Sunday, June 28, 2009

Finding out about songs: don’t believe everything you read!

I was in the middle of planning a workshop I’m running this weekend and was checking through a few songs to make sure I had the correct lyrics, source, meaning, background, etc. I came across a few that I couldn’t figure out so I went searching and ended up with several contradictory pieces of information!

find a trustworthy source

How do we go about finding out the correct background information to a song? How can we be sure that the lyrics are correct, especially if it’s in a foreign language? What about the translation: is it accurate, a poetic interpretation, or just plain hearsay? Are the lyrics accurate in the source language, or are they phonetically written? Are you sure that the country of origin and source language are correctly attributed?

The internet is an extremely valuable tool when trying to track down song information. But, like all media, it is not to be trusted! Many is the time that a false story has appeared in print and been picked up by other outlets then spread like wild fire without anybody bothering to check the facts. With the internet, this process just happens faster.

chinese whispers

The same with songs. Somebody mis-hears a song at a workshop or whilst singing around the camp-fire. They go home and write down the lyrics (phonetically), note down the country of origin (incorrectly), and half-remember what it was supposed to be about. Through a process of Chinese whispers, this song gets passed around from mouth to ear to mouth until it bears little relation to when it was first heard (and we don’t even know if it was accurate the first time!).

Very soon the song is widely known and its origins and meaning become fixed in people’s minds. The song then gets printed in a songbook and the myth gets perpetuated. Nobody has bothered to go back to the source or try to find out from scratch if the story and background is accurate or not. Now it’s in print, people believe that it must be true.

You can see this happening on the internet too, but it becomes a little easier to spot the myths. When searching for a particular song, it may come up on many different websites, but you soon realise that the text on each site is exactly the same! Somebody has written something once and it’s just got passed around intact without anybody bothering to question.

There is an apocryphal story of this process at work (I’m not sure how true it is, but it’s very believable!). A well-known workshop leader taught one of her own songs in a workshop. This song was then spread by various people who attended the workshop. Many years later, she was teaching it at another workshop when a participant came up to her and said that she’d got it wrong and proceeded to correct her tune and lyrics and tell her a long, involved story about the origins of this ‘traditional’ song. And she’d written the thing in the first place!

getting to the source

Before I teach a song I try to check that the information I have is accurate. If I learnt it from an individual, I go back to them and ask them where they got the information from. I then try to go back to that source and so on. If it’s in a book, I look to see what their sources are and if they credit someone in particular. If I’m not sure about something I’ll search on the internet (I’ll be writing a post on this later) and make sure I come up with at least two different sources for the information. I also try to contact an individual from the culture or country concerned (either through personal contact or via the internet), especially if they speak the language.

an example of song hunting

I’d like to give a concrete example that I’ve dealt with recently.

I got a song from a songbook recently which simply said “African greeting song”. It is called ‘Baba lagumbala’. The score said that it had been shared at a singing camp by someone in 2006. I contacted that person and was told that she’d got it from someone in Canada and told me that she thought it was a harvest song from West Africa.

I managed to track down the song on the website of the Canadian concerned. He didn’t say where he’d learnt it from, but on his site it said that it was in Zulu! He did usefully point out that he’d “learned it aurally so may not have the spelling correct. My apologies to anyone who speaks the language of origin. If anyone can inform me further I would appreciate it and will post it here.”

I searched for the song using Google and the spelling I found on his site and only four separate sites came up. One was the Canadian’s, one was about an Arkansas choir who sang it in one of their concerts, and one was of an arranger who had arranged the song in 2003 and credited it as “An African harvest song”. The fourth site was a resource site in the UK for children’s singing in schools. This contains a video of two black guys in traditional costume playing percussion and singing the song. The site mentions Ghana and harvest, but gives no more details. It looks fairly authentic, but I need to know more! Next step would be to contact someone through that website.

Google then suggested an alternative spelling: ‘Baba la gumbala’ and a whole new set of pages came up, mostly from Germany and Eastern Europe. This shows that it’s worth trying alternative spellings, but I’m still no wiser about the song!

more to meaning than meets the eye

No single person has the monopoly on the meaning of a song, especially if it is written poetically or metaphorically. You can ask two natives of the same culture about a particular song and get two widely different answers! Also, you need to be careful about what you are asking for. Sometimes a direct translation of the lyrics are not enough.

For example, I was taught a song called Inkonkoni iyajama by a group of Zimbabwean lads in Derby. The direct translation of the nine words in the song comes to something like:

The wildebeest strikes a pose. We will wait and see. They think we are blind.
Seems a bit boring on the surface so I asked the guys for a bit more background information and a whole story emerged about the nature of the wildebeest, the fact that the wildebeest is a rare animal and it is a bad omen if you see one (although any bad things might not happen today), and that older people have a longer view of life. So the song ends up meaning something like:

The wildebeest has the sweetest meat in the forest and is not very strong, yet it manages to survive the many lions and leopards which prey upon it. The wildebeest is poised ready to strike. This represents a problem approaching the community. But although the wildebeest is a bad omen, we will not be scared today, but will wait and see what happens. The very old members of the community may appear not to see well, but have great spiritual insight and take a long view of things. So the community will wait to see if the approaching problem will distract them from their traditional ways.

Not bad for a nine-word song!

So make sure you ask the right questions and get the views of several people before pinning a song down.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The problem with men: getting them, handling them, keeping them

May 2010 Since this post was written, I’ve done some more research which you can find at Why men won’t sing: a discussion

What is it with blokes and singing? In most open-access adult workshops that I run, only 10% of the participants are men. Many male voice choirs have an aging membership. Most mixed community choirs find it hard to recruit male singers (the 10% figure also applies to many choirs that I know).

I’ve looked briefly at this subject before (Where are all the male singers?), but thought it merited further examination. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had any male problems in your choir, especially if you’ve found an interesting solution.

men and the arts

When I used to run theatre workshops, there were similar low numbers of men. I’m sure the same applies to dance, pottery, life drawing, etc. In fact, when I attend any kind of ‘arty’ workshop, I am often the only man there! Yet in the professional art world, many of the top names are men, so they must get their training and inspiration from somewhere.

There are many reasons I have heard why men won’t join any kind of arty class:

  • arts aren’t a macho subject
  • blokes like to hang out with other blokes
  • men prioritise their careers, not their leisure time
  • guys like to be in control and know what they’re doing, they don’t like the vagueness of art subjects
  • some men are intimidated by a room full of women
  • most chaps like to look good and competent, so they tend to do their learning in private
  • blokes are not particularly social animals and shy away from group activities (unless it’s football!)
  • community choirs are too egalitarian – men like hierarchical structures, competition and goals (maybe this is why there are so many barbershop singers?)

men and singing

Even if none of the reasons above apply to a particular man, he may still not want to join a choir or singing workshop, even if he loves singing. He might simply be hesitant to join a group that’s been going for a while. But as I pointed out in an earlier post, it’s not that daunting and Everybody has a place in the choir. Like many people, he may not think his voice is ‘good enough’ (whatever that means!) and most men don’t like to be vulnerable in public. Even if a guy thinks his voice is ‘OK’, he may have had experiences where the songs are too high or too low for his voice, so he figures that he just doesn’t fit in. This is because most men are natural baritones, not basses or tenors (see But I can’t sing that high!).

And if a bloke is not persuaded by the fact that singing in a choir is good for your health and he will be surrounded by eligible women, he can always check out that There are plenty of good reasons to sing.

It’s not only male singers who are thin on the ground, but also male choir and workshop leaders. For example, the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network has around 270 members of whom only 40 are men (many of whom are called David for some reason!). This means that most mixed community choirs (at least those run on Natural Voice lines) are run by women. This leads us onto …

men and pitching

Men can get easily confused (ah, bless ‘em!) when a woman is trying to give them their note. I’ve talked about this in an earlier post: Singing the same note – differently. A woman can sing the note at pitch for the tenors (in which case they might try to sing an octave higher!), but usually can’t get down low enough to pitch the bass part. And if a woman choir leader is (un)fortunate to get a male bass who sings an octave below all the other men, she will have a difficult job getting him back on track.

Sometimes you get a confident male singer who can blast out as good as the next man, but never seems to be able to hit the right notes. There are women who do this too, but the male voice tends to be louder and more noticeable. So we have this chap merrily singing along at the top of his lungs, really enjoying himself, oblivious to the fact that what he’s singing bears little relationship to his part (or even the main tune).

Often the bass part has only a few notes so is harder to remember than the tune. For someone not used to harmony singing, it is often the case that a bass can find himself trying to sing the tune rather than the bass part (usually without realising it!).

There is nothing inherently wrong with a guy not getting his part right, but if he ends up singing so loud that he puts the other men around him off, or if he stands out in the overall blend in the choir, then we need to do something.

it’s not just the men!

This is not just limited to men, of course, but it is perhaps more noticeable with male voices. The alto who is a little bit out usually manages to gently blend in with the others and nobody notices. Unfortunately, men tend to have louder voices, and perhaps more importantly, the male sections are usually much, much smaller than the other sections.

If a 60-voice choir only had six altos, then they would really be put on the spot, be very noticeable, and have to deliver their part forcefully and accurately. But that’s not usually the case, and that pressure ends up being put on the poor basses. Fortunately, the men usually have a good sense of humour and can put up with the barbed wit that I often send in their direction!

learning to listen

If, for any reason, you have a singer (male or female) who sings loudly and wrongly, then you have to do something for the greater good of the part they’re in, and of the choir. In fact, the only time I have ever, ever asked someone to leave a choir or workshop since I started doing this back in 1997, was when an over-enthusiastic member of the bass section used to consistently sing loudly and wrongly. I felt awful asking him to leave – we are, after all, an open-access choir, and I believe that everyone can sing. But he was putting the other guys off so much that they couldn’t learn their parts properly or sustain them accurately, and I was worried that some of them might leave.

So I took this chap to one side and pointed out that he needed to develop his listening skills. Too often we think there is a problem with the production of the singing voice, whereas often it’s just because somebody is not listening: to themselves, to the other voices in their part, to the harmonies, to the person teaching the song.

If someone is a bit nervous or unused to singing with others, they become focused on their own voice and stop listening to those around them. That’s when mistakes are made. We need to constantly bring singers’ focus of attention back to the here and now (“watch what I’m doing, listen to what I’m singing/ saying”) and to the overall mix of voices in their own part and of the choir as a whole.

Unfortunately in a choir, it’s not possible to give particular singers individual attention. As choir leaders we can introduce listening training into our warm ups, but that can only go so far. So I told this man that he would need to go away and do some work on his own to develop his listening skills. It wasn’t that he less able than the other choir members, just that he hadn’t had as much listening experience as them. I suggested he seek out opportunities to do unison singing: church, karaoke, football matches, folk club sing-alongs, etc. Once he had become more aware of his own voice and that he was fitting in exactly with the other singers, then he could come back to choir and begin to develop his harmony singing abilities.

male singers are for life, not just for Christmas

I don’t have any answers in how we can recruit and retain more male singers. I’ve tried running a men-only workshop each year. It’s great fun and we make a wonderful sound, but it’s usually men who sing in choirs already. It’s hard to attract new singers.

We’ve tried “bring a man, get 50% off” and similar variations on workshop fees. This can result in more men attending a particular workshop, but doesn’t convert into more regular membership of choirs.

Often, after a concert (usually at Christmas) I get several blokes coming up to me afterwards to say they want to join the choir. Last year I had four. One of them came for a few sessions, but I never heard from the others!

If I had the time and the energy, there is one thing I would like to try: instead of asking the men to come to a workshop (scary, unknown, not their kind of thing, too busy, need to get off my backside, etc. etc.), bring the workshop to the men! Find places where men gather naturally (pub, rugby club, snooker hall, freemasons) and just turn up to run a taster workshop for half an hour. I bet that there will be a few individuals who will be enthused enough to want to take it further.

Do let me know if you have had any similar problems, have found other solutions, or have any good ideas on how to recruit young(er) men to choirs.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Read more!

I’ve made a slight tweak to my blog this week. From now on, there will only be a summary of each post on the ‘home’ page of the blog. If you want to read the rest, simply click on the ‘Continue reading ...’ link and you will be taken to the full post.

I hope this will allow people to scan more posts on the home page to see what interests them. Let me know what you think!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

From the back of the choir 2 - a typical choir session

This is the second guest post from Deb Viney who works at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, UK. Her first post was From the back of the choir 1 — first steps which looked at her experience of joining the SOAS World Music Choir. In this post, Deb describes a typical weekly choir session.

Chris was kind enough to ask me to contribute some thoughts about what it’s like to be involved in a natural voice style world music choir from the choir member’s perspective. The promise that there would be no auditions and no requests for anyone to sing alone was very important to me. Like lots of people I’ve previously been given messages suggesting that I “can’t sing”, but I still enjoy trying. In this kind of choir, that’s not a problem, I fit right in. I’ve no desire whatsoever to be a soloist, or in any way to draw attention to myself, so I always prefer to stand at the back of the choir for performances.

A typical practice session with the SOAS World Music Choir

Practice starts at 7pm on a weekday, actually people tend to drift in over the first 20 minutes or so … We form a big loose circle and the choir director starts with a physical warm up, shaking out tight muscles and a bit of stretching. No standing in prim rows, it’s shoes off and stand straight (in my case, at least for as long as I can stand!).

Then onto some noise-making: sirens, humming, nonsense sounds, whatever the director suggests, really, sometimes we add the sound effects for a funny story. Then we might move on to some kind of vocal scales, perhaps in the form of a counting song, moving up and down the range of our voices — don’t strain, but reach as low or high as you can. It’s surprising, but the group manages to start sounding like a choir, even this early in the session.

Learning songs

For a first song, the director will probably choose something very easy. It might be something silly, like a tongue-twister, or something we have practised often before.

Or perhaps a simple piece that can be easily turned into a multi-part round (that’s where the choir is formed into many sections and each sings the same, but they start at different times, so the sound has many layers).

The second piece might be some work on a more difficult song, in our case that’s usually something in a language other than English (more about that later). It’s usually best to do the toughest stuff before people get too tired.

Usually we work by first all learning the tune, that provides a basic structure into which we fit the parts. Then the director teaches each section their part. She breaks down the part into shorter phrases and first we repeat them to try and establish the words and rhythm, then we start to sing them. It takes only a handful of repetitions of simpler songs to allow the people singing the part to get enough confidence to allow the choir to run through all of the parts together.

In a typical session we might manage to fit in a refresher of one or two more songs we have learned before, maybe adding more verses or adding extra parts. So typically we cover three or four songs in an evening. This means that over the course of the Autumn and Spring terms (about 40 practice-hours) we learn a repertoire of about 10-12 pieces. Since the SOAS choir has about two-thirds new members each year (as many students move on) we tend to learn a new repertoire each year, though we might carry over one or two favourites.

How do you learn songs in a language you’ve never heard before?

The simplest answer is: by any means that works for you! Basic repetition works in the very short term, for example, to allow us to sing the part immediately after it was taught, but it may not be enough to allow us to remember a part from week to week.

So apart from repetition, how do we learn? Most people use one or more of the basic learning modes: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and semantic. In other words we might remember by associating the sounds with an image; or by associating the sounds of the song with a rhythm or with sounds we recognise (perhaps a foreign phrase sounds like a name, or a phrase in English). Another possibility is to learn by the movements (kinaesthetic links), how that strange sound feels as you say it, distinctive mouth movements. The other possibility is to find, or to assign, a meaning (semantic content) to the unfamiliar sounds. This can be through understanding the translation, but it can also be just a matter of attaching an arbitrary meaning to the sounds to help you to remember them.

How do you remember all those songs??!!

The other thing that can help us to remember is a specific cue: I find it helpful to be given the first line of a piece, after that I can often drag the rest out of my memory as I sing it. Other people might remember from the title, or they associate it with the language or the country of origin (“let’s sing the one in Zulu …” or “what about that Georgian song?”). Other times people remember the narrative content (“I like the one about the orphan hawk”)

If this all sounds too much, don’t worry. I got through my whole first year as a choir member, including a performance, without properly learning any of the songs: my memory was blank until the director gave the first line as a cue. The second year was easier and this year I actually did learn in full several of the songs — which suggests that learning by ear does improve one’s auditory memory. So keep working on it!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, June 07, 2009

But I can’t sing that high!

When you join a choir that sings in harmony, you will find that some parts are too high for you and some parts are too low. Just like Goldilocks, you will gravitate to the part which is “just right” — the place where you feel comfortable and are not straining your voice.

But if you’re a beginning singer you might find that none of the parts feel right! This is because the range of notes that you can sing can be quite narrow at first. As you sing more regularly, you will find that you begin to reach higher and lower notes with more ease.

However, even when you’ve been singing for some time, you might well come across a particular song that has a note that is outside your range, that you can’t sing comfortably or even can’t reach at all. What’s the problem here?

you may be in the wrong part

It may be that you’re simply in the wrong part. When women first join a choir, they often go to the alto part because it’s not too high, and not too low. This is a safe place to be at first since it’s comfortably in the middle ground. Or they may end up with the sopranos because that’s what ‘proper’ women’s singing is like (more on this later). Sometimes people join a part because they reckon that it's the part that always has the tune. But in my kind of choirs, no one part consistently has the tune, and even if it did, they songs are not familiar in the first place so it is of no real advantage!

I’ve known some women to stay in the ‘wrong’ part for several years before they realise that they actually have a far greater range than they first thought, or that they could sing much higher/ lower than they had imagined.

Women with very low voices usually head for the tenor section. In most community choirs this is usually where the ‘low ladies’ live because it’s never really that low.

But what about the poor blokes? They have only two options: tenor, which is usually too high for them, or bass which is often too low. So they get put off thinking they can’t sing properly or that they don’t have much of a vocal range. Trouble is, most men are really baritones which means that they hover somewhere between tenor and bass. In which case there is no real home for them, nowhere where they feel “just right”.

what does ‘contralto’ mean anyway?

I’m tossing these terms around like I know what I’m talking about: alto, tenor, baritone, etc., but what do they actually mean? And what about all those other terms that we might have heard of: mezzo-soprano, counter-tenor, bass-baritone?

Actually, there are no absolute strict definitions of any of these terms. They are simply names which give an indication of the range of notes that a person singing that part is expected to be able to sing. A composer will bear this in mind when writing a choral piece (usually!), but there is no exact agreement on what those ranges might be. It is simply an attempt to categorise the wide range of vocal possibilities out there. Since it is a generalisation, there will inevitably be some people who don’t fit comfortably into any category. There will always be a few male altos and female basses, for example.

Very simplistically, the sopranos are the women with high voices, and the altos are women with lower voices. The tenors are the high men, and the basses are the low men. In classical music and professional choirs, the sopranos go really high and the basses go really low. Most untrained women are probably at the low end of the altos and won’t be able to hit some of the high alto notes. Most untrained men are baritones: they won’t be able to hit the really high tenor notes or the really low bass notes.

In most community choirs, songs are chosen and arranged to fit a smaller vocal range. In particular, the soprano part will never go too high, and most women will be able to get the lowest note of the tenor part (although not necessarily comfortably). Most men will be happy in the bass section because it won’t go too low.

how high is ‘high’?

For those of you who are musically trained, in a community choir I tend to not go much higher than the D an octave and a bit above middle C, or lower than the G below middle C for women’s voices, and the same an octave lower for men. I usually find that everybody in the choir can cope with this range, so it gives people the flexibility to move around and try out different parts.

When I’ve been working with a group for some time, I find I can cheat the high notes up (the highest I’ve gone up to so far is the G above the high D I mentioned earlier) for both women tops and male tenors (an octave lower). But I’ve only ever really taken the lowest note down to the F just below the G I mentioned earlier.

Many people with a little musical knowledge come to a choir with preconceptions about voice types and vocal ranges, so try not to use technical terms like alto, tenor, etc. with a beginner choir, but just say tops, middles, low ladies/ high men, and bass.

how to find which part you sing

When you’re trying to find out which is the most suitable part for you to sing, it’s not just about which notes you can reach. During the warm up, the choir leader will gradually take you through a wide range of notes. Over the weeks you will often find that you will gradually be able to sing higher and lower than you first thought. As you warm up you will get a sense of which are the absolute highest and lowest notes that you are able to sing. You might be surprised!

This will give you an indication of which part you sing. If you find it easiest to hit the higher notes, then you probably belong in the ‘tops’ (soprano for women, tenor for men). If you find it hard to reach the extreme high and low notes, then you’re probably a middle (alto for women, bass for men). And if you find the low notes the easiest, then you’re probably a low lady (tenor) or a real bass man!

But this isn’t the whole story. I’ve mentioned the concept of tessitura in an earlier post (Everybody has a place in the choir). It basically means the range of notes that you feel most comfortable singing (i.e. without any kind of strain — your ‘sweet spot’) rather than the absolute range of notes that you can reach. As I pointed out earlier, with most community choirs, everybody will probably be able to sing any of the parts, but there will be one part that you feel most comfortable with.

role models and ‘real’ singing

Many people come to singing with a huge number of preconceptions. When people say that they can’t sing at all, they usually mean they can’t sing as well as somebody famous, or they find it hard to reach the same notes as an opera singer, or that their voice doesn’t sound like their favourite pop star. You can read more about this in Why people think they can’t sing.

Many women think that ‘proper’ singing is when you use your high ‘churchy’ voice. They think of opera singers with their soaring vibrato. So when they join a choir, they feel that they always need to be singing in their ‘choir voice’ which means just the high notes. At school they might never have come across their ‘chest voice’ which is more akin to our speaking voices, and is the voice that is used in a lot of traditional singing, especially in Eastern Europe. Because they haven’t used this part of their voice much, it might appear ugly or feel unfamiliar, so they stick with what they know. In some cases it might mean that a woman ends up singing with the tops even though she has an amazingly powerful low voice.

For many men with low voices, there simply aren’t enough role models out there. I have a reasonable range, and can sing quite low, but never much liked the singing of Paul Robeson when I was growing up. I was much more attracted to pop music and voices like those of The Beatles or David Bowie. So I tried to sing like them and found that there was no way I could hit the high notes that they did, so I assumed that I couldn’t sing. Many men are in this situation. Most pop singers use their high tenor voice (and even drift off into falsetto like Thom Yorke, Tim Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, etc.) and the most famous opera singers (like Pavarotti) are tenors. These ranges are usually beyond the reach of us mere mortals. Most men then think they can’t ‘sing’ properly or strain their voices trying to reach notes that are much too high for them.

Even if they like the low voices you can find in opera or Russian singing, most men can’t get down there. There just aren’t enough role models out there for us baritones!


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