Sunday, March 22, 2009

How to have an English sing-along

And I mean English … not Irish or Welsh or Scottish. How is it possible to have an unplanned, spontaneous and genuine gathering of people who sing together?

I was listening to a broadcast from 24 May 2008 of a BBC Radio 3 programme called World Routes which included a session from the London Bulgarian Choir.

The presenter asked the choir’s leader Dessislava Stefanova:

“Why is there such a strong choral tradition in Bulgaria?”

Dessi replied:

“In terms of the authentic choral tradition, it is because this was one of the main ways in which people socialised – through song”

Also on the programme were Joe Boyd and Max Reinhardt who were recommending some of their favourite CD recordings from Eastern Europe. Their wide-ranging discussion included talking about the differences between village harmony singing and the more professional, often gypsy, musicians who might play at weddings and other celebrations.

It was quite clear that throughout Eastern Europe (and probably many other countries), there are still many, many communities where the everyone sings together on a regular basis. It is typical for individuals to have up to 40 or so songs in common, so very easy for groups of people to break into song.

But in England? When was the last time you had a spontaneous sing-along other than at a football match or at a pub karaoke session? Have you ever tried to start a group singing only to fizzle out half way through the first verse because nobody can remember the words? Or you launch into what you believe to be a well-known song only to be met by confused silence as nobody joins in with you?

Community singing used to be a big pastime in this country (see Singing from the same hymn sheet, Singing together and Should singing together be a guilty pleasure?). But every now and then it dies out and people try to revive it. The last time a really big initiative was launched in the UK was in the 1920s. That was perhaps one of the last times when the majority of people knew a whole bunch of songs in common. Even now, most people know some of these same songs: “Pack up your troubles”, “Bicycle made for two”, “It’s a long way to Tipperary”, “What shall we do with the drunken sailor”, “My bonnie lies over the ocean”. But they often can’t sing them right through without the lyric sheet!

The other week I tried to set up a singing evening with a bunch of friends. OK, it wasn’t entirely spontaneous, but the idea was that we would gather at someone’s house with the intention of having a jolly good sing-along. I asked people to bring instruments if they had them, and a song to share.

Worrying that it might be hard to get the evening going, I prepared a set of lyric sheets with around 20 songs, mainly from the 1960s (we are all of a certain age!). I certainly didn’t want to ‘lead’ the evening, but on the other hand knew that it might take a while to get going. In the end, a couple of people got guitars out and off we went.

I had hoped that:

  • the evening would go very smoothly
  • people would spontaneously start singing and everyone else would join in
  • we would have plenty of songs in common
  • there would be no long, awkward silences
  • there would be a variety of repertoire, some songs with instruments, some without

However, it didn’t quite turn out like that!

  • not everyone knew every song that I’d put on the lyric sheets
  • sometimes the guitarists introduced a song that was not on the sheet, but nobody knew all the lyrics
  • people were very nervous about initiating a song
  • people began to rely on the guitarists and it became a little bit like a ‘performance’
  • the focus was all on the lyric sheets and everyone appeared to forget all the other songs that they might know
  • most people were very self conscious and a little scared of starting a song off, even though most of the people were in choirs and had sung in public

If you’ve read this far, you might be expecting an answer to the post’s title: How to have an English sing-along. Unfortunately I don’t have the answer! I was hoping some of you out there might have some good ideas on how to make a sing-along evening work better.

Can you think of ways of making such an evening go smoothly without it being led too formally?

Why do people end up being so self-conscious, even amongst friends?

Should I just give up and accept that for us, singing together is no longer part of our culture?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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