Sunday, October 26, 2008

There are plenty of good reasons to sing

I posted a couple of weeks ago on reasons why people might not join choirs or attend singing workshops (I love to sing, but I’m not leaving the house!). Deb suggested that I should point out the reasons why people do join choirs and come to singing workshops. Well, here we go …

Watoto children's choir by Colin Adland

It seems to me that there are four main areas of benefit to singing in a group:

  1. social — singing is a community activity
  2. personal — singing creates a sense of achievement
  3. musical — singing together makes for a great sound
  4. well-being — singing is good for your health

1. Singing is a community activity

  • you will make friends who have a shared interest
  • working as a team — every contribution counts, but the team must pull together as one
  • creating a community of like-minded people with a shared goal
  • you will meet people from a range of different backgrounds
  • and for you men out there: there are always far more women than men in mixed choirs!

2. Singing creates a sense of achievement

  • when you finally nail a difficult song
  • constantly improving your singing technique
  • regularly developing your vocal skills
  • learning new skills and languages
  • remembering words and melodies
  • being challenged by more difficult material
  • performing in a concert in front of an audience

3. Singing together makes for a great sound

  • being part of a big musical sound
  • the pleasures of harmonising with others
  • creating beautiful music together
  • rehearsing to make a song sound really good
  • getting positive feedback from audiences after working hard on a song

4. Singing is good for your health

  • warm-ups improve the body’s flexibility, sense of rhythm, balance, self-awareness, etc.
  • breathing techniques help to reduce stress and relax the body
  • expressing yourself through sound helps to release emotional blockages
  • being part of a group working together creates a sense of belonging, community and shared endeavour
  • singing is an aerobic activity that increases oxygenation in the blood stream and exercises major muscle groups in the upper body
  • singing has a positive effect in reducing stress levels through the action of the endocrine system which is linked to our sense of emotional well-being
  • singing can increase lung capacity, improve posture, clear respiratory tubes and sinuses, and can increase mental alertness through greater oxygenation
  • singing promotes both a healthy heart and an enhanced mental state as well as improving your immune system — so you will live longer!
  • recent Swedish research has shown that choral singing has strong effects on well-being, in that positive emotions increase significantly, and, in turn, negative emotions radically subside. Choral singers, particularly women, are happier, more alert and relaxed after a rehearsal.

I’m sure there are many, many more very good reasons for joining a choir or attending a singing workshop. Do let me know if you can think of any others!

Next week: How to start your own community choir.

go to Chris Rowbury's website

A small post about blogs and blogging

I only usually post on this blog about choirs and singing, but I’d like to share a couple of items about my blog in general.

You may be interested in a little interview I did for Fuel My Blog the other week: We Are Fuel My Blog. I talk a little bit about how and why I started the blog, and the process of writing each week.

I also got a 7.0 (very good) rating out of 10 from They evaluated the blog based on the following criteria: Frequency of Updates, Relevance of Content, Site Design, and Writing Style.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Singing across the age divide

There are choirs for gay men, choirs for women, choirs for socialists, choirs for hire, choirs for weddings and choirs for the deaf. There are Welsh choirs, youth choirs, gospel choirs, Bulgarian choirs, barbershop choirs, school choirs, church choirs and the Young at Heart Chorus. But there don’t seem to be that many truly mixed, general choirs with a wide age range. The world of choirs seems to have become ghettoised (I've touched on this subject before: Children and special interest groups first?).

As you probably realise already, I run choirs and singing workshops that are open to all – and I mean all (my only personal restriction is that I don’t work with ‘kids’, i.e. under 16s. I’m just not good with crowd control!). However, the reality is that most people who attend my choirs and workshops are over 40, with many over 60.

Now it’s not that youngsters don’t like to sing. There is much good work going on in schools, many youth choirs of all types across the country, and I even get the occasional 18-year-old wandering into one of my sessions. It’s just that young people tend to stick together creating homogeneous choirs of singers of a similar age. Many young people are put off by the word ‘choir’ and think that it’s fuddy duddy, uncool, old-fashioned and full of old people. They may be right on the last point, but then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if they don’t join.

I really don’t know how to appeal to youngsters! I’d love to run groups which truly reflect a cross-section of society in terms of social background, age, race and gender. However, the reality is that it’s mainly older middle-class white women who join. The sessions I run are fun, high energy and with a wide-ranging repertoire. When the occasional adolescent does stumble across a workshop of mine by accident, they usually enjoy it.

I came across a young choir recently called The Heard: “a contemporary choir for the contemporary people of London. They’re not looking to ancient eastern spirituality to get a natural high; they’re just singing their favourite songs together in perfect harmony for kicks.” Although they perform vocal versions of more contemporary repertoire (Bjork, Radiohead, Hot Chip, Klaxons) they are actually fairly traditional in their approach. The arrangements are not particularly exciting and often the choir simply acts as a backing group to one lead singer.

So what attracted these young people to join this ‘choir’? Was it just the repertoire? Was it that fact that the leader is also young?

I’d love to have some suggestions on how to get more young people to join general, open-access choirs. Please send me some ideas!

What happens to all the people in youth choirs when they leave school or get a bit older? Why don’t they join adult choirs (see When and why do we stop singing?)? Would a contemporary pop repertoire attract more young people? Could I form a young people’s choir by simply saying “open to all 16 – 25 year-olds”?

On another point: I’d like to run a new workshop doing acappella covers of more contemporary ‘pop’, but can’t think of a snappy title! Any suggestions? I would like to cover the more ‘indie’ bands such as Radiohead, Elbow, Vampire Weekend and the like.

Next week, after Deb’s comment on last week's post (“How about another list: unexpected benefits from singing in the choir!”), I’ll be covering the opposite topic to my reasons to not sing post: There are plenty of good reasons to sing!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I love to sing, but I'm not leaving the house!

I know quite a few people who love to sing with others, but somehow don’t ever get around to joining a choir or coming to a singing workshop. They know they will enjoy it, singing is very important to them, there’s nothing really stopping them, and yet still they don’t come.

Last week I talked generally about why we avoid things that make us feel good. This week I’m looking at specific reasons why people who love to sing might not join a choir or go to a singing workshop, even though it’s something that they know they will enjoy. These are some of the reasons I came up with. Do please add to the list!

“I can’t sing”
Aha, this old chestnut! A common complaint heard from many people who are very happy to sing around the house for their own pleasure, but would hate to ‘inflict’ their horrible voice on other people. Of course everyone can sing (see Why people think they can't sing). Not necessarily in the same way or to the same standard, but they can sing nevertheless. All the choirs and singing workshops I have ever led are based on this fact and we somehow manage to make a really good sound together. We perform to paying audiences who really enjoy our concerts and have sold many CDs.

“I’m too embarrassed and frightened to sing in front of others”This is completely understandable if someone has not sung in the company of others for a long time. I try always to point out that everyone else probably feels the same and that nobody will be put on the spot and asked to sing solo. The beauty of large groups singing together is that people can ‘hide’ in the big sound and only come more forward when they are ready.

“I think that ‘choirs’ are formal, stuffy and boring”The word ‘choir’ does conjure up images of interminable school assemblies or long church services or rows of posh people dressed up and standing stiffly singing music that we can’t really relate to. However, anyone who watched the recent Last Choir Standing series will know that there are many, many different kinds of ‘choir’, and certainly one that will suit each individual taste. We need to reclaim the word ‘choir’!

“I’ll need to be ‘musical’ and able to read notation and understand music”Some choirs indeed require certain musical knowledge, but there are countless choirs and open singing workshops that don’t assume any kind of musical knowledge or previous singing experience. Lots of these teach songs by ear and never even hand out lyric sheets.

“It will be full of old people!”Yes it’s true: many established choirs tend to consist mainly of people over 40. This can put off younger singers. However, from my experience, I’ve worked with groups whose ages range from 18 to 80 and it’s simply not an issue as everyone is connected by their common love of singing. I’ll be covering the topic of attracting younger members in next week’s post. 

“I won’t know the songs”When joining an established choir they will almost certainly already have a repertoire of songs. The choir I lead, Woven Chords, now has over 180 songs in its repertoire! However, in a one-day workshop, everyone will be in the same boat as all the songs will be fresh and new. Even if someone does know a song already, they certainly won’t know the particular harmony arrangement. In most choirs, new members are gently led into the old repertoire, and every new season starts with songs that are brand new to everyone, so there’s no chance of you getting left behind!

“I’m too busy and certainly don’t have the time to make a regular commitment”This mainly comes from blokes I have to say! I guess many men put their jobs before their own pleasure and leisure. It’s strange how we have many women in choirs who have high-powered jobs and families, yet they manage to find the time to come and sing. Really, is it that much of a time commitment, especially for those who say they love to sing? Two hours a week, or maybe five hours on a Saturday. Surely you can find fit in having a good time in your busy schedule??!!

“Singing together is old-fashioned and usually religious or classical”It may seem to be old-fashioned, but that doesn’t detract from the fun and enjoyment that can be had. Dancing is old-fashioned too and has been around for millennia! Most people know singing together from church or by seeing classical concerts, yet there are many, many choirs and singing groups throughout the country who don’t sing religious or classical music. The choir sessions are fun and vibrant, nothing old-fashioned or dated about them!

“I don’t know how to find a suitable choir or singing workshop”Google is a wonderful thing. Most choirs and people who run singing workshops have websites these days. Just type in ‘choir’ or ‘singing workshop’ and your location and something’s bound to come up. If you definitely want an opportunity to sing based on the main principles that everyone can sing and that you don’t have to have any musical knowledge, then you want a group or workshop run by a Natural Voice practitioner. Go to the NVPN website and search under groups or workshops and specify your location.

“I’m terrible at remembering words and tunes”Me too (see Papa's got a brand new song)! Many people don’t like being in that strange state where they don’t quite know what they are doing and are a bit lost. It’s not a nice feeling. But you have to be patient and allow plenty of time to get a tune and the words under your belt. It’s about trusting the process and making mistakes as you become more familiar with a song. Many people think they can’t ‘sing’ because they imagine that ‘proper’ singers only need to hear a song once before they know it perfectly. They don’t realise that even professional singers can take several months to really learn a song and make it their own. Like most things, learning songs gets easier with practice.

“I’m too scared to perform in public, I just want to have fun”Many community choirs in this country never perform in public, there are also plenty of singing for pleasure groups who just meet to sing together with no thought of anyone outside the group hearing them. Even if you join a choir that performs, it is usually not compulsory to perform. However, as you get more confident as a singer I’m sure you’ll want to share the wonderful sound with an audience!

I’m sure there are many, many other reasons why people don’t join choirs or come to singing workshops. I’d love to hear from people who can add to this list. If we can help to counter these obstacles, we can get more people singing!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Why we avoid things that make us feel good

“I love singing, but I haven’t sung for years and I really, really miss it.”

“So why haven’t you joined a choir or come to a singing workshop?”

I ran a Beach Boys workshop a while back and a woman came up to me at the end to thank me. She said that she hadn’t sung since she was at school about 30 years before and had really missed it. I asked her why she had decided to start again now? Why had she left it so long? Why had she chosen this particular opportunity on this particular day?

She couldn’t really give me a clear answer. This set me to wondering: if someone loves to sing so much, why don’t they join a choir or come to one of the many singing workshops that are available? More generally, how come there are loads of things that we love to do, that make us feel good, and yet we constantly put off doing them??!!

I used to love jogging and would go out every evening for at least half an hour come rain or shine. I absolutely loved being outside and giving the lungs a good work-out. I always felt great when I got back thanks to those good old endorphins. Yet when it came time to go running, actually going upstairs to change into my running gear felt like a huge pain. I was too tired, I couldn’t be bothered, it was cold outside, I’d only just got home, there was something good on TV … there were always plenty of excuses. It took an enormous amount of will power to walk up those stairs and change into my running shorts. I left the house reluctantly and with a heavy heart, yet within minutes I was grinning like a Cheshire cat and really, really having fun.

There are so many activities like this that we know we enjoy and make us feel good: meditating, going for a walk, doing some gardening, clearing our room up, cooking a great meal, exercising, phoning an old friend, … and yet we put them off and put them off even though we know they will make us feel good afterwards.

These are not the kind of things that we know we ought to do because they are supposed to be good for us: diet, stop smoking, go to the gym, etc. With those activities we don’t usually get a buzz of pleasure, just a sense of smug satisfaction that we’ve done a chore. No, the kinds of activities I’m talking about are those that we’ve done many times before and are guaranteed to give us pleasure and make us feel better.

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’re now expecting the pay-off: an answer to why we avoid these things. But I’m afraid I simply don’t know! I do it myself, and everyone I know does it. It continues to baffle me. I’ve had people in my choirs who say that singing is their first and only love, that they would be lost without it, that it’s a life saver, and yet after a few sessions they leave and never come back! I’ve had people desperately begging me to jump to the front of the choir waiting list because they absolutely need to join right now because they love singing so much and would be lost without it. When a vacancy arises I invite them to join, but they never turn up!

Of course, there may be other, personal reasons why these people behave like they do, but it does seem strange. I’d be fascinated to hear from any of you out there who might have any kind of insight into why people avoid things that they know make them feel good.

In next week’s post I’ll be looking at several very specific reasons why people might not join a choir or go to a singing workshop even though they love to sing with others.

go to Chris Rowbury's website