Sunday, September 28, 2008

Should singing together be a guilty pleasure?

Imagine going to Soho with a group of like-minded friends and gathering in a dimly-lit, subterranean private room with plush seats and stylish decor. Fully kitted out with all the necessary equipment along with a comprehensive cocktail menu, this should be a night to remember! It’s not cheap mind, and you might not want to tell all your mates where you’ve been or what you’ve been up to, even though it’s all perfectly legal and above board.

And what is this secret, guilty pleasure? Why, singing together of course!

Welcome to the world of Lucky Voice:

“the most liberating, heart racing, life-affirming social singing experience on earth.”

Founded in 2005 by Martha Lane Fox (of fame), their

“glamorous bars have allowed groups of friends to sing their hearts out in the luxury of their own private rooms.”

I stumbled across Martha talking about Lucky Voice on the radio last week. She was saying that there were few opportunities these days for people to gather together and sing. Gone are the days of community sing-alongs and families gathered around the piano at home. Gone are the days when there was a large repertoire of songs with lyrics and tunes that everybody knew and could sing together.

Instead we have karaoke! But even then many people are embarrassed to sing in front of strangers, so Lane Fox has imported an idea from Japan and set up private booths where you can sing your heart out (after a few drinks to loosen up the inhibitions) with only your nearest and dearest as audience. What a sorry state of affairs!

Perhaps we don’t sing together as readily as we did in the past (see Singing from the same hymn sheet and Singing together), but there are plenty of other opportunities to sing together in this country which aren’t expensive and which celebrate a sense of community and inclusivity rather than clandestine, exclusive gatherings. I mean, of course, the thousands of choirs and singing workshops across the UK.

However, these choirs and workshops still don’t generally attract a true cross-section of society. Many choirs have an ageing membership and it’s still hard to recruit men. I want to look at what might be preventing people from joining choirs and singing workshops in my next post.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

The devil doesn't always have the best songs!

It turns out that the devil might not have the best tunes after all. Although I run a secular choir (I don’t have a religious bone in my body!) we do end up singing a lot of sacred songs. This is purely because some of the tunes and harmonies are fantastic! In fact, because the sacred songs go down so well, I even created a one-day workshop called Sacred Songs to Soothe the Soul.

In a comment on my last post (Singing together) Deb said:

“I gather that many choirs had their roots in religious settings. Where that is the case, it would not be surprising if some choir members and some audience members were less than happy if the choir’s repertoire is extended to secular pieces.”

I guess the opposite applies also: if a choir is purely secular and then starts including a lot of religious songs, some of the choir and audience might be a bit upset! I know of several secular choirs that strongly object to any religious songs being sung. Some exclude them entirely, whilst others simply change the words. (I have even heard of one musical director changing all occurrences of the word ‘God’ to ‘dog’!).

I’ve covered the subject of the joys of community singing and why so much singing happens only in religious contexts (Singing from the same hymn sheet), and also the difficulty of finding suitable venues so often ending up performing in churches (Not enough venues to go round). I’m always surprised by how strongly people feel about solely religious or solely secular choirs and repertoire. I know of many non-religious people who simply won’t come to see a musical performance (of any kind) in a church since they assume it will be overtly religious. I also know of people who will only go to concerts if they have strong religious content. I remember going to see the Harlem Gospel Choir expecting an evening of superb music, but it turned out to be more like an evangelical meeting!

There is a more general issue here other than just secular vs. religious: how much can a choir change its repertoire and still keep it’s members and audience on board? When you join a choir, you sign up to its particular style, approach and repertoire. If that were to suddenly change, then you would be justifiably upset. However, all choirs need to grow and develop, and as long as such changes are gradual, there should be no problem. The difficulty comes when a choir (or band or song-writer) becomes associated strongly with a particular style or genre and the public expect them to always deliver in that style. A problem of becoming too successful?!

Deb goes onto say:

“I’m a member of a “world music” choir — while I don’t think we have consciously avoided religious or praise songs, the pieces we have sung so far have virtually all been secular. I don’t know for sure, because I haven’t asked, but I would expect this is one of the reasons why we have one of the most visibly diverse memberships I have ever seen, including people from several continents and with a range of beliefs.”

We, too, are a world music choir. Whilst being clearly secular, we do have a lot of sacred songs in our repertoire. We don’t do overtly ‘praise songs’, we tend to avoid any ‘Jesus’ references (‘Lord’ is OK as it’s more inclusive), and I always try to cover a range of different faiths. I guess it may be a bit easier in my choir since we sing in the original language so the meaning is not to the forefront, rather it is the beauty of the music and harmonies. The main difficulties are in gospel and South African church songs when the lyrics are in English. I try not to change lyrics, but I do select songs carefully.

The fact is, the harmony singing tradition of countries such as South Africa and New Zealand arose in the first place from christian missionaries bringing harmonised hymns with them. These harmonies were then appropriated by the indigenous people and assimilated into their own music. However, many of the resulting songs still revolve around the church. So if we want to sing harmony songs from certain cultures, we will inevitably come across religious songs.

Like Deb’s choir, I try to encourage as diverse a membership as possible. Since the choir has no allegiance to any particular faith or culture (I try to cover songs from as wide a range as sources as possible), it should be equally attractive to all. I like to think that our choir is neither secular nor religious, but just celebrates good songs whatever their source.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Singing together

Despite an apparent re-awakened interest in singing, we don’t sing together like we used to.

The plethora of TV programmes like X Factor and Pop Idol show how popular singing still is (but mainly they show us how desperate some people are for fame!). We buy CDs by the shed-load and download MP3 tracks like they’re going out of fashion. We love singing: we love to listen to it, and we love to join in with the karaoke down the pub or sing with our mates at the football match.

However, despite the interest in TV programmes like The Choir, The Singing Estate, and Last Choir Standing, we tend to sing alone in the bath rather than in choirs or communities.

In last Friday’s Guardian, Laura Barton wrote a fascinating piece about the Staithes fishermen’s choir (Laura Barton on the sweetest sounds she ever heard) (actually, it should be called the Staithes men’s choir since they say that “we are not a fishermen’s choir because there’s no bloody fish!”). At the end of the article she says that

it makes me a little sad to think of how we have lost each other’s voices, drifted too far now from those communities sewn together by song, where music is the thread that runs from generation to generation and from each to each, joining neighbour to neighbour, sacred to secular, land to sea.” (Laura Barton)

Back in April 2007 I wrote of the “good old days when we all used to gather round a piano and just sing for hours” (Singing from the same hymn sheet) and of the important part that religion played in providing a large repertoire of songs that everyone in the local community would have known. The Staithes choir was one of three that centred around the Methodist chapels of the 19th Century.

The fishermen all foregathered on the staith on a Sunday evening, in front of the Cod and Lobster, and they marched up the street singing at the tops of their voices ... and then as they come to the various chapels, which of course they all had their own ones, they peeled off still singing, and went into it. And it was then that if you come down at this village on a Sunday evening you’d practically hear them lifting the roofs off.” (from the article Staithes men's choir on

Today the choir has to spread its net wider to appeal to audiences, and they now include folk songs and more recent compositions. However, there has been some resistance to the choir’s more secular material, and audiences, particularly organisers, are not always in agreement with the choir’ diverse repertoire.

Unfortunately, like many long-established choirs (especially those relying on male voices), the Staithe’s men’s choir finds it hard to recruit new, young members. Slowly it will fade away as members gradually die.

“We aren’t getting youngsters in. And you find that wherever go, if you listen to the Welsh choirs, and see them on the telly, you don’t see many young ones in.”

I’ve written before on the subject of the difficulty of attracting young men to choirs, and why it’s difficult getting to men to sing in any case (Where are all the male singers?). It was very satisfying to see Only Men Aloud on Last Choir Standing. However, they were in a minority. All the other male voice choirs in the competitions were had much older members, and the mixed choirs were distinctly lacking in male voices.

I ran a Beach Boys workshop on Saturday and there were around 40 participants, of whom only six were men (and only one of these could have been called ‘young’!). I was chatting with a member of a barbershop group who said that they had run a series of free workshops for men to introduce harmony singing. They got about 4o blokes signed up for the short course, but afterwards, only two of them stayed and joined the barbershop choir. Something to do with the difficulty of making a regular commitment! But how come so many women in choirs manage to make a commitment? Why is singing more important to them? I don’t think I’ll ever figure out why more men don’t join choirs!

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

The great choir debate

Yes indeed, everyone’s talking about it. The buzz is on the street. Heated arguments can be overheard at bus stops. Debate rages on the 08:37 to London Bridge. Shoppers stop in the aisles to discuss the finer points of choral singing.

Or not!

During the recent Last Choir Standing TV programme, their website proffered a few questions which were answered by some choral specialists and then opened up to the general public. They called these questions (rather grandly) The Great Choir Debate. I thought I’d take a brief look at the questions and offer my own two ha’p’orth. I’d love to hear what you think, so please leave a comment.

  1. What’s the one thing an untrained person can look for in a choir that indicates how good they are?
    The size of the audience and the length of the choir’s waiting list. If the choir is any good – at whatever level and in whichever style – it will have a good following and loads of people wanting to join.
  2. Are there any surprising benefits from singing in a choir?
    I don’t know about surprising, but there are clearly many benefits from belonging to a choir: health, maintaining mental agility, making new friends, developing music and listening skills, sense of achievement after performances, sense of belonging to a community, and more.
  3. What should a choir wear, and should points be deducted if they look terrible?!
    Hmmmm …. one person’s ‘terrible’ is another person’s ‘chic’. Choir dress is a bit of a sore issue with me (Dress to impress?). I really don’t believe in uniforms, and certainly not robes! I don’t think it matters what a choir wears as long as there is a sense of cohesion to give the impression that everybody belongs to the same group and, most importantly, the people have made an effort (whatever that means to the individual). As to whether points should be deducted, I don’t believe in choral competitions any way, so no.
  4. Is there anything a choir shouldn’t sing?
    Obviously there can be no generalisation here, I think it’s all down to taste (see When is a song not a song?). I think it’s very, very difficult for a large choir to sing a lengthy ballad, especially those with flexible timing. It’s very hard for the group to stay absolutely in time with each other and to be able to articulate well enough. I also don’t think choirs should sing songs whose original version depends a lot on instrumentation (e.g. well-known guitar riffs), since that will involve impersonating instruments – something that I just don’t get!
  5. Should singing be compulsory in schools?
    I think music should be compulsory in schools. Not sure everyone should be forced to sing though.
  6. Can anybody sing in a choir?
    Yes. That’s not to say everyone is equally able to sing well, and not that everyone can perform to an acceptable standard, but everyone can sing.
  7. Should choirs include ‘choreography’ in their performance?
    Since I believe that the voice is rooted in the body, I have long thought that there should be some element of movement when singing (Making a song and dance of it). Not necessarily full-blown choreography (which can be a bit distracting and becomes more musical theatre than a choral performance), but there should be some life in the singers and an indication that their bodies are connected to their singing. There was a lot of good choreography in Last Choir Standing, but there were some points where I just wanted people to stand still so I could listen.
  8. Is the world of choral singing competitive?
    It doesn’t have to be, although there are many people who join choirs because of its competitive nature. Personally I’m against choral competitions (Singing competitions are for losers and OK, you win - facing the competition).
  9. Is there anything conductors do that sets the alarm bells ringing?
    Yes: lose their temper, shout, get stressed, be unclear or confusing, promote a ‘me’ vs. ‘them’ attitude. Choral conducting should be done in a calm, encouraging, supporting manner to get the best out of the singers (In you I trust). Conductors should also create a sense of shared responsibility amongst the whole choir.
  10. How many people does it take to make a choir?
    I think there is a difference between an ensemble or singing group and a choir. I think a choir has to be at least 20 or so strong. It is possible to have just four singers to sing a four-part harmony, but it’s not a choir. There’s a similar situation in the orchestral world: a string quartet or chamber group is not an orchestra.

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