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:

Chris Rowbury


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