Sunday, June 29, 2008

How much are you worth? PART ONE

I was collecting money at a workshop recently (something I nearly always forget as I always get so carried away with the singing!) and somebody mentioned that they thought I wasn’t charging enough. He cited another workshop leader who runs similar workshops, but who charges more than twice what I do.

This got me thinking: how much am I worth? should I be charging more? how did I arrive at the current fee? Next week (How much are you worth? PART TWO) I will look at why I might not want to charge the going rate or highest possible fee (more of a philosophical rant!), but for now, let’s look at what might affect the fees that one charges for workshops or regular choirs.

There are several factors to take into consideration when looking at workshop fees:

experience of the workshop leader

A more experienced workshop leader will command a higher fee since you are effectively paying for their years of experience. A new workshop leader starting out with very little track record cannot afford to be too expensive.

content of the workshop

Is it just a straight singing workshop or are there ‘extras’ included in the fee like lunch, songbooks, CDs, etc? The fee needs to cover these extra costs.

demographic of the participants

Depending on where the workshop is being held, or who the workshop is aimed at (e.g. the unemployed, single parents, retired people), the fee needs to be ‘affordable’ for the participants.

reason for the workshop

Sometimes a workshop can be run as a ‘loss leader’ for promotional purposes, or to try and recruit singers for a local choir. In these cases you might want a lower fee in order to attract as many people as possible.

basic set-up costs

Of course you need to cover all your costs: venue hire, publicity, printing of lyrics sheets, etc. In order to do this, you also need to anticipate the minimum number of participants you might attract.

size of the group

One-to-one singing lessons will always be more expensive than large group workshops and participants will be prepared to pay accordingly.

financial status of the workshop leader

Is running singing workshops just a hobby or part-time occupation, or is this the sole source of income?

subject matter of the workshop

An easy light-hearted singing day will usually be much cheaper to attend than a singing master class or specialist theme.

amount of preparation time

Are the songs being taught ‘off the shelf’, readily available and all ready to go, or is there a lot of arranging and sourcing time needed?

fees of comparable workshops

If there are other singing workshops held in the same area, the fees can’t be too different.

other factors

Can you think of any other factors? How do you go about setting an appropriate fee for your workshops (or even choirs)?

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Calm down dear, it's only a song!

I was running a workshop the other week, and somebody who had not been on the receiving end of my workshop leading before grabbed me in the break and said: “I can’t believe how patient you are with us!”. I must admit that I have heard this before in various forms, but this time it set me thinking: what is the alternative to patience?

When I teach or rehearse songs I try to create a relaxed and friendly atmosphere where ‘mistakes’ are all part of the learning process and are nothing to be feared. I use laughter a lot, and behave as if everyone present is equally capable of getting a song ‘right’ and of singing beautifully. When people seem to be having trouble learning their part, I try and break it down into smaller, more easily digested pieces. If people are having trouble with finding a particular note, then I emphasise the intervals between the notes either side, or make reference to how they can pick up their note from one of the other parts. If people keep stumbling at the same place, then I discuss it with them to find out what the problem is: timing? pitching? interval? If everything goes completely pear-shaped, then we just stop and start over. Gradually the song comes together, and even if it’s slow progress, by the end of a few weeks (or hours if it’s a one-day workshop), usually everyone is singing with confidence.

I try very hard to never lose my temper (although I can get a bit snappy when a concert is coming up!), I try very hard never to single anyone out, and I try very hard never to blame the singers – it’s just the song that’s hard.

So, if you describe that as ‘patience’, then yes, I do have a lot of patience. But I find that it comes naturally: I don’t have to make an effort, I don’t have to bite my tongue or pretend to be calm. In fact, I can see no other way of doing things! And I must be doing something right since we perform to a high standard and get excellent feedback from our audiences.

What, then is the alternative to patience? I can only imagine since I am fortunate enough never to have been on the receiving end. I can imagine a choir leader getting frustrated, perhaps even shouting at the singers when they keep making the same mistake, of singling out particular singers who might sing a wrong note. I can imagine tension in the body, tight voices, apprehension, an atmosphere of fear (of making a mistake), a lack of fun and enjoyment, a dour seriousness. I can imagine a place which is the enemy of creativity, team work, pleasure and music-making. I sure hope there aren’t any people out there who create those sorts of places!

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

The singers shall remain nameless

(this post is somewhat related to last week’s: Getting to know you)

I’m just back from running a weekend workshop with about 40 singers. Weekend workshops are slightly different from one-day workshops in that you can spend more time building the songs up and can really get to grips with them so that people go home feeling that they’ve got something firmly under their belt.

Weekends also tend to be far more of a social event as the participants have plenty of time to get to know each other. Partly because of this, I usually include some kind of name game in the first session. I don’t do this in my one-day workshops as I don’t think there’s ever enough time to remember all the names, and it takes such a long time if there are 70 or 100 singers!

Since I was running a Beatles acappella workshop, I thought it would be a good idea to incorporate some kind of singing exercise into the name learning. I decided to work round the group three people at a time. I first asked them to speak their name, then I gave each one of them a note as part of a major chord. I then roughly divided the rest of the group into three parts and got each section to sing the relevant person’s name on the chosen note. After getting through about 12 people, I then went back and pointed at each person in turn and got the group to speak their names.

As I went round the group and people became familiar with the exercise, I added a fourth person each time and made more jazzy chords that can often be found in Beatles songs. It was quite a successful warm-up exercise, got people singing in harmony, and most people seemed to remember most names (at least for a few minutes!).

Except me that is! I found that, because I was focusing so much on the exercise, that after about three sets of three names my brain just went dead and I couldn’t remember any new names. So by the end of the exercise I hadn’t really learnt anything!

Do other workshop leaders find this? Do you have any better, more successful name game ideas? Do you think workshop participants even have to know each others’ names?

One of the things I love about singing in harmony, is that you can get a bunch of strangers together and make beautiful music in a short period of time. It is an egalitarian process so you don’t need to know anything about the people your singing with. An executive director can be standing next to a secretary, a university professor next to a shop assistant, a recently divorced person next to a person with a chronic illness. We’re only interested at this point in the sound that comes out of people’s mouths. Nobody is being judged on their career choice, life history, appearance, family background, education, etc. etc.

I have often had feedback from workshop participants that they have appreciated the fact that I haven’t done name games or gone round the circle asking people to say a little about themselves. It gives people a chance to just be without fear of judgment. Later perhaps, people might socialise and get to know a little about each other, but by then any shyness or inadequacies that people might have felt by others’ status or background has long past.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Getting to know you

Even though I’ve been running choirs for many years, I still don’t know everyone’s name nor much about each person. I’m ashamed to say this, but the simple fact is that unless choir members come for a drink after a session or attend one of our social events, then I don’t get the chance to chat to them. After all, I’m standing out in front of everyone for the evening and dealing with the choir en masse.

Although I try to discourage it, many people chat to their neighbours whilst their particular part is not singing or learning. This may not necessarily be social chit chat, but might actually be about the song! There’s a very good chance that, over the years, singers who stand near each other in the same part will get to know each other fairly well. When break time comes, it’s also quite natural to begin talking to those nearest to you.

So how do choir members get to know other singers who are in parts far away from them? Will the sopranos ever make friends with the tenors or basses? Even though I encourage people to change parts now and then, most people tend to stay put, so how can they get to know other singers’ names and backgrounds?

Of course, it’s not necessary to know someone socially in order to sing with them (which is one of the joys of harmony singing), nor is it necessary to be friends or even like someone in order to be able to make beautiful music together. But community choirs are social beasts. Part of the reason that people come is to socialise and get to know others with a similar interest.

I have tried in the past to form small groups of four scattered throughout our rehearsal space in order to practice singing harmony in small groups (whilst still being in the midst of the main choir). On these occasions I have suggested that people introduce themselves if they’ve not sung together before.

People often suggest the use of badges with people’s names on. I’ve tried this in the past, but ended up not learning anybody’s name because I simply have to look at their chest to see what it is!

So … anybody out there have any suggestions for how to get to know all the people in the choir and their names?

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Why I don't like a cappella

I was asked recently if I would like to conduct an interview on my blog with a well-known singing group who have just released a new CD. I had to be honest and say that I didn’t actually like their singing! I said: “Their a cappella singing does nothing for me, so I don’t think it would make for a good interview”.

This brought up for me a thorny old subject which is: why don’t I like most a cappella singing out there? And how do I describe what it is that I do like?

When I think of a cappella I think of barbershop, of small groups singing close harmony, of contemporary songs with lots of ‘doo bas’ and ‘dum de dums’, of doo wop and pop music. Even though a cappella means simply “singing without instrumental accompaniment”, the term has come to represent a rather limited (in my view) genre of music. Although I do like the occasional 1950s style R&B, generally I dislike contemporary a cappella singing, especially when the voice is used to emulate musical instruments. I mean, what is the point??!! Why not just put the instruments on the record?

Like a lot of purely skill-based activities (juggling, riding a bicycle, hand stands, etc.) audiences seem to respond to the clever clever impersonation of an instrument, they applaud the vocal pyrotechnics that are just there to show off. But where is the soul of the music, the inner life of the song which make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?

So why is it that I don’t like a cappella singing? For me, it is just too clean and smooth. It’s rather like all the other processed food and pap (reality TV?) that we get served up in the modern world. The aim seems to be to blend the voices perfectly, iron out any individuality and be absolutely perfectly in tune. There is no soul in the singing, no texture, no humanity. I love it when voices are ever-so-slightly out of tune with each other and you can hear the beats of the harmonics in the air. I love it when you can hear everyone singing the same note and yet the quality of all the individual voices shines through. I love it when you can hear the breathing and emotion and humanity behind the voices.

A glance at any of the many websites dedicated to a cappella (e.g. Primarily Acappella, gives you an idea of the kind of material that’s covered: vocal jazz, contemporary, collegiate, doo wop, barbershop. With groups such as Take 6, The Swingle Singers, The King’s Singers, The Bobs, Manhattan Transfer.

But the stuff that I like is raw and vital. It almost always involves traditional rather than contemporary songs, and is usually from cultures other than western. The songs have been handed down from generation to generation and singing is done for the love of it, rather than for the performance (in fact many cultures don’t distinguish between ‘performer’ and ‘audience’). These are songs of heartache, of love and loss, of work, of hardship, of dreams and promises, all rooted in everyday life.

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