Sunday, May 31, 2009

From the back of the choir 1 – first steps

This is a guest post by Deb Viney who works at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, UK. It is about her experience of joining a new choir where harmony songs from around the world are learnt by ear.

The very first evening …

I really can’t remember how I heard about the SOAS World Music Choir but I know I loved the idea: a choir with no auditions, a promise we would never be asked to sing alone, learning music from all over the world, all by ear, in the original languages, anyone and everyone welcome, no experience necessary. I’d been missing music since I started my new job in London, so I thought I would give it a try.

The first session was actually only a little scary. The room was full of newcomers, so none of us knew what to do. I think there were about thirty of us that first evening. We stood in a loose circle, clearly all wondering what would happen next. The choir director started with a physical warm up – kicking off our shoes, shaking out tight muscles and generally getting used to the idea of making strange noises by adding sound effects to a silly story. But then (amazingly fast!) we started to make much the same sound – even by the end of warm up, we sounded pretty good.

I was really amazed how fast we could learn at least the basics of a song — this was my first experience with a choir and three or four part harmonies. The director would teach each part in turn, singing each part herself, then allowing us just a few repetitions, then on to the next part, then putting them all together, so quickly. In under 40 minutes we were raising the roof (or at least shaking the basement windows) with a song that sounded fantastic to me as a newbie!

I think we learned two or three pieces that first session, but now, nearly three years on, I honestly couldn’t tell you what they were. However, I do remember I told someone the next day that it was the most fun I had had at work in ages!

And did I mention the surprise at the end of the session? It turned out that the previous year the choir had acquired some ‘traditions’, one of which was an impromptu performance in the School’s main reception area at the end of each practice session. So we all trooped off with our coats and bags, and we just stood around the director and repeated the songs we had just rehearsed. There was no chance to be scared and it was a great way to get people used to performing.

If you are interested you can find some of our rough recordings on YouTube. Those performances turned out to be a good recruiting tool, too!

SOAS World Music Choir

In 2007 and 2008 the choir was led by SOAS ethnomusicography graduate, Liz Powers, who brought astonishing energy and enthusiasm to each and every session as well as a vast range of music from Africa, Australasia and Eastern Europe and a few pieces in English.

Choir membership varies between about 50 – 100 people each year. Sometimes only a small group turn up every week, the others are more transient, which can make it difficult to achieve a familiar repertoire. Also, as individual students move on, about two-thirds of the members are new each academic year. We only run in the Autumn and Spring terms as the Summer Term is swamped by exams.

In summer 2008 Liz and her husband Andy (bass) had to leave us for Yorkshire where Liz now co-leads the Manchester Community Choir. We recruited a new director, Judith Silver, who is a singer-songwriter in her own right and a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network. Judith has a different style, but no less enthusiasm and knowledge! With her help the choir has survived its fourth year and we are now planning for Autumn 2009.

The choir’s membership is incredibly diverse, like our School. We have had all sorts of members in those three years – Chinese, Korean and Japanese students, Muslim women in their head scarves, people of all ages — representing more than twenty nationalities from almost every continent of the world. This quite often means someone in the choir speaks the language in which we’re singing, so we work hard to get the pronunciation right! We even had enough men and ‘lower ladies’ for a modest-sized tenor and bass section. Many of us are not musicians or music students, but what we lack in expertise, we make up for in enthusiasm.

Next time I’ll tell you what a typical practice session is like and say something about what it’s like to learn songs in a language you’ve never heard before and don’t understand …

Deb will be following up with another guest post in the near future.


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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Music notation – do singers need it?

I teach songs without using any kind of musical notation. Like other members of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network I believe that singing should be accessible to all.

You can learn songs by ear without ever having to know anything about music theory, notation, composition, harmonic structure, musical jargon, etc. But notation obviously has a role in singing. I’d like to look at what that role might be, and why many people are intimidated by musical knowledge (see Mind your language).

music notation — what is it?

Wikipedia defines musical notation as:
“any system which represents aurally perceived music, through the use of written symbols.”
It goes on to say that the earliest know examples of notation date back to Sumeria more than 4,000 years ago.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that musical notation is a

visual record of heard or imagined musical sound, or a set of visual instructions for performance of music. It usually takes written or printed form.”

chasing shadows

Why do we need musical notation? One main reason is as an aid to memory (since I have a huge repertoire of songs to teach, and I have to know all the parts, I often find myself using sheet music when I’m teaching in case I forget how one of the harmonies goes!). It also allows us to preserve music over long periods of time. Our memories may be fallible, but the written score doesn’t change.

However, notation is not an exact science. As many composers have discovered, even though they try to describe their music as accurately as possible, it is always open to interpretation. Otherwise there would only ever be one perfect, canonical performance or recording of any piece of music!

When trying to notate an existing piece of music, there will always be errors. The annotator may not hear correctly; they may refuse to acknowledge unfamiliar harmonies or rhythms (many folk song collectors edited songs that they found because it didn’t fit in with their perception of how the music should sound!); the singers performing may make a mistake (which will be faithfully recorded).

music is a living thing

One of the biggest problems when trying to notate living music is that – even if we could notate it perfectly – it would only represent one particular performance at one specific time. If you came back and listened the next day, the song might sound different.

There are many apocryphal tales of people hearing wonderful South African singing during a church service and notating it. But when they came back the next week, they discovered that all the harmonies were different! People were making it up as they went along and improvising around well-known structures.

So many song collectors come back from their travels with a supposed definitive example of a particular song, whereas if they had collected it at a different time, or if they had travelled to the next village, they would have heard a different version.

We are trying in vain to capture a living thing. Bearing this in mind, we shouldn’t get too upset when, in rehearsal, there may be more than one harmony going on in the alto section for example!

not written in stone

Singing should be fun, creative and alive. But often we hear people say: “that’s not how it’s supposed to sound!” The danger here is that musical notation can often take on the role of dictator. It can imply that there is only one way – and certainly only one ‘right’ way – to sing a song.

However, throughout history songs have changed over time. The folk tradition is a living tradition. People have adapted words to fit their times, have changed (or stolen) tunes to suit them, have added new harmonies, have misheard or mis-remembered lyrics and melodies, have performed a song in the style of their own community. That is what makes music a living force.

Having a written score can represent an academic and tyrannical view which may well intimidate those new to music-making.

inventing new notations

Many people claim not to understand musical notation. They wouldn’t know what to do if presented with a musical score. Yet quietly in choir they are inventing a whole new notation system!

This especially applies to the basses who may often not have a particularly memorable or melodic part in a song. They find it hard to remember where the pitches go up and down so they begin to draw horizontal lines on a piece of paper to indicate this. The higher the line relative to the rest of the line, the higher the note. If they need to indicate a large pitch change, then the line will have a big gap from the previous line. If the pitch only changes very little (by a semitone for example, or by a note that is not in the scale of the song) then they may add a mark like a dot or small arrow to indicate this.

To show when the pitch changes, they make the length of the lines connect with how long the notes are to be sung. You can see examples of this in Northern Harmony’s song books where they notate some Corsican songs using this method (see Complex songs and learning by ear).

When you point out to the basses that they are, in fact, both reading and writing music, they usually strenuously deny it!

learning styles

Most teachers know that individuals have very different learning styles. They are usually divided into visual, auditory and tactile/ kinaesthetic. I am a very visual learner, and although I can learn songs by ear quite easily, I usually have to have at least one quick glance at the lyrics in order to be able to remember them more easily. I also like the song teacher to use their hands or some kind of diagram to indicate how the melody line works.

Auditory learners are perhaps the most suited to learning songs by ear. Most visual learners will need to see something, although not necessarily written notation. Most people respond well to the teacher indicating by hand where the melody goes up and down using, for example, a very simplified version of the Curwen Hand Signs developed by Kodály.

Tactile/ kinaesthetic learners learn by moving, doing and touching. Such learners often find it easier to mirror the hand movements of the person teaching the song. They also find it much easier when taking the song’s rhythm into their body.

notation as a security blanket

Some visual learners will prefer to have a written score. But many who insist on having written music, may actually be aural or tactile learners. They are just so used to having music that they need it as a security blanket! This also appeals to those people who don’t like making mistakes and believe that the written score will help them to get it perfectly right (forgetting that the notation itself is error-prone!).

Sometimes, taking the music away can free people up and introduce them to a new way of learning. Learning songs by ear is like exercising a muscle. Once you’ve done it for a while, it just gets easier. Many people who insist on written music are reluctant to spend time in that fuzzy, uncomfortable place where we don’t know exactly what we’re doing and we haven’t fully grasped the song yet.

learning by ear is a different experience

Being able to sight read gives immediate access to a vast range of songs from a huge range of cultures and time. If we want to have a good old sing song with a bunch of strangers, then just get the songbooks out and we’re off! But a couple of hours later, with no songbook available, we just have the memory of the good time we have. It’s very unlikely that we’ll remember any of the songs themselves.

If we learn a song by ear it will take us much longer, but it also gives us the chance to explore it in detail, discover all the subtle nuances within it, really listen to the harmonies, enjoy playing around with the words. Songs learnt like this will stay with us and become part of us. Once we have truly learnt a song like this we can start making it our own and putting something of ourselves into the singing of it. We will have made a much deeper connection with the music.

the advantages of not having sheet music

  • the singers will actually look at the teacher/ conductor
  • there are no papers to drop on the floor/ leave at home/ lose
  • you can incorporate movement and gesture to aid song learning
  • it looks better in performance – the audience will be able to see the singers!

when to use notation

I can’t think of that many times when having written notation is necessary, but here is what I’ve come up with:

  • if you want to sing a whole bunch of songs quickly with a group of people who have no songs in common (e.g. Shape Note conventions)
  • if a song is fiendishly difficult and has lots of sustained notes (I tried to teach Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei" by ear and it just didn’t work!)
  • if a song is long and either complex or repetitive (although Ysaye Barnwell has apparently said that she would like to teach the Messiah by ear!)

I’m really interested in how complex a song can be and still be taught by ear. I’ve written a previous post about it: Complex songs and learning by ear, but am still not sure. I’ve tried using diagrams to help with the overall structure of a song. This helps some people, but not all!




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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing

Last week I started to pick up on a discussion about stage presence for singers that began in the comments section of my post Getting the most out of your choir: preparing for performance PART 1.

This week I want to look at the second aspect of that discussion: where the ‘meaning’ of a song might reside, and how that affects the way we sing it.

song lyrics

First off, I need to ’fess up that I’m not particularly a ‘lyric person’. Sometimes I have been listening to a song for years before I actually realise what it’s about! I respond to the whole package of sounds: syllables, music, harmonies – rather to any single element. I’m not that interested in storytelling songs, but just in the emotion and sensation or feeling that a song conveys.

I believe that songs are very different beasts from, say, poems. Any ‘meaning’ that a song expresses is carried pretty much entirely by sound (which is why I’m not that excited by choral performance – see What are you looking at?), I don’t need to see the singers. The sung ‘words’ (syllables, vocalises, ‘ahs’, whatever) and the music (melody, harmony, dynamics, etc.) form an indivisible whole. Which is why most song lyrics do not work as written poetry, and why some melody lines are pretty boring without the singing voice.

Personally I am not interested in “communicating the sense of the text”. The text is simply one component of the music and its meaning can be subverted, obscured, emphasised, destroyed, or changed at will. Any song can be expressed in a variety of ways (otherwise there would be no such thing as a cover version!). So what is it that guides us to present a song in a particular way? Is it the ‘meaning’ of the text, the ‘heart and soul’ of the song, the ‘emotional content’? And who decides what these are? And why are there so many different answers?

words and music

When commenting on my earlier post, Tom introduced his notion of the ‘heart and soul of the music’ and suggested that this was connected with the “textually connected singer who has created a specific story-based purpose for singing”. The implication here is that the ‘meaning’ or ‘heart and soul’ of any song lies in its ‘text’.

I responded by asking about songs which had simplistic foreign lyrics, nonsense syllables or just ‘ahs’. Tom replied thus:

“Most (or at least ‘much’) of the choral music out there has text and music. The music usually (or ‘often’) attempts to communicate the sense of the text – either through particular rhythms, harmonies, melodies, voice leading, chordal progressions, or textual settings. Thus, ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Loch Lomond’ have a similar feel, but both are very different from a Mozart ‘Gloria’ or a celebratory African ‘freedom song’. And ‘Happy Birthday’ is different from your usual ‘Requiem’.

“Perhaps the clearest example would be the difference between ‘Weep, O Mine Eyes’ (Weep, O Mine Eyes on YouTube) and ‘In These Delightful Pleasant Groves’ (In These Delightful Pleasant Groves on YouTube). There are HUGE differences in the above, and they have mainly to do with the textual meaning and the musical communication of that meaning. (Or, if the music was written first, then the text attempts to fit the music.)

“Do you agree with the above?”

Well, sorry Tom, but I don’t! I guess the first problem for me is that you limit our discussion to ‘choral music’ whereas I thought we were talking about singing in its widest sense. In any case, I can present ‘Danny Boy’ in the style of a Mozart ‘Gloria’ or ‘Loch Lomond’ as an African ‘freedom song’. Or vice versa. For some wonderful examples of this, see the Spooky Men’s Chorale on the Australian music show Spicks and Specks or the Bulgarian Women’s Choir on the Tonight Show. I’ve often used songs in theatre shows and completely changed the usual context and style to serve the performance. Although I haven’t used ‘Happy Birthday’ as a ‘Requiem’ I have used the jazz standard ‘All of me’ as a song of suicidal despair!

I’m not familiar with ‘Weep, O Mine Eyes’ or ‘In These Delightful Pleasant Groves’ but I tracked down a couple of versions and yes, they appear to be different. I wouldn’t say that they were HUGELY different and I didn’t pay any attention to the words (but hey, that’s just me!).

You then go on to say that nonsense syllables and ‘ahs’ can also be imbued with meaning, it doesn’t just have to be recognisable text.

song interpretation

Tom then says:

“I think we might be actually agreeing more than we even know, because you might be just letting the music guide your ‘interpretation’, while I let the words lead. However, since (I believe) they are intricately tied, in many songs it won’t matter which you let lead since they’re both ‘telling the same story’.”
The clue here is in Tom’s use of the word ‘interpretation’. How do we interpret a particular song? What clues do we use to discover how we might decide to sing or present a particular song? Tom clearly uses the ‘text’ (or lyrics) and believes that somehow they are used to tell a ‘story’. The expression of this ‘story’ is somehow the ‘meaning’ of the song and that is what guides his instructions to the singers and the way that the song is performed.

I, however, sing mainly foreign songs, many of which have no clear ‘meaning’ and even if they did, cultural differences would mean that we might not want to express that meaning in the same way as the songwriter originally intended. I know quite a few Eastern European love songs which sound more like a call to arms!

I go entirely on the ‘feel’ of the song, that is the emotional and physical (hairs on the back of the neck) effects that it has on me personally as an entire piece of music: words, melody, rhythm and harmony. It is a gut instinct and I have to be affected immediately or a song just doesn’t speak to me. Another person may have an entirely different response, it is very personal. Then, when I am working on the song with singers, I use everything at my disposal to help them present the song so it has the desired effect on me, their only audience at the rehearsal stage. I then trust (and hope!) that it will have the same effect on the audience at our next concert. I might make up a story or use visual imagery or invoke technical vocal exercises – I’ll use anything as long as it gets the job done.

the tyranny of text

Sometimes people can get far too hung up on the text and its meaning, especially if it is in English. Occasionally, even if it’s just for fun, it’s good to play around with a song just to see what happens. An actor knows this as ‘the tyranny of the text’ which can sometimes inhibit good acting. We need to free ourselves from any strict adherence to what we think a song might mean and how it should be presented in order to explore all of its many nuances. We then have choices which we can make rather than being a slave to what we think might be the case.

I sometimes hear people say things like: “That’s not what the composer intended” or “What the playwright means here is …” or “My character wouldn’t do that”. But we are not usually the composer or the playwright and have no idea really what they intended. All we (usually) have are words and notes on a piece of paper (or a scratchy field recording), but no matter how accurate and detailed the writer was, this notation can never encapsulate everything that the author intended. If it could, there would only ever be one, canonical performed version of every single piece of music ever written!

Since we can never know exactly what the author intended, we have to fall back on our own instincts and detective abilities. We are possibly living in a different time, a different place and presenting our song in a different context to when and where it was written, and we have to take that into account too. We must learn to be playful and not too respectful of a song’s lyrics or meaning!

playing with songs

Sometimes in rehearsal I might play around with a song and try it in as many ‘wrong’ ways as possible. For example, if a song seems sad, I might ask people to sing it as if it were a very happy, light-hearted song. If a song is clearly a folk song, I might ask people to sing it as if it were high opera.

Recently I was rehearsing a song which I know to be a lullaby from Croatia (although the ‘feel’ that I get from the song wouldn’t have told me that). Just for fun, to loosen the song up, and to help tighten the (difficult) harmonies, I asked the singers to present it as a funky jazz song in a smoky late-night club. The song was immediately energised and more accurate than before! As a rehearsal tool it worked because when we went back to the original way of presenting the song, it sounded much better. But … we had also discovered an interesting and novel way of presenting the material which we will now try out in our next performance.

not knowing what you’re singing

So, in short, I believe that there are two kinds of people in this world: those for whom lyrics and their meaning is very important, and those who don’t really pay attention to lyrics at all. There is room for both kinds of person, but neither one will persuade the other that their approach is the ‘right’ one.

There are people in my choir who, as soon as I first introduce a new song, ask me what it means: “what’s it about?”. They can’t contemplate singing until they know what it is that they are singing about. Then there are other people who you can teach a song to who don’t understand a single word of the foreign lyrics, but who soon get into the ‘feel’ of the song and bring it to life.

Finally, I just want to mention an article I read recently about the latest CD from the Manic Street Preachers: Journal for Plague Lovers. They have just finished writing and recording a set of songs using lyrics written by Richey Edwards who vanished in 1995. The article said that some of the songs contained “lyrics not even the performers understand”. And they wrote the songs!


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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Stage presence for singers

A few weeks ago my post Getting the most out of your choir: preparing for performance PART 1 generated quite a lot of heat in the comments section! Most of this focused around the concept of stage presence and where the ‘meaning’ of a song might reside.

I think this discussion warrants more time, so I’ve decided to devote two posts to it rather than limiting it to the to and fro of the comments section. This week I want to talk about stage presence for singers, and next week I’ll look at the ‘meaning’ of a song and how it might affect the way it is sung (Singing what you mean, and meaning what you sing).

introducing Tom Carter

I wrote a post some time ago that set out my personal attitude to lyrics in songs and how we might express the ‘meaning’ of a song which has foreign lyrics (Sing it like you mean it). That’s when I first ‘met’ Tom Carter, author of Choral Charisma: singing with expression. Since then Tom and I have had several lively exchanges on this topic. I’m sure that at some fundamental level we agree since we are both very keen to find ways of getting the best out of a choir in performance. But on the surface we seem to have very different approaches and understanding of certain concepts.

I think Tom and I represent two clear and different approaches to singing. I think both our approaches are useful and possibly produce the same results. I think whichever point of view you adhere to is very personal, and neither is ‘better’ than the other. However, considering these two approaches does allow us to look in more detail at several important concepts in singing and performance.

being present or ‘stage presence’?

I said that

presence simply means that the performers are totally in the present and only engaged on the task at hand. That’s what makes them so watchable.”
Tom fundamentally disagreed with this and said that
presence is much more than just focusing ‘on the task at hand.’ Indeed, the SPECIFIC nature of the task makes all the difference […] A singer will have presence if they are connecting specifically with the meaning (passion, poignancy, power ...) of the text and its musical expression – while at the same time being free of all impediments to that presence.”

Deb suggested that maybe Tom and I were talking about two different things. That Tom was talking about ‘stage presence’ whereas I was simply talking about ‘being present’. But I am actually talking about the same thing!

being in the moment and serving the song

I’m sure that there will always be two very views in this discussion, and that neither side will never agree with or completely understand each other. In my previous incarnation as a theatre performer, teacher and director, I was also in a different camp from many of my peers. My belief then, and now, was that an actor/ performer on stage needs to be totally engaged in a task which serves the play at that particular moment. It may or may not have anything to do with the text at that point.

An apocryphal example of this was when a famous actress was complimented on her acting in a very moving scene in a play. Her character had just been told of the death of someone close to her. She appeared stunned and lost in thought whilst she stared off into the middle distance. When asked how she had achieved this (maybe she’d been thinking about someone in her own life who had died?) she responded: “I was wondering whether to have steak pie or chicken pie for tea”. She knew, as an experienced actress, that what served the play best at that moment was stillness and the impression that her character’s focus was entirely on her inner thoughts. And, from the perspective of the audience, that’s precisely what she achieved.

At that moment she had enormous stage presence, she was totally watchable because she was simply engaged on the task at hand. No more, no less. What is most important at that point is what the audience experience, not what is going on for the performer.

Another example is when a famous theatre director came into an empty theatre one day. The stage lights were on and the house lights were out. On stage a man entered sweeping the floor. The director was mesmerised and watched until the man left the stage. The man on stage had enormous stage presence because he was simply and totally engaged on the task at hand: sweeping the stage – no more, no less. What made him particularly watchable was the context: being on stage in a theatre.

To have presence as a singer is to simply be engaged totally with the task at hand: singing the song. Not thinking about the effect it may have on the audience, not worrying about whether they are standing with the correct singer’s posture, not focusing on their breathing, not struggling to remember the words of the second verse. It is not important whether or not the singer experiences the emotional content of the song, but it is of vital importance that the audience does.

Tom’s notion of ‘charisma’

Tom wrote in the comments section:

“Chris, it occurs to me that your presence is my ‘full commitment.’ As Deb mentioned, my presence IS what I also call ‘stage presence’ or ‘charisma.;’ That requires full commitment, but it also requires a particular focus on the ‘human’ elements of the performance (as in character, meaning, story, yada yada).

For example, if we transplant the discussion to the opera hall, take two singers performing the role of Carmen – both are committed and not self-conscious, but singer A has a more technical focus, and singer B has a more ‘human’ focus.

Singer A: Is focused like a laser beam on following the conductor, hitting her marks on the stage, and on creating her most beautiful sound. She’s also allowing herself to enjoy the rhythms and cadences of the music.

Singer B: While a part of her is focused on technical elements, she is more dominantly focused on seducing, taunting, and teasing the men around her. Her thoughts are primarily ‘character’ thoughts rather than ‘singer’ thoughts – when she successfully teases a man, she experiences a victory and that victory is clearly seen on her face and in her body. When she is done taunting one man, she looks around to see who looks like the next easy mark.

To me, only Singer B has ‘stage presence.’ The other singer’s technical focus and commitment might make her more watchable than if she were self-conscious and self-doubting, but she lacks true charisma.”

my understanding of ‘character’

David Mamet is a playwright and theatre/ film director who believes that there is no such thing as ‘character’, there is just the performer, the text and their actions. I’m with him on this one! In the context of singing in a performance there is simply the singer, the music (which included lyrics and melody/ harmony) and the singing.

To comment on Tom’s opera example above I’d need to see these two singers myself before I decide which one has ‘stage presence’. My claim is that Singer A, if engaged with the appropriate tasks and actions, may well have as much stage presence and ‘charisma’ as Singer B. Singer B doesn’t need to have any understanding of ‘character’, she just needs to behave and act in a manner required by the opera at any given moment.

Singer B’s job is to make the audience to believe that she is taunting and teasing those around us. Most of that work will have been done by the composer of the music and lyrics, the rest will be by done by the way in which the song is sung and the actions carried out by the singer. The audience don’t care what’s going on inside the singer. She may be using internal imagery of talking to her cat or imagining she is a snake. It doesn’t really matter.

But we digress … Tom’s example has used opera which is very much a storytelling medium and has more in common with plays than with concerts. What about songs that have no story, no ‘characters’, or maybe even no recognisable words?

My claim is that as long as the singers are in the moment and focused on doing their job properly (singing the song to the best of their ability), following whatever instructions the director has given (e.g. which passages are loud, which sections go faster, which verses should be sung more gently, what imagery might be useful, etc.), then they will have stage presence, be eminently watchable and will communicate the music and its emotional content in the way in which the director has intended. No more, no less.

It’s the director’s job to help the singers convey whatever ‘meaning’ or emotional content that she believes the song contains. That work will have been done in rehearsal. In performance the singers just need to get on with the job!

next week

My division of this discussion into two parts is rather arbitrary since they both impinge on each other. Tom in particular would claim that connecting with the ‘meaning’ of a song is vital to creating any kind of stage presence. So next week I will look at what a song’s ‘meaning’ might be, where it resides and how it affects the singing of the song: Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Getting the best out of your choir 6: self-reflection

It’s very quiet here today. A typical English spring day: grey and overcast with a soft drizzle gently falling. Tomorrow it’s a ‘bank holiday’ here in England. This was once a holiday for all of us to celebrate May Day, but now it’s just a day off for the banks and financial institutions, most of the shops and supermarkets stay open. And for us freelancers too, it’s business as usual!

On a Sunday the world outside is definitely much quieter than usual. Hardly any traffic, no kids on their way to school, no postman. Just the kind of day when we can step outside our normal routine and take stock.

always rushing

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that there never seems to be enough time to do everything we want to!

“I’ve been meaning to sit down and really learn the words of that second verse.”

“When I get some free time, I’d like to do a better arrangement of that Ukrainian song.”

“Next time I get a spare moment I want to listen to the practice CD again so I can definitely nail my part.”

“Roll on the holidays when I can do some proper research to find some tasty songs for next term.”

We always seem to be in some kind of ‘crisis’ mode, just about delivering what we need to at the last minute. This means that we never really get a chance to take stock, to look back over the last term’s work or most recent concert and think about what happened.

condemned to repeat history

As George Santayana famously said:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Basically this means that studying our history is necessary to avoid repeating past mistakes. If we don’t look back on our past actions and reflect on them, then we are condemned to constantly repeat our errors.

Of course, the flip side of this is that if we do something well, then it’s good to take note of it so that we can repeat it in the future! There is nothing worse than accidentally producing an excellent result without knowing why it happened.

the self-aware singer

Considering our past actions and reflecting on what happened in previous rehearsals, concerts, song learning, etc. is the job of both choir leaders and choir members. The responsibility of getting the best out of a choir lies with all members of the team.

This means that singers need to be self-aware at all times. It is not possible to reflect on earlier experiences if you don’t remember what you were doing! This applies to:

  • warm ups (where are the tensions in my body now? what can I do to release them? how can I carry out this exercise better than the last time I did it? what is the point of this particular warm up exercise and how can I learn from it?);
  • song learning (how does my part fit in with the alto part? why is it particularly difficult to find the start note each time? why is that line/ interval difficult to nail? is there a better way of connecting the words with the music? I must remember to sing my part against the other parts on the practice CD – I forgot last time and it didn’t help!);
  • rehearsal (how come I missed that important note that the director gave last time we rehearsed? why am I always coming in late on that phrase? I need to remember to pay more attention to the tenors this time so I can get my tuning right! this time I’ll write down the verse order so I won’t forget it like last time);
  • performance (at our last concert I couldn’t see the director properly because the lights were in my eyes – this time I’ll make sure I stand in a better place to avoid this; I noticed recently that in every concert I get so nervous that I’m taking shallow breaths most of the time – this time I’ll consciously focus on breathing long and slow before each songs starts; at our Christmas concert I was thrown when the director got us to repeat the last verse – this time I’ll not zone out, but pay close attention all the time!).

I’m sure there are many other things that I’ve missed out, but you get the idea!

the reflective choir leader

Part of a choir leader’s job is to be a teacher. Week on week the choir leader tries to improve the singers’ vocal and aural skills as she constantly strives for improvement in singing quality and performance technique. In order to do this successfully it is important to have an overall strategy, a programme of development work, but alongside this, you must take note of what works and what doesn’t work in order to refine this programme constantly. It’s no good initiating a series of exercises to improve tuning if you don’t take note of whether the tuning has improved or not!

I’m assuming that it is part of any good choir leader’s method to practice your craft in a self-reflective way. If not, maybe you shouldn’t be doing the job! This self-reflection works at several different levels:

from moment to moment within each choir session
You’ve planned the session in detail with built-in developmental work as you move through the session, but you must be prepared for when things don’t work out as planned, or if something goes exceptionally well. You need to be in the moment and prepared to go ‘off script’ at any moment in service to the bigger picture.

from session to session (rehearsal to rehearsal)
Many of us plan an entire block of work in advance with development from session to session. But even if you only plan week by week, you need to look back over previous sessions in order to work out what is best to do in subsequent sessions. Is it worth going over stuff again? Perhaps that tricky song you planned is too adventurous for this block of work. Or perhaps the choir are picking up the new songs extremely quickly, so maybe here’s an opportunity to raise the bar and put in something more advanced like clapping or choreography.

from concert to concert
That tricky song you’ve attempted in the last three concerts has always ended up as a disaster. Maybe it’s time to drop it from the repertoire or find a way of making it work by planning specific rehearsals around it.

The audience always seems to get restless about half an hour into your concerts. Why is this? Is it to do with the structure of the concerts or the repertoire?

For some reason, the Christmas concert was a resounding success, even though it was pretty much the same as the autumn concert. Why was this? Was it just that particular audience, or the different venue, or the new staging?

from season to season
It’s always good to keep the choir on its toes. You may notice that you always start the season of in the same way. Or perhaps every spring season is a classical one. Or you never tackle long, difficult songs in the winter season. Whatever you do: is there a pattern? Do you want to continue that or break it?

from year to year
I always choose the start of the autumn term to look back over the previous year. You may choose a different point, but it’s always good to have a long view. After the long summer break I archive everything we’ve done over the last year and start to think about the year ahead. I like to have an overall view of where we’re heading, what new challenges we may take on, if we’re heading for some significant end of year concert or not. It’s not something I necessarily need to articulate or formally bring into my planning process (although you may well choose to do that), but just thinking about the long view helps me to plan the immediate season in front of me.

from choir to choir
And finally, there comes a day when you may well move onto a different choir. That is the perfect time to reflect on what you have achieved with your last choir. Given your time over again, would you do things the same way? Here is an opportunity to do things better/ differently, to reinvent your self and your process, to start with a blank sheet. It’s all to easy to sleepwalk into a new situation and soon find ourselves up to our old habits!

building on success

This is the happy side of self-reflection: note all the things that go really well and find ways of doing them again! It is just as bad to let a good thing slip through your fingers as it is to constantly repeat bad habits. This is also the time to take the opportunity of not resting on your laurels or of becoming complacent. Just because something went really well, doesn’t mean that it can’t be better next time. The mark of a good, self-reflective practitioner is one who is always on the lookout for ways of making things better.

learning from failure

When something goes really badly wrong, we can get trapped in a period of self-chastisement. We suddenly doubt whether we are actually any good at what we do. We forget all the wonderful things that have happened with the choir in the past. We focus entirely on all the negative aspects of the situation. But this is precisely the time when we need to be in the moment in a non-judgmental way. We need to stand back from the situation and try to note why things went wrong. Analyse the situation dispassionately and learn from it so that next time you won’t make the same mistake.

Somebody once said that rehearsals are the opportunity to try all the ways of getting things wrong, of finding all the ways that don’t work. Then afterwards we are simply left with the things that do work! This is a fantastic example of how we learn from failure and mistakes.

end of the series

That’s the end of this series on how to get the best out of your choir. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and its given you some food for thought. I’d love to hear from your own experiences. Maybe you have something to add to what I’ve said, or perhaps you’d like to recount a specific example of something that’s worked for your choir. Or maybe you just want to let me know that something I’ve said is plain wrong! Whatever it is, I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment.

next week

A few weeks back, there was a flurry of activity in the comments section on stage presence and the ‘meaning’ of songs. This is a big and interesting subject, so rather than let it languish in the backwater of comments land, I thought I’d make a whole post about it. So next week I’m going to look at stage presence for singers and the week after that, singing what you mean. In the meantime you may like to read those comments and chip in yourself!


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