities involved and the sum of all the tiny differences in tuning, notes sung, voice placement, etc. If a different combination of singers were involved, the overall sound would be somewhat different.

It is that expression of humanity shining through that can make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It is the quality that singers of ‘traditional’ music often bring when they sing as part of their everyday work or ritual rather than as a special performing group. Sometimes I think we lose sight of that and focus too much on trying to achieve the perfect blend of voices in an attempt to realise the music in a ‘perfect’ way (which, of course, is impossible).

go to Chris Rowbury's website