Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs

I used to lead a women’s singing ensemble. We tried a Bob Marley song once. One of the singers used to say: “If it sounds like the Women’s Institute sing The Rolling Stones, then we shouldn’t perform it!”. We didn’t.

Bad album cover

I often get asked by choir members why we don’t do more pop songs. After all, they’re in English, popular and easily recognisable.

Here’s why we don’t do them.

it’s all about the instruments

Most people remember pop songs because of the guitar riff, or the drum break, or the keyboard solo. Personally I’m allergic to voices impersonating instruments. Why not just use a guitar? I get bored with ‘dum dum’ bass riffs. Why not use a double bass?

When you strip away the instrumentation, you’re often left with a very simple, banal melody.

pop melodies are tricksy

Pop songs are usually sung by a single lead voice. That lead voice usually has some pretty special qualities that we remember -- even if they can’t ‘sing’! If one person is singing the lead, then they can play with the timing to their hearts content, or they can sing really difficult rhythmic jazz lines.

Now you try and get 20 altos to sing that melody line precisely in time with each other – and with swing and syncopation.

pop is often sung in ‘American’

Even British pop bands sing like Americans. And if they’re not doing that, they’re singing in strong regional accents.

Most choirs are made up of people from all over who have been trained to blend their vowels. Imagine a big choir with their posh voices trying to articulate, but singing a funky pop song. Doesn’t work, does it?

I’ve tried to ask the choir to sing a bit more ‘American’, but it always ends up sounding Cornish!

only boy/ girl bands harmonise

You’re trying to create a fantastic SATB arrangement of a rock song when you realise that there are no harmonies on the original. Yes, it may be The Supremes, or Girls Aloud, but often the singers take turns at singing the lead, or have separate melody lines that they sing over the top. They don’t tend to harmonise with each other.

After you’ve added all these gorgeous harmonies you realise that you’ve destroyed the delicate melody! In the original, the harmonies live in the instrumental production so don’t interfere with the vocals.

Of course, you could make sure you always only do Westlife songs with the choir, but that’s a bit limiting.

lyrics are usually important

Forget the banal “boy meets girl, boy loses girl", girl falls in love with someone else” lyrics. Many pop songs tell stories or create fantastic wordscapes. We need to hear the lyrics clearly.

In the same way that trying to arrange ballads for choirs is a bad idea, lyric-based songs can easily fall flat.

There are too many words, they need to be clear but not over-enunciated, and the choir has to sing them in exact time for them to be heard properly. You can’t put too many harmonies in or the words will get lost. In short: why bother?

the exception that proves the rule

But there are some fantastic arrangements of pop songs out there. Although I must say that the majority stink!

The secret (I believe) is to not try to duplicate the original but to turn it into something different and special. Also, you need to choose your songs carefully. Most don’t work.

If you saw Wes Anderson’s movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, you will have heard Seu Jorge performing David Bowie songs in Portuguese on the acoustic guitar. It was like he’d written them himself because he made them uniquely his own. That’s the secret but it’s HARD! Make it sound like it was a choir song all along. Make people forget the original version.

show me I’m wrong

OK, OK, I’m wrong and you have countless examples of fantastic pop songs being sung by choirs. So let me know about them. I don’t guarantee to like them because ultimately it’s down to personal taste, but I’d be interested to hear some fine examples.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Helping new choir members learn the old songs

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as New singers, old songs in February 2007

Woven Chords is working towards a big birthday concert this spring. It’s been 15 years since the choir were formed, and ten years since I took over as musical director.

I want to revive and re-work a whole range of songs from the last ten years. The problem is, not every choir member has been in the choir for that long!

baby with ipod

Fun with babies by TedsBlog

We now have over 200 songs in our repertoire. How do we involve new choir members without overwhelming them with our back catalogue?

in the beginning …

When a choir first starts, everyone learns the same songs and a small repertoire slowly builds up. Hopefully the same singers come each week, so there is a sense of continuity and you can build on vocal development and more complex songs as the weeks pass.

But as time goes by, choir members leave, new singers join, the choir (hopefully!) increases in size, and the repertoire grows.

Then one day a concert comes along and you want to sing some of your best-loved, older songs only to find that most of the choir don’t know them! What do you do?

start from scratch each time

Some choirs learn a brand new set of songs each and every term (or year). Then they consign them to the dustbin of history, starting with a clean slate the next term. This can be very frustrating for singers who’ve put the time into learning a new song, only to have it removed from the repertoire.

This method can work if you have more of a ‘drop-in’ choir with different singers turning up each week. It also works better in non-performing choirs.

But we like to sing the old songs and would be upset if we never got to sing our old favourites ever again.

stick to what you know!

Other choirs have a small, fixed, core repertoire that they constantly re-teach to new members. These choirs usually perform a lot, don’t have much time to learn new repertoire, and have concerts in different venues so they can get away with singing the same songs each time.

My choir doesn’t perform that often though, and members always look forward to learning new songs (as well as singing the ‘oldies’).

The advantage of this method is that you allow singers to really get to grips with the songs and have plenty of time to let them bed in and mature. You can also add new songs one at a time without too much pressure, gradually increasing your repertoire over time.

learning on your own

Some choirs use written scores and expect their members to be able to sight read. When a new singer joins the choir, they are simply handed the sheet music and expected (with some rehearsal) to join in with the regular members.

We don’t use written scores though, but rely on learning by ear.

Other choirs (mainly barbershop choirs) don’t actually teach songs in their weekly meetings, but provide parts CDs for their singers to take home and learn their part in their own time.

New members of the choir are given a parts CD when they join and are expected to get up to speed in their own time. Weekly sessions are then spent rehearsing and honing the songs.

My choir enjoys learning songs in the weekly sessions. It is less mechanical than learning a part at home on your own, it gives people a chance to experience the harmonies as they are evolving, and most importantly, it’s a social activity.

my solution

200 songs is a daunting back catalogue for any choir! If a new member is at all nervous about singing or joining a choir, then such a huge repertoire can easily put them off.

I only allow new members to join at the beginning of a term. This means that there is a level playing field. All the songs I teach in the term will be new for everybody.

When a new member first arrives, I emphasise that there is no compulsion to learn any of the old repertoire. It is possible to be a full member of the choir without knowing any of the old songs.

Each term, I always make sure that every new song we learn will be in the next concert. I also revive or re-teach a few easy songs so that new members will be able to participate in at least half a dozen songs in the concert if they choose to.

I make a full set of lyrics available to all new members. This includes every single song in the choir’s repertoire. At the end of each session, for the final 20 minutes or so, we sing some ‘oldies’ just to keep the repertoire alive.

At the very least, new members will be able to follow the lyrics as we sing. And sometimes, if a song is relatively easy, they can pick up a part on the fly.

parts CDs

My main solution to the old repertoire problem is to make available a series of parts CDs to all choir members. I make roughly one per year with around a dozen of the more complex songs we’ve learnt over the past three terms.

Each part is on a separate track with all the starting notes given at the beginning of each track (I encourage people to sing against the other parts as they are learning).

If a song is very complex, I will mix all the parts together but forefront each part separately on individual tracks.

I only make parts CDs available once we have learnt a song thoroughly and performed it several times in concert. In this way, the focus is still on learning by ear in the sessions.

Parts CDs can be useful for revision when people have learnt a song in our weekly sessions, but we haven’t sung it for a while, or there’s a tricky bit that they’ve had problems with. It’s also valuable for new members to be able to learn songs in their own time for when a concert is coming up, or to get to grips with an old song they might have heard the rest of the choir sing at the end of a session one week.

I try to make it very clear that new members don’t have to learn any of the back catalogue if they don’t want to, but if they do want to try, just pick a couple of songs each time and then it’s up to them to learn their part in their own time.

same song, different version

Another way of keeping our back catalogue alive and to introduce old songs to new singers is to find new ways of doing a song – a slightly different arrangement, adding a new part, extending a song with a new section, etc. This also has the advantage of keeping an old song fresh and alive for long-serving choir members.

what do you do?

Do let me know what solutions your choir has for keeping their old repertoire alive for new members.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Trying to please all the people all the time

I find myself this week arranging a bunch of songs to teach at the weekend. As usual, I’ve left it far too late and am feeling a little rushed.


Smiley face stickers by South Carolina's Northern Kingdom

Which set me wondering: why I had decided to arrange new songs when I had some perfectly good songs already that would do the job?

My trouble is: I try to please all the people all the time. And that is doomed to failure!


When planning a singing workshop, I try to take account of who might be coming. As far as I am able, I try to find out:

  • did they come to my last workshop?
  • might they have done these songs with their own choir?
  • have they attended a workshop on this theme before?
  • are they in one of my choirs?

Then I try to choose the songs accordingly so that the participants will always be learning something new.

Of course, it doesn’t always go to plan!

One year I ran a Sunday morning workshop for the Warwick Folk Festival. I decided to use some songs that Woven Chords have done since they are not local and won’t be coming to the workshop.

Imagine my surprise when three singers from Woven Chords turned up! They were attending the Festival and had decided to pop in for a sing.

Obviously, coming across a few songs in a workshop that you already know isn’t the end of the world. In fact, some people have said to me that they enjoy revisiting old songs as it gives their brain a little break amongst learning all the new stuff.


Same with concerts.

I’m trying to please the following people:

  • our regular followers who come to most of our concerts
  • those who might come to just one of our concerts each year
  • those who have never been to one of our concerts before
  • members of the choir (who each have their own favourites)
  • me (who has a low boredom threshold and likes variety)

I’m always put in mind of dinner parties at this point.

Imagine that you have dinner parties quite often. Last year you had a few people over in January and gave them a lovely home-cooked meal. This year you decide to have another January dinner party and invite some of the same people. Trouble is, you forget what you gave them to eat last time! Imagine the one person who only comes to dinner once a year. She gets the exact same meal and thinks that’s all you can cook.

Same with parties. You wear the same party dress, but forget that’s what you wore to that person’s party last year.

I don’t want the occasional concert-goer to think that we sing the exact same songs at every concert. I don’t want the regular concert-goer to hear exactly the same songs as the last time they came. And I also want to show off our great songs and some of the new ones we’ve learnt.

It’s all about balance. I do try to make sure that our Christmas and summer concerts, for example, are not the same each year. I try to make sure that the next concert has a reasonable proportion of the same songs as the last one, but a good sprinkling of new stuff and oldies too.

Whatever I do, I can’t please everyone! Whatever I programme, someone will always come up at the end and ask: “Why didn’t you do that great African song you did last time?”

choir sessions

Every few years I send out a questionnaire to all choir members asking which are their favourite songs. Out of a repertoire of over 200 songs that we’ve learnt over the last ten years, there is usually only agreement on the top ten songs.

Other than that, there are as many different opinions as there are choir members. I also sometimes ask which kinds of songs people would like to learn. Again, I get as many responses as there are choir members.

Plenty of times singers and audience alike ask for more songs in English, and also for pop songs to be included in our repertoire. Sometimes I oblige!

Taking all this into account, I try to plan each year with a view to balance. If there is a particular country or genre that we’ve never done, or don’t have many songs from, I try to include it. On the other hand, if we’ve done loads of, say, South African songs, the previous year, I might not include any for a while.

So I try to please everyone. There’s got to be at least one song in there that each person likes!

What’s strange and interesting though is that the questionnaires show that – even though they’ve asked to learn them – the pop songs don’t go down well, and most people prefer non-English language songs. Go figure!

a little balance goes a long way

No, you can’t please all the people all the time, but that doesn’t mean that you should stop trying.

By bearing in mind your audience, your choir members, and your own tastes (and sanity!), you will inevitably come out with a healthy balance which will please most of the people pretty much all of the time. Good luck!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Finding songs for your choir

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared in February 2007 as Where did you get that song, where did you get that song?

I’m often asked by concert-goers and choir leaders alike:

“Where do you get all your songs from?”

Music cassette

Well, here’s the short answer to this simple question:

“From everyone and everywhere.”

Now for the long answer!

When I started my first choir back in 1997 I reckoned I had enough songs to last me for one term (about 10 weeks) after which I was seriously thinking about panicking or retiring. But now, somehow, after teaching in excess of 500 songs over the last ten years, I have another 600 waiting to be taught!

Like most things, when you become seriously involved in something new, your radar begins to pick up signals from previously unnoticed sources. Here are some of the sources that I use:

  • radio
  • CDs
  • workshops
  • songbooks
  • learning tapes
  • internet
  • arranging yourself

In what follows, I’m focusing on my own special interest: harmony singing from different cultures across the globe.


I listen to a lot of music in the car (all that driving between Coventry and Stamford!). As well as CDs I listen to the radio a lot – both live, and MP3s of programmes I’ve recorded on my digital radio at home.

I often tune in to Late Junction on BBC Radio 3. I also used to listen to World Routes on a Saturday afternoon on my way over to Stamford, but now that they’ve moved it, I have to miss it. But these days, for those in the UK it’s possible to listen to programmes you’ve missed on the BBC iPlayer.

I might hear a wonderful track that might be suitable for the choir, so when I get home I use the internet (a wonderful tool!) to look at the playlist for the programme. Then I track down the CD on the web (using Google) and try to listen to a few more tracks before possibly buying the CD (again, usually over the internet).


I have ended up with loads of world music and roots CDs in my collection. If I want to teach one of the songs I can often work out the parts from the recording (if it’s already in a harmony arrangement) or I work out the tune and put my own harmonies on.

I usually do background research on the internet to try and find the lyrics (I will never teach a song phonetically from a recording unless I can find the proper lyrics in the original language, and preferably a translation or a rough meaning).

Sometime I might stumble across a written score or existing arrangement which I can buy or copy (anything for an easy life!).

You have to be very careful when searching for lyrics and song information on the internet. Never believe everything you read! Rather like finding a builder, I always look for at least three independent sources. I stress independent, because some sites just copy and paste information from other sites! I have sometimes found the background to a song which seems a bit suspicious and have ended up tracking down the individual who wrote it and asked them for their source. Often it’s just hearsay!

You can also try contacting the record label. I emailed Angelique Kidjo’s label and they kindly sent me written lyrics to some of her songs, together with a translation. Also permission to do an arrangement.

I’m going to write about this at some point, but do make sure that you have permission to arrange a song. Copyright is a tricky subject. Don’t always assume that because a song appears to be in the public domain that it isn’t in copyright.


I learn a lot of songs by attending workshops. Not only is it a great place to collect songs, but as a workshop leader I also think it’s important to be a participant sometimes. It also counts as professional development. We choir and workshop leaders are giving out so much that it’s nice to be on the receiving end for a change!

Sometimes I record the workshop whilst I’m there (although increasingly I just want to be a punter and enjoy the workshop), but sometimes I can get the written score or a recording from the workshop leader (or at least they might point me in the direction of a useful source). Do check with the workshop leader that it’s OK to record and also to use their arrangement. They will usually be very pleased, just make sure you credit them as arranger.


I collect many written scores and songbooks. I buy books from a variety of sources (again the internet is a good place to start) as well as sheet music for individual songs.

A good place to start is the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network (NVPN) website which has a resources section of members’ stuff divided into Songbooks, Teaching CDs, etc. The NVPN have recently published a fabulous book of short and easy song by its members: To Grace the Earth. Highly recommended!

Nickomo’s books are particularly useful and he also transcribes songs taught by a range of people at the Unicorn summer singing camps. Also Nick Prater (focus on gospel and New Zealand) and Ali Burns (focus on traditional songs from the British Isles), both prolific arrangers and song writers.

Northern Harmony books and recordings can be bought from their website (they take sterling cheques as payment). They have lots of songbooks and CDs of African, Balkan and Georgian songs.

Two women’s groups in the US also produce songbooks: Kitka and Libana.

There are various world music publishers out there (e.g. World Music Press), publishers of particular genres (e.g. Bulgarian: Voxbulgarica) and general acappella publishers (e.g.

learning tapes

Some people out there do wonderful acappella arrangements for choirs, but don’t write music or choose to make their work available for people who don’t read music. This ranges from the wonderful Dee Jarlett (of the Bristol Gasworks Choir) to Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock (‘Singing in the African American Tradition’). Some arrangers make both available, i.e. written score accompanied by a CD with all the parts on. This is the case with most of the books you will find on the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network website.


The internet is a wonderful resource if used properly. I’ve managed to stumble across lots of free harmony arrangements (e.g. Choral Public Domain library), beautiful songs collected by other choirs (I found the most amazing Russian orthodox song on the website of a male voice choir in the Netherlands), songbooks that you didn’t know existed (I was searching for ‘Mbube’ when I came across a German book of South African songs), and interesting people and choirs who I’ve ended up swapping songs with.

I also use which is a free music streaming website with a huge catalogue of music from all over the world. I go to their Radio service and pick a group/ artist (e.g. Kitka, Ladysmith Black Mambazo) or genre of music that I’m interested in (e.g. Bulgarian, gypsy) and the service creates a temporary radio station playing just that kind of music. Often something strange and unexpected pops up and I’ve found a new song to teach!


Over the years I have started to write (and sell!) more of my own song arrangements. I might find a lovely tune in a old music book (I get lots from second hand shops) or hear an old folk song on a CD that I’ve borrowed from the local library. 

Fortunately I read music so can usually pick out the tune on my guitar, but some traditional music has fiendishly difficult rhythms or harmonies so I really need to hear a recording first and then use the score as an aide memoir and basis for teaching and harmonising.

Being a pretty poor musician, I often type the score into the notation programme I have on my computer (Finale PrintMusic about £70) simply so I can transpose it (lame, I know!). There is a free cut-down version that you can use called Finale NotePad, but it doesn’t do anything fancy like transposition.

Sometimes the transposition is not straightforward (the bass becomes too low, or the tenor part is no longer suitable for women, or the top part becomes too high for a community choir) and I need to tinker around and move parts about (which means sometimes the bass get the tune for a change!).

I’ve even been known to actually write the odd song for a particular occasion!

other sources

So there you have it. A mix of listening to CDs and the radio, going to workshops, buying songbooks and written scores, going to the local library, and also receiving suggestions from choir members.

I’m sure there must be loads of other useful resources for finding songs for choirs. Do let me know your favourites.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Singers should spend more time in the audience

I love my job! I get to stand in front of a bunch of singers and hear wonderful harmonies washing over me. You can’t beat it!

Gormley field

Antony Gormley's Field for the British Isles by Matt Gorecki

But if you’re a singer in the choir, you never really get the full effect, no matter how hard you listen. Time to become an audience member.

Often, especially at this time of year, illness or bad weather can prevent a choir member from attending rehearsals. Or maybe someone breaks a leg just before a concert and isn’t able to perform.

In these cases, many choir members come along to listen to the choir for the first time ever. I get a whole range of responses:

“It was amazing, I didn’t realise we were that good!”

“That song I really hate because the tenor line is boring is actually a beautiful song.”

“I hadn’t realised how all the parts worked together in that song, it’s wonderful.”

“I wish I’d heard the choir before. We’re so good and it makes me proud.”

But given the choice, if a singer is not ill or otherwise committed, they will usually want to be in the concert rather than listening to it.

Yet I would strongly recommend that you resist the temptation at least once, and be in the audience for one of your choir’s concerts. You will get a totally different perspective on the singing. You will get a much better idea of:

  • how songs work,
  • how good your choir is,
  • why keen audience members don’t smile all the time,
  • what audiences respond to and why,
  • why your musical director is always asking the singers to smile
  • how your attention is often drawn to the bored-looking singer on the back row,
  • what an amazing experience live harmony singing can be.

You will return to your next rehearsal proud, refreshed, invigorated, and keen to do even better.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Breaking the habit of a lunchtime

This is revised version of a post which first appeared in December 2006 as Fighting habit and complacency.

It doesn’t take long to form a habit. Sometimes just a tea break, let alone a whole lunchtime. But it can take ages to break a habit.

thumb sucker

Habits can be useful sometimes (if they’re not bad habits!), but they can also get in the way of learning and creativity.

that’s my chair!

There were about 30 of us at the workshop. It was a reasonably sized room with lots of those boring plastic chairs, all orange. We’d hardly sat down, when the workshop leader had us standing up for the warm up. We ended up moving all around the room, working with different partners, being generally silly.

We were then asked to sit down to learn the first song. Most people just grabbed the nearest chair, but one woman walked right across the other side of the room, got a chair, and dragged it back to where she had been standing.

It was her chair. The chair she’d first sat on when she arrived. It ‘belonged’ to her even though she hadn’t put anything on it, even though it was indistinguishable from all the others.

I’ve found this in seminars and lectures. If I dare to come back from the coffee break and sit in a different chair from the one I had before, people get miffed. I’ve somehow upset the subtle balance of things. I’ve maybe even sat in a seat that doesn’t ‘belong’ to me!

In these instances, people have very quickly formed a habit. In moments they’ve established a new ritual and made their claim on the space. And woe betide anyone who tries to change it!

a rose by any other tune

This weekend just gone was the annual gathering of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network. To kick the weekend off, several people took turns to teach us all some simple songs.

One of the songs turned out to have a very well-known tune, but with unfamiliar words. Most people had heard the tune before. However, the version we were taught was ever so slightly different from the one that most of us already knew. I know the song as Rose, Rose.

Even after singing this new version for quite a while, there were still some people who were sticking to the ‘old’ version that they already knew. It was proving to be too hard to change their habit of singing that particular tune.

but we’ve always done it that way!

The same effect can be seen with choirs when you try to breathe new life into an old song, or a new musical director comes on board. It’s as if the familiar version has formed deep ruts in people’s brains so it becomes virtually impossible to steer the song in a different direction.

Same with warm ups. It’s quite nice to do a few of the same exercises each week so that people can notice their own development, plus you don’t need to explain the exercise from scratch each time.

But the danger is that if an exercise becomes too familiar, people end up just going through the motions and don’t get the full benefit.

The ideal is to approach everything (well-known song, familiar exercise, concert) as if it’s for the first time (see the concept of beginner’s mind in the post Blame it on the weather). You will then discover new things about the song, the exercise, and you.

habit can lead to complacency

I have a bee in my bonnet about habit and complacency, which is why I always try to do something new and different each choir term.

For example, in the past I’ve tried different seating configurations, changing them from week to week. For the last few years I’ve dispensed with seats altogether (which initially upset some people!).

Sometimes I revisit a song, but approach it in a different way. Perhaps we’ll sing it much slower, or I’ll add some choreography, or put a new part in.

I’ll do anything really to keep things alive and in the moment. As soon as something becomes a habit, you stop noticing it. You stop being aware of what is happening in each moment which can lead to disaster:

  • you don’t notice when the conductor brings the volume down;
  • you don’t notice that you’re going faster than everyone else in your part;
  • you don’t remember that an extra verse has been added;
  • you don’t notice that the tops are going slightly flat so you need to follow them.

These are the enemies of learning, development and improvement:

  • complacency
    “the last gig went really well, so the next one should be a doddle”;
  • habit
    “but I always sit in that seat and can only sing if the altos are on my left side”;
  • familiarity
    “that’s the way we’ve always done this song”;
  • expectation
    “in concerts the altos always stand next to the tenors”;
  • safety and comfort
    “I like being in the midst of the bass section as it helps me stick to my part”.

They can all lead to a loss of vitality in concerts, blandness and lack of energy in performance, and an unwillingness to try anything new.

shake it up!

What can you do, as a choir leader, to shake people out of their complacency?

What can you do, as a singer, to stay in the moment, even though what you’re doing is very familiar?

What are your own (good or bad) habits? How can you escape their tyranny?



Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Becoming a choir leader – it’s a long story!

I realise that apart from the About Me section on this blog, you probably don’t know much about me or my journey to become a choir and singing workshop leader. Well, now’s the time to reveal all!

WorldSong in Coventry cathedral ruins 2005

Why am I telling you my story? Well, I thought it might be nice for you to know a little more about me, but also I want to show that you don’t need to have formal musical education in order to be able to follow your dream.

the early days

From an early age I’ve always loved music. My parents aren’t musical at all, but bought me a guitar when I was about 10 and sent me to lessons. Although it was a pain at the time, I’m really glad that I had that opportunity. It means that I can read music and pick out a tune on a guitar.

I had an amazing appetite for all kinds of music – from classical LPs (borrowed from the local library) to listening to Radio Caroline under the bedclothes late at night to hear the first airing of The Beatles’ White Album.

I was in the local church choir as a kid, but don’t remember much about the singing. Most of the time we would pass chewing gum and stories along the line during the boring sermons.

In primary school I managed to join the choir, but we just sang Christmas carols once a year and maybe led the singing at morning assembly.

I’ve never been the sort of person to sing to myself around the house (and still don’t), but I’ve always joined in with the radio or CD that’s playing, often adding the harmonies rather than singing the tune.

From the age of 11 I pretty much stopped singing except during school assemblies or at annual scout camp. I wasn’t in any choir or band (although I’ve always wanted to be in a rock band!) or orchestra.

When I was in my early teens I managed to get a holiday job working the lifts at the Fairfield Hall in my home town of Croydon. Once all the audience were in, I was able to watch the concerts for free: George Harrison and Eric Clapton were two of the acts I remember, but there were many more.

I was never in a harmony singing choir, nor did I ever attend any choral or classical concerts. The family did go to see Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof in the West End though. But I hate musical theatre!

university and beyond

I was good at maths at school, so ended up going to university to study pure mathematics. During the first year I changed courses to do computer science. I then went on to do an MSc in Artificial Intelligence and began to study for a PhD.

I got bored with being an academic, so never got around to writing my thesis up, and went to Malaysia instead to lecture in computer science. Clearly all good training to be a choral director!!

I did nothing particularly arty, and certainly nothing musical, at university or beyond. When I came back from Malaysia I got an Artificial Intelligence research job at London University for three years. (If you Google my name, you will eventually find me credited on a join research paper from that time.)

discovering theatre

For some insane and inexplicable reason, I joined an adult evening class in drama whilst in London. Although very shy at the time, I took to it like a duck to water! From the very beginning I was interested in creating my own work and made a few shows with fellow class members.

I even auditioned at the University and ended up performing in a Jacobean tragedy at the Edinburgh Fringe. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to ‘normal’, straight theatre!

Having discovered this new creative drug, I quit the computer world, started to claim unemployment benefit, and threw myself into making theatre. I soon had my own company in London, attended loads of workshops and master classes, and then began teaching at several drama schools.

After a few years of this (and making no money!) I was really lucky to get a job as a performer with the Centre for Performance Research (CPR) in Cardiff (which began as the Cardiff Laboratory Theatre).

harmony singing and the natural voice

In Cardiff I was introduced to unaccompanied harmony singing. We used to include songs (often from Eastern European singing traditions) in the performances we made. I attended many local singing workshops, including one by Frankie Armstrong, the driving force behind the foundation of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network (NVPN).

I did workshops with Polish theatre companies, members of the Roy Hart Theatre, Japanese Butoh performers, and a couple of Georgian ethnomusicologists who introduced me to the joys of Georgian song.

I travelled the world with the CPR and was lucky enough to watch and train with a huge variety of different performing arts genres. But gradually the opportunities faded and I became poor and unemployed once more.

to Coventry and beyond

I thought it was about time I got a ‘real’ job and started to apply for posts as university lecturer in theatre. Eventually I got a job at Coventry University in the Performing Arts department teaching theatre.

When I moved to Coventry I immediately looked for a singing group to join so I could continue to sing the amazing unaccompanied harmony songs that I had discovered in Cardiff. But there were no such groups. There are lots of choirs in Coventry, but none of them did the kind of music I loved, and most of them were far too formal for my taste.

So the local council suggested I start an evening class called ‘Songs from around the world’.

“But I’ve never taught songs to people before!” I exclaimed. “Oh, you’ll be fine”, they said.

And so began my life as a teacher of songs.

There were times when less than a handful of people turned up to a singing session, but slowly, slowly the numbers built until I had a reasonable core of singers. The local council were amazing and supported me throughout this growing period. But eventually I realised that I couldn’t survive on the council pay, and decided to go private.

the birth of WorldSong and me as a professional choir leader

Thus was born my first choir: WorldSong. We met once a week on a Wednesday evening during term time. We started with around 20 singers, but over the years the choir grew to over 60 with a waiting list to join. It is still growing.

I took my university responsibilities very seriously and believe that I did a very good job. But this began to take a toll on my health and finally I had to take a year off work. During that time, I managed to continue to run the weekly choir sessions which helped to maintain my sanity. There’s only so much daytime TV you can watch when you’re ill!

Eventually I quit the university job and started to make my way as a freelance choir and singing workshop leader. By that time I had joined the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network (NVPN) and had met many other practitioners. I naturally assumed that they all made their living by their singing work, so I was determined to emulate them.

Little did I know that most NVPN members have day jobs unconnected with singing! If I had known that, I doubt if I would have had the courage to attempt to earn my living solely from my singing work.

In 2000 I learnt that a choir in Stamford, Lincolnshire was looking for a new musical director. I had no idea where Stamford was, but it didn’t seem too far to drive, and it meant a change of scenery so I went over to run a workshop for them.

I got the job, so was now leading two community choirs (and I’m still leading Woven Chords to this day). Through this new job, another choir approached me, and I took over Global Harmony in Melton Mowbray. That was three community choirs! Although I was doing lots of driving, I was just about making a living.

onwards and upwards!

Over the years, the choirs that I’ve led have grown considerably. I’ve since handed over the reins to both WorldSong and Global Harmony. Along the way I’ve also run smaller, more advanced singing ensembles such as The Small Group, C-Section, Minor Chords and Vox Mondiale.

My singing workshops have taken off and pretty much every Saturday I’m running a one-day or weekend workshop somewhere. Plays havoc with your social life, but that’s the way it is.

I’ve also gone back to my theatrical roots and been working with the Foot and Mouth voice-theatre project for the last two years. This year we have two big premieres at local theatres.

I have developed enormously as a teacher and a choir leader, for which I thank the many singers that I’ve worked with from the early days onwards. I hope you had fun, and I apologise for the sticky moments when I didn’t fully know what I was doing – they call it on-the-job training!

lessons from my journey so far

  1. Follow your dreamsyou need to have a passion for what you do. That is what will sustain you through the difficult times. Don’t do it for the kudos, the money, the fame, the status, or for anybody else – do it because you love it!
  2. You will end up where you need to beyou set off in life down one particular road, thinking you know where you will end up. But life will always throw a series of unforeseen diversions and cul de sacs at you. Before you know it, you’re a little bit lost, or on an entirely unexpected road. However, you will end up exactly where you are supposed to be, only by a route that you never could anticipate.
  3. It takes time to build a choirtry hard not to compare your journey with others around you. There are stories of people who start choirs and have 30 or 40 singers in a matter of weeks. There are large choirs with over 100 singers. But your choir will probably take a long time to grow. Be patient!
  4. You don’t need formal training to succeedhi, my name’s Chris and I’m a charlatan! That’s what an ex-girlfriend used to call me. She couldn’t believe that I was teaching songs professionally yet had no music qualifications. But I knew that I could do it. I had a lot of teaching experience and understand music at a deep intuitive level. So don’t let the naysayers put you off – you don’t need formal musical education to run a choir!
  5. You’re allowed to make mistakesdon’t beat yourself up when you get it wrong. When I think back to some of my early choir sessions I cringe at how bad and uninformed I was! I realise now all the things I got seriously wrong, but the enthusiasm of the singers carried me through. You won’t get everything right by any means. Allow yourself the occasional mistake and learn from it.
  6. One step at a timewhen you first start out and you get a group of singers together and it’s all working, you will feel great! Try to resist the temptation to start a second group, book a huge auditorium, plan to make a CD, etc. Take it one step at a time and let your new group bed in and mature before you take things to the next stage. If you over-extend yourself in the early days, it may all come crashing down!
  7. It’s hard work!the secret to success is to work hard. When you first start out it might take a whole day to plan an evening’s choir session. You will find yourself glued to the computer screen late at night designing publicity or sending out email invitations to your next concert. You need the discipline to stick at it and put the hours in or you won’t get anywhere.
  8. You can’t plan your whole lifeoften at interviews they ask you: “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”. I’ve never understood this question. If I knew exactly where I’d be in five years’ time, I would basically stop living! There would be no surprises, no unexpected twists and turns, no pleasure at arriving somewhere new and different. I may as well put my life on cruise control and stop bothering.

You can’t plan your life’s journey. Things will go wrong, surprises will happen, you will get lost. And isn’t that great? Isn’t that what being human is about?

your journey

I’d love to hear about your own journey to becoming a choir leader, community musician, professional singer, etc., especially if you’ve had no formal musical education! Do drop by and leave a comment letting us all know what you do, where you’re from, and what your musical journey’s been like so far.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Revisiting the archives

I’ve been writing this blog now for three years. During that time I hope I’ve developed my writing skills and expertise!


There are many topics that I think are interesting, but which are now buried deep down in the archives. I thought it would be a good idea to revisit some of these old posts, to update them (and perhaps write them a bit better!) and to bring them out into the light again.

Every Wednesday from next week (13 January 2010) I’m going to revisit an old post and try to breathe some new life into it.

I hope you find these updates interesting. Do let me know if there are any specific old posts that you’d like to see revised and updated and I’ll do my best.

You can find old posts by going to the Blog Archive in the sidebar, or you can use the Search This Blog box to look for a particular topic.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

10 things I want to achieve in 2010

It’s year’s end and thoughts turn to the year that’s just gone (The 10 most popular posts of 2009) and hopes for the year to come.

happpy new year

photo by photon bomb

I do hope it will be a happy new year, but also a productive, fulfilling and successful one. Which got me thinking: what do I want to change next year? What do I want to achieve? Are there new things I could try that I’ve been putting off?

These are ten things that I came up with. Maybe some of them will resonate with you too.

  1. more ‘theatrical’ concerts

    2010 will be the 15th anniversary of the birth of Woven Chords, the community choir that I lead. I took over as musical director 10 years ago, so that’s two birthdays this year! To celebrate, our spring concert in March will be in a ‘proper’ theatre with lighting, wings, raised stage, etc. – something we’ve not done before.

    I want to create a performance that is not just a choir standing still (or jiggling a bit) on stage singing (What are you looking at?). I’d like to play with the dynamics, groupings, entrances & exits, lighting, etc. to make for a more theatrical show.

    Nothing too adventurous (or scary for the singers!) but something a little different in order to put on a proper entertaining ‘show’ with a few surprises for the audience. Nothing gimmicky, but not ‘just’ a concert.

    QUESTION: have you ever performed in or attended a choral concert which was out of the ordinary in some way?

  2. professional development

    Some years ago, at this same time of year, I went on a weekend musicians’ retreat. It was a chance to reflect on our career, our practice, our future, etc.

    There was a disparate group of musicians from a range of backgrounds, but we had one important thing in common. When the facilitator asked us what we did for our professional development, she was met with a sea of bemused faces!

    She told us that it was important for us to always be developing and growing as musicians and that it was all too easy for our day job to get in the way. Either we didn’t make time, or thought that we had nothing new to learn.

    This was a real eye-opener for me. When was the last time I’d attended a workshop as a regular punter? When was the last time I’d read a book or article on choirs and singing? When was I going to make time to go and learn more about teaching rhythm for example?

    So that following year I attended several excellent workshops and not only learnt new songs and new approaches, but also learnt a lot about being on the receiving end and how workshop leaders work effectively. And I read a lot of books and articles too.

    But I’ve slipped off the wagon once more and haven’t made enough time for my own professional development. Not only does it rejuvenate my own practice, but it’s a wonderful break from feeling that I’m giving out all the time.

    QUESTION: what are you going to do next year to develop your own practice as a singer or choir leader?

  3. engage more with readers

    Ever since I started this blog I’ve always intended it to be a dialogue. I have so much to learn and this is a way of putting ideas out there and (I hope) getting useful responses (Looking back – a year of blogging).

    I know a lot of you get something out of reading my blog because you’ve told me so. I also know that a lot of you are ‘lurkers’ – you enjoy reading, but don’t feel moved to ever leave a comment.

    I’m going to make more of an effort this year to engage more with you, the readers. Not sure how yet! Any suggestions gratefully received. It can get a bit lonely some times!

    One thing I’m definitely going to do is to leave more comments on other blogs. After all, I need to put my money where my mouth is!

    QUESTION: what is stopping you from leaving a comment?

  4. develop more social networks

    Although I’ve been using the internet since 1975 (wow! it was called the Arpanet then), I’m still no expert. I have a Facebook page and I dabble on Twitter, but I haven’t really investigated sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, etc. I want to try to exploit sites like this more in order to create a sense of community online.

    Singing in a choir is one of the most popular hobbies in the world, and yet it’s hard to find that many choral singers on Twitter for example. I know you’re all out there, it’s just a matter of finding you all!

    QUESTION: do you have any experience using social networks that you can pass on? If you’re already in one of these networks, how about connecting with me there?

  5. get more guest blog posts

    Last year I was privileged to have guest posts from David Burbidge, Alexander Massey and Deb Viney. That was three more guest posts than the previous two years!

    Sometimes I get bored with the sound of my own voice! It’s also nice to get a different perspective on a subject, or to hear from someone on a subject that I don’t know much about.

    So . . . even if you’re ‘just’ a singer in a choir, or you come from a non-Western singing culture, or you have a background in percussion, or the last concert you attended was particularly special – I’d like to hear from you.

    You don’t have to write much (I tend to have verbal diarrhoea so don’t use me as a role model!), just write from the heart. Drop me a line ( and let me know that you’d like to write a guest post.

    QUESTION: what are you passionate about that you could write a short article on?

  6. re-evaluate exactly what I do

    Am I simply a teacher of songs or a community builder or a singing enabler? Maybe I’m all these things.

    I’ve been doing this singing lark for over ten years now so maybe it’s time to re-evaluate what I do. Perhaps it’s time for a complete change or at least a change of focus.

    I’m pretty sure I don’t do this because I’m only interested in, say, health or community. For example, I personally wouldn’t get much pleasure from leading unison singing in an old people’s home.

    But I’m not just in it for the end product otherwise I’d be running a sight-reading choir and churning out songs by the dozen.

    I do know that I love what is called ‘World Music’, especially the harmonies of Eastern Europe and the rhythms of Africa. I also know that I like to work in a relaxed, non-threatening, fun way and not to be always focused on performance. Beyond that . . . I’ll just have to see!

    QUESTION: what is the most important reason that you either attend or lead a choir?

  7. run less pop song workshops

    Once upon a time I was struggling to get more people to join WorldSong. I realised that if I collared an average person on the street, they would know nothing of the singing traditions of the Republic of Georgia (Georgia on my mind), they would probably be put off by the idea of singing in foreign languages, and they would maybe think choirs were posh and only for people who read music.

    So I invented a range of populist workshops that I hoped anyone could respond to: Beatles acappella, Beach Boys bonanza, The Paul Simon songbook, etc. They were all very successful, and many people who attended these workshops ended up joining the choir (and learnt to love Georgian singing!). So much so, that the choir became full and we had to set up a waiting list.

    But now, all these years later, I have become known for these more populist workshops and it’s become a bit of an albatross around my neck. I enjoy running the workshops occasionally, but I don’t get nearly enough opportunities to teach the kinds of songs that I really love.

    It would be great to become known more for world music workshops than pop song workshops! Workshops like Songs on the Eastern Wind and World Songs.

    QUESTION: have you ever been labelled in a way that became restrictive? How did you change the situation?

  8. re-design the blog

    When I started this blog way back in December 2006 (Choirs are becoming cool!), I didn’t know much about using Blogger. I used WorldSong’s red and black theme as a basis and threw together a quick design. Over time I’ve added more and more widgets to the blog too.

    During this time I’ve set up my own website ( with a clear and simple design which I’d like reflected in this blog. The main problem is finding the time to do it all!

    Since I’m not a full-time blogger or website designer, I have to find time amongst all my other higher priority commitments to get down to re-designing the blog. It’s all about priorities and trying to create an eight-day week! Do I migrate to the more flexible WordPress platform or do I design my own template or modify and existing Blogger theme? Time will tell!

    There are a couple of issues here: how we prioritise all the different types of work that we need to do as freelancers (The job of being a choir leader) and whether we can afford to pay someone to do work for us – website design, publicity, PR, etc.

    QUESTION: do you have any hints on how I might best re-design this blog to make it easier to use and nicer to look at?

  9. attract more audiences for choral music

    We had a new guy join the basses this term. He persuaded his partner to come and watch Woven Chords’ Christmas concert.

    Apparently she had said: “I don’t like choral music!”, but ended up having a great evening, played our CD all the next day, and even gave her Mum a CD for Christmas!

    We often come across this: if we can just manage to get people through the door, they usually end up really enjoying themselves. But so many people get put of by words like ‘choir’ and ‘choral’ (Avoiding the ‘C’ word). If they do eventually get to a concert, they often say: “Oh, that’s what you do! Not what I expected at all.” (It does exactly what it says in the blurb – or not!)

    Does that mean that all our publicity was simply wrong? How do we describe what we do in order to get people to give our kind of music a go (Fitting into the right musical box)? How can we attract more (and younger) people to our concerts (Who is our audience?)? How do we dispel out-of-date preconceptions?

    QUESTION: how do you publicise your own concerts and do you have any tips on how to widen your audience base?

  10. regularly reflect on and evaluate my own working methods

    It’s not enough to reflect on our practice just once a year, it’s something that should be done on a regular basis.

    Every new term I try to introduce new warm ups, new challenges, new approaches so that we’re always developing and not becoming complacent (Fighting habit and complacency). But this coming year I want to try and challenge many of the implicit assumptions I make.

    Why only acappella? Why world music? Am I a community musician or just a teacher of songs? Am I just interested in the end product? Why don’t I ever use written music?

    QUESTION: are there any assumptions you make about singing in a choir that maybe you’re not aware of?


So there we have it: my (professional) New Year resolutions for 2010.

Happy New Year and may all your own
hopes and dreams come true in 2010!


Chris Rowbury's website: