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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Chris Rowbury


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