Sunday, July 27, 2008

Singing competitions are for losers

Quite a few choir members have come up to me over the last few months to ask why we don’t enter the Last Choir Standing competition. I tell them that’s it’s just not something that I’m interested in.

In fact, I wouldn’t want to go into any singing competition, let alone one that’s televised and is basically a prime-time light entertainment reality TV human interest razzmatazz knock-out competition which doesn’t really have much to do with singing. I talked a little bit about the Natural Voice objection to competitions in an earlier post OK you win - facing the competition.

For those people not based in the UK, Last Choir Standing is a televised knock-out competition to find the ‘best’ choir in the country (interestingly I thought the BBC already had a perfectly good choir competition: BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year! – but maybe that's too highbrow for prime-time). It is produced for the BBC and has been airing in the prime-time light-entertainment slot on a Saturday evening. It was originally going to be called Choir Wars, but there was a great deal of hoo ha about this, hence the name change.

I heard a radio programme recently about the philosophy of sport. Apparently one of the tennis players at Wimbledon this year had decided to stop reading philosophy during the competition as it was affecting his game adversely! There was then a discussion about what philosophers have to say about sports. One philosopher (I forget who) basically said that sports competitions – especially grand slams and knock-out competitions – are for losers. That is, everyone except the one eventual winner loses. So sports people and knock-out competitors need to get used to the fact that for the vast majority of the time they will be losing.

Why do people want to go in for these sorts of things? I guess it’s people who need some kind of external validation about their self-worth (see an interesting post about Where you get your personal worth from). As a choir leader, I know when we’re good and when we’re not quite up to scratch – and the singers pretty much know too. We’ve made CDs and performed regularly to appreciative audiences. Even when an audience has been luke-warm, we often know we’ve done really well. And sometimes exuberant ovations can’t hide the fact that we weren’t at our best (I've touched on this disparity between the audience's experience and the singers' experience in a previous post How was it for you?). We know when we’re doing well, without the need for outside judgment.

And what if we do go in for a competition and lose? What will that do to the choir’s self-confidence? Perhaps it will spur the choir on to work harder so they can do better next year. But then surely the focus becomes on the competition and not on the joys of singing?

And what if we actually win? That will boost our confidence enormously (but we could always sabotage this if we’re not feeling inner confidence: the judges weren’t that discriminating; the other competitors weren’t of a very high standard; not many choirs went in for the competition; etc. etc.). But it may well only last temporarily. Where do we go then? Bigger and better competitions? Or do we just enter again the next year with even more pressure to win? We’ve won once, won’t it be rather devastating to come second the next time? (This reminds me of those restaurants who boast that they won an award in 2002, or the village that won Best Village in Bloom in 1998 – how come they’ve become so bad in the intervening years?)

For some choirs, competitions are pretty much their sole purpose. Most barbershop choirs exist to compete and attend conventions. There is, of course, room for this, but personally I’m in it because I love singing!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Singing in the company of strangers

“Being able to make 40 people who do not know each other sing so well together was amazing”

“An excellent day proving that 50 strangers can blend very well indeed in close harmony”

These are just two comments I’ve had recently from singing workshops that I’ve run. It seems that people are really surprised when a bunch of strangers can make music together in such a relatively short time. However, for me, that is the joy of harmony singing.

I’m just back from doing a performance in London with two choirs who live 50 miles apart. I lead one of these community choirs (Woven Chords), and founded the other (WorldSong), so we have a few common songs in our repertoire. It makes life a little easier that I taught both choirs the songs and they both use the same structure, key and arrangements. Even so, it is always rather wonderful when they came together for the first time in a year for a brief rehearsal and seamlessly blend into a single choir. They knew their parts, they knew how the songs and harmonies fitted together, but they didn’t necessarily know the person standing next to them!

I have witnessed this effect at work on an even larger scale. In 2002 Sing for Water, a mass concert performed at the Thames Festival in London, was first launched by Helen Chadwick. Each year since then, up to 800 singers from across the UK have come together to sing and raise money for WaterAid. Each person learns their part of the songs independently, or with the choir that they belong to. Then on the day of the performance, there is a relatively brief rehearsal where the massed choir comes together for the first time to run through the songs. It always amazes me how relatively trouble-free this rehearsal is and how quickly the songs come together.

For me, this is the beauty of harmony singing, especially when it doesn’t require instrumental accompaniment. Any group of people – friends or strangers – can get together anywhere and make music.

This also touches on a couple of previous posts I made about whether you need to know your fellow singers to be able to make music (Getting to know you and The singers shall remain nameless). For me the answer is a resounding NO!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Calm before the storm

There’s always a strange sense of calm that descends on the choir just before a concert. At least that’s how it seems!

My plan always is to run each half of the forthcoming concert during the last two choir sessions leading up to the gig. I give plenty of notice of this, hand out the running orders in advance, mention it several times at rehearsal, remind people that there’s an important concert coming up, and stress that people need to attend all the rehearsals (including the one on the day of the concert).

I arrive, as always, in plenty of time for our choir session. There are usually about four people there – those people who always like to be on time. 7.30 comes and a handful of other people begin to arrive (our rehearsals start at 7.30 prompt). About 7.40 we’ve managed to muster 20 or so people – maybe as much as one third of the choir! I realise then that people must be so laid-back and calm about the forthcoming concert that I begin to have enormous admiration for them. Why can’t I be so relaxed about the whole thing? I’m beginning to get wound-up. Where is everyone??!!

“Why don’t you start the session?” you cry. “The devil with the latecomers, let them suffer!”. OK, that’s one plan, but we need to rehearse where people are standing, and the tricky entrance song without losing our time and tuning. It’s no good ploughing on with half the choir and then we come to the day itself and the other half are just under-rehearsed.

I’ve talked about people arriving late before (Being in a community choir PART ONE and comment), and there’s no simple one-size-fits-all solution. But I did naively imagine that with a concert looming people would make an extra effort in case they missed anything important!

Another strange group effect is after a concert. If a concert is in the middle of a term and there is a session the week following the concert, the numbers are always dramatically down and people are even later than usual! Even if the concert has been almost a week before, it’s as if people are just sung out or have given all their energy to the performance. Does anybody else notice this?

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, July 06, 2008

How much are you worth? PART TWO

Once upon a time it was fairly easy to work out how much your labour was worth. You would toil in the fields all day and at the end of it have enough to keep body and soul together for that one day. Then the next day you’d have to start over again. If you were luck you got to have one day a week off.

Then came the time when it was possible to work for others and get some kind of recompense, either in kind or in money. You would work hard for the week and end up with just enough to keep you and the family in food and with a roof over your head. If you were lucky there might be a bit over to save for a rainy day, or spend on a leisure pursuit (like drinking beer!).

But now, these connections don’t seem to make as much sense. There is not necessarily any clear relationship between effort and reward, or time spent on the job and recompense, or value of your work for society as a whole and the enormous bonus you receive at the end of each year.

How then do we value our time and our work? Last week I discussed some of the factors that need to be taken into account when setting the fee for choir or workshop attendance. One of those factors is the financial situation of the workshop leader. If this is your sole source of income, then at the end of the year it all needs at add up to a sum which at least covers your living expenses. If you’re lucky you might end up with a bit over to save for a rainy day (or spend on beer!). But what if the market can bear higher fees? What if other workshops cost much more than yours? Are you justified in charging the same amount just because you can, even though you don’t need the money?

For my part, I won’t go down that path. I take into consideration what other people charge, but I won’t increase my fees just because I can. Maybe I’m stupid and should be living the life of Riley and working much less, but it seems morally wrong to me.

A colleague some years ago who worked freelance in theatre told me about a formula he had arrived at which seems rather neat. The income he required for one day’s work needed to be enough to cover all his living costs for two days. That is, it would cover his costs for the day he was working, plus one additional day would be his for ‘free’. That extra day could be used for leisure, research, preparation, relaxation, whatever. It makes a lot of sense to me since those ‘extra’ days are the ones we need to keep our sanity and to refresh us so that we can do our jobs properly.

go to Chris Rowbury's website