Sunday, February 28, 2010

Is all choral music religious?

Question2 This post is part of a series of occasional Questions and Answers. Just use the contact form if you want to submit a question.

Shama is from Bangladesh. She loves choral singing, but wonders if all choral music is religious.

Shama writes:

“I love singing and have been singing since I was 9. Although I started out with learning Bengali classical music, I have also been really interested in English music. I love listening to choral music.

But such opportunities are not available in our country, as far as I know. I really do not have much knowledge about choirs. I was hoping you can tell me about the significance of religion in choral music.

Church choir groups exist all over the world, including our country. But I think they would be reluctant to let me join them, as I am from a different religion. My parents will be negative about it too.

Do choirs always have to be religious? Are there choir groups who do not focus on the religious side of the music, but only on the beauty of it? If not in our country, hopefully in other countries?”

choir? choral music?

Not trying to be difficult here, but it depends on what we mean by ‘choir’ and ‘choral music’!

By ‘choir’ I mean a group of singers who come together on a regular basis to learn and perform songs in a formal or semi-formal way. Most choirs sing in four-part harmony with or without musical accompaniment.

Wikipedia defines ‘choir’ as:

“a body of singers who perform together. The […] term is very often applied to groups affiliated with a church (whether or not they actually occupy the quire) …”

The connection with churches is reinforced by the other meaning of the word ‘choir’:

“Architecturally, the choir (alt. spelling quire) is the area of a church or cathedral, usually in the western part of the chancel between the nave and the sanctuary (which houses the altar).”

However, the notion of the ‘chorus’ is pre-Christian and goes back to ancient Greek drama. The oldest unambiguously choral repertory that survives dates from 200 years BCE.

harmony singing and polyphony

There are many groups of singers throughout the world who sing regularly, but without the formality of a choir. In such cultures there is no separation between singer/ performer and audience. Everyone sings and everyone joins in. Children learn the songs from a very early age so there tends not to be any kind of formal training.

If you accept that a choir sings in harmony, then that immediately rules out the traditional music of many cultures. Asian cultures, for example, tend not to have a harmony singing tradition, whereas Eastern European cultures have a strong harmony tradition going back thousands of years.

I’ve written on the subject of harmony singing traditions in Why don’t you sing songs from India?

In the West, the term ‘choral music’ has come to mean music that is written down, has been composed by a known composer, is often ‘classical’, and is very often Christian church music.

But there are many ‘choirs’ who sing ‘choral music’ that doesn’t fit this tradition.

the role of the Christian church

I’m not an expert in this area by any means, so please take this as a very rough guide!

Harmony singing in the Christian church goes back to the 14th century in Western Europe. During the Renaissance, sacred choral music was the principal type of formally-notated music in Western Europe. It is still a very strong influence in the Catholic church and the Russian Orthodox church, as well as the hymn singing tradition of the Anglican church.

When the West began to colonise other countries, they took their religion and their music with them. This meant that harmony singing was introduced to cultures that had no such tradition.

Countries such as New Zealand and South Africa embraced this new musical style with gusto and incorporated it into their own singing traditions. The legacy of this is the rich harmony traditions of Maori songs and South African church singing.

Although originally the Christian missionaries would have taught religious songs to these cultures, the harmony techniques have also been applied to folk songs and other non-religious music.

do choirs have to be religious?

The short answer is “No”.

If you like Western classical music, there is a lot of religious repertoire, but also a great deal of non-religious material.

If you like traditional and folk music, there are many cultures throughout the world which have strong, non-religious harmony singing traditions.

There are choirs throughout the world with are based in churches, but also many, many choirs which have no religious affiliation at all (in fact, I know of several choirs which completely ban any kind of religious music!), but which are based in the community that they serve.

I don’t know about Bangladesh I’m afraid, but I’m sure if you look hard enough you will find a non-religious choir.

can I sing religious songs if I’m not religious?

Some people have very strong objections to singing songs from religions other than their own. Some people who are atheists or agnostics refuse to sing any songs that have any religious overtones at all.

I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but I absolutely LOVE gospel music, Russian church music, shape note songs, South African church songs, Jewish Niggunim, etc. etc. Does that mean I can’t sing them?

I’ve written about secular vs. religious songs in The devil doesn’t always have the best songs!

As long as I respect the tradition that a song comes from, and as long as I’m not singing anything overtly religious (personally I draw the line at singing about Jesus, but I’m happy to sing about the Lord or the Spirit), I continue to sing and share beautiful music. After all, the music was created by human beings and is a celebration of our inner spirit whether you are religious or not.

There is a very interesting discussion on ChoralNet about a pagan woman who asks if she can be a choral conductor. She believes that:

“no matter how PC or multicultural people try to make it – there are no SATB choirs anywhere in the world outside of the Christian tradition that created it.”

I’m not sure that I totally agree with that, but it has sparked off an interesting discussion about whether you need to believe in what you’re singing or conducting.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Not everyone experiences a concert in the same way

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as How was it for you? in March 2007. 

Just because you as a singer have a great time in a concert doesn’t mean it went well.

happy audience

Happy audience by Ekke Vasli

Just because you as a choral director felt the rehearsal went much better than the actual performance doesn’t mean the concert was bad.

Just because you as an audience member thought it was wonderful doesn’t mean that the singers enjoyed the experience.

Not everybody experiences a performance in the same way.

a typical concert

Woven Chords often perform at their ‘home’ venue in the beautiful Georgian ballroom of Stamford Arts Centre in Lincolnshire. The room is gorgeous and has featured in many costume drama films. Beautiful surroundings complete with chandeliers and a wonderful acoustic – what more could you ask for?

We often muster a choir of at least 60 singers and a capacity audience of 120 or so. There are no stage lights in the ballroom so we can see the whites of the audience’s eyes! It feels very intimate and cosy.

The acoustics are great, the choir relaxed and on form, the audience with us, and everyone has a great time.

Except me.

Well, that’s not strictly true, I do usually have a really good time, but not a great time.

who needs to have a good time?

Of course, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether I have a good time or not. As long as the choir enjoy themselves and the audience has a good evening out and our standards remain high. It doesn’t matter what I’m feeling.

It is strange though how unpredictable my experience is.

I have had absolutely amazing, fantastic gigs where everyone has been firing on all cylinders, the audience have been fantastic and we all had a great time.

I have also had bad gigs where I’ve just not been in the mood, nothing seems to go right, and the choir don’t ever really gel.

We prepare the same each time, we put the work in, we don’t get complacent, and yet it is impossible to predict how we (as singers and choir leaders) will feel during the performance.

how can we gauge a performance?

Which reminds me of my days as a performer on the wilder fringes of the theatre world.

I could be totally prepared and really looking forward to a show, only to have a really bad time and end up feeling that the show had been rubbish that night. Yet afterwards in the bar audience members would tell me how fantastic it was, and other cast members would say they thought it was one of our best shows.

Then the other way round: I could feel that I was really flying, had never performed better, the connection between the performers would be electric, we’d never done the show so well, it was a triumph!! Only to come off stage to find a relatively empty bar, a lukewarm audience reception and fellow cast members drowning their sorrows in their beer and vowing to give up acting immediately.

It’s not so simple then. Even performers in exactly the same show can have completely different experiences.

nobody cares how you feel!

I came to the conclusion that it is actually irrelevant how you feel about a performance. All you can do is be prepared and do your best, then it is simply up to the audience to take it or leave it.

As far as singing concerts go, there are several other factors involved.

We always rehearse on the afternoon of the concert, so maybe I’m just too tired to enjoy the evening as fully as I might. Sometimes we have a cracking rehearsal, everyone’s relaxed, we have a bit of a laugh and the singing is wonderful. But come the evening and the nerves kick in (and they can see the audience in all their glory!) and perhaps the songs are not quite as good as they had been that afternoon. That just goes to show that we shouldn’t have expectations: be in the moment, the show will be what the show will be.

then there’s the audience

As a performer (and now a conductor) I am badly affected by an audience’s response (see last week’s post How audiences behave and how we respond).

We all want to be loved by the audience, we want to please them, we want them to think we’re the best thing they’ve ever heard, we want to see happy smiling faces lapping up every moment.

And often that is what happens, but there will always be a few audience members who are looking a bit tired or bored or both (even though they may be having the time of their life) and they are the only audience members I see and I start to think “They’re not enjoying it. They don’t like me. I’m not doing very well. I should give up and buy a shop”.

Then I start to doubt myself and perhaps the next song is a bit wobbly because I’ve taken my eye off the ball, which then spooks me a bit, which then means I might make a bigger mistake in the next song and so on. And all because perhaps a single audience member is not smiling enough!

choir leaders can’t see audience reactions

After one concert lots of choir members mentioned how smiley the audience had been. I was beginning to wonder whether we had been playing to the same audience when I realised that the choir see a different audience to the one that I do.

Why hadn’t I realised this before! When we are singing and the audience is smiling and enjoying themselves, I have my back to them and simply don’t see. Then when I turn round to announce the next song (or engage them with some so-called witty banter) they become serious because they’re concentrating and listening intently to what I’m telling them about some obscure Eastern European song about a red fez or handkerchief in a puddle.

So I’ve decided to commission a pair of wing mirrors like the ones the moods used to have on their scooters. I’ll put one on each shoulder, then whilst I’m conducting I can glance in the mirror to see the rapturous, smiling faces of the audience having the best time of their lives!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What kind of feedback do you want?

I’ve been talking quite a lot recently about feedback – from singers and choir leaders and from audiences. But not all feedback is equal.

Feedback can come in many forms: speech, writing, applause, by email, face to face, and so on. Sometimes one form is more useful than another.

gorilla clapping

But will you get the feedback you want? As Dr. Gregory House says in the TV series House: “Everybody lies”. Can you trust people’s responses? And are you even asking the right questions?

types of feedback

  • spoken in the moment – this can be the best kind of feedback as it’s right there, in the moment. But it can be inappropriate for someone to interrupt the proceedings. It might be better to ask people to feedback at the end of what you’re doing so things don’t get too disrupted.
  • spoken after the event – this can be audience members coming up to you in the bar after a concert, or a singer grabbing you at choir at the end of a session. If the gap between the event and the feedback is too long though, it might be harder to respond  properly.
  • overheard conversations – this is the kind of feedback that is not intended for your ears, but might be most valuable because of that! Sometimes people find it hard to be honest to your face, so this might be a way of getting to the truth.
  • second-hand reports – this amounts to gossip and should be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s always coloured by the feelings and motivation of the person relaying the feedback. However, it’s sometimes useful to have a ‘friend’ in the choir or audience who can feedback to you what people around them have been saying. This is similar to overheard conversations.
  • written down at your request – you might have a comments book at the end of a workshop or a concert, or you might give out a questionnaire to your choir, or the teacher might hand out a feedback form. This can often be open, but sometimes contains specific questions for you to answer.
  • unsolicited writing – if people feel strongly enough about something (they liked the concert a lot; they loved the workshop; they hate the way you deal with the altos), they might write to you without being asked. In this day and age it’s most often as an email. Try to keep these in perspective as they usually only represent one person’s view, and often come from the most outspoken, confident people as opposed to the silent majority.
  • applause – the most common form of feedback at concerts and sometimes workshops (including whoops and hollers and stamping feet!). This makes everyone feel GREAT! It’s instant, clear and in the moment. You know that you’ve done well.
  • getting it right – another instant form of feedback is when you’ve nailed a song or a tricky passage, either as singer or choir leader. You just know it’s gone well, but you’ll also usually be greeted with grins and smiles.
  • other feedback – I’m sure I’ve missed some out. Do let me know if you have other examples of feedback.

which is the best kind?

You might have a personal preference for certain kinds of feedback.

Personally I’d much rather write to someone than face them if I have a criticism! I’m happy to receive feedback in any form, but as a teacher and choir leader, seeing people happy and enjoying themselves is the best. Frowns and sideways glances is the worst!

You may decide that certain kinds of feedback are better suited to particular circumstances. Asking questions while being taught a song might not be best. Better to leave it until the end. Comments forms are good at the end of workshops, but some people don’t like writing in public or have to rush off, so make sure you’re contactable by other means.

Not every kind of feedback suits everyone, so make sure there are always alternatives available.

Not all feedback is equal. Gossip is probably less accurate than face to face feedback. Although people don’t always tell the truth!

everybody lies!

A cynical view at best, but there is some truth in this.

Often people want to please you or give you the answer that they think you want. Other times people want to be polite and not tell you what they really think. So take all feedback with a little pinch of salt. Unless of course everybody is saying the same thing!

Other times people might not know what they want, or maybe think they want one thing, but really want another.

I give out questionnaires to my choir every couple of years or so. The main questions are about repertoire: what is your favourite song? which songs do you like singing the least?

I used to ask things like: what is your favourite thing in our weekly sessions? Can you think of any interesting challenges for the choir? Are there types of songs that we don’t do that you think should be included? Is the warm up too long?

I quickly discovered that there are as many answers as there are choir members! It is very rare to find consensus on any one thing. It made me realise that a choir is a group of people who all agree to sign up to one person’s vision: the choir leader. It’s rather like a benign dictatorship.

The other thing that I discovered is that people may say one thing, but actually think or feel another. Many times in the questionnaires people asked for more songs in English and more contemporary pop songs. So I included a few in our repertoire.

When the next questionnaire came round, it turned out that the most popular songs were always the foreign language ones, and the songs that were least liked were the pop songs!

asking the right question

To get the right feedback you need to ask the right question.

In Indian culture people often want to please. When I was travelling in India I would sometimes ask people if this was the right road to get where I wanted to go. They would always say “Yes!” because they wanted to please me. It was seldom the right road.

I soon learnt that the better question would be “Which road do I need to take?” and they would point out the correct road.

You might ask the choir if everything is OK when you see them frowning. They might answer “Yes” because the state of being lost and confused is normal, so everything IS OK. Might be better to ask “How can I make it easier for you to learn this tricky bit?”

You might ask the audience if they enjoyed the evening. They might say “Yes” and you think that means the concert was good. But maybe they didn’t like most of the songs, but they had a great time catching up with their friends an admiring the acoustics.

You might ask your choir leader if the second half of the song is the same as the first, and she says “Yes”. She means that the tune is the same, but you were asking about the lyrics and the harmony parts coming in.

to wrap it all up

We all need feedback. In our lives and in our work. But there are many different kinds, many appropriate contexts, and we can’t always believe what we hear.

Many actors say they don’t read their reviews because they get too affected by the bad ones. But they don’t read the good ones either. It’s all subjective and it’s all too easy to be swayed and have our inner negative thoughts or big ego awoken.

So take feedback lightly. Don’t focus on the one negative comment in your choir of 60 singers, but also don’t think you’re wonderful just because you get an encore at your next concert.

Keep it all in balance, but do keep trying to do it better and continue to ask for feedback. Otherwise you will become complacent.

feedback please!

What do you think of this post? Was it of interest? Do you disagree with anything? Do you have anything to add? Drop by and leave a comment. I’ll be very grateful!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How audiences behave and how we respond

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as How audiences affect us in December 2006.

I recently wrote about the importance of feedback when teaching and learning songs. In the absence of feedback, our most negative thoughts can raise their ugly heads.

Bored audience

Bored audience by artfulblogger

It’s the same with performance. If an audience is unresponsive, we can start to believe that we’re not performing very well.

audience behaviour

Audience dynamics are a very strange thing. Sometimes it’s as if you’re performing to the living dead, and yet afterwards you might have loads of people coming up to you saying how wonderful the concert was.

At other times the audience is far more animated and full of smiling faces, and yet there is hardly any feedback when the concert is over.

But however the audience respond, the first few moments of a concert tend to set the mood for the rest of the night.

At one Woven Chords concert we had around 60 singers so it took a while to get on stage. Usually people start clapping as soon as we enter, then it wanes a bit as they realise how many of us there are! But this time we entered in complete silence. There were around 120 people in the audience and you could have heard a pin drop.

I decided to make a joke of it and tiptoed from one side of the choir to the other asking in a loud stage whisper if the singers were OK. Gradually the audience began to laugh and warm to us, and when the final singer took their place, the whole audience applauded loudly.

It was a great concert – one of our best – but the audience was very unresponsive and sleepy throughout. The main reason was that the heating was oppressive. This was putting the audience to sleep and over-heating the singers on stage.

Despite this, we had loud encore calls, and the whole audience joined in with some songs at the end.

We once played to an elderly audience who were having their harvest supper. Unfortunately we were on after the meal. Not only did the venue stink of cabbage, but pretty much everyone in the audience nodded off during the concert!

Quite often our venues are churches. In the early days of WorldSong, we played in a church where there was no applause at all. This was very unexpected and completely threw us.

I realised that perhaps the audience weren’t used to seeing concerts in churches, so without trying to fish for applause, I did point out that clapping was allowed, and from then on the concert went with a swing!

how we react to an unresponsive audience

I suppose with confidence and experience it is possible not to be affected by an audience’s response, but it still gets to me after over 25 years as a performer.

There I am up on stage trying my hardest and enjoying myself, but I only have to catch the eye of a seemingly disinterested or bored-looking audience member and all the doubts start creeping in: maybe they don’t like me; perhaps I’m not performing very well; it’s not their taste and there’s another hour and a half to go! etc. etc.

Of course, as a choir leader I have my back to the audience most of the time, but I do try to get them on my side with a bit of banter between songs and it sometimes feels like I’m a stand-up comic who’s dying! Usually, of course, it is our own internal critics talking and the audience are actually having a great time.

Once we did a wedding an sang Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s version of Amazing Grace. I was having such a great time conducting and was dancing around and joining in.

Afterwards the choir told me that if looks could kill, I would have been dead by then! Apparently pretty much the whole congregation – who had been expecting the well-known version of the song – looked daggers at the choir and were sour-faced throughout. Luckily I had my back to them!

It is very hard to keep positive and perform well when you are faced with a sea of blank, bored-looking faces. Sometimes you might spot and audience member who has dropped off to sleep. Once the whole of the front row grimaced as one (like they were sucking lemons) because they didn’t appreciate the finer points of clashing Georgian harmonies.

It’s easier said than done, but in many ways we have to sing for ourselves in a concert. We’ve done the preparation, we’re there because we love to sing, we’re all dressed up in our finery and look impressive. It’s just an added bonus if the audience like what we’re doing. WE like it, and that’s perhaps what counts the most.

So remember:

  • you can’t please all the people all the time – some audiences won’t like what you do
  • it’s not always your fault – it can be too hot, too late, too loud, too close to supper
  • things aren’t always as they appear – just because someone looks a bit glum, doesn’t mean they’re not enjoying themselves
  • people show their pleasure in different ways – some people shut their eyes, some frown in concentration, some come up to you afterwards and congratulate you, some will email you the next day, some will clap loudly, but only at the very end of the concert
  • the most important thing is to have faith in your preparation and enjoy the singing – that joy and confidence will carry across to your audience

what do you do?

What kind of audience member are you? Do you smile all the time or frown in concentration? Do you whoop loudly at the end or clap politely? Are you the sort of audience member you’d like to have at one of your concerts?

How do you respond to a sea of blank faces? Do audiences affect how you perform? What kind of feedback do you want from an audience? Do you have any concert stories to tell?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why feedback is important when teaching and learning songs

I was running a one-day workshop a while back and it seemed to me that the whole thing wasn’t gelling. People seemed uninspired, energy was low, and it was taking ages for people to pick up the songs.

thumbs down

Thumbs down by goldberg

I reckoned it was just one of those days and I would put it down to experience. But at the end, loads of people came up, full of praise for what a great time they’d had and how much they’d enjoyed the workshop.

I’d misinterpreted their response. But in the absence of clear feedback, that’s all I’d been able to do.

no news is bad news

There has been a distinct lack of comment on this blog lately. I’m beginning to think everyone has stopped reading it!

If we don’t get any feedback, the majority of us fill this vacuum with all our doubts, insecurities and fears. Maybe you don’t like what I’m writing. Maybe the comments section is not working properly. Maybe the RSS feed is just not getting through. Maybe nobody is reading my blog!

It’s the same with choirs and workshops. Singers need to be given feedback or they won’t know how well they’re doing. Choir and workshop leaders need to know if they’re getting their message across.

In the absence of feedback, we all fear the worst: that we’re bad singers or bad teachers.

the teacher teaching

How is it going? Am I going too fast? Do I need to explain things better?

People being what they are, I often teach to a sea of fairly blank faces. Brits are famous for not showing their feelings! Also people tend to glaze over when they’re concentrating. How do I know if I’m teaching well? As a teacher, I need some feedback from those I’m teaching.

Sometimes I ask directly for feedback. How’s it going? Am I making sense? How can I help you with this tricky bit? But I often don’t get a response.

People being what they are, most of us don’t like to speak up in front of our peers.

I remember being at university and not really understanding what the lecturer was saying. I put it down to my own stupidity. But I had a friend who wasn’t afraid to ask “Could you go over that again please? I don’t think I understood it.” There would be an audible sigh of relief. We’d all been thinking the same thing, but had been to afraid to ask.

Giving feedback and asking questions can take courage. But it’s always best to speak out or you just won’t learn. There’s a very good chance that everyone else is in the same boat.

But even if they’re not, clarifying a point for you will help you learn better. It also tells me that you’re paying attention to my teaching!

the singer learning

How am I doing so far? Am I getting it right? Is it better than last time?

I’m trying my best and it seems to be going OK, but I’m not sure I’ve got it right or if I’m doing what my director wants. As a singer I need constant feedback to let me know that I’m OK and on the right track.

Often teachers and choir leaders forget to give clear feedback to the singers. Especially if everything is going smoothly. If a song is being learnt well, at just the right pace, it can easily be taken for granted. But singers need to be told that we’re doing well. It gives us confidence and a clear indication of when things are going right.

I also need feedback if things are not going too well, but are a definite improvement on last time. This says to me that I’m on the right track and should keep on going.

And when things aren’t going well, I need just the right kind of feedback in order to help me get over the difficulty. I need to understand what is required in a clear, unambiguous way.

things to remember

  • choir leaders can’t read minds – if you have a problem or don’t understand, then say something. A sea of frowns and sideways glances can destroy a leader’s confidence.
  • speak up if something’s not clear – this may take a bit of courage, but you’re probably not the only one, and at least you will nail the point for yourself.
  • feedback is important when things are going well – don’t fall into the trap of only giving feedback when thing’s aren’t right. Singers need to be encouraged and praised when they get it right.
  • there can never be enough feedback – teaching and learning is a dialogue. You can’t ever have too much feedback. Fill the vacuum with clarity rather than doubts.
  • singers can’t read minds – the only way that a singer knows she has interpreted your instructions correctly is if you tell her!

useful types of feedback

As a choir leader or workshop leader, what kinds of feedback do you find most useful?

As a singer, how can the teacher or choir leader help you best? What kind of feedback works for you?

Do drop by and leave a comment. At least then I’ll know that somebody is reading!!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to deal with song lyrics 2

This is part 2 of a revised version of two posts which first appeared as The writing’s on the wall and Words are flowing out like endless rain ... in January 2007.

Last week I looked at how and when you might begin to introduce the lyrics of a song; whether the words should be written down or drilled by ear; the tyranny of pieces of paper in the hand; how associations made when learning a song can become a trap; when to take written lyrics away; and how to make sure the last lines in each verse are rehearsed as much as the first few lines.

Foreign lyrics

This week I want to continue to look at how we deal with lyrics in songs.

foreign vs. English words

Foreign lyrics can seem daunting at first, but once people get used to seeing strange syllables, they don’t pose too much of a problem. In fact, foreign lyrics can be easier to learn than English ones!

If a language is unknown, there is no alternative but to learn the lyrics syllable by syllable. But if you know a language well (like English) or are somewhat familiar with it (French, Spanish, etc.) it can a make life more difficult.

When you learn English words, you internalise the meaning as you go. When you come to sing it, you may remember the rough meaning, but not the exact words. So you paraphrase, substituting your own words for the proper lyrics. The problem is, not everyone does this in the same way, and your words might not even fit the tune!

With foreign words, even if you know the meaning of the song, you can’t simply make up your own version. You are much more likely to accurately remember each syllable.

It may be hard at first, but you have to make sure that the foreign words don’t slow you down. This can be a problem if the words are written down. The whole song can slow down as you stumble over the strange lyrics.

A classic example of this is when Woven Chords sing the Polish Christmas song Lulajze Jezuniu. We spent some time learning the song using the words of the first verse and the chorus is the same each time. When we come to the second verse in performance, everything slows down and gets much quieter until we get to the familiar chorus when it all picks up again!

The secret is to soldier on regardless. When you’re learning you will stumble over the odd syllable here and there, but just gloss over it and keep the same speed and energy up so that the song flows. Eventually you will make the correction as the words become more familiar.

there will always be an audience member who understands

My experience is that there will always be at least one audience member fluent in one of the foreign languages that you sing at a concert. You need to respect the foreign words and find a way of bringing life to them and pronouncing them as accurately as you can.

This is why I will never teach a foreign song that has been passed down by ear without finding and checking the original lyrics. It would be an insult to the culture that the song comes from.

If you get your choir to behave as if every word they sing is going to be understood by at least one audience member, it will lift the whole performance.

We have had a Japanese woman in tears as we sang in Japanese about cherry blossom; two young Bulgarian women who joined in with a song that they didn’t know, but picked up the words quickly; a person who heard one of our CDs and assumed that we came from the countries where the songs came from!

beyond the first verse

When I begin to teach a song, I usually use the words to the first verse when teaching the tune and harmonies. We often spend a few weeks on this until it’s locked into the brain properly.

But then we realise there are loads more verses to learn – and most often in a strange foreign language! These are always much harder to learn than the first verse. (This is the same problem that I mentioned last week in individual verses where we always end up singing the first lines more than the last lines.)

In subsequent verses the syllables often fit into the tune in a different way, sometimes the rhythm is even slightly different. No matter how often we sing the other verses, we never seem to nail them as well as we did the first verse.

After Verse 1, people are just reading off the page and trying to fit words to a tune in a fairly abstract way rather than learning tune and lyrics together as we did in the first verse. If I ask people to go home and learn the words, it’s with a different part of their brain so it never seems to flow as well as Verse 1.

I’ve tried teaching new songs line by line (with all the harmonies), and doing the first line of every verse before we move onto line two. The trouble with this is that we never seem to get an overall picture of the whole song, and it ends up being bitty and also a bit of an overload to deal with so many foreign words.

I’ve tried moving straight onto Verse 2 as soon as we’re beginning to master Verse 1, but that somehow seems to push all knowledge of Verse 1 out of people’s brains in order to make sense of Verse 2! I’ve even resorted to adding one new verse each year – which does seem to work, but takes a very long time to finish the song!

I have yet to find a solution to this, so any advice will be greatly appreciated!

making changes later on

After a song has bedded in for a long time, what happens when we try to change lyrics or add new verses?

Because of the problems of learning verses beyond Verse 1, I often chicken out and just sing the first verse in performance. After a few concerts, this becomes limiting. It’s a lovely song and we want to repeat it more often. Also there may be people in the audience who understand the language and want to hear the rest of the story!

But now that we have repeated the song so many times with the same words, it is very, very difficult to add new lyrics.

One way to help this might be to change the arrangement at the same time so that the whole song is refreshed.

how to stop singers using lyrics in performance?

Some people will always find it difficult to commit lyrics to memory – foreign or English. Of course, it is much, much better if singers aren’t referring to lyric sheets in concerts, but how do we police this?

One option (probably used in professional choirs) is to say that if a singer hasn’t learnt the words, then they don’t sing in a concert. This seems a bit draconian for a community choir though!

Apart from impressing upon the choir the importance of learning the lyrics, how does one insist? What sanctions can one use?

This is a problem that I’ve not found a solution to. Again, any useful suggestions gratefully received!

the lyrical memory

How and where are song lyrics stored in the brain? I believe that it is a very different mechanism from that used to rote learn poetry, phone numbers, lines in a play, etc. That’s the subject for a later post from the archives.


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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Auditioned choir or not?

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

Nat started his choir four years ago. He’s slowly built the numbers up to a fairly stable 35 or so, but thinks it’s time for a change.

If he auditions, does it mean that he will be going against the inclusive nature of most community choirs?

He says:   

“I am no longer willing to work with people who don't  come to choir regularly. Also, many people want to join the choir, but I felt for a long time it was getting too big – now I would like to open the doors and am considering auditioning – this goes against my philosophy though.

My philosophy of singing and of music is similar to the philosophy described on the Natural Voice website – I don't want to deprive anyone of the chance to be part of a community and experience the strength and communicative power of their voice and harmony singing.

Still, we have worked a lot to get where we are and some of my singers get frustrated when I take the learning pace down 80% to accommodate inexperienced singers. So I'm considering auditioning.

I've already turned down 2-3 singers who had difficulty carrying a tune even without a second or third part. On the other hand I have seen progress that I never would have expected could be possible with some singers who had difficulties in the beginning.

So – I was hoping you could give me some advice, based on your experience. I will be making some decisions very soon – I would be thankful for any words of wisdom!!”

life is not perfect!

Not everyone will come to choir regularly. Life has a habit of intervening: people have families and other commitments. Only professionals can be guaranteed to turn up. And even then sometimes they bunk off!

Do you charge by the session or in blocks? I’ve always found that charging up front for a block of sessions focuses the mind wonderfully when it’s a cold, rainy night. People will tend to make more of an effort as they’ve already paid good money.

The bigger the choir, the easier it is to adapt to a few singers being absent in any given week. I used to run a women’s ensemble with 12 singers and if just one person was away, then it threw a spanner in the works.

Create a system whereby if someone can’t attend a session, part of the deal is that they must catch up in their own time. They can get the music or a parts CD from you, or get a friend to record the session. Put the responsibility back onto the singers.

can auditioned choirs still be ‘open’?

I’m 100% with you when you say you

“don't want to deprive anyone of the chance to be part of a community and experience the strength and communicative power of their voice and harmony singing”.

But it’s not your job alone!

As long as there are open-access choirs available, there is room for closed or auditioned choirs. We can’t be all things to all people. There’s space for a whole range of different kinds of choirs.

We recently had a discussion in the Natural Voice Network about whether we work with auditioned groups. Can we still call ourselves Natural Voice Practitioners? The consensus was that we wouldn’t in those circumstances. As long as you make it absolutely clear which kind of choir you’re running, then I don’t see any problem.

ask yourself why you want to audition

I sense that you are frustrated, and not just your singers!

What exactly do you want to achieve by auditioning? There’s no guarantee that you’ll end up with more commitment, nor a group of singers with the same standard.

Do you take the learning pace down to accommodate inexperienced singers, or because not everyone comes every week or not everyone joins at the same time? If it’s the latter, then there are things you can do about it (see Helping new choir members learn the old songs).

If you do decide to audition, you should think very carefully what form the audition should take. In a harmony singing choir, group work is much more important than solo work, so getting each person to sing solo might not be the best way to do it. You’ll also need to see how quickly people pick up new songs.

you can’t control everything

I have a friend who runs a choir who is beginning to realise that she has the most fun when she’s at home making the parts CDs to give the choir members. She sings every part and has complete control of the recording process.

Human beings are messy and complicated, and groups tend to have a life of their own. You can’t control any of these things.

You need to decide what you are running the choir for. If it’s to realise a piece of music perfectly, then maybe you should stay at home and record it yourself, or get a bunch of professional singers in.

If you’re interested in community and people’s music-making abilities, then I think you have to relinquish some control. The upside of this is that you will learn so much from the group, you will make so many people happy, and, in the process, the music-making will get better.

we all get frustrated from time to time

Sometimes I find myself getting really frustrated because a bunch of singers are taking too long to pick up a tune. I know it inside out, why can’t they just get it? But this happens fairly rarely.

What is more common is that I arrive at choir tired and just not in the mood. But as soon as the harmonies of the first song begin to come together, I am revived and rejuvenated. That’s what makes it so worthwhile.

Is this a long-standing frustration, or do you get weeks where everything is fine?

what next?

  • figure out what you want to achieve – then make this clear to your singers
  • what if auditioning doesn’t solve all your problems? – have a back-up plan
  • devise a system to retain choir members and encourage them to come every session
  • be clear what you expect from your singers – what are their responsibilities?


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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

How to deal with song lyrics 1

This is part 1 of a revised version of two posts which first appeared as The writing’s on the wall and Words are flowing out like endless rain ... in January 2007.

Unless we’re singing vocalises or songs with just one word (“alleluia”, “mravalzamier”), we have to deal with lyrics at some point.


How do we first encounter them – written down or heard? How can we best learn and remember them? What about foreign words? How do we deal with many verses when first learning a song?

when do we need the words?

Sometimes words get in the way. If we’re trying to learn a new song, then the simpler and fewer the words, the easier it seems to be to learn the song.

Because of this, I’ve tried teaching songs without using the words at first, but just ‘la, la, la’ or similar. In that way people can focus on the shape of the melody and harmonies without the ‘meaning’ part of their brain being engaged.

This works brilliantly, but … when it comes time to add the words, the whole process slows down. The melody seems to get forgotten. People struggle with how the syllables fit the notes.

I’ve decided that this is not necessarily the best way to teach a song! I think you have to confront the lyrics from the very start.

seen or heard?

So then the question becomes: how do we introduce the lyrics? Should we write them down for the singers, or just drill them by ear?

There’s no simple answer to this. If a song has two, three or four simple words which are repeated, then I would always do them by ear.

However, some people (including me) are very visual, and in order to really nail the lyrics and make sure we’ve got the vowel sounds right, we need to see the words written down. Just the once. So we can get an internal image of them. Then we can continue by ear.

I ran a workshop this weekend and prepared large lyric sheets for some of the simple songs, thinking that I would need them. In the end, I decided to have a go at teaching them by ear. We spoke them in rhythm a few times, and then launched into learning the tune. I was surprised how quickly people picked them up (and they were in foreign languages!).

It’s very much a judgment call. I was in a workshop once where we drilled and drilled and drilled the words for ages. It was boring, and when it came time to learn the tune, I’d forgotten the bloody things any way! I think it’s vitally important to learn the words and the music at the same time. I believe that we store song lyrics in a different part of our brain to where we store poetry (more on this next week).

As long as the drilling of the lyrics doesn’t get in the way of the fun or the learning, then try to do it by ear. If the words are tricky, or there are lots of them, then write them down.

the tyranny of bits of paper

If you hand out individual lyric sheets too early in the process, you’re doomed! As soon as people have a visual aid in their hands – even if they know the words already – their eyes will gravitate to the paper. They will stop looking at you and stop paying full attention to the melody.

I’ve sung songs which I’ve known inside out and committed to memory for years, but even then, whenever I have lyrics – either in my hand or on the wall – I end up looking at them. We are very much a visual culture, not an aural one.

I think the next best solution to learning by ear is to put the lyrics up on big sheets of paper so that everyone can see them easily. If you have a big group, and/ or if you work in a circle, this can be a problem. You may have to have several copies of the lyrics dotted around the room.

High tech choir leaders might even use projectors!

Basically you want people to focus outwards, to feel that they’re all in the process together, and to pay attention to you.

becoming trapped by associations

Just as a piece of paper in the hand can become a security blanket, so can big lyrics on the wall.

At the weekend, we sang a fairly short song many times during the day, but always with the lyric sheet on the wall. Even though people really knew the words (it had sunk into their subconscious by then), when we came to revive the song at the end of the weekend, somebody grabbed the lyrics and put them up on the wall!

Partly this is a form of security because people don’t believe that they’re truly learnt the words. But it’s also something to do with how you learn the song in the first place and the associations you make.

If you learn a song facing the window with the basses to your left, then you sometimes struggle if you try to sing it later with your back to the window and the basses on your right.

When first learning the song you also encoded where you were standing, what you were doing, who was with you, etc. Part of this was the action of looking at the words on the wall. You have embodied this experience, so need to recreate it when you sing the song later. Even if you know the words perfectly well, part of you needs the lyrics up on the wall for it to feel familiar.

For these reasons, I believe that it’s important to change things around as much as possible when learning a song. You then remove the learning of the song from any specifics such as where you’re standing in the room. You end up singing the song in so many different contexts, that it becomes properly embedded in your memory independently of how you learnt it.

when to take the lyrics down?

So when can we take the lyrics down? How early can we take the prop of words away without disrupting the learning experience? Given the choice, singers will want to leave the lyrics up there forever as security!

I’ve tried various ways of doing this. One obvious way is after you’ve been learning a new song for a while, then run it through one last time with the lyrics up, then try it without. If it’s a disaster, then repeat the process.

Another way is to keep singing the song, but each time round, cover up one line of the lyrics, starting at the top.

repeat after me …

One side effect of repetition and the fact that time moves forward (unless you’re Doctor Who!), is that the early lines of a song get sung far more than the later lines. This also applies to the first verse compared with subsequent verses.

As we slowly build up a song one line at a time, we keep going back to the beginning and adding new bits one line at a time. That means that we sing the first line more than the second line, which we sing more than the third line, etc.

The danger is that the first part of the song gets rehearsed loads, whereas the ending is always under-rehearsed. This imbalance doesn’t go until the entire song has been sung many, many times.

One way round this, and – I believe – a good way of really learning a song, is to work backwards once the whole song has been taught.

Divide the song up into sensible musical/ lyrical phrases, then start by just singing the last phrase. Then add the phrase before this, so you sing the penultimate phrase, followed by the final phrase. Keep this process up until you’re back at the start of the song.

This is an excellent way of really getting to grips with how each phrase joins with the next, it also allows for more attention to be paid to the end of the song, and finally, it forces people to really concentrate as we look at the new song in an entirely different way.

more on lyrics next week

Next Wednesday I’ll be looking at foreign vs. English lyrics; how to fit syllables to notes; looking beyond the first verse; and how the memory for lyrics actually works.


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