Sunday, August 30, 2009

Don’t blog when you’re feeling low

Not feeling well, so no blog post this week. Sorry. Like many teachers, I seem to always get sick in the holidays!

Points to remember:

  • always keep a blog post in hand for situations like this
  • don’t blog when you’re feeling low – you might regret what you say!
  • you’re not invincible – look after yourself (Taking care of ourselves as choir and workshop leaders)
  • writing a good blog post takes time and energy
  • you’re not indispensable
  • this too shall pass


See you next week.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Writing what you want to read

It’s often hard for bloggers to come up with ideas for the next blog post, especially if you’ve been doing it for some time. When you first start, you write about what you know and hope that somebody out there will be interested. At least, that’s what I’ve been doing!

But how do you know that what you write is interesting your readers? How can you find out what makes for an interesting blog post?

As time goes by

  • you get more and more readers (I hope!);
  • people begin to leave comments (but never enough!);
  • you might have a star rating for each post (if people can be bothered!);
  • your analytics package tells you which are your most popular posts (but only if it’s a clever package!) and
  • some of your readers even begin to suggest ideas for posts (hint, hint!).

Now it becomes a little trickier to decide on blog topics. Is it enough to continue to write about what you know, essentially pleasing yourself, or should you begin to take into account what your readers want? And if you do that, how best to go about it? How do you find out what your readers want if they don’t tell you directly?

Some of my posts get a 5-star rating. That makes me very happy! But often the rating comes from just two or three people. Not a very good reflection of my overall readership!

Some people leave comments on my posts. Not as often as I’d like, but often enough for me to believe (rashly?) that someone is actually reading the thing! But I notice that it’s often the same four or five people who comment. Again, not a very good reflection of my overall readership.

Then very, very occasionally (even though I ask people often), someone might offer a suggestion for a post. But is that just something that will interest them, a single reader, or will it be of wider interest?

What if I just go ploughing on and writing what I want to write? After all, that’s what I started out doing and it seems to have attracted some readers. Never enough, of course, but there are some people out there who seem to like what I’m writing.

But I’m not the same person as I was when I started and maybe I’m writing differently or on different topics. Perhaps I’ve lost loads of readers because I’m not delivering what they want. Even though I look at my stats and RSS subscriber figures, my readership is too small to notice any significant trends. Maybe I should take more notice of the readers and adapt my style and content?

Hang on a minute!! Now I remember why I first started writing. Not only did I want to share my thoughts, but the discipline of writing every week helps me to formulate what I really think about a subject. More importantly I wanted to start a dialogue and debate with other people. What do you think about these subjects? Have you come across the same issues? Do you have different or better solutions and ideas?

So I’m going to stick to my first principles. I will gladly take note of my most popular posts and possibly write something along similar lines in the future. I will take on board any suggestions or comments that my readers make. But the bottom line is, that I need to be true to myself and the intentions of my blog. If I don’t write what I am interested in and passionate about, then there’s not much point in writing, and the posts won’t be much good any way.

So I won’t ignore you lovely readers out there, but I will try to stay true to myself.

I’d be really interested to hear from all you imaginary friends out there, especially those of you who read regularly but never comment. Come on – it’s easy and not at all frightening! I’d be happy to if you just drop by and say “hello”. It doesn’t have to be anything profound. I’d also be extremely happy if you could let me know what you like and dislike about my blog, what subjects you’d like me to tackle in the future, what topics you’d like me to revisit.

I really, really want to make this blog more of a dialogue. I learn an enormous amount from you singers and choir leaders out there. I’d love to hear some personal stories about how you stumbled into singing or choir leading, what your high (and low) points have been, if you have any tricks or tips you’d like to share, and, of course, if you fancy using this opportunity to write a guest post of your own!

Just to let you know, here are some topics I’ve got planned for the next few weeks when the ‘holiday’s are over:

  • Where does our audience come from – is it just friends and family?
  • It’s festival season but they all seem to want loud, danceable music – where do we fit in?
  • How can you tell if a singing workshop leader is good or bad – is it just personal taste?
  • How do you know if you’re singing in tune?

I hope those of you in the northern hemisphere continue to have a good summer! I’m off down to the south coast for a week of fun and frolics. See you next week.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Singing in cyberspace

Just thought I’d tell you about an initiative I’ve started on Facebook, and to let you know how you can connect with my singing activities in cyberspace.

A while back I had a crazy idea of trying to collect one traditional song from every country in the world! To that end I’ve set up a group on Facebook called A World in Song. According to Wikipedia, there are 203 internationally recognized sovereign states as of 7th April 2009 so I need all the help I can get! Do drop by and join the group if you can - I’ve only posted 3 songs so far.

Whilst on Facebook, you might like to become a fan of my page Chris Rowbury and keep up to date with my singing work. And if you're really hip to the cyber moment, you can even follow me on Twitter!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The job of being a choir leader

A version of this appeared as an article in the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network’s newsletter in 2006.

As a singing workshop and choir leader I have an incredibly easy life. I can get up when I want to and have no work commitments for four days of the week. I’m my own boss and can choose when I work and how much I do. I have holidays when the schools do, which means a long summer break each year.

I’ve just been away for a week to Suffolk, and have come back even more tired than when I went! How come? It was a restful week and we didn’t do anything strenuous.

So I got to thinking: how much do I actually do when I’m working? Perhaps it’s more than I thought. Maybe it’s like teachers and other high-energy, stressful occupations – when you eventually stop, you crash. Most teachers seem to get ill in the holidays when they let go. Perhaps it’s adrenaline that keeps us going during term time, and as soon as we have time off our bodies let go.

Until recently, when people asked me what I do, I felt slightly embarrassed to say that I just taught songs for two evenings a week, two hours at a time, and ran singing workshops three Saturdays each month. It seemed a pathetic amount of work for a grown man!

Then I realised that, of course, the “work” is not just during the contact hours, that in fact I am not just a teacher of songs, but a PR guy, a publicity designer, copywriter, PA, project planner, administrator, song arranger, office manager, website designer, recording engineer, marketing officer, song researcher, committee member, musical director, music transcriber, accountant, performance & rehearsal scheduler, community musician, filing clerk, stationery purchaser, fund-raiser … amongst other things.

In fact, I have a very FULL TIME job! I work evenings, weekends, bank holidays, and half-terms. Yet it doesn’t feel like “work” at all. When I’m arranging a song or designing publicity or writing this on a Sunday afternoon, it’s because I want to. It has to be done at some point, but I enjoy doing it, it’s creative, and I can choose when to do it.

I thought it might be interesting for those starting out (or for those who’ve been doing this for a while who didn’t realise how much work they actually do!) to give an idea of what a typical week might be like for a freelance teacher of songs/ musical director/ community musician. This is (some of) what I did during a fairly typical week shortly before I went on holiday:

  • transferred a concert recording to my PC and edited it into separate tracks
  • dealt with several requests to buy some of my song arrangements
  • researched and contacted a range of venues in Lincolnshire and Coventry for autumn gigs
  • updated my website with workshop information
  • started to look for a suitable local venue for a workshop I’m running in October
  • answered a backlog of emails asking general questions about singing
  • planned and ran a workshop in Shropshire
  • finished writing and arranging a new song about the summer
  • liaised with a Stamford venue regarding an early September gig
  • archived last term’s work with my choir and updated song lyrics and information for choir members
  • ran choir on Thursday evening
  • rehearsed with scratch choir for Warwick Folk Festival on Monday evening
  • started funding application to be part of Coventry’s Peace Festival in the autumn
  • agreed dates for more workshops next year
  • confirmed rehearsal space for two projects for the autumn: Vox Mondiale and Foot and Mouth
  • put in several invoices for recent work
  • publicised my Beach Boys workshop in September
  • sent out orders for choir CDs
  • maintained mailing list (via website requests)
  • designed flyers and posters for Vox Mondiale autumn gig
  • updated my Facebook page and Twitter account
  • started to collect songs for Woven Chords’ autumn term
  • kept Woven Chords’ website up to date
  • wrote blurb for Farncombe Estate open day
  • made a recording of separate parts for a song arrangement that I sell

When I look back at that list it just makes me feel tired! Most of us get through huge amounts of work like this every week, but it’s only when we write it down that we realise how much we actually do to maintain our modest lifestyles, and that being a “community musician” or “choir leader” is not just about the music.

The job of choir leader

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you may be interested in several other posts I've written about choir leadership.

I’ve looked at the basic job definition, the roles and responsibilities and the notion of the ‘benign dictator’ (What the job of choir leader involves).

I’ve considered how you might assess a choir leader and whether the ends justify the means (How to tell if your choir leader is rubbish).

I've listed what I consider to be the six qualities needed by any good choir leader.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Help! What am I going to do with no singing over the summer break?

For those of us who work to school terms, it is now the summer holidays. Unlike us poor folk here in the UK, the summer break is months long in the US ! Whilst we only have six weeks or so, the summer there lasts from early June until late August – almost three months.

When I started my first choir WorldSong back in 1997, when the summer break came along people began to panic. What would they do on Wednesday evenings for the next couple of months? Where would they get their singing fix? How could they last without seeing their singing friends each week?

As a beginning choir leader I was worried if we had a long break, people might not come back. Perhaps they would get out of the habit of coming each week, or find something better to do on a Wednesday evening.

That first year we broke up in early July and started back in late September – a break of 11 weeks (I needed a break at the time!). It was with considerable trepidation that I waited that first autumn Wednesday to see how many – if any – people would come back to choir after such a long break. Fortunately for me, quite a few singers came back, but it was a nerve-wracking time.

Next time summer came around, so many people were complaining about not being able to sing over the summer, that I decided to run a short ‘summer school’ consisting of four Wednesday evenings in the middle of the summer break. I managed to attract a considerable amount of interest, not only regular choir members, but others who weren’t able to make a regular commitment during term time. We had lots of fun, and some of the participants joined the choir in the following autumn.

One year, when I was running three separate community choirs, I ended up leading three summer schools in three different towns. It was becoming too much! I found that I didn’t get a chance to refresh myself and have a decent break, neither did I have enough time to source new songs for the coming term.

So I stopped running the summer schools. And people came back after the break after all. Sure, they might have missed singing for a while, but they had been on holiday and worked in the garden and had lots of other things on their minds. When the autumn term started everyone came back renewed, refreshed and eager to start singing again.

I learnt several lessons from this:

  • a choir offers something valuable to many people – not just singing, but a sense of community and a regular hobby
  • if you are offering something that people like and want, then they won’t desert you just because you have a long break
  • don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ – trust that people want what you have to offer
  • we all need a break to refresh and renew ourselves, not least the choir director who needs to replenish their energy before a new term
  • there are plenty of other singing opportunities over the summer, and it’s good for people to try out a variety of styles and workshop leaders
  • don’t believe everything people say: I have had people saying that they couldn’t possibly survive a whole summer without singing, but they do.

I have known choir leaders who have taken whole terms (or even a whole year) off from their choir, leaving it in the hands of a caretaker, or reducing the sessions to once every few months. In each case, the choir has survived and thrived.

I had known of individuals who have said things like: “This choir is my life, I don’t know what I’d do without it” and “I have to join your choir! Please, please, please let me join in the autumn”. And in each of theses cases the people have disappeared and never come to choir. Try to figure that out!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Singing in harmony 2 – small group skills

Last week I wrote about some of the skills needed to be able to sing in harmony. Most of them were focused on singing in a large choir. This week I want to consider those skills that are needed to sing harmony in a much smaller group, perhaps a group with only one singer on each part.

Photo by Cindy Funk

I’d love to hear from those of you who sing regularly in small groups to see whether I’ve missed any important points out or if you have any useful tricks that you can share. Do drop by and leave a comment.

harmony singing in a small ensemble

Although I’m focusing here on small group singing, most of the points equally apply to larger choirs. The main difference will be in where you place your focus of attention. In a small group, the focus can be on all the other singers and the overall sound, whereas in a larger choir the focus may be more on the singers around you and the harmony between your part and the section of the choir standing either side of you.

I ended last week’s post with what I believe to be the three most important skills needed for harmony singing: the ability to listen, listen, and listen.

listen – to yourself

Singing begins with yourself. You make a sound which you have total control over. Using feedback you get from listening to others, you can adjust your own vocal output. By listening to yourself you can:

  • check that you are always in tune with the other singers;
  • make sure your volume is appropriate so your harmony part doesn’t drown out the others or fade into the background;
  • see if your vowels and vocal quality are appropriate to the song and blend in with the other singers.

listen – to others

By listening into the other singers in your group – both individually and as a whole – you will get the necessary feedback to sing your own part well. Singers are human beings rather than beat boxes or synthesisers, so tuning, timing, vocal quality, etc. will shift constantly during any song. You need to be alert to all these minute changes and follow them accurately.

  • Are the other parts louder/ softer than you?
  • Have they slightly changed pitch?
  • Is their timing getting faster?
  • Where are they putting that syncopated beat?
  • Where are they taking their breaths?

listen – to the harmonies

This is more about the overall effect of your group of singers. In some sense, it’s not about listening to the sounds that are there, but the gaps between the sounds. For me, that is the joy of harmony singing. Rather than feel that another harmony part is “putting you off” somehow, if you focus on the gap/ interval between what you are singing and what the other parts are singing, then it stops being about the individual notes and more about the effect that harmony has on us.

Harmony singing is all about team playing. By listening to the overall effect that the harmonies are having, you can make tiny adjustments to your own singing that will serve the whole. When harmony is working properly in a small group, it stops being about the individuals. It is almost as if the song is singing itself and you are simply enjoying and inhabiting the spaces between the notes.


To be able to use the feedback from what you are hearing, you need a certain amount of self-awareness. It’s no good noticing what the others are doing if you can’t feel or hear what you’re doing yourself. If you can’t detect that your body is in tension, or that you’re breathing incorrectly or that you’re singing too loud, then you won’t be able to make the necessary adjustments to serve the group. If you’re a control freak, then maybe harmony singing is not for you! You need to surrender your ‘self’ to the group and the music.

Developing self-awareness is not that hard, but can take some practice if you’re not used to it. The enemies of self-awareness are any things that take you out of being in the moment:

  • fear (of making a mistake, of not being a good singer, of not knowing the words);
  • boredom;
  • arrogance (“I know this song inside out”, “I don’t need to listen, I’ve learnt this song before”);
  • daydreaming, trying to repeat the past (“Last time we did this it was great, this time it’s going to be even better!”);
  • anticipating the future (“I really hope the gig is going to go well”);
  • measuring yourself against others (“They’re all far better at this than I am”);
  • bringing outside baggage along (“I can’t believe how rude that woman was in the shop this afternoon”).

And many others. In fact, there are probably far more reasons for not being in the moment, than being in the moment! But … it is vital if you want to sing harmony well.

watch my lips!

Even though you might not be able to hear the exact notes coming out of a singer’s mouth (because you’re focusing on the harmonies), or see their belly move when they’re breathing, you can get important information just by looking at other singers’ mouths. Watch the others in your group like a hawk and you will stay in tune, breathe at the same time, and keep in time. Simple but very, very effective!

breathe easy

You might not be able to hear the others breathe, but you certainly need to know when they are breathing. Breath can be a cue to start a song. It will ensure that you all start the phrase at the same moment. It can enable sustained drone parts by ensuring that you all breathe at different times. It can help with moments of suspension/ tension in a song (i.e. sustained pauses).

keep your friends close

It’s not very British to stand that close to each other. We like our personal space! But just look at small groups Corsican singers for example. They stand exceptionally close to each other. Their focus is entirely on each other and the sound they are making. They are usually physically touching and you can see them leaning in and putting their ears right in front of other singers’ mouths. You can never stand too close when singing harmony!

focus in, and focus out

I’m assuming that your harmony singing group will want to share songs with an audience. This means finding the tricky balance between focusing totally inwards on the other singers and the beautiful harmonies that you are making (very tempting!), and sending the music out to the audience. You need to have at least three focuses of attention: on yourself, on the rest of the group and on the audience. It’s impossible to maintain three focuses at the same time, so you have to keep jumping between them, not letting any one of them dominate. A tricky act, but one which is possible with practice.


Chris Rowbury's website: