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

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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:

Chris Rowbury


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