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:

Chris Rowbury


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