Sunday, November 29, 2009

Singing out of tune isn’t always a bad thing

There was an article by Alex Petridis in The Guardian last week in which he claimed that:

“singing out of tune can convey emotions that being in tune can't”.

fingers in ears

La, la, la, I'm not listening! by Jennoit

It made me wonder, in these days of Auto-Tune, whether singing out of tune is always such a bad thing.

There’s more to singing than just being in tune. Getting the notes right is just one small part of singing. Singing is about expressing feelings. It is a means of communication.

imperfection is being human

The norm in much of recorded music these days is studio-based Auto-Tuned perfection. This was maybe a laudable aim in the beginning — tighten up a few off notes here and there to make the song sound better. But now it is so common and so artificial that we crave some ‘real’ singing!

Humans are imperfect creatures. It is what gives us our individuality. If we all sound the same – perfectly in tune all the time – then we may as well just use machines to do our singing for us.

When listening to a choir, it is the small imperfections, differences in vocal quality and tiny errors in tuning that give the overall texture and richness of sound that we all love.

being entertaining

In the current UK series of The X Factor, there were a couple of impish Irish twins called John and Edward (Jedward). They can’t sing in tune at all, and yet they were voted in week after week, much to the confusion of some of the judges. But after a few weeks, even Simon Cowell reluctantly admitted that he was beginning to ‘get’ them and could understand how entertaining they are.

Sometimes a song is just one small element of an entertaining act. It’s the context that decides whether we expect singers to focus on being in tune, or whether it’s part of a greater entertaining experience.

tuning is in the ear of the beholder

Sometimes I watch a singer on TV and I wince because I think they’re terribly out of tune. Yet other people in the room don’t see the problem. It can also happen the other way round: my friends think a singer is just off, whilst I just can’t hear it.

There are objective ways of measuring whether a singer is off pitch, but we listeners aren’t that accurate and often hear people in different ways. Remember your Mum not understanding how you could possibly listen to that whiny, out of tune young singer? And sometimes a particular singer in your choir always sounds off key, but it’s the quality and texture of their voice that’s throwing you and not their pitching.

revealing your soul

There’s a beautiful Georgian healing song that’s been doing the rounds of community choirs for some years. Every time I’ve heard it it’s been slow and beautiful, but somehow a little too polished: Batonebo.

Then one day I came across a recording of a bunch of old Georgian men sitting in their village. They slowly (and not very surely!) stunble into the song, each one slightly out of time with the others and hardly anyone in tune. But it is one of the most moving renditions of the song I have ever heard.

The song was just a vehicle for these men to reveal their souls. We often forget this when we just stick to the notes or when we give a ‘performance’.

who are we singing for?

Most singing (and definitely most choral singing) in Western culture is done for an audience. The songs are ‘performed’ rather than just being sung for the sake of pleasure and expression. As soon as we are in performer role we begin to worry about how we are being received. Are we getting it ‘right’? Will they like us? Are we as good as other singers?

It’s in situations like this when too much attention can be paid to being in tune rather than trying to express the soul and heart of the music. We’re in danger here of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

we want expression, not perfection!

Many choral directors lose sight of the human side of music-making and treat their singers as just a bunch of instruments. Their focus is on creating the best possible realisation of a particular piece of music regardless. They fret about the tiniest details and get really bothered about vocal blend and being in tune.

I don’t believe that we should be here to just service the music at any cost. It’s all too easy to lose sight of why we are making music. I’ve written more about this in the post We are not here to serve the music.

more people are out of tune than you think

Although we live in an age of doctored and synthesised vocals, some of the most famous and well-loved singers throughout history have not had the most beautiful voices. We love them for their personality, humanity, imperfections, honesty and soul, not for their note perfect renditions of songs. Singers such as Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf and Tom Waits spring to mind.

but if you still want to sing in tune ...

Of course, we all aim to be in tune and if we can naturally sing accurately it’s just another tool we have to express our feelings through song.

If you find it tricky and want some hints on how to sing in tune, you can check out my recent series of posts to Learn how to sing in tune (after first figuring out How do I know if I’m singing in tune?).

which do you prefer?

Do you have any examples of wonderfully expressive singers who technically sing out of tune? Or maybe you prefer a perfectly in tune choir? Do let me know.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How many songs can you teach in an hour?

First I need to fess up: I have a low boredom threshold and always try to squeeze in as many songs as possible. Not always a good idea!


In an average one-day workshop (six hours with an hour for lunch), I can get through eight or more songs, all quite complex. I have been known to teach four songs in a single hour (including a warm up before I start teaching).

But am I trying to cram too much in? What is a reasonable number of songs to teach in a given time period?

how many is too many?

Obviously it depends on how complex the songs are. You can get a very simple round or chant up on its feet in a few minutes. A harder harmony song with four or more parts will clearly take longer.

Any good workshop leader will get a sense of whether they are going too fast or slow for the particular group they’re working with. You can’t always suit everybody, so you pitch your speed at the abilities of the majority. You’ll soon get an indication of how the group responds after you’ve taught your first song.

am I going too fast for you?

Rather than getting hung up on the actual number of songs, it’s important to be sensitive to how the participants are responding.

It’s no good soldiering on with a song at break-neck speed if people are finding it hard to remember their part or stumbling over the words. Also, it’s important to not move onto the next song too quickly. After all, people have come to sing and not just to learn.

The teaching of the songs is just a means to an end when we can all have a jolly good sing!

always assume the best in people

Having chosen appropriate songs for a particular workshop, I always assume that the participants will be brilliant singers, will catch on quickly, and will learn the songs with ease.I always make sure that I have plenty of extra songs in case they learn really quickly and I run out (which has happened).

Of course, it may turn out that people are having a bit of an off day, or I’ve over-estimated their experience of harmony singing. In which case, I will adjust, slow down, and teach at a pace comfortable to the majority of participants.

But you’d be amazed how seldom I have to do this. By assuming that people can do what you expect of them, they usually rise to the occasion. Even if a few singers are a little slower on the uptake, the majority will sweep them along with their enthusiasm.

Often, at the end of a workshop people are amazed by what they have achieved. But not me. I never under-estimate the participants’ abilities.

One participant summed it up thus:

“Chris has got the ability to make you feel you can do anything ... you have a go at the seemingly impossible and then you DO do it!”

It’s nothing clever – I just behave as if everyone can do anything and they usually deliver.

how to be patronising

The opposite of assuming that people can learn fast is to assume that all participants are beginners, will need spoon-feeding, and the teaching will have to be slow and easy. Sometimes this is the case, especially with complete beginners or people who have never sung before.

But in the majority of open workshops and choirs, most people have some singing experience and you will be amazed at what they can achieve. The danger is that if you set your sights too low, the participants can end up feeling a little patronised. If you set the bar high, people will be challenged but end up with an enormous sense of achievement.

I was a punter at a singing workshop a while back and the leader was just so S  -  L  -  O  -  W! I felt that I was in a kindergarten class, as did many of my fellow singers. So much so that we started to be silly and misbehave which I’m sure didn’t help the leader. She went over and over and over the words, then the parts so often that we lost the will to live. We certainly felt patronised rather than being helped to learn.

quickly learnt, soonest forgotten

In any one-off workshop people will be learning songs very fast with not much time for repetition. That means that the songs won’t have had time to really bed in and it’s almost certain that the next morning, most participants won’t remember a single note!

I believe that it’s important to point this out. If you don’t, many people might end up thinking that they’re not ‘real’ singers because they couldn’t retain the songs. You need to make it clear that learning a song in depth takes many, many repetitions (see Papa’s got a brand new song).

I am not a song factory!

As I said in the introduction, I love to keep introducing new songs. I have so many to teach that I just can’t wait to get them out there! I get a little bored hearing a song too often, so am keen to get onto the next one. This can create a big problem.

Lots of my colleagues have said the same thing: they feel like song factories. Week after week, we feel that the choir needs feeding and we constantly have to come up with new, exciting songs to teach.

But if we sit back for a moment, we realise that we’re making a rod for our own back. It’s not our boredom threshold that is low, we fear that our singers will get bored doing the same old songs and will only come to choir each week if we keep introducing new material.

The truth is usually the opposite: most choir members love to sing the old familiar songs rather than learning new stuff all the time. As I said earlier, people come because they want to sing, not to be learning all the time.

So us choir leaders need to slow down sometimes and go over the old stuff. Spend time revisiting and polishing older repertoire before moving onto the next shiny new song.

quality not quantity

I’ll leave you choir and workshop leaders with this thought: we worry that we need to give participants a good time for their money. This often translates as delivering loads of songs. But we have far more to offer than just song teaching and people have come to sing, not just to learn.

how was it for you?

Have you attended a workshop and felt that the teaching has just been too fast? Have you taught a workshop and realised that people are becoming bored because you’re going to slow? Have you been to a workshop where you’ve learnt lots of songs, but the teaching hasn’t felt rushed? Are you guilty of always introducing new songs to your choir?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What’s the point of live music performance?

Music and singing are auditory experiences. We don’t need to see the musicians or singers to appreciate their music. So why do we bother going to live music events? Why don’t we just stay at home and listen to a recording?

Photo by shaggy359

I can think of plenty of good reasons not to leave the comfort of your own home so the live performance had better be very good to persuade people to go out and spend money.

I can only think of a few reasons (but not many) why going to a live music gig might be a good idea.

Yet despite this imbalance, I still go (sometimes) to live concerts. Why is that?

It reminds me of that scene in Kramer vs. Kramer when Dustin Hoffman’s character makes a list of pros and cons for seeking custody of the kid: his cons far outweigh his pros and yet he still goes for custody.

There some deep down instinctive need to see music performed live, and no amount of logic can tease it out.

Or maybe you can? Do let me know if you can think of any really good reasons why bothering to go out in the cold and dark to a live music performance might be a good idea.

I’m mainly talking here about choral performances and other live music events which are mainly sit-down gigs. I think pop and rock concerts and summer music festivals are a whole other beast.

If we are going to ask members of the public to leave home and spend their money attending one of our concerts, we’d better know what we’re offering them!

Here are my two lists of reasons – pros and cons. Let me know what you think.

8 reasons why not to bother going to a live music performance

  1. sound quality

    The sound quality at a gig can often be appalling. Either the venue/ auditorium has lousy acoustics, or you end up sitting way in the back, or some technical wizard has put the microphones in really stupid places and the balance is all wrong, or the guy on the sound mixing desk is having a bad day.
  2. nothing to see

    You’ve made all this effort to come out, so you expect to get something extra to just staying at home listening to the CD. But no, there’s nothing going on, just a bunch of singers or musicians on the stage in their own little world making sounds. You begin to count the ceiling tiles or shut your eyes to concentrate on the music.
  3. too expensive

    You can get a CD or download an MP3 for very little these days. But if you go to a concert hall you are expected to pay an arm and leg for a half-way decent seat, not to mention an over-priced programme full of adverts (and not much else) and interval drinks way above normal bar prices. Not to mention the parking costs.
  4. not the best version

    They may be having a bad day. The principal violinist might be off sick. The solo soprano might have a cold. For various reasons there are a few bum notes this particular evening. The perfectly balanced, accurate, director’s cut is on the recording, not necessarily in the concert hall.
  5. too many distractions

    Police sirens outside, popcorn munching, chatting, coughing, knees in the small of your back, people pushing past to get to the toilet – you get the idea.
  6. uncomfortable

    Sitting still for a couple of hours is hard at the best of time, but in tiny seats designed for people of five foot and under with a shared arm rest is nigh on impossible.
  7. inconvenient

    You have to find the venue, brave the weather, travel several miles, pick a parking spot, find your friends, remember your tickets, queue for the toilet, find your seats (in the gods no doubt) – you still get the idea.
  8. not what you expected

    You might never have seen the musicians who made your favourite CD, but you have a pretty clear image in your mind of what they might look like and how they might be if you saw them live. Then you get to the gig and they are a deep disappointment! Not what you expected at all, and now it’s spoilt it all for you. You will never be able to listen to them in quite the same way. 

4 reasons (and one bonus reason) why going to a live concert is a good idea

  1. can’t hear the music any other way

    Going to catch the live performance might be the only way to hear the music. There might not be a recording available or the choir might be singing new songs or new versions of songs, or it might be a bunch of people brought together for this one-off concert.
  2. shared experience

    There is something about sitting in the dark with a group of strangers and experiencing the same event. It’s like a communal witnessing of something. Even if you don’t end up talking with anybody else about it, the fact that you all shared the same live experience at the same time gives it an extra dimension.
  3. extras

    Like DVD extras, only live. Not included on the recording are things such as lighting, staging, choreography, costumes, between-song banter.
  4. in the presence of greatness

    In our celebrity obsessed culture, we sometimes enjoy being in the presence of someone famous. So when the world-famous orchestra or choral conductor is in town, we like to go to see them just because we can. Like touching the hem of the powerful – maybe some of it will rub off.
  5. magic

    This is the main reason why I go to live music performances. I have no other word for it and can’t describe it in any other way. There is something additional, elusive and special about being in the presence of a group of people making music live. It seldom happens to me in large auditoria or with large orchestras or choirs, but usually in a more intimate setting, often without special lighting or other effects. It maybe takes us back to those early days when there was no separation between performer and spectator, when everyone in the village was a music-maker and the experience was truly a shared one.

What do you think? Why do you go to live performances? As choir leaders and choir members we surely need to know why before we can expect an audience to bother to come to one of our own performances!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Avoiding the ‘C’ word: choir

If I say ‘choir’, an image will pop into most people’s minds.

  • a bunch of fidgety 7-year-olds screeching out a barely recognisable version of Once in Royal David’s City at the school nativity play
  • a group of loud old white men with fruity voices singing in Welsh
  • rows and rows of posh people holding music books and singing in superior upper-class accents
  • an angelic cluster of fresh-faced boys with ruffles around their necks facing sideways onto the congregation during a very serious, important service in a big, old church
  • a sea of exuberant black faces dressed in identical floor-length robes moving and singing with uncontained joy whilst battling against some loud guitars and an over-amplified drum kit

I may well have missed out your favourite image, but you get the idea!

These common images either leave me cold or make me feel excluded. They’re either really bad examples of what a choir can be, or seem to be a special club which wouldn’t have me as a a member.

the choral world

I flail around the web trying to find like-minded souls, but if I use search terms such as ‘choir’ or ‘choral’ I stumble into parallel universes that I simply don’t relate to.

This is the impression I get:

  • much of the choral world exists in the USA (with a small, but significant outcrop in Singapore)
  • most choirs are faith-based, usually Christian, and based in churches
  • most choirs use written music which is often referred to as ‘choral literature’ and is usually Western Classical music
  • choirs are formal, old-fashioned and predictable with an aging membership and aging audience
  • there are countless choral festivals across the world, many in Europe, but rather than just celebrating choral singing, they insist on measuring, comparing, testing and judging choirs through competition

OK, OK, you’re bound to tell me that your choir isn’t like that and there are exciting choirs out there who don’t fit these stereotypes. And I’m sure there are.

My point is that this is the impression created by the choral world, whether intended or not.

what’s in a name?

As soon as you use the word ‘choir’ in your group’s name, or say that you sing ‘choral music’, the danger is that all these stereotypes come into play. In which case, you may well be putting off potential choir members and audiences for your performances.

I mean, what impression would you get from:

The Anytown Ladies Institute Choral Society


The Somewhere and District Municipal Choir ?

what can we do about this?

It’s going to be really, really hard to change the cliched images that are associated with the word ‘choir’. After all, they have been built up over hundreds of years.

The thing that we can change directly is the name we give to our group. There are many ways of avoiding the ‘C’ word, some more successful than others. I’ll give a few examples below, but I’d love to hear from you about other solutions.

What’s you ‘choir’ called? Do you think using the word ‘choir’ puts people off? What other alternatives are there to the dreaded ‘C’ word?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The six qualities needed to be a good choral director

I wrote a while back about how to be a good choir member. But what qualities do you need to be a good choir leader?

young choral conductor

Musical director by spoedman

Lately I’ve written quite a lot about leading choirs. 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 detailed the nitty gritty of a typical week in the life of a choir leader including all the admin. and background preparation that’s involved in the job (The job of being a choir leader).

What I haven’t done is consider what kind of person it takes to do all this well. What qualities does a person need to be good at the job of choral director?

six qualities needed to be a good choral director

This is the list I came up with. It’s what I consider to be the minimum necessary to be able to do the job well. I’d love to hear if you think there are any that I’ve left out. They are not in any particular order.

1. enthusiasm

A good choral director needs to have an enthusiasm for choral singing, for song, and for music in general. But more than this, their enthusiasm needs to be infectious and inspirational. They need to sweep the whole choir along with their enthusiasm, excitement and vision.

2. fun

Any decent choir leader must have an excellent sense of humour and needs to maintain and atmosphere of fun in rehearsal and in performance. Most people join a choir because they want to enjoy themselves and have a good time. Excellent music-making will naturally follow.

3. decisiveness

A choral director needs to be prepared and know what they are doing and what they want to achieve. You can’t be clear if you don’t know what you want! It helps if your decisions are consistent and you don’t change from rehearsal to rehearsal. Choir members need to know that you’re in charge and that you have an end result in mind. They don’t want waffle and vagueness.

4. clarity

A good choir leader will be very clear with their instructions and directions. Choir members need to know what’s happening at all stages of rehearsal and performance without any confusion or ambiguity. They need to know that they’re in a good, safe pair of hands, that the director knows what they want and is clear in passing that information on.

5. musicality

A good choral director doesn’t necessarily have to have studied music, know music theory, be able to read music or play an instrument. But they do need to have a deep, intuitive understanding of how music and harmony works. They need a strong sense of musicality.

6. patience

Maybe this is the most important quality, especially with a community or non-professional choir. Learning songs and perfecting performances takes time. Not everyone learns at the same rate. Not everyone understands in the same way. Un-learning bad habits takes a long time. Some people may still be learning to sing in tune, whilst others are able to improvise harmonies.

You need to have a great deal of patience to be able to make allowances for all these different needs. That’s where a good sense of humour comes in!

leadership secrets from a maestro

As I was preparing this post, I came across an article by the classical music conductor Roger Nierenberg (Leadership secrets from a maestro). From his many years experience of conducting symphony orchestras and working with business leaders, Nierenberg  believes that a maestro and an executive face very similar challenges.

He then goes on to outline four basic things that a young conductor needs to know before stepping onto the podium. They can be summarised as:

  • have a clear vision for success
  • listen to your people
  • be clear and unambiguous with your directions/ instructions
  • it’s not about you: it’s about the music

These dovetail neatly with some of the qualities above, and some of the issues I considered in last week’s post on What the job of choir leader involves. Nice to know I’m in good company!

what do choir members think?

My perspective is obviously from the front of the choir. I’d love to hear from those of you who sing regularly in a choir: what do you think are the essential qualities of a good choir leader?


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