Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The archives are now closed

On 6 January this year I began to revisit the archives. Every Wednesday throughout 2010 I dusted off an old post from 2007, updated it and gave it new life.

file cabinets

File cabinets by jono dot com

But now the time has come (*sound of heavy creaking door being closed*) to shut the archives once more (*large iron door clangs shut*), leave them to gather dust (*lights click off*) in the dark and turn to new topics (*sound of footsteps echoing into the distance*).

I hope you’ve enjoyed re-reading some of the old stuff or maybe coming across it for the first time.

So now I’m returning to posting just once a week on a Sunday morning (UK time). See you in 2011!

As always, if you have any burning questions or ideas for posts, do contact me, and please pop by to leave a comment even if it’s just to say “Hi”!

Happy New Year to all my readers (I couldn’t do it without you!) and I hope all your dreams and plans for 2011 come to fruition.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The 10 most popular posts of 2010

Since most of you will be too busy with Christmas to read this Boxing Day post I thought I’d revive an old tradition that goes way, way back to December 2009.

turkey carcass

The turkey carcass by Clevergrrl

Rather than a normal post, here is a list of the most popular posts from 2010 (and a few others that I think are worth a look) in case you missed them first time around.

the 10 most popular posts of 2010

  1. Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs
    It’s not big, it’s not clever and it rarely works – just don’t do it!
  2. Finding songs for your choir
    Tips and hints on finding song material for your choir.
  3. Why men won’t sing: a discussion
    This was the beginning of a series of posts on why men don’t (or won’t) sing and how we can get more of them to do so. Loads of comments with lots of good ideas.
  4. How to deal with unwanted talking during choir rehearsals without killing anybody
    Prompted by a (spoof) video of a conductor losing his cool and breaking someone’s violin, this looks at less drastic ways of trying to stop chatting during rehearsals.
  5. Men and singing 3: seven ideas to get more men involved
    Seven ideas that might help to get more men into your choirs and singing workshops.
  6. Men and singing 1: 15 myths debunked
    People come up with all kinds of reasons and excuses as to why men don’t sing. Here are 15 of them and I debunk them all!
  7. Don’t stress about things you can’t control
    Being a choir leader or choir member can get stressful when you get upset with things like lateness, people not turning up, singers not knowing their part, etc. But you can’t control any of these, so find ways of letting them go.
  8. Is all choral music religious?
    Prompted by a question from Bangladesh, the short answer is “No”, although a lot of choral music does originate from the Christian church.
  9. Becoming a choir leader – it’s a long story!
    My personal story of how I became a choir and singing workshop leader.
  10. What are rehearsals for exactly?
    A fresh look at why we rehearse and what we can expect from the process.

10 posts that generated lots of comments

  1. Audiences at choral concerts: who are they?
    Are they all over 60 and predominantly women? If so, what can we do about it?
  2. Tackling complex song structure without written music
    How complex can a song be and still teachable by ear? Plus some hints and techniques for teaching tricky songs.
  3. I’m a control freak and that’s exactly how I like it!
    I much prefer to teach or lead a choir on my own. I think one person leading is better than two or more.
  4. Over-rehearsed or under-prepared: which is better?
    I don’t like rehearsing, but some people love it. However, it’s possible to overdo it whichever way you think.
  5. Songs and copyright
    Start of a series of seven posts on how copyright affects the teaching, performing, arranging and distribution of songs.
  6. Why feedback is important when teaching and learning songs
    We all need feedback, both the teacher and the learner.
  7. The pleasures of the untrained voice
    What ‘untrained’ might mean and why I prefer it.
  8. It’s hard to teach songs that people already know
    People flock to my pop song workshops because they are familiar with the songs, but actually that makes it much harder to learn harmonies and other arrangements!
  9. The pleasures of being a choir member
    Never having been in a choir before, I raised the question and received lots of interesting answers.
  10. Know your place: singing AND moving!
    The difficulties of getting singers to line up. And stay in position!

the one post that I think got overlooked

One of my own favourite posts of the year arose because I realised that I’m often very ambitious both with my choirs and in my singing workshops.

I tend to teach lots of songs and often choose tricky ones with difficult harmonies. Yet everyone always seems to rise to the occasion.

I often get comments such as “I was amazed how much you made us achieve in such a short time; I enjoyed it way above my expectations” and “A wonderfully invigorating day. I’m amazed at what can be achieved in such a short time!” ... so I must be doing something right!

I realised that what I do is to never tell people how ambitious the programme is or how difficult the songs are and just get on with it. I wrote up my approach as:

How to get the best from your singers: don’t tell them it’s hard

I do believe this approach has many ramifications. If you behave as if everything is easy, under control and achievable, then you can achieve great things – whether you are a choir director or singer.

happy christmas!

Which only leaves me to say: 

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


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The value of concert reviews

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Read all about it! in December 2007

I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but here in the UK it’s notoriously difficult to get any kind of review of a concert in the press — local or national.


Newspapers by Ian Britton from

When I approach the local papers, they tell me that they won’t review any concert that’s not on for at least five days. How are we to get reviews for our concerts?

I can see their point I guess if you think that the only point of a review is to attract more punters to come to shows. With that view, there’s no point in printing a review if, by the time it’s printed, the show has finished its run.

But aren’t reviews more than that? I enjoy reading reviews in my daily paper (The Guardian) which has national coverage. I regularly read reviews of theatre, pop concerts, opera, classical concerts, etc. in places far from where I live to which I am very unlikely to go. Or I’ve missed the show any way. It keeps me in touch with what’s going on, even if I never get to see the live show.

For the reader, a review can:

  • stimulate new ideas;
  • introduce me to new critical language;
  • bring a new artist to my attention;
  • make a connection with other things that I might otherwise not have made;
  • by making comparisons, introduce me to a new book/ film/ piece of music/ artist that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of;
  • remind me of an act that I’ve not seen for some time (so I dig out their CD)
  • bring a venue to my attention that puts on interesting work.

I’m sure there are 101 other things I get from reviews, but way, way down the list is an urge to go and see the show.

Most reviews these days (of any medium) are basically of the star-rating type: does the reviewer think it’s worth your while to go and see it? There doesn’t seem to be any space for more critical, analytical reviews of the arts if a show is on for one night only – except, of course, if the director/ conductor/ performer is suitably famous. And reviews in the local papers tend to be simple descriptions of what happened and what the costumes were like.

But I still would like a review!

For the performer(s), reviews can:

  • be good publicity (even if they review is bad!);
  • present an objective view of what you’re offering (sometimes you can be too close to the material);
  • unearth some good quotes or descriptive language that can help describe your work;
  • help to validate what you do (you hope the audience will enjoy the concert, but until the performance, you won’t know for sure);
  • give feedback as to how you can improve and develop the work;
  • build confidence (yes, you are that good!);
  • remind you why you put up with all those really difficult rehearsals.

So reviews are a good thing, but how on earth do we get them??!!

In short, I have no idea.

I think a lot depends on your particular local newspaper and its circumstances, the status of your choir, the kind of music you perform, whether you have personal connections with journalists, and if you are on a prolonged tour.

I don’t think there are any easy answers, but I’d love to hear any hints that you might have.

What are your experiences with the local press where you are? Can you get your concerts reviewed easily? Do you find some kinds of concert get reviewed more easily than others? Do drop by and leave a comment, I’d love to hear your ideas.

This is my last post before Christmas, so I’d like to wish all you loyal readers a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, December 19, 2010

How to make a song your own

Question This post is part of a series of occasional Questions and Answers. Just use the contact form if you want to submit a question.


Blue Cat asks:

“How do you develop your own singing style or use your own voice when singing another artist’s song instead of copying that artist’s style and voice?”



This is what we call “making a song your own”. A difficult but very rewarding challenge.

cover versions

I don’t know about you, but when I come to sing (or arrange) a well-known song that I really like, I have the original going around in my head.

As I sing I can hear the gorgeous backing singers, the sumptuous string arrangement and the pulse of the rhythm section. I float along on this cushion of loveliness imagining I’m the best singer in the world. And usually I end up imitating the original singer.

How can you break out of this and truly make the song your own, as if it belongs to you and you alone?

The best cover versions of songs are when they manage to erase the original from your mind. They are so good that you can’t imagine anyone else ever doing the song. Often these versions become the best-known versions and people often don’t realise that there is an original lurking around somewhere. Good examples of this are:

Then there are the cover versions which are not a patch on the original. The younger generation come across a song by their favourite group and assume they must have written it, although it’s actually a cover version. There are loads of example of this, but one that springs to mind is:

Somehow the arrangers and singers of good cover versions have adapted the song in a way that makes it sound fresh and new and totally suited to their voices. How do they manage this?

for singers

Here are some hints on how you might make a song your own without trying to impersonate the original singer:

  • be playful – try the song as a country and western standard, as an opera aria, in a reggae style, as a mournful ballad. Choose as many different and ‘inappropriate’ styles to sing the song in. Put on funny voices. Be playful. Wash your head of the original and you will feel more free. You may well stumble across a completely new, more relevant (to you) way of singing the song.
  • discover (and enjoy!) your own voice – many singers start off by imitating their favourite singers. Trouble is, it can become a habit and you end up with a voice that is not really your own. So first you need to discover what your own unique, natural singing voice is and learn to love it. You might like to check out these posts: Your singing self vs. your everyday self, Learning to love the sound of your own voice, Why our singing voices have different accents, Does your singing voice reveal the real you?
  • choose the right song – you need to be able to relate personally to a song before you can really make it your own. It might be the lyrics, the overall feeling, the quality, the melody, but there must be something that really moves you and attracts you to a song. If not, don’t do it.
  • find an angle – rather than rushing in and impersonating your favourite singer’s version of a song, reflect on why you’ve chosen it. Try to relate it to something in your own life/ psyche/ philosophy/ history/ memories. Then sing it as if you had written the song for just that situation. They lyrics or feeling of the song will become far more relevant and there is a better chance that will sing it with your own natural voice.
  • go back to basics – figure out exactly what it is that draws you to the song. If it’s the lyrics, spend some time with them reading them, reciting them out loud, declaiming them, making them your own. If it’s the melody, strip the words out and play with the melody (speed, volume, dynamics, etc.) until it really emphasises the mood that you’re trying to create. If it’s the backing/ production, try to isolate exactly which bits that are vital and then try to find a way of bringing the essence of this into your singing.
  • try it out – perform your new version to a friend and get their feedback. Do they recognise the song? Do you still sound like the original singer? Get them to ask you questions about ‘your’ song: why did you write it? why have you chosen it? which is your favourite part? how can you perform it better?

for arrangers

A lot of the points aimed at singers above can equally well be applied to those who want to arrange a song to make it their own. In addition:

  • strip out the production – figure out what are just production/ arrangement features in the original, and what is vital to make the song what it is. Often there is a particular riff or instrumental that really makes the song. If you were to just pick out the melody line, something will have been lost. Don’t just slavishly reproduce the original’s production.
  • decide on your approach – is there a particular style that is suggested or that you’re interested in? You might be surprised at how readily a seemingly odd choice of style fits an existing song. For example, Sue Jorge giving Bowie songs a Brazilian tropicalia make-over in The Life Aquatic.
  • seek out other versions – there may be lots of other arrangements of a song already out there. Not only do you not want to reinvent the wheel, but you also want to get an idea of what things are possible.
  • listen to the original – and keep on listening until the song is really inside your head. Then stop. Walk around with the song like that for a LONG time until it ferments and gestates inside you and it will slowly begin to transform into your very own version. Your memory is fallible, so use that fact and don’t keep referring to the original recording. The things you remember will be just the things that are important to you.

other hints

Despite all that I’ve written above, I still find myself impersonating other singers and find it really hard to not simply reproduce a song exactly when I’m arranging it for voices. So please, do let me have some other ideas that I can use! Drop by and leave a comment if you have any other handy hints on how to make a song your own. I do really appreciate it.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why are there always too many altos in a choir?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Parts creep (or why there are always too many altos) in November 2007

At the start of term we have an equal number of singers in each part, but by the end of term, there are always too many altos (or sopranos or tenors – never basses)!


Smarties by gadl

Does anybody else have this problem with their choir? Please say you do, and please say you have a sensible solution – it’s driving me nuts!

moving around the choir

Partly because we’re a community choir, partly because of the kind of material we do, but mainly because I think it’s good for people to exercise the whole of their vocal range, I encourage people to swap parts for different songs.

We don’t stick to the normal soprano/ alto/ tenor/ bass categories (we're never that high, and never so low!) and I don’t allocate people to a fixed part or role. We don’t use seats so people are free to move around.

Some songs have three parts, some five or more, some the ‘standard’ four. Not everyone is present every week for a variety of reasons. This is the background to the problem.

start as you mean to carry on ...

When we first start learning a song I try to make sure each part is made up of roughly an equal number of people.

The weeks go by, people come and go, I fit people who missed the first week into a part that is a little thin on the ground. Then suddenly, out of the blue, one week (usually when a concert is looming) EVERYONE seems to be singing alto!

There are no tenors to speak of, the tops look pretty thin on the ground, and the basses are the usual suspects. This is parts creep.

When I turn around people sneak from their part to another part without telling me. They do it on purpose (I'm sure of this!). What was once a well-balanced and orderly choir is now entirely out of kilter. And they deny it!

“I thought you guys were all singing tops when we started?”

“Oh, no, we’ve always been altos for this song”.

And so it goes.

... until it all goes pear-shaped

Of course, some people are in the ‘wrong’ part, some people deny ever having learnt the song in the first place, and some are just doing it (I’m sure of this too!) to wind me up. What’s worse – yes, even worse – is that then half the tops tell me that they can’t even do the concert after all!!!!!

Apart from nailing people’s feet to the ground, labelling them with a barcode on their forehead, making them wear different coloured shirts to represent the different parts, compelling everyone to learn every part of every song equally well, forcing the excess altos at gun point to rejoin the tops, or even culling the spare voices, what does one do??

Suggestions on a postcard, or leave a comment. PLEASE!!!

possible solutions

When I wrote the first version of this post, several people posted suggestions.

1st mate: “Give people a ‘range test’ to see what they can actually handle as opposed to what they think they can.”

I have done this in the past. There are difficulties with this approach though (of course!). The range test may tell you that you have a choir 3/4 of which is made up of altos (damn!). The arrangements I use are designed for community choirs so they are usually within everyone’s range. Although someone may be able to sing very low, they might not want to sing the low parts (what can you do??!!).

M. Ryan Taylor: “I like the idea of having them switch around on a part for an exercise, but I would definitely assign them a permanent part and write it down in the choir's roster.”

Write it down? Roster??!! I think you mistake my choirs for ‘proper’ choirs! We are far more informal than that, and I would never like to impose upon the singers in that way. Besides which, I would lose the roster or the singers would swear blind I wrote them down wrong in the first place!

Karen: “Sometimes I target individuals by saying: ‘You’re so good at picking things up, could you move to this other part?"’ Yes, I do use subtle emotional manipulation with my singers, but hey, whatever works!!”

Great idea Karen, but ... (you knew there would be a ‘but’ didn’t you?) most of the altos are there because they are under-confident, go for the middle ground and safety in numbers, so are least likely to be swayed by flattery and encouragement.

Babs: “Most groups I know of have a surfeit of sopranos, because they get the melody. What I have noticed is that group members tend to follow the strongest voices, so on lines with unassigned voices, there is a drift towards singing whatever the strongest vocalists are singing.”

In my choirs I don’t often give the sopranos the melody line (nasty man!), besides which, they probably have never heard the song before so it won’t help them. And if the song is well-arranged, ALL the parts will sing like melody lines and nobody will think they have the harmony.

You’re right about following the strongest (or loudest or most confident) voices. I try to spread them about to confuse people!

no biscuit!

Great ideas all, but no biscuit I’m afraid. All the decent solutions seem to involve some kind of formal accountancy with books and pens and serial numbers. Not really my style. In any case, you get it all set up and an entirely different group of singers turn up the following week. AND they’re not in the book!

So, my plea once more: any other ideas out there? Please do pop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, December 12, 2010

How to recruit singers to truly reflect your local community

For the first time in over 13 years I will soon be starting a choir from scratch. And I’m asking for your help!


The Illuminated Crowd by Raymond Mason (photo by albany_tim)

I’ve written a whole series in the past about how to start your own community choir, and I will be taking a lot of my own advice on board (time to put my money where my mouth is!).

But the nut I’ve been unable to crack is to recruit a truly representative set of people from my local community: in age, gender, race, culture, background, education, disability, etc. In short, a real community choir.

The sad fact is that most choirs in the UK don’t reflect a true cross section of society.

They majority are made up of white women in their 50s and older and often don’t represent the racial, cultural or gender mix of the community they’re based in. How can we change this?

I’ve written on the subject of choir membership and recruitment before.

Why people don’t join choirs:

The difficulties of an ageing choir:

How to recruit new choir members:

The lack of men in choirs:

The experience of joining a choir for the first time:

I’ve realised that there is no easy answer to recruiting a representative set of people from your local community! So I’m asking for your help.

Do you have any ideas or experience of recruiting successfully from right across your local community? Would you like to share your solutions with us? Please drop by and leave a comment.

It seems to me that we can break down the problem as follows.

describing what your community choir is about

First you need to be clear what your aims are and then find the right words to explain that clearly to prospective choir members. It may be that you have to use different language for the different groups that you’re trying to attract. Each group will use different language and have different shared points of reference.

getting the word out to the right people

Then you have to get this information in front of the relevant people. It’s probably no good putting an advert in the local press to attract 16-year-olds, and it’s no good handing leaflets out after a live pop concert if you’re looking for older singers. You’ll need to take the word to the people you want to attract. That may mean identifying places where groups gather. For example, colleges, adult education classes, churches, cultural clubs.

making the group look right

I’ve pointed out before that when a prospective new choir member walks into their first choir session, they want to see a lot of people like themselves. Otherwise they will feel that they don’t belong and wont’ come back.

If you have a single man or just one 21-year-old, that’s just not going to work. You’ll need to make sure there are large enough sub-groupings within your choir to attract more similar people.

divide and conquer?

It may not be possible to start from scratch with a truly representative group of singers. It may be that your description, publicity sources, venue, etc. may have to be tailored for each particular group. You can then combine them at a later stage.

For instance, you could start a regular choir (which will probably be older women), a men’s choir, a choir at the local Afro-Caribbean centre and a youth choir. Once these are up and running, you could have a joint concert (involving  a couple of joint songs where everyone needs to rehearse together), then gradually amalgamate all the different groups into one choir.

over to you

On the face of it, that seems like a lot of work! It may be that you simply don’t have the time or resources to go the whole hog (I know I don’t!), so please, please write in with your own solutions and let’s see if we can all crack this particular nut together.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Are ALL songs suitable for purely vocal arrangements?

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as When is a song not a song? in October 2007

I’m always on the lookout for new songs to use with my singing workshops and choirs.

singer songwriter

Sara Bareilles in concert by Anirudh Koul

There might be a stunning song that I’ve known and loved for years, but when I come to arrange it for unaccompanied harmony, it doesn’t work. How can we decide which songs will work for a choir and which won’t?

First off I need to ’fess up (you probably know this by now!). I don’t like:

  • ‘dum dum’ bass lines
  • choirs singing pop songs (see Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs)
  • voices impersonating instruments
  • beautifully enunciated traditional songs
  • lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ under a single melody line

Many times a choir member will come up to me and suggest a song for me to use. Often the song is simply not appropriate for an acappella arrangement or just won’t work with a large group.

Many recorded songs these days have integral instrumental backing and if you take those familiar riffs away, there is often not much left of the song. Personally I am not a fan of those acappella arrangements where the voice impersonates an instrument or has too many “dum dums” in the backing.

I recently heard a version of a song from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It was an amazing effort, using the voices to replicate instruments and almost sounded like the original.

My reaction was: “What’s the point? Why bother?” Apart from admiring the singers’ skills, I’m really not sure where the artistry and creativity is here. Why not just listen to the original? Or if there’s a trumpet needed, then simply use a trumpet. I just don’t get it.

I’m not a fan of showing off skills for skills’ sake. For me there needs to be some element of creativity or the adding of something extra to an existing song, or there’s no point in doing an arrangement for voices only. Where the voice is concerned I want to hear the humanity shine through, not be convinced that I’m not listening to a human voice at all, but really a keyboard!

Then there are wonderful, delicate ballads with many verses telling an extraordinary story. However, if arranged for a large choir the delicacy can be destroyed and the story and words completely lost in the mix. I was once told by an ethnomusicologist that in singing traditions which have lots of harmony, the words are always very simple, often repetitive, and not the most important element of the song. Whereas in cultures where the lyrics are important and tell complex stories, there is seldom a harmony tradition.

So the question is: when is a song suitable for a purely vocal arrangement and when is it not? I guess some of that is down to taste, but it’s not true that anything can be adapted for voices alone.

For me, I want voices that sound like voices, an arrangement that sound like it was only ever meant to be sung using voices only, and lush harmonies without too many tricks (or cheesy key changes!). If you can’t make the song your own, then leave the original alone.

My point also extends to cover versions generally. If you’re going to cover an existing song, then you have to add something to the original or else there’s no point. Just reproducing the original is a waste of time.

I’ll be writing more about how you can “make a song your own” in few weeks’ time.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, December 05, 2010

Have voice, will travel

I love my job, I really do. I just need some space and a bunch of people and we will make beautiful music together.

carrying equipment

No equipment, no special work-wear, no musical instruments, no particular room or building, no need to speak the language, no vetting the people – just me and you and our voices. Have voice, will travel!

People are often surprised when I say that I don’t need a piano – they can’t seem to imagine that we can make music with voices alone. Or pick a staring note out of the air.

People are often amazed when I say that I don’t use sheet music – they seem to believe that ‘proper’ music-making is somehow connected with pieces of paper.

People are often suspicious when I say that anyone can join in regardless of experience – they seem to think that it must be for beginners only and besides, nothing of quality will come of it.

People are often stunned when they hear the results after working with a bunch of strangers for just a few hours – they can’t believe the beautiful music we make after such a short time.

People often don’t believe me when I tell them I have no music training – they assume that I must have studied somewhere otherwise how on earth could I be doing this job.

People often stumble over some of the foreign words and find the physical warm ups a bit strange – but that means I can teach anywhere in the world. Who needs language when you’re making music?!

People often think that you need a decent room with proper acoustics and maybe a microphone or two – they can’t understand that singing can be done absolutely anywhere under any circumstances.

I feel rather smug sometimes when watching a so-called ‘acoustic’ band set up with all their leads and amps and microphones and mixing desks and sound-checks and stands and speakers and effects boxes.

I can just stand up and sing.

Or I can grab a bunch of people and we can sing in harmony. Anywhere, anyhow, anywhen with anybody.

That’s the beauty of my job and I love it!

So if you fancy having me over to run a singing workshop for you – anywhere in the world just to see how I do it, please feel free to contact me and I’ll see what I can do. Do call, it’ll be fun!

Or maybe we’ll bump into each other one day in an unfamiliar place and we’ll sing together, just for the hell of it, with no preparation or equipment. Just you and me and our voices.

Keep on singing!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Where is a culture’s music tradition to be found?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Hidden culture in August 2007

A few years ago I spent two weeks travelling through the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I was really looking forward to hearing lots of traditional singing since I had been told that all three countries have a rich and well-preserved history of song.

Baltic traditions

Women in Saare county, Estonia dancing in traditional costumes by Avjoska

But I didn’t see or hear a single singer in the whole of my trip! I did manage to track down a few traditional CDs, but there were hidden amongst the usual pop and heavy rock. Where had they hidden their traditional culture?

the Baltic tradition of song

The Lonely Planet Guide says: “Song is the soul of the Balts. And nowhere is this expressed more eloquently than in the national song festivals that unite Estonia, Latvia and Lithuanians worldwide in a spellbinding performance of song. The crescendo is a choir of up to 30,000 voices, singing its heart out to an audience of 100,000 or more, while scores of folk dancers in traditional dress throw a bewitching kaleidoscope of patterns across the vast, open-air stage”.

And the Rough Guide says: “The characteristic Baltic singing festivals – hugely popular events – played a major role in expressing the national identities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during their move to independence.”

Unfortunately most of the big folk song festivals had already happened earlier in the year!

In the 19th century, great collections of folk lyrics and tunes were made: over 1.4 million folk lyrics and 30,000 tunes have been written down in Latvia and the largest archive in Lithuanian folklore alone contains over 400,000 collected songs.

I also read in a local guide book that if you ask a Lithuanian about his country’s traditional culture, you would most likely hear about Lithuanian songs and love of singing. Apparently, only a few decades ago, most women of the Dzukija region still knew a hundred songs; the most accomplished singers remembered as many as four hundred. Often, people sang more than they spoke!

The choral folk and runo-song arrangements of Estonian composer Veljo Tormis are very popular, having influence as far away as the Estonian community in Australia! And it’s not just old, dyed-in-the-wool folk fans who follow the traditional songs, the annual Viljandi folk festival in Estonia each July attracts a young audience to see a variety of roots bands. And only the other day there was an article about how Estonians are keeping their singing traditions alive.

are today’s ‘traditions’ populist rubbish?

So how come in the restaurants and shops the music was Russian pop or Bob Marley or classical muzak, and the new Baltic MTV was full of Baltic rock of the bad 1970s kind? Where was this vibrant traditional culture that I’d been reading so much about?

I was also yearning to see some kind of authentic folk craft in the shops rather than the usual watered-down tourist rubbish (is that what people really want, or do we buy it because it’s the only thing on offer?).

It got me thinking about how visible so-called traditional culture is in any particular society.

There is clearly a rich and vibrant folk tradition in the Baltics in both music and applied arts, yet on an everyday level it is invisible. What happens to all those thousands of people who join in the song festivals the rest of the year? Do they simply stop singing?

What is a culture’s ‘folk tradition’ any way? I guess you could say that the derivative Baltic pop music on the radio, and the buying of cheap Russian clothes imports in the markets is an expression of today’s traditional culture.

invisible culture and tradition

Yet my background reading suggests that there is a lively, current interest in songs and music that has been handed down over generations – songs for every occasion: weddings, rye harvest, summer solstice, funerals. It is an integral part of Baltic society and runs deep. So why did I have to go hunting in modern record shops to try and find recordings of folk music hidden amongst the stacks of death metal and American pop?

What would a foreigner’s impression of our folk traditions be if she arrived at Heathrow, took the tube into London and wandered down Oxford Street? Sure we have many lively and well-attended folk clubs throughout the country, but they’re not that visible at first glance.

A country’s traditions and artistic culture is part of what gives it an identity. But if that culture is invisible, it seems at first glance that all cultures are merging into one: shopping malls, light entertainment on TV, pop music on iPods, street fashion and leisure-wear, fast food.

But scratch the surface and you will find a rich hidden culture that seems to survive the onslaught of globalisation and commercialisation. You just have to go and look for it. I guess if something comes too easy, then it’s not appreciated.

So when you visit a foreign country, don’t jump to conclusion. Wait a while and see past the Americanised trappings of the modern world and you will find cultural riches which will surprise you.

And to those of us who enjoy traditional music-making, culture and arts – keep on doing it or it will not survive!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why our singing voices have different accents

Many English pop groups in the 60s started off by emulating their cousins from across the pond and sang with an American accent. Cliff Richard still does!

Then The Beatles arrived and we began to hear regional accents creeping in, then punk came along and we got used to hearing different English accents and dialects.

Beatles mural

Beatles mural - Croxteth Avenue, Litherland by Gary Rogers

So nowadays it’s a bit of a shock when there is a big mismatch between how somebody speaks and the accent they choose to sing in.

where did her accent go?

A well-known example is Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent. Her speaking voice reveals a strong Scottish accent, but when she sang “I dreamed a dream” her accent magically vanished and she sounded like a posh woman from London.

It’s often the case that people imitate the accent of the original version of a song. It’s also true that choirs and opera singers can sound very ‘posh’ and English when they enunciate ‘correctly’.

Yet some singers, even when singing their own original material seem to put on an accent which is not their own (I’m sure you can think of lots of examples – I won’t name names!). It’s like they have a special ‘singing voice’.

Most common examples are an American accent when singing pop songs, or a one-size-fits-all West Country or Northern accent when singing folk songs. It’s as if this transformation is expected and the song wouldn’t sound ‘authentic’ otherwise.

singing in a ’merican style

The Americans have a lot to answer for (don’t get me started!). The fact is that a lot of popular music emanates from the US so it’s inevitable that people will try to imitate the accents of their favourite pop stars. But there’s an imbalance between what happens in the US and what happens in the rest of the world.

For example, when watching a strongly accented American movie set in the deep South, English audiences are expected to struggle and catch on as best they can. Yet whenever an English movie is shown in the States which contains regional accents, it is often subtitled. It’s as if the American language, with all its different regional accents and dialects, is somehow the norm for spoken or sung English.

Another mainly American import is musical theatre. Many of the productions that reach these shores are written by Americans, originate from the US, or are set in the States. So it makes sense that when English singers tackle these shows, they sing in an American accent. But there seems to be a trend these days for every musical to be sung in an American accent, regardless of whether it’s appropriate or not.

why people sing in different accents

When somebody’s speaking voice has a very different accent from their singing voice, which is the ‘real’ them? (see my earlier post Your singing self vs. your everyday self – which is the real you?)

Are they putting a voice on? If so, why would they do that?

  • a singing accent can be learnt behaviour – something picked up when younger by listening to other people singing, then it becomes a habit.
  • you might be imitating someone else because that’s what you think a ‘proper’ singer (or a rock singer or an opera singer ...) should sound like (see also Why can’t I sing?)
  • using an accent can be a way of escaping your under-confident self – putting on a different voice allows you to hide and become a different character (see also Learning to love the sound of your own voice)
  • it’s a way of fitting in – when it became popular for English bands to sing in an Essex accent, many posh singers faked it in order to blend in
  • some accents are easier to sing in – e.g. Italian vowels
  • you may think the song calls for a different accent – for example, it would sound pretty odd singing the blues sounding like you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth!
  • you might have been trained that way – certain singing ‘methods’ or styles seem to dictate that the singers end up sounding the same, either accentless of highly enunciated

how do you sing?

Are you aware that you put on a different accent when singing? Do you have a special ‘singing’ voice? Can you think of other reasons why people might do this? Do drop by and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Learning to love the sound of your own voice

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Why people think they can’t sing in August 2008

Last week I wrote about some of the reasons why you might think you can’t sing.


Suessian megaphone by theparadigmshifter

One of those reasons is that you might not like the sound of your own voice, especially when it’s recorded and played back to you.

I don’t like my voice!

Some time ago I was lounging around the house watching daytime TV and came across an interesting little item.

The programme encouraged a diverse bunch of people to sing one line each of “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” then stitched it all together into a complete song.

But one woman refused to sing.

First of all she said she couldn’t sing; then she said she had a horrible voice; then she said her voice was really gravelly and not nice to listen to. Finally she did sing a part of the line (beautifully I might add), but cut it short by saying: “That’s all you’re going to get”.

There was clearly a huge mismatch between what she thought she sounded like and what she actually sounded like.

We all get embarrassed by our own voices sometimes. We’ve all had that experience of hearing our recorded voice for the first time and realising that it sounds nothing like the voice we have in our head.

That’s understandable since we are hearing our voice from a very different perspective, projected across space rather than through bone and gristle. But I think it’s more than that. Somehow we have an internal perception of how our voice sounds to others and are shocked when it doesn’t match reality.

inside or outside – which is real?

It’s rather similar to when we catch sight of ourselves in a mirror and we don’t look as beautiful as we think we do! At the extreme, this is called body dysmorphia and is thought to be the basis of illnesses like bulimia and anorexia.

Of course most people don’t have such a drastic mismatch, but I wonder if there is something similar at work here with our voices?

Our brains maintain an internal map of our body, but sometimes there is a disparity between what we see externally and what our internal map is telling us. As well as the illnesses mentioned above, this is also the cause of the phantom limb sensation sometimes experienced by amputees. Although they can see that the limb is no longer there, their internal body map still gives them the internal sensation that it is. Hence the mismatch.

What if something similar goes on with sound? Maybe there’s an sound version of our internal body map which gives us the sensation of our own voice, but when we hear a recording of our voice, there is a mismatch.

I’m sure it is much more complicated than that since our voices are an integral part of ourselves and are also connected to our emotions and memories, not just our hearing.

So the woman who was reluctant to sing may have an internal sensation of her voice being unattractive or gravelly. Perhaps she has never heard a recording of her voice, or if she has she might have not believed what she heard.

learning to love our own voice

After we’ve heard recordings of our voices many times, the mismatch between what we hear in our head and what the recording device is telling us starts to become less. Eventually we might even get to like what we hear! Perhaps if this woman experienced hearing her own voice more often, she could grow to love it.

This is just one possibility, of course, and I’ve mentioned some others in my previous post Why can’t I sing? Maybe someone many years ago told her that they didn’t like her voice because it was too gravelly and that opinion stuck. Or maybe her own sense of a ‘singing’ voice is one that is high pitched and not low like hers.

But maybe, just maybe, if her voice was played back to her more often, then she would get used to it and be able to share her beautiful voice with the rest of the world.

So sing out, share your voice, listen to recordings and learn to love what you have to offer.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Exactly who’s in charge of my choir?! – how to deal with change

Question This post is part of a series of occasional Questions and Answers. Just use the contact form if you want to submit a question.

A choir leader asks:

“The church I work for is presently in talks of amalgamation with two other churches - one is smaller, the other is the ‘Mother’ church. Both congregations are great but totally different. What advice do you offer when amalgamating groups?

The ‘Mother’ church is steeped in traditional music and most members are unwilling to change to anything more modern (that is within the last 25-30 years).

I have a problem with committees TELLING me what has to be done, and how, who and when. I don’t mind suggestions but ultimately it is my decision along with the minister, as to what we can or will not do.”

Ah, committees and big organisations. Doncha just love ’em?!!

Although the question comes from a church context, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who’ve been in a similar situation when the organisation or committee that runs things starts to interfere with artistic decisions, or when two different choirs amalgamate, or when a new musical director takes over, or when a big influx of new singers joins the choir and upsets “the way we’ve always done things.”

change is good!

The first thing to realise is that when two choirs (or congregations or audiences) amalgamate, or when a new musical director takes over a choir, things will change. It is inevitable. So the sooner people give up the idea of “this is the way we’ve always done it”, the better!

Changes like this are a wonderful opportunity to discover something new. Not the way Choir A did things, not the way Choir B did thing, not the way the previous choir director did things, but a new, third way that is different and more suited to the new situation.

Think of the amalgamation as an opportunity to shake things up, dust things off, and make things generally better. This is a wonderful chance to re-examine what your aims are, to think about how things have been done in the past and if there are better ways of doing things, to reinvent this ‘new’ choir that you have on your hands.

take charge with your vision

There will always be grumblers and stick-in-the-muds who don’t want change. Some of them may well end up leaving because they won’t accept change. Let them go – it’s their loss! You can’t run a choir by consensus. The best way is to have a strong leader with a clear vision and that’s what the choir members sign up to.

As a new choir leader (or choir leader of a newly amalgamated choir) you will need to take on board the opinions and tastes of members (send round a questionnaire, sound individuals out, find out who the ‘opinion makers’ are – sometimes they have the loudest voices, but often a minority view). But you can’t please everyone!

Make a plan which incorporates the views of the majority of members, but also add in your own personal taste and ambitions for the (new) choir, and maybe completely new elements(songs, warm ups, rehearsal methods) which are new to ALL choir members. In that way you won’t encourage any division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the ‘original’ choir and the ‘incomers’.

whose choir is it any way?

Of course, this all assumes that you (the new choir leader, or person who inherits the newly amalgamated choir) are free to make your own creative and artistic decisions. But what if there is a committee overseeing you, or you feel that one of the choirs in the new amalgamation somehow has more ‘clout’?

I’ve written before about this topic before in Whose choir is it any way?

A choir is basically its members and the person who leads them. You need both. The choir wouldn’t exist without either, so you need to find the balance between the different demands of leader and singers. Any committee, arts centre or governing body is incidental to the business of music-making. A choir can exist without them!

A lot depends on the relationship between the choir’s leader and the governing body of the choir. Sometimes a choir leader is employed by the committee or arts centre, in which case there should be a contract or at least some kind of agreement. If there isn’t, now is the time to meet and thrash one out! If there is, then you know what is expected of you and you need to abide by it, or leave the job.

Sometimes a committee can begin as a helpful, supportive body which helps the musical director do their job well. But sometimes particular individuals on the committee can be forceful and it ends up becoming quite dictatorial. Some people love meetings, being on committees, and having power!

If you’re clever, there should be written into the choir’s constitution something which prevents strong individuals from taking over a committee, or stopping a committee from interfering too much in the choir’s artistic work. If that’s not there, maybe it’s something to address at the next AGM!

keep talking!

Above all, there needs to be clarity. Keep communication channels open between all the interested parties (singers, choir leader, committee, minister, arts centre, etc.) and try to resolve who is responsible for which element of the choir.

Has anybody else been in this situation? What was it like when you amalgamated with another choir? Have you felt that your committee has been too dictatorial? What changes occurred when your new musical director took over? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why can’t I sing?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as But I can’t sing! in December 2007

“Why can’t I sing?” The short answer is: “You can. Everybody can.”

The whole of my singing work is based on the belief that everyone can sing. All my choirs and workshops are open-access, no auditions, no experience necessary.

FHM choir

Choir of the Munich University of Applied Sciences by Mark Kamin

Yet very often when I say that, I get the response: “But not me – I can’t sing at all.”

Some time ago I came across a blog post which mentioned a guy who seldom hits a wrong note, knows lots about music and how it works, is very keen, but who still thinks he can’t ‘sing’.

It turned out in this instance that the guy believed he couldn’t sing musically. He thought that in order to ‘sing’ it’s not enough to sing on pitch, get the notes in the right order, be exact with your timing, etc. there’s also a need for musicality.

In my book, this guy can sing! He’s pretty advanced compared with many people and clearly wants to go onto the next level. But there are complete beginners who believe they can’t sing and that stops them from even trying in the first place. And that’s a terrible shame.

It got me thinking about what people might mean when they say they can’t ‘sing’.

Here are some persistent myths that keep people believing that they can’t sing:

  • ‘real’ singers only have to hear a song once, then they will know the tune perfectly
  • I don’t sound like Pavarotti/ Lady Gaga/ Elaine Paige/ Thom Yorke
  • I haven’t had any training or singing lessons
  • my friends told me once that I sounded awful
  • I’m just an amateur, only professionals sing properly
  • I can’t hit the really high notes
  • ‘real’ singers can learn lyrics in a few minutes – it takes me ages
  • I don’t like the sound of my own voice
  • I can’t hit the very low notes
  • it takes me a long time to learn a new song
  • I can’t sing in harmony
  • sometimes I make mistakes – I’m not as good as other people I know
  • I can’t hold a tune to save my life
  • I hate hearing a recording of my voice
  • I wouldn’t want to inflict my voice on anyone else!
  • I’m scared of singing in public
  • my teacher asked me to mime in the school concert
  • my husband can’t bear me singing around the house
  • I don’t have a beautiful voice
  • I can’t read music

All these are, of course, myths. But quite prevalent and persistent myths. It’s quite hard to disabuse some people of these erroneous beliefs.

Here are a few truths:

  • Billy Holiday had a very small range of notes she could sing – it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it!
  • Thom Yorke/ Lady Gaga, etc. are admired because they sound unique – what’s the point in sounding like them? Use your own voice!
  • ‘beauty’ is in the ear of the listener – one friend will like one voice, another will hate it. One teacher can’t bear a kid singing, whilst another simply loves their sound. You may think your favourite singer has a ‘beautiful’ voice, but I might hate it.
  • professional singers can take up to six months to really get a new song under their belt, before they feel that they can really perform it
  • Pavarotti (and Paul McCartney and LOADS of other professional singers) couldn’t read music
  • many of your favourite pop stars and even  musical theatre stars have not had any kind of training
  • some people try to shut you up because they are jealous or scared to reveal their own singing voices

One way to help people realise they can sing is to offer workshops to people, but don’t tell them that they’ll be asked to sing. Start off with a few warm-up games, some running around and being silly, being playful with the voice (call and response silly sounds, for example), then quickly teach a very simple three-part round.

Point out afterwards that they’ve just been singing unaccompanied three-part harmony which is a very, very difficult skill. In the process they’ve proved that they’re all excellent singers, so now we’ll learn a song. Always works!

Have you got any handy hints on how to persuade people that they can sing? Do you think you can’t sing? Do you have any more reasons why people might think they can’t sing? Do drop by and leave a comment.

You might also be interested in a discussion on The Mudcat Cafe forum:

Why can’t I sing?


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Your singing self vs. your everyday self – which is the real you?

We bandy terms around like ‘authentic voice’ and ‘natural voice’ when we talk about singing.

Photo by Jean Spector

But how do we know when singers are truly being themselves?

Remember Stacey Solomon, one of the 2009 X Factor finalists? Offstage she had a strong regional accent, was quite nervy, jiggled about, laughed a lot (in a rather unattractive way!), looked very young and innocent, and spoke in a breathy way. Yet, when she sang, she was poised, confident, without accent, still, controlled, strong voiced, grown up and quite beautiful.

Then there’s Rebecca Ferguson in this year’s X Factor final. Not quite as big a difference as with Stacey, but there is still a disparity between her offstage persona and when she sings.

Are these singers somehow being inauthentic? Not true to themselves? Putting on an act?

I think not. We can see their personalities and vulnerabilities shine through. Many of the other participants have been criticised for not allowing that to happen, but these two seem to be ‘real’ and are simply being themselves when they sing.

How do we account for the differences? I think that when these two sing, they lose themselves in the music. They are genuinely delighted and in the moment so there is no room for them to be uncomfortable or under-confident. In some sense we are seeing the real them without all the nerves and jitters.

People like this would probably say “I am a singer” rather than “I love to sing”.

This is very different from those singers who put on a voice. Many singers set out to try and be someone else. Perhaps they don’t have enough confidence in their own singing voice or are in thrall to some famous singer. They start out by copying the style, mannerisms and accent of someone they admire. Hopefully at some point they will discover their own voice, but many times they end up just being bad impersonators and don’t allow any of their own personality to shine through.

We can detect very quickly when someone is ‘putting on an act’ when they sing. This is the basis for many of the comments on shows like the X Factor.

We all have our own singing voice. It is unique and should be celebrated. It may reveal a different persona to our everyday self, but it is no less genuine.

In a few weeks I will be looking at a related subject: where do people’s accents go when they sing?

Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I hate a choir in uniform

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Dress to impress? in October 2007

Many choirs dress identically when they perform. Some have a choir uniform, some choose a particular colour for a particular concert, some have specially made t-shirts. I had occasional requests from my own choirs for some kind of uniformity when we perform.

formal choir

Unfortunately for them, I really dislike identically dressed choirs!

send in the clones!

For me, wearing the same uniform removes any sense of individuality. I can only assume that is why some choirs do it: they want everyone to look identical so there is an overall sameness and nobody stands out.

Why create such an identity for a choir? I presume that this is to:

  • show that everyone belongs to the same unit, that they are all part of the same team
  • give a clear indication that this choir is different from all other choirs
  • use the chosen colour or design as some kind of logo or aid to recognition.
  • give individual choir members a sense of belonging, a kind of banner or flag to unite them and under which they perform for the honour of the choir
  • avoid distractions for the audience so they can concentrate on the music

On the other hand, what I see is a group of clones, an attempt to wipe out any sense of uniqueness and to promote the (false) impression that everyone is the same.

This also carries over into the sound that such choirs make. There is every attempt to arrive at a perfect ‘blend’ of sound so that no one individual voice stands out. There is no scope for individual expression, there is a conscious suppression of any kind of difference. For such choirs I imagine that the prospect of actually cloning their best singer would produce their perfect choir!

most choral concerts are boring to watch

When I see such choirs performing I wonder why I am there. Why not simply listen to the choir on the radio or on CD? There is nothing to look at: everyone looks and sounds the same, they’re even encouraged to use the same mouth shape and facial expression.

If there is something special about hearing the choir live, then simply hide them behind a backdrop or have them perform in the gallery or from behind the audience. Perhaps there could be some kind of film or video projection or dance performance to watch whilst we’re listening.

To my mind it is very much like watching an orchestra: a sea of identically dressed violinists all bowing at exactly the same time, all focused on their music and paying us no attention whatsoever.

It seems that this is what most people think of when they hear the word ‘choir’. It represents a passive experience sitting for a couple of hours in fixed seats watching nothing much happening and hearing some ‘perfect’ rendition of a particular piece of music.

It doesn’t really compare well with a rock concert or a stage musical or son et lumière or River Dance. So why bother? And in fact many people don’t bother. It’s very old fashioned and rather unexciting. Which is perhaps why the average age of audiences at concerts is quite old.

It’s rather safe and non-threatening. There is a sense of control and order – identical costume, identical voices, no quick movements – no surprises.

there are alternatives

Maybe we need a different word for ‘choir’. Maybe we need a different form of performance to bring in younger audiences and audiences who wouldn’t normally go to a ‘choral concert’.

colourful choir

Choir choir pants on fire by Simon Nathan

If we do that, however, I don’t think we can get away with static rows of identically dressed singers. To my mind, aiming for uniformity destroys the humanity inherent in a group of human beings coming together to give voice. I want to hear the individual voices which have chosen to work together as a group, I want to hear the tiny errors and individual accents that make people who they are, I want to experience the rich texture and spine-tingling harmonies that result when a group of people choose to share their voices together.

further reading

You might also like following related posts:

Picture this – photographing choirs

Avoiding the ‘C’ word – problems with using the word ‘choir’

What do you think? Does your choir have a uniform? Do you get pleasure at a concert when all the singers look identical? What other alternatives are there? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, November 07, 2010

How to get people back after the break

We all know that singing workshops are just an excuse to string together a series of tea breaks and lunch breaks. And concerts are an excuse to have a drink during the interval and catch up with old friends.

empty house

Empty house by B Rosen

However, some people do come for the singing! The question is, having let people have a break, a drink and a chat, how on earth do we get them back to the job in hand?

Once I ran a workshop for around 50 kids aged between 8 and 16. I don’t work with kids and was worried about crowd control so I asked a teacher friend what to do. She told me to tell them at the beginning that when they saw me raise my hand in the air, they were to stop talking and copy me. Eventually everyone would have their hands in the air and there would be silence.

Or not! I stood there like a lemon with my hand in the air and nobody took a blind bit of notice.

When I started my first choir, WorldSong, I used to have a 15-minute break half way through the two-hour session. People would wander off for a vending machine coffee, or go outside for a fag, or gather in the corner for a chat. The break always ended up being at least half an hour long.

When I run a one-day workshop, I seldom have a formal break in the morning. I reckon that by the time 50 people have got a cup of tea, an hour will have past. So I have a short ten-minute break for water and loo. Then I usually wander round and let people know we’re starting again. That’s the cue for people to go to the toilet!

After lunch it’s a slightly different situation. Before we break I always ask how long people want for lunch. If the workshop is going well, someone will usually shout “20 minutes!” I suggest that’s not really long enough, so we agree on half an hour. I allow for an extra 15 minutes for people to finally gather, so plan for 45 minutes. We always end up with a one-hour lunch break by the time everyone is back.

In small village churches or community halls, the concerts are never very formal. There is seldom anyone there to help other than choir members and their friends and family. We all end up collecting tickets, handing out tea, telling people where the loos are, selling CDs, etc.

At the interval everyone mills around chatting or wanders off outside if the weather is nice. I tell people before the break how long it will be (e.g. 15 minutes), but always allow an extra five. Then someone goes round and tells people the concert is starting again. It takes ages to get everyone back in their seats!

What I do sometimes (especially with small ensembles) is simply to take our places and begin to sing. It soon attracts attention and people start to hush and sit down.

In more formal situations, like theatres, there is often a bell or announcement over the loudspeaker. In other situations, it is possible to have a bell or someone with a loud voice.

In workshops, some leaders use a drum or shaker to attract attention.

What do you do? Do you have a simple, fail-safe method for getting people back after the break?


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The pros and cons of using churches for choir performances

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Not enough venues to go round in September 2007

It is always difficult to find suitable venues for choir performances.

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall at night by Ben Dodson

Churches are usually very welcoming (and often free), but with their fixed architecture they can be limiting. There is also the problem of the associations that people make.

squeezing big choirs into village churches

A while back, a few of us sang at a friend’s wedding in a beautiful old village church with a wonderful acoustic. We just about managed to squeeze 18 people in front of the fixed pews, next to a stone pulpit and between two tall pillars.

(We chose not to sing from the choir stalls. Why on earth do they have these things? Don’t the two halves of the choir just end up singing to each other? I really can’t see the reasoning behind the design!)

The organist reminded me that the main Woven Chords choir had sung there one Christmas and been very well received. Of course, those were the days when we had less than 40 members (and it was a tight squeeze even then).

He wondered why we hadn’t come back and I had to explain that it would be impossible to fit 80 singers into such a small church. In those early days the choir used to frequent such small village churches and manage six or so concerts each year. But we soon outgrew the venues.

Some of the modern Methodist and Baptist churches have a more flexible layout and some even have stages, but not every town has one of these. Apart from large regional theatres (which tend not to take local community groups, or whose auditorium is just too large to fill), there are really not many venues available to us. Hence churches, which I now see more and more as a valuable community resource independent of any religious affiliation.

if a performance is in a church, it must be religious

There are, however, certain small-minded individuals who think that – just  because a choir performs (or rehearses) in a church – it must be a ‘church choir’. And since these individuals are not religious they don’t come to see us perform.

This is despite the many varied local and rural music touring schemes (e.g. Music in Quiet Places) which have small instrumental and vocal ensembles performing in churches regularly.

It’s a shame that these ‘certain people’ are so small minded, as they just don’t know what they’re missing!

So the fact that we often perform in churches adds yet another stereotype image to what we do in addition to the word ‘choir’ which itself puts lots of people off.

alternative venues?

I’m not a big fan of performing outdoors (see Performing outdoors – tips and tricks) or in unusual spaces which have a bad acoustic. Village halls are a possibility (as are church halls), but the sight lines are usually awful and it’s difficult to create any kind of ambience with lighting, etc. Which leaves us with big theatrical venues.

I’m more and more tempted to use theatrical rather than musical venues. I have a current bee in my bonnet about making singing performances more varied and interesting as I don’t think it’s enough these days for an audience just to see a static semi-circle of identically dressed singers standing on stage. But that’s my bee, and my bonnet.

What do you find? Are you in a large choir which has a solution to finding suitable venues? Do  you find that performing in churches has limitations? Do drop by and leave a comment.


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Sunday, October 31, 2010

A choir is a shining example of the perfect community

Last weekend I ran a singing workshop for 25 strangers. As always everyone worked well together (no prima donnas!) and we produced a wonderful sound at the end of the day.

working together
Working together by lumax

I do workshops like this so often that I take it for granted. But somebody came up to me at the end and reminded me how impressive it is that a group of people can come together for one day and produce such amazing results. That got me thinking about how singing groups and choirs are a model of how communities should work together.

A choir is basically a team of individuals all working towards a common goal. Singing in a choir is a great leveller. What matters is the part you sing, not whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, male or female, young or old. As such, a choir can be seen as a shining example of how a community can work together.

A choir is a microcosm of the real world and choral singing can be seen as a metaphor for life itself.

how it should work

  • no room for egos – to participate fully in harmony singing, you can’t be a prima donna
  • everyone has their part to play – even the director is a cog in the machine
  • everyone is equally important – without every single individual, the thing wouldn’t work
  • co-operation is the only way – if people don’t work as a team, there will be no end result
  • trust and support your fellow singers – you have responsibility for yourself but at the same time total trust and dependency on others – otherwise no harmonies!
  • strength in numbers – but still all individuals
  • a single purpose – apparently having a focus or purpose on something outside oneself brings happiness 

things can go wrong

But just as in real life, things can go wrong. Not every choir is perfect

  • dictators – the leader might be a bit of a fascist
  • selfishness – certain singers can be too selfish and not support others
  • judgment – more experienced singers end up looking down on newcomers
  • blocking – it only takes a few individuals with strong views to block ideas that might suit the choir better as a whole 

why not aim for the best?

I really don’t understand why some choirs end up being less than perfect. It’s just so much easier to be supportive, encouraging, work together, selfless, trusting, etc. It takes much more energy to be fearful, angry, egotistical, disruptive, obstructive and selfish.

I’ve been very lucky in that pretty much all the singing workshops and choirs I’ve ever run have ended up being excellent examples of how communities should work. My theory is that choral singing attracts the right kind of people. If an ego is too big, then solo singing becomes more attractive. If a person is too disruptive, then they will never get to make beautiful music so end up leaving.

So let’s raise a glass to all those fantastic model choirs out there! I do hope yours is one of them. Do drop by and tell us all about it.

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Chris Rowbury



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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When audiences applaud – or not

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Thank you, thank you – you’re too, too kind! in September 2007

There are times when it’s not been appropriate for an audience to clap. Funerals and weddings are the obvious ones.

audience clapping

Audience by Linda Thomas

But not getting applause can throw singers. Maybe it means they don’t like us!

silence is not always golden

Once we did a concert in a church and the first song was met with silence. I guess people thought that since they were in church it wasn’t appropriate to clap. After all, we don’t applaud the church choir every Sunday.

I subtly mentioned to the audience that they were allowed to clap if they chose to, and from then on it was just like a normal concert.

Funerals and weddings tend not to involve clapping. However, at one wedding there was applause after we had finished our little set when the vicar thanked us for singing. Of course, at the funeral, it simply wasn’t fitting.

I was singing myself at the funeral in a trio. It was then that I realised how much I had become used to applause after each song. It was very, very strange to perform a song to complete silence and have no feedback whatsoever. It’s similar to performing outdoors in a public space when people just pass by and ignore you.

I’ve written before about how audiences’ reactions can affect us in How audiences behave and how we respond.

what are they clapping for any way?

Why do we need the applause? After all, it’s pretty much a convention. It’s quite rare that people don’t applaud at all. Sometimes it may be more enthusiastic or longer, but usually there’s some smattering. So it’s not as if we need approval since the audience will probably clap under most circumstances. Maybe it’s just for us to know that they’ve actually heard us, whether they’ve enjoyed it or not.

In many cultures the idea of a separation between audience and performers is an alien one. Everybody is a performer, and everyone is an audience at the same time. The ‘performers’ are not special in any way, they haven’t spent time rehearsing and polishing, they just perform – singing, dancing, whatever – because that’s what everybody does in that culture. So the notion of applause and appreciation is not relevant.

some times we don’t want the applause

Sometimes applause can be a little embarrassing. Many of our songs are very, very short so we can get through up to 30 songs in any one concert. On those occasions it feels like we’re expecting the audience to clap every few minutes (which they do), but it does feel a little like overkill.

Also, with a big choir (Woven Chords has around 80 members), it can be a little awkward when we make our first entrance. As the first few singers enter onto the stage there is enthusiastic applause which slowly but surely begins to die out as the audience realise that there are many, many more choir members to appear yet!

Another embarrassment is when an audience don’t realise a song has finished or think it’s all over when there’s another verse still to come.


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