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:

Chris Rowbury


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