Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pausing for breath – over to you

Man Taking a Breather
It’s that time of year again when the leaves begin to turn gold, the nights get chillier and those long, hot, sunny days of summer seem such a long way off. If only!!

Basically, it’s nearly back to school time and I’m frantically planning next term’s work with the choir. I need to choose repertoire, do some song arrangements, record parts CDs, make CD copies of our last concert, select songs for our new live CD and much, much more. It’s all come as a bit of a shock after a few relaxing weeks holiday!

So what I’m really trying to say here is that I’ve not really got the time to make a ‘proper’ substantial post this week. Consider this an opportunity to pause and take a breath before we all get back to work with a vengeance!

In the meantime, there was an interesting article in The Guardian about the health benefits of singing that you might like to read.

The Last Choir Standing results are now in. Did they choose the right choir? I will definitely start looking at the questions posed on their Great Choir Debate page in a future post.

But what would you like to read? I’ve covered a lot of topics over the past couple of years, and still have a list of things I’d like to talk about, but are there any specific issues or areas that you’d like to read about? Or perhaps you would like to write a guest post on a particular subject. Just leave a comment and we’ll take it from there.

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why people think they can’t sing

First of all welcome to any of you who may have come across this blog via the BBC website. The folks at Last Choir Standing have kindly put a link to my blog on their Useful Resources page. I hope you enjoy my ramblings! Do take some time to check out the archives since I’ve covered a lot of ground since I first started this blog on choirs and singing back in December 2006. And please do feel free to make a comment – it gets kind of lonely blogging into the empty ether!

I posted several questions last week that have been posed on the Last Choir Standing website. I fully intend to discuss them more fully later, but since I’m still on holiday this week, I decided to make a shorter, less brain-taxing post! So do stay tuned.

I covered the subject of people not thinking they can sing back in December last year (But I can’t sing!). I was reminded of the subject again this week whilst watching daytime TV on Channel 4 (you see: I am on holiday!). They were encouraging a diverse bunch of people to sing one line each of “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” then they stitched the thing together into a whole song. But one woman refused to sing. First of all she said she couldn’t sing, then she said she had a horrible voice, then she said her voice was really gravelly and not nice to listen to. Finally she did sing a part of the line (beautifully I might add!), but cut it short saying: “That’s all you’re going to get”.

There was clearly a huge mismatch between what she thought she sounded like and what she actually sounded like. We all get embarrassed by our own voices. We’ve all had that experience of hearing our recorded voice for the first time and realising that it sounds nothing like the voice we have in our head. That’s understandable since we are hearing our voice from a very different perspective, projected across space rather than through bone and gristle. But I think it’s more than that. We somehow have an internal perception of how our voice sounds to others and are shocked when it doesn’t match reality. It’s rather similar to when we catch sight of ourselves in a mirror and we don’t look as beautiful as we think we do! At the extreme, this is called body dysmorphia and is thought to be the basis of illnesses like bulimia and anorexia.

Of course most people don’t have such a drastic mismatch, but I wonder if there is something similar at work here? Our brains maintain an internal map of our body, but sometimes there is a malfunction between what we see and what our internal map is telling us. As well as the illnesses mentioned above, this is also the cause of the phantom limbs sometimes experienced by amputees. Although they can see that the limb is no longer there, their internal body map still gives them the internal sensation that it is there. Hence the mismatch. What if something similar goes on with sound? Maybe there’s an internal version of the body map which gives us the sensation of our own voice, but when we hear a recording of our voice, there is a mismatch. I’m sure it is much more complicated than that since our voices are an integral part of ourselves and are also connected to our emotions and memories also, not just our hearing.

So the woman who was reluctant to sing may have an internal sensation of her voice being unattractive or gravelly. Perhaps she has never heard a recording of her voice, or if she has she might have not believed what she heard. After we’ve heard recordings of our voices many times, the mismatch between what we hear in our head and what the recording device is telling us starts to become less. Eventually we might even get to like what we hear! Perhaps if this woman experienced hearing her own voice more often, she could grow to love it.

This is just one possibility, of course, and I’ve mentioned some others in my previous post. Maybe someone many years ago told her that they didn’t like her voice because it was too gravelly and that opinion stuck. Or maybe her own sense of a ‘singing’ voice is one that is high pitched and not low like hers. But maybe, just maybe, if her voice was played back to her more often, then she would get used to it and be able to share her beautiful voice with the rest of the world.

Another possibility is that a person is trying to sing in the wrong part for their comfortable range. I’ve written on this in But I can’t sing that high!

Have any of you come across any other reasons why people think they can’t sing?

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Will the last choir standing please turn out the light?

Since it’s the summer holidays here, my contact with singing and choirs has been somewhat limited (I’m not one of those people who sing around the house all the time – especially when I’m on holiday myself!). I’ve been listening to some CDs for pleasure (and not work!) for a change, and also watching TV (too much for my own good!). Despite my best intentions, I have been following BBC One’s Last Choir Standing.

Putting aside my earlier reservations (Singing competitions are for losers) about it simply being a typical Saturday evening light entertainment show in the mould of Strictly Come Dancing, it does seem to have captured the nation’s imagination. Actually, I’m assuming that it has because I don’t have the viewing figures to hand, nor are we told how many people actually bother to phone in and vote. For all we know, most of the country is away on holiday and it’s only me and the guy next door who actually watches it! Mind you, if the viewing figures dropped dramatically, I imagine they would shift the programme to a later slot or onto BBC Two.

So far we have been subjected to very typical big choirs, all of which (to my mind) have been coarse, simplistic and samey. And at the other extreme, a few small, very upbeat gospel choirs. So far all the boxes of what the general public imagines a ‘choir’ to be have been ticked (including the awful professional singing in the breaks which have been middle-of-the-road easy-listening opera-lite with plenty of wobbly voices).

We’ve also had our fair share of choral ‘choreography’ (from ‘moving in time to the music’ to ‘general hand waving’ to ‘dancing about a bit’). Interestingly, despite what I’ve said in earlier posts (What are you looking at?) about wanting to watch something as well as just listening to the singing, some choirs have been moving so much that I’ve been shouting at the TV for them to “just stand still for a bloody moment so I can focus on what you’re singing!”. Clearly there is a balance between standing still like a stuffed animal with a stiff upper lip, and jigging around all over the place.

I’m sure this series will do a lot to encourage people to take up singing (again) and to join choirs. At least I hope they do. Many of us who run choirs hope to be inundated by new members in the autumn. The only reason that this may not happen is if viewers feel that the choirs they see on TV are so good that they couldn’t possibly do as well themselves. Shame.

It does worry me slightly though what will happen when the series is over. Will the BBC have any kind of follow-through to maintain the momentum of the interest that they’ve generated? Or will the last choir standing just turn the lights out and everything will go dark? Perhaps part of the solution is the website which I hope they will continue to update.

The website which accompanies the series seems quite slick. There are several opportunities for viewers to air their views, most of which seem rather uninformed and simplistic. I was rather interested in the The Great Choir Debate (nothing like a bit of BBC hype!) which poses 10 questions about choirs and singing. I’m going to list them here and will be returning to them in later posts.

In the meantime, it would be great to hear from some of you (anyone out there?). What do you think of the TV programme? Do you have any answers to the questions below? Do you agree with the ‘experts’ comments on the website? So come on all you lurkers out there, put finger to keyboard and have a go!

  1. Good indicators
    What’s the one thing an untrained person can look for in a choir that indicates how good they are?
  2. Singing benefits
    Are there any surprising benefits from singing in a choir?
  3. Choir fashion
    What should a choir wear, and should points be deducted if they look terrible?!
  4. Song selection
    Is there anything a choir shouldn’t sing?
  5. Singing at school
    Should singing be compulsory in schools?
  6. Singing ability
    Can anybody sing in a choir?
  7. Choreography
    Should choirs include ‘choreography’ in their performance?
  8. Competitions
    Is the world of choral singing competitive?
  9. Conductors
    Is there anything conductors do that sets the alarm bells ringing?
  10. Choir size
    How many people does it take to make a choir?

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Can women sing tenor?

As you know, there is a distinct lack of male singers in most mixed choruses. Woven Chords currently has a shrinking Tenor section, most of whom are low ladies.


The Tenor by Paul Helm

Only by getting the Altos to lend us some singers do we have enough Tenors. But can women really sing a Tenor part?

As a community choir we tend to cover quite a limited range – most of the women are really Altos, and most of the men are really Baritones. In fact, I don’t call the high female voices Sopranos, but tops, and the blokes are … well, just ‘The blokes’! Only a couple of our guys sing Tenor, the others sing the Bass line (which is really Baritone!).

So, given that we have a limited range, the Tenor section is really just a low Alto part – not too high for the guys, and not too low for the women.

There has been quite a lot of discussion about Tenor ladies. Many people deny their existence, and some people think it damages the female voice. Here are a couple of articles, one written by a woman Tenor: Should women sing Tenor? and the other as part of ChoralNet’s discussion forum: Gendered vocal parts (female tenors).

Whether you believe a woman can truly sing Tenor or not, there is always going to be a difference in vocal quality since a man will be singing high in his range and will sound strong and resonant, whereas a woman will be singing low in her range and will sound dark and husky.

Typically in choral music the Tenor range is something like C one octave below middle C, up to A above middle C. The range I use in the choir is just F below middle C up to F above middle C – quite a small range which is more like a low Alto or even Contralto.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, August 03, 2008

7 Reasons Why I Hate Blog Posts Which Are Just Lists

Checklist and pencil

  1. The number always seems arbitrary. Why are there only seven interesting things to say about one subject, but 10 about another?
  2. If something is sufficiently interesting and complex, it’s very rare that it can be reduced to simple bullet points. Reading a list is a bit like eating a Chinese meal: two minutes later and you're ready for something more substantial.
  3. By reducing something to a simple list, readers are given the impression that there is an easy fix to everything. That is just not true. A bit like self-help books.
  4. List headlines are lazy and often done just to get more readers. I wonder how many more readers I'll get with this post?
  5. We generally have a much shorter attention span than in the past, by producing short, punchy lists we are simply reinforcing that. (are you still reading?)
  6. Some posts that use lists are of the ‘Top Ten’ variety. Often, the most interesting entries are way down at number 34. Or at number 58.
  7. One of the easiest ways to write a post is to make a list. This encourages lazy writing and doesn’t allow for richer, more textured arguments and discussions.
  8. Oh yes, by the way: sometimes there are more points than neatly fit into the list.

go to Chris Rowbury's website