Sunday, December 27, 2009

The 10 most popular posts of 2009

I reckon most of you will be too busy with Christmas to read my blog this week! Full to overflowing with turkey and all the trimmings, it’s hard to get off the sofa to switch on the computer. Besides which, computers might remind you too much of work!

melting snowman

photo by IngaMun

Rather than a normal post, I thought I’d list the most popular reads from 2009 in case you missed them first time around.

So . . . a very merry Christmas and happy New Year to one and all and thanks for reading. I couldn’t do it without you!

  1. Preparing to sing: physical and vocal warm-up ideas for choirs
    After considering why you should bother with warm ups at all, and what kinds of things you might include in a warm up, this post lists some specific physical and vocal exercises that I use with choirs.

  2. How to teach (and learn) a song by ear
    Some techniques and tips for teaching and learning songs without written music.

  3. Preparing to sing: what should a warm-up consist of?
    Having decided that warm ups are a good idea (see next post), this post considers the elements that need to be covered in any good singing warm up: body, voice and mind.

  4. Preparing to sing: why bother?
    Why bother with warm ups any way? 10 good reasons why it makes sense.

  5. But I can’t sing that high!
    How to find a comfortable place in the choir for your particular voice.

  6. How to be a good choir member
    What makes a good choir member? Things like punctuality, commitment, self-awareness, trust, sense of humour, etc.

  7. Learn how to sing in tune – matching pitch 1
    Once you’ve figured out whether you’re singing in tune or not, here are some basic tips on how to go about improving your tuning.

  8. Singing in harmony 1 – how do they do that?
    Singing in harmony with others needs a whole set of skills which are different from singing solo or with a backing band. Here are some hints on how to sing harmony effectively as part of a choir.

  9. Singing the same note – differently!
    The thorny question of matching male and female voices! The introduction of the tricky concept of ‘octave’.

  10. How do I know if I’m singing in tune?
    It’s all very well for your choir leader to tell you you’re out of tune, but what does it actually mean to ‘sing in tune’?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

You are what you sing

In many ways, we are all defined by the songs we choose to sing. Our favourite ditties say a lot about our tastes, background, age, religion and culture.

singing dog

photo by rgdaniel

Songs and singing help to define our very personality and sense of identity.

singing and the self

There is some very deep-rooted connection between our singing voice and our sense of self.

People with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia withdraw into themselves, they lose the desire to engage in conversation. It’s as if their personality has got lost somewhere.

They struggle with finding the right words and remembering incidents from the past. Many people with dementia no longer have the ability to recognise even those closest to them.

But somehow their memory for songs and singing is preserved. The parts of the brain that work with speech and episodic memories are different to the parts that process music.

It seems that the musical part of the brain can remain intact long after other parts have stopped functioning properly.

singing for the brain

The UK Alzheimer’s Society provides a service called Singing for the Brain. There are numerous anecdotes of people who, after just a few verses, seem to ‘come back’ to themselves again and are able to express themselves socially.

You can read more about it in How singing unlocks the brain.

musical memory is different

I’ve discussed before that remembering songs and song lyrics is very different from, say, rote learning a poem (see my post The singing memory). The words are linked to the tune and hence stored in the musical part of the brain rather than the word part of the brain.

People with extreme cases of memory loss can often still remember music in great detail. One of the most famous cases is that of the British musicologist and conductor Clive Wearing. Due to an illness, he suffered a profound case of total amnesia. Because an area of the brain required to transfer memories from working memory to long-term memory is damaged, he is completely unable to form lasting new memories – his memory only lasts between 7 and 30 seconds.

Yet Wearing recalls how to play the piano and conduct a choir – all this despite having no recollection of having received a musical education. As soon as the music stops, however, he forgets that he has just played and starts shaking spasmodically.

You can watch him in action in a BBC documentary: The Mind – life without memory. It is remarkable to see the transformation when he becomes involved with music.

You can also read an account by the neurologist Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker: A neurologist’s notebook – The Abyss. Sacks has also written at length on music and the brain in his 2007 book Musicophilia which includes a chapter on Wearing.

you are what you sing

It’s as if a fundamental part of our identity is tied up with song and music. Even when our memories are failing and we withdraw from everyday life, a familiar song or piece of music can reawaken us. We come alive again, our personality reasserts itself and we live once more through the music.

It seems that singing touches a very deep primeval part of ourselves. Humans have sung for many thousands of years (see The singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithin) so perhaps it is song and music that ultimately defines us.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Does your singing voice reveal the real you?

We’ve all seen it: a timid, unkempt, nervous person approaches the microphone. We expect disaster. They open their mouth and the most amazing, beautiful sound comes out. They transform before our very eyes into a confident, charismatic singer.

open mouthed singers

Which of these is the ‘real’ person? The singer or the nervous wreck? Is the singer revealing anything about their true self which lies behind all the nerves and lack of confidence?

what you see is NOT always what you get ...

With the rash of talent shows on TV at the moment, transformations like this are seen almost every week. Someone walks on stage and chats with the judges who quickly form an expectation of what their singing will be like.

Crudely, if they seem a little bit dumb (or have a working class accent!) or don’t look traditionally attractive (or young!), then the judges (and us?) assume they will have a bad singing voice.

But what you see is not always what you get. It’s a joy to see the judges’ mouths drop open when their preconceptions are shattered.

Susan Boyle is now an international phenomenon. The look on the judges’ faces when she first sang on Britain’s Got Talent is a joy to behold.

Another example here in the UK is of Stacey Solomon. Again, just watch the judges’ expressions at her first audition on The X Factor.

... and what you get is NOT always what you saw

The opposite also holds true.

A young, attractive singer bounces onto stage oozing confidence and we have great hopes of hearing a fine singing voice. Until they open their mouths: Kyle, Onkar, Krisztina, The Dreamgirls, James.

A fantastically wealthy, supremely confident, handsome CEO picks up the karaoke microphone and belts out a song in the worst singing voice ever.

A beautiful, well-dressed, smiling, relaxed woman takes to the stage with ease and confidence. She announces the song in a husky, sexy voice, then proceeds to sing like she’s a little girl on helium.

which is the real you?

This raises the question: which is the real you? The person who is singing, or the person who is chatting beforehand? The person whose voice is soaring and who is clearly transported by the music? Or the person who’s scared of the audience, not bothered about how they look, worried that they’ll get the notes wrong?

Singing in tune is a skill that can be learnt quite easily. So if someone sings badly, we know that they can just go away and work on their singing voice. We don’t assume that because they have a ‘bad’ singing voice, then they are somehow ‘bad’ too. Next time they come back, we hope they will sing better.

But what about those people who can sing well, yet appear awkward, inarticulate and under-confident beforehand. What is their ‘true’ nature? Are they revealing the authentic person through their singing voice? How can they appear so confident whilst singing, but not whilst speaking?

Perhaps singing such a different mode of communication from speaking that two types of person can co-exist within the same individual: the confident singer and the shy speaker. Yet for most of us, public speaking is just as scary and difficult as singing in public. And for many, many people, singing is the scarier thing to do!

our singing voice makes us vulnerable

When we make music with our voices, we are using ourselves as an instrument. If a violinist plays badly, we can blame the poor quality of the violin itself, or argue that the player isn’t up to the job: she’s a bad violinist. But if we think someone doesn’t sing well, we tend not to say she’s a bad vocalist, but she has a bad voice.

We are our instrument, so any criticism of our singing voice is felt as a criticism of our self.  Because of this, we are often frightened to open our mouths, to sing out, to improvise and experiment with our voices. We stand at the back of the choir and sing very quietly until we are absolutely sure we have the tune right.

Our voices are very personal to us, more so than our bodies.

I used to teach at drama school and university and every time I would ask the students to improvise some crazy dance they would have no problem throwing their bodies around in the strangest of ways.

When asked to deliver a speech from a play, they would speak loudly and confidently.

But ask them to improvise with their voices and they would all clam up! Somehow people seem to feel that their voices are more revealing of their innermost being than anything else.

This is not just about singing though. Over the years I have been able to free myself of many vocal inhibitions so I can just let rip with my voice in weird and wonderful ways. But when I'm supposed to be singing a recognisable tune, then doubts can creep in as to whether I'm 'getting it right' or not.

musical vs. primal voice

There are many ways to use our voices in a free and natural way. Some people are able to let rip and improvise the strangest sounds. Some actors can howl and wail and speak their lines so they can be heard at the back of the upper circle.

There is something known as voice therapy which attempts to unlock the voice and set our voices, emotions and spirits free. Many alternative therapies involve screaming, shouting and chanting.

But I’m concerned with the singing voice, the voice that makes music. I believe that there is something deeper and more connected with our essential being when we’re singing, than when we’re simply freely exploring our vocal capabilities in a non-musical way.

feedback loop

As we become more confident with our singing, does that spill over into our everyday lives? Or do these two personas live in different worlds?

It doesn’t necessarily work the other way round. We’ve seen that people can be over-confident in other areas of life and over-estimate their singing abilities. So maybe singing confidence doesn’t carry over to other areas.

Why the mismatch? How is singing so different from real life and vice versa?

I realise I’ve asked more questions than I’ve answered here! I’d be really interested in your feedback. Do you think your singing voice reveals the ‘real’ you? How do you account for the mismatch between your everyday persona and your singing persona? Can learning to sing confidently spill over into other areas of your life?

next week

In next week’s post I will look at how singing helps to define the self and how our sense of identity is intimately tied up with our voices: You are what you sing.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why basses can’t remember their part

It always seems to be the basses who forget their part. I used to think it was a bloke thing, but now I realise that there is often a good reason why it’s so hard to remember.


droning on

The bass part often follows the root notes of the chords as they progress through the piece. If it’s a relatively straightforward song, then there will sometimes only be three chords. This means that the basses only  get to sing three notes!

Even worse, if the basses are singing a constant drone to a song, which often happens in Georgian singing for example, they may only get two notes!

dude, where’s my tune?

With just two or three notes, it’s very hard to create any kind of interesting, memorable memory. Most of the time the basses are wondering how long they have to stay on this note and when they have to move onto the next one. There are often no clues for when to change, and no easy way of remembering.

The tops and the altos usually have an interesting melody to remember (with lots of notes!). The tenors can too, but in any case usually have some sexy blues notes in there to signal where they are.

But the poor basses have no road map of where to go. No wonder they find it hard to remember a featureless landscape.

the invention of musical notation

In the majority of community choirs that I’ve run, most people can’t read music. Give them a written score and it’s like hieroglyphics to them.

But very often I notice that singers in the bass section all have scraps of paper in their hands covered in scribbles. On closer inspection, the scribbles are a series of horizontal lines of different lengths, some above others. Something like this:

bass notation

“Blimey!”, I say, “musical notation.”

“Oh, no”, they reply, “just some scribbles to make it easier for me to remember. I can’t read music.”

I ask them to explain how their scribbles help them.

“Well, the higher the line, the higher the note. The longer the line is, the longer I have to stay on that note. When the line changes, that’s when I change note. And the size of the gaps between the lines tell me if it’s a big jump in pitch, or a little jump.”

As I said before: musical notation!

Of course, these scribbles need a little tweaking before they become accurate enough, but it suffices for most bass parts as an aide memoire. You can see a more advanced version of this pictorial representation in my post Complex songs and learning by ear: musical maps.

quality time

Since the bass part often doesn’t have that many notes, choir leaders sometimes leave the teaching of the bass part until last. They also maybe don’t spend that much time on it since they believe it’s an ‘easy’ part. Sure, it might be easy-ish to learn as it doesn’t have many notes, but that can mean it’s fiendishly difficult to remember!

I always make sure when teaching a harmony song that I don’t always start with the tune (whichever part it’s in). Especially if it’s a brand new song that nobody has heard before, it doesn’t really matter which part you start with. So sometimes we kick off with the bass part.

If it’s one of those simplistic bass parts with very few notes, it’s hard to teach in isolation as there is no melody to anchor it to. On the other hand, it’s a great opportunity to really nail the rhythm of a piece before all the other parts come in. And when they do, they will have the benefit of a solid bass part to work with.

If you leave the bass part until last, it means they will have heard the other parts repeatedly so will often end up with some kind of melody locked in their heads already. So when they come to learn their own, relatively monotonous part, they may well go up and down in all the wrong places!

Treat your basses well and they will return the compliment.

not enough voices to go round

Certainly here in the UK many choirs find it difficult to recruit enough men. Which means that the bass section can be quite sparse.

Now the other sections have no problems remembering their parts. Or do they? There are lots of them, so as long as, say, 75% of them can remember, you don’t really notice those who are struggling. If someone is not too sure of their part, they can hide a little and take their time without being noticed.

But if your bass section only has six singers, it can be quite exposing. And if 75% of them can’t get it right, it can easily put the others off.

So maybe it’s not fair to judge the bass section in the same way as those other burgeoning sections of the choir.

confound those singers!

If you have a choir who are up for it, and a relatively straightforward harmony song, you can teach all the parts to all the singers. This will often give other parts an appreciation of the difficulties faced by the basses.

Another option is to switch parts around and give the bass part to someone else. This isn’t always possible, but giving the basses the tune from time to time can boost their confidence.

I’ve just taught a three-part version of The Water of Tyne. It has a lovely bass part which meanders all over the place. Too good not to share! So on different verses I have the basses singing the tune, and the tops singing the bass part an octave higher.

good arrangers write good tunes

You may be a lucky bass who has never had any of the problems I’ve outlined. This probably means that you’ve only ever sung songs that have been arranged well.

Any really good choral arranger will make sure that every part is singable and memorable with a good, interesting self-contained melody. Every singer will have something meaty to learn, and every part will stand on its own.

I learnt an arrangement of The Copper Family’s Christmas Song arranged by Alison Burns some years ago (available in Raining Bliss and Benison). I was taught the bass part and for years – until I came to teach the song myself – I assumed that the melody was in the bass. It turns out that the melody is sung by the tops, but the arrangement is so good that the bass part feels like a melody of its own!

or it could be a man thing!

Of course, I could be completely wrong and maybe after all it's just thing about men and their bad memories.

What’s your experience? Are you a bass who has trouble remembering their part? Does your choir have to wait while the male basses get reminded of that they’re supposed to be singing?


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