Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why men won’t sing: a discussion

This is a blog post with a difference. I want to start a discussion using the comments facility.

closed mouth

closed mouth by loungerie

I sent an email out recently to everyone on my mailing list asking advice on how to get more men singing. Now I want to invite suggestions from you lovely readers out there.

Why do you think more men don’t sing? How can we attract more men to singing workshops and choirs? How can we get more young men interested in singing? Is it uncool, not macho enough, too non-competitive?

This is not the first time I’ve tackled this problem (see Where are all the male singers and The problem with men: getting them, handling them, keeping them), but I’d like to get some different takes on the issue, so ...

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment and I’ll try and keep the discussion going. Even if you’ve never left a comment before, now’s the time to join in the debate. Let’s tap into all that collective wisdom and experience out there!

I’ll gather all the responses from this, and my email list, and write it up as a blog post in a few weeks’ time (see Men and singing 1: 15 myths debunked, Men and singing 2: your collective wisdom, Men and singing 3: seven ideas to get more men involved).


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

New comments feature

Just a short post today as I will be in France when you read this!


Comments book by thath

I recently added a new comments feature to the blog which I hope will improve your experience, make it easier to leave comments, and increase the interaction between you, me and other readers of the blog.

The comments system is run by Disqus and allows you to choose your identity with Facebook Connect, OpenID, Yahoo or Twitter Sign-in, when you leave a comment. You can, of course, continue to remain anonymous if you want to!

It also allows comments to be ‘threaded’. That is, you can respond to a particular thread of conversation directly without simply having your comment appear at the bottom of the stack.

You can also easily share your comments with others in your social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

You can easily subscribe to the comments to any particular post and you will be notified of any new comments that come later.

If you’d like to have a thumbnail photo of yourself whenever you leave a comment, then you can upload one to Gravatar. Your photo will then appear automatically anywhere on the web where you use your email address to leave a comment. It’s always nice to see what people look like when you’re writing a reply to them!

If you choose to, you can register (free) with Disqus and create a profile (including a photo). This allows you to keep track of any comments you leave anywhere on the web which runs the Disqus comment feature.

I do hope you find this new system easy to use. I was finding that there were quite a few problems trying to use the old Blogger comments.

Do drop by and leave a comment to see how the system works, and to let me know if you find it clear and easy to use.

For those of you who receive these posts by RSS reader or email, then just click on comments below and you should be taken to the comments section of the blog (doesn’t work with Opera for some reason – you’ll have to scroll down to the comments section). Good luck!

Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My ideal community choir

Although not strictly from the archives, this post is based on an article I wrote for the Woven Chords’ newsletter in September 2005.

I want to share with you how I view open-access community choirs.


I’d like to think that the choirs I run are a bit different from most other ‘choirs’ and that my approach to singing and songs is a more relaxed and laid back (but maybe I’m kidding myself!).

it’s all about having fun!

The groups I run are primarily for people to come along each week to have fun by learning and singing songs together. I try to create a relaxed atmosphere and keep a good sense of humour flowing at all times (sometimes harder than others!).

Following the ethos of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network, my community choirs are all open-access: there are no auditions and anybody of any age, flavour or shape is welcome, regardless of experience or background.

Aiming to be as inclusive as possible, I don’t assume any musical knowledge at all, so I teach everything by ear and we don’t use written music. I might drop the odd musical term in now and again for those who know what I’m talking about, but it’s not necessary to participate fully.

People come to sing, so the aim is to keep the learning to a minimum but I don’t always succeed at that! Some of the most enjoyable songs to sing are the most difficult to learn.

sharing songs with outsiders

Performing is not part of the deal, but inevitably there comes a time with most choirs when people want to share what they’ve learnt with friends, family and even a wider public.

The choirs that I’ve led have all ended up performing regularly and to a high standard. The hardest thing is to balance our regular fun sessions with the drilling and rehearsal required to polish our songs.

For me, there are three important considerations to take into account when performing. IN ORDER OF PRIORITY, these are:

1. Enjoyment and fun come first. If you are having a good time, this will communicate to the audience and result in lots of happy and (naturally) smiling faces – both in the choir and in the audience. It also means that there will be less tension in your body which can only result in a better sound.

2. Getting the notes in tune and in the right order is an advantage. However, the odd wrong note here and there will not always be noticed. Don’t get hung up about it. Nine times out of ten you will be right. By not worrying too much about getting it right, the chances of hitting the correct note are much higher.

3. It would be fantastic if you didn’t have to look at your words, but I’m not going to shout at you if you do. I’d much rather have somebody with a discreet set of words in their hand which acts as a kind of security blanket, than have someone dry or go completely wrong. By not insisting that words cannot be used, it’s surprising how much people remember and don’t have to look at all. If I ban words entirely it usually all goes terribly wrong!

My thinking behind these considerations is that we’re a community of human beings often singing songs from folk traditions where people are not ‘singers’ in any formal sense. Our aim is not just to serve the music in order to make a ‘perfect’ rendition.

it’s all about team work

Being in a choir means working as a team. Every individual is important, and yet the result is always greater than the sum of the parts.

I am always listening to the overall sound, so even though you may notice the person next to you is slightly out of tune, it usually doesn’t matter in the overall mix. I’m not here to criticise or teach people how to sing ‘correctly’. I will pick people up if I think they’re getting something wrong, but usually I deal with a whole section of the choir. Sometimes I can hear that something is not quite right, but can’t spot exactly who is out!

My personal taste is such that when I hear a choir who are note ‘perfect’, all in exact time with each other, voices blending as one, then I may as well be listening to a machine. I feel that the heart and soul have been removed.

I like to hear the humanity of a choir shine through, with all its human imperfections and mistakes. I’d rather hear guts and passion than note perfection. My philosophy is that we use music as a vehicle for the soul, and are not here to serve the music regardless.

All things considered, we make a fantastic sound and improve year on year, so I must be doing something right! Sometimes on a choir night I am so tired that I’m just not looking forward to the session, but then as soon as those gorgeous harmonies begin, I am lifted and forget my tiredness and am swept away on the wonder of it all.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Can you ever prepare yourself for being in front of a live audience?

What is it about a live audience that throws a spanner in the works?

scared face

scared face by Kim

You’ve prepared thoroughly, you’re really looking forward to the performance, you know all your words and moves inside out, you’ve done it hundreds of times before, but as soon as you step out on stage ... something weird happens.

you can’t fake a live audience

There is no substitute for being in front of a real, live audience. You can do as much as you can to put people on the spot in rehearsal or try to ramp up the stakes, but it’s never quite the same.

You can’t predict how someone will behave in front of an audience. The coolest, most prepared person might be the one who crumbles the most. Whereas the little mouse who is reserved and always stands at the back might not be phased at all.

stage fright

Liz Garnett on Helping You Harmonise has written recently about Managing stage fright. This resulted from

“a discussion about how to help our singers go into performances calmly and confidently and be happy that they can deliver their best to their audiences.”

She covers three main themes:

  1. Structure and the fear of the unknown that can throw people.
  2. Director behaviour and how it can affect the singers.
  3. Mindset: inner focus on our fears vs. outer focus on what we’re doing.

But even if you have a clear and well-rehearsed structure, your director is cool, calm and collected, and you are totally focused on the job in hand, it can still go horribly wrong.

audiences are unpredictable

No matter how calm and focused we are, it doesn’t take much to wake our inner demons. The way an audience responds can do this instantly.

Maybe the front row looks a little bored; perhaps you expected them to clap a bit louder than they did; maybe there’s a lot of coughing in the auditorium.

It can be a tiny thing, but it’s enough to knock you out of the moment and back into your ego-led world of doubt.

But it’s not just the behaviour of the audience. They can be the best, most appreciative audience in the world, but the very fact that they’re sitting there watching you changes things.

... and so are performers

You may have had a cracking rehearsal and everyone was firing on all cylinders. But now, in front of an audience, this particular song is just not going as well as it did before. You begin to have doubts, you slip out of the moment again, and the song starts to deteriorate even more.

When you come to the next song, it’s hard to wipe your memory of the last one, so you start off a bit hesitantly, expecting it not to go well, and indeed it doesn’t.

why the rehearsal room is different

What’s going on here? What’s different from when we did that amazing rehearsal?

The audience.

The audience changes everything. The stakes appear to be higher. Our egos don’t want to disappoint or make fools of ourselves. It’s somehow not enough to just sing the songs as well as we can, we need to prove something.

In the rehearsal room it doesn’t matter. Yes, we are trying our hardest, but if it all goes wrong, then we can just try again, nothing lost.

In the rehearsal room everyone is our friend. We’re not being judged since everyone’s in the same boat.

can we do anything about it?


In my opinion there is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for being in front of an audience. It is impossible to duplicate the circumstances in rehearsal.

All you can do is make sure you are fully prepared and try not to have any expectations. You will do your best under the given circumstances and how the audience respond is out of your control.

If last night’s performance went brilliantly, you have to forget it.

If the last time you played this venue it all went horribly wrong, you have to forget it.

You have to cultivate what Zen calls a beginner’s mind. Each time you do something, no matter how many times you’ve done it before, you approach it as if it were the first time.

You set off to the performance with no expectations so everything is possible. Which is the scary, but exciting part!

how was it for you?

Do you have any horror stories to relate? What happens to you when you step out on stage? Have you discovered a way of preparing yourself for facing an audience? Do leave a comment and share your experiences.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

All change!

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as Moving on in October 2007.

In January 2008 I handed over the reins of my first choir WorldSong to a new musical director after ten years at the helm.

Woven Chords in action

This September – again after ten years – I will be handing over the leadership of Woven Chords. It’s time for a change.

but it’s always been like this!

As you probably realise by now, I am very sensitive to complacency and habit (see Breaking the habit of a lunchtime).

I am always on the lookout for different ways to do things, new challenges, ways of keeping people on their toes, possibilities for development and improvement, ways of raising the bar and stretching people (myself included).

Some people resist change and would be more than happy to continue doing the same thing week in, week out. Unfortunately, I’m the leader (of the gang, I am!) and if you sign up for my choir, you sign up to my vision and my way of working.

I really do believe that by constantly reviewing the way that I do things, finding new ways of approaching familiar material, having high expectations, taking people out of their comfort zone, etc. then individuals within the group improve their skills, the overall quality of the choir is better, and we constantly improve and move forwards.

The upshot of this philosophy is that there will come a time for me to hand over to someone else.

no leader is irreplaceable

Inevitably, any group of people working as a team with a ‘leader’ can come to believe that they can only do what they do because of the particular person leading them.

Obviously, the way that any particular group functions is highly influenced by the style and approach of their leader (conductor, director, coach – whatever). That person (if they’re any good) helps to mould and shape the group, and helps them to work as a team.

But I believe that there comes a point where that person should try to remove themselves from the picture, to make the group realise their own strengths and capabilities – strengths, talents and abilities that have now become independent of whoever happens to be leading them.

In fact, in terms of being a musical director and/ or teacher, I believe that my job is truly finished when I have succeeded in making myself redundant!

the time has come ...

Whenever there is a strong leader of a group or enterprise (artistic director of a theatre, conductor of an orchestra, curator of a gallery) it is very easy to think that any and all successes and achievements are down to that leader.

It may well be the case that a particularly strong individual leader can dramatically improve a group or project, but we must also realise that the individuals making up the group are also of vital importance and help to create the overall ‘flavour’. After all, if it weren’t for the members, then the enterprise wouldn’t exist at all!

I strongly believe that any such job should only be held for around five years, after which the leaders could perhaps rotate and move onto other similar organisations. Otherwise galleries or orchestras (or choirs) can become stale and too much a reflection of one particular individual’s vision.

So now it’s time for a big change, and the choir will move forward without me onto different (and hopefully bigger and better) things.

I am very sad to be moving on, and shall miss the choir and the individual members terribly. However, I am also very excited to see the choir grow in the future and to see what further delights are in store for all concerned. I won’t be completely disappearing however, and will stay in very close contact with both the choir and the new musical director. Here’s to the future!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, March 14, 2010

It’s all arranged

This is a guest post by Jocelyn Lavin whose blog is 2nd Altos like the bottom parts. She writes here about what makes a good choral arrangement. Contact me if you’d like to submit a guest post.

guitar chord

“The mood is right; the spirit’s up;
We’re here tonight, and that’s enough.
Simply having a wonderful Christmas time.”

I’ll never forget the rehearsal in which we first sang my a cappella arrangement of this song. (If you can’t remember how the song goes, you can listen to it here.)

arranging Christmas

My band doesn’t do many concerts - the main reason we rehearse regularly is because we love it! But we do get quite a few Christmas gigs, and over the years our repertoire has gradually added just about every Christmas song there is. And a couple of years ago, I had a moment of inspiration that resulted in the arrangement of Wonderful Christmas Time.

(In case you’re wondering, the moment of inspiration was this: previously, we’d only ever been able to do a cappella songs involving our guitarist if he was singing the tune – he’s great when he’s on the tune, but has trouble singing any other parts. But I had the song in my head, and it suddenly occurred to me that he should be able to sing not just the tune, but also the bass notes in the intro ... because they’re all the same note, and there are no other notes happening at the same time to put him off! The arrangement fell into place easily from there.)

I was delighted that we had a rehearsal planned for the next day, so I didn’t have to wait long to hear my arrangement. (I can hear very well in my head or on the computer, but it’s not the same as actual people performing!) I handed out the music, and we sight-read it, and at the end there was a brief moment of silence, after which we all looked at each other and literally laughed in delight. That’s happened a few times since then, but that night was the first. So, why were we so delighted?

Well, partly it was because we’d successfully sight-read the song with very few mistakes - it wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough that we didn’t need to stop at any point, and no-one got lost. This is quite a satisfying thing to be able to do, and we were all well aware that not many groups would be able to manage it as well as we could, so we felt very accomplished (and, yes, rather smug).

However, I think that even vocal groups who don’t use sheet music would enjoy this arrangement (we’ve loved it every time we’ve sung it, even though it’s not been sight-reading since that first time), and I want to try to identify a few of the reasons why.

1. allocating the tune

I mentioned earlier that my guitarist can usually only cope with a cappella songs if he’s singing the tune, and indeed he does get the tune through most of this arrangement - but he doesn’t have it all the way through. We all get a bit of it too.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any enjoyable a cappella songs in which one part has the tune throughout - variety is important. (Personally I also tend to prefer arrangements in which the sopranos hardly get the tune at all, but that’s probably because I'm an alto and I’m subconsciously trying to redress the balance!)

2. backing vocal lyrics

Many a cappella arrangements of pop songs have the backing parts singing nonsense syllables, because they’re impersonating instruments. This can actually work very well if the arranger knows what they’re doing - these parts can be great fun to sing! But I think it’s even more fun if the nonsense syllables are occasionally replaced by actual lyrics.

You have to be careful, though - this only really works if either the music is homophonic at that point (i.e. the backing parts have the same words - at the same time - as the part that has the tune) or the tune is having a rest. Otherwise, the result tends to be that all the words get muddied together and none of them can be heard.

3. interesting chords

Of course, this is usually down to the composer rather than the arranger, but it can be very satisfying to sing a series of chords that aren’t just basic triads (i.e have only three notes in them). My band particularly likes major sevenths, and there are loads of them in this song! Interesting chords also tend to result in close harmonies, which are always fun if it's a good enough group of singers. (Close harmonies are hard!)

4. appropriate vocal range and tessitura

This is never an issue when I’m writing for my band, because we've sung together for many years and I know their voices quite well. But I’ve certainly sung arrangements that I haven’t enjoyed very much because the arranger seemed not to know about tessitura (see Chris’s post But I can’t sing that high! for more about tessitura).

The actual range of printed parts is usually fine - even if you’re a new arranger, it’s easy enough to find out (from books or the internet) about the appropriate vocal range for each part. (Sibelius, the most popular score-writing software, even colours the notes red automatically if you go outside the standard range.)

But range is only half of it - tessitura has to be considered as well. If you’ve never heard the word, it refers to the part of the range that's used most in a particular song. For example, a soprano part that includes a lot of middle Cs would be described as having a very low tessitura - sopranos can sing a middle C, but it’s towards the bottom of their range, and if they had to sing a whole song in which most of the notes were in that area, they’d be quite uncomfortable. Whereas I’m a 2nd alto, so I like to sing low notes... and any arrangement which involves my part being mostly an octave (or more) above middle C is not going to be one of my favourites.

5. balance

Considerations of range and tessitura go hand in hand with the question of balance. By ‘balance’, I mean: can the tune be heard clearly, and are all the other parts audible - matching each other if necessary - without drowning the tune? In a choir, balance will usually need to be fixed by the conductor regardless of what the arranger does, because it’s very rare that a choir has exactly the right number of people in every section. But the arranger can make this an impossible task if he/she is incompetent.

Choral arrangements tend to be based on the assumption that there will be roughly the same number of people on each part - if an arrangement doesn’t assume that, it won’t work if anyone tries to sing it with one person on each part (and you never know when that might happen!)

So you might think that there would be all sorts of problems caused by the fact that most choirs have far fewer tenors and basses than they do sopranos and altos. But actually, unless the numbers are stupidly uneven, the balance should be OK, because in general men can sing louder than women.

There are further tessitura-related aspects that the arranger needs to take into account, too. If the sopranos or tenors are singing high notes, they’re likely to drown everyone else unless the dynamics are carefully indicated (and often even then!) Conversely, if the altos or basses have the tune, everyone else will need to shut up. There’s more to it than this, but you get the idea!

6. dynamics

Lots of songs don’t have many different dynamics in them – they’re sort of “loudish” all the way through - but some dramatic variations in dynamics can make arrangements immediately much more interesting; Wonderful Christmas Time, for example, has lots of sudden (and slightly corny) diminuendos. Great fun!

7. easy to sing

Well, we don’t want it to be too easy (no sense of accomplishment!) but there are ways of avoiding unnecessary difficulty.

The main one involves making the leaps between consecutive notes in the harmony parts as small as possible, unless you have a good reason not to. It’s much easier for singers to work out the next note if it’s the same as the previous one, or only one step away. Inexperienced choral arrangers tend to be quite bad at remembering this!

For example, imagine that the backing parts are singing a C major chord: the bottom part is on C, the middle part is on E and the top part is on G. The next chord turns out to be A minor. That's not too hard - they could all move down, so that the bottom part is on A, the middle part is on C and the top part is on E. (They could move up to the A, C and E an octave higher, but that would be a much bigger leap and therefore much harder - and it would sound horrible as well!) But you’ll have noticed that two of the three notes are the same in both chords ... so why not keep the bottom part on the C and the middle part on the E, and just move the top part to A?

There might be reasons why you don’t want to do that - the most likely of these would be that the bottom part is the actual bass part and it has a surprisingly big effect on the music when the root of the chord (the A in this case) isn’t in the bass part - but your default strategy should always be to let the parts move to the nearest possible note wherever possible.

8. geography

This probably isn’t such a big issue in choirs that don’t use sheet music, but I bet it’s still an issue! When I’m rehearsing with my band, if a song falls apart, nine times out of ten it’s a geography issue.

My score of Wonderful Christmas Time has no repeats - you start singing at the beginning, you keep turning the pages, you reach the end. I’m willing to bet that if it had had any repeats, we wouldn’t have successfully sight-read it without stopping at the first attempt.

It’s very easy to forget, in the heat of the moment, which page (or section on a page) you need to turn back to, and if there are alternative words for verse 2, that’s even worse! (And don't get me started on music in which the words are written under verse 1, and all the other words are in a block at the bottom of the page. Argh!)

there you go

So, there you go. Eight factors that contribute to good choral arrangements. They're not intended to be in order of priority – they’re all important. Mind you, that’s not to say that a good arrangement has to have all these features - but if it doesn’t, the arranger will have a good reason why not. What I am saying is that all these factors need to be considered.

Of course, the choir could then go on to ruin a brilliant arrangement by singing out of tune ... but that’s another story!

Jocelyn Lavin, Vamp Till Ready 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What are rehearsals for exactly?

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as Bad rehearsal = good concert? in December 2006.

There’s a strange thing that happens in choirs just as a concert is coming up. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong.


Benny Goodman at rehearsal by Fred Palumbo

Then the concert that follows is usually excellent! What’s going on here?

bad rehearsal = good concert?

Very often, in the session the week before, or even sometimes in the rehearsal on the day of the concert, it appears that everyone in the choir has forgotten what songs they know, which parts they sing, and what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s as if some group amnesia has spread like a virus, as well as knocking the energy out of everyone.

Directing the choir in these situations is like climbing uphill through mud and always makes me despair, even though I know it’s just part of the process and everything will (probably) be all right on the night.

But that doesn’t stop me from despairing and wishing that I was somewhere else and really worrying if we’re ever going to pull the concert off. In fact, I even worry if people are ever going to remember how to sing again at all!

Then the concert arrives and (usually) everything goes swimmingly and we all forget the awful rehearsal the week before.

Afterwards, on a high and like a dog with a short memory, we start looking forward to the next concert and hope that everything will go smoothly, until that is, we get to the dreaded rehearsal the week before and it all happens again.

Then we remember: “Ah, yes, this is what happened last time”. But there is nothing we can do, and we despair again and we plod on again and we pray that it will all turn out fine. And it usually does.

what are rehearsals for?

This reminded me of something that a theatre director once said to me (I wish I could remember who it was):

“Rehearsals are the place where we find all the ways of getting it wrong. Then we’re just left with the right way of doing things.”

This seems to be the opposite of how most people view rehearsals.

It is common for people to get stressed and give themselves a hard time when they get something wrong in rehearsal. Their aim (presumably) is to get everything perfectly right, anything less is unacceptable.

But surely it’s in the concert that we want to get everything right, not the rehearsal?

That’s why the occasionally brilliant rehearsal always disturbs me slightly. Have we peaked too early? Will the concert be as good? How can we get any better than this?

In rehearsal we can actively choose to pursue all the ways of getting it ‘wrong’. (I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post Getting the best out of your choir 4: preparing for performance PART 1.) We can sing a song as if we are the worst choir in the world; we can sing a gentle ballad as a raucous rock and roll song; we can quieten our big, loud finale song down and sing it as a lullaby.

Once we’ve explored and played with a song in this way, singers tend to not be so precious about doing it the ‘right’ way. It’s as if some light and air has been let in and given people permission to experience the song anew.

And if a song goes belly-up and pear-shaped of its own accord, you just have to laugh, realise that you can now reject this ‘wrong’ way of doing it, and move on to try and discover yet more ways of getting it ‘wrong’.

what rehearsals can’t do

One thing that a rehearsal can never prepare you for is being in front of an audience.

You can’t practice this at home or in the rehearsal room. You have to have a live audience in front of you, but by then it’s too late. I’ve written about this in my post Can you ever prepare yourself for being in front of a live audience?.

how do you approach rehearsals?

How do you view rehearsals? Are they nerve-wracking experiences or a bit of fun and a laugh? Do you feel really bad when something goes ‘wrong’? How might rehearsals be improved so that the concert goes better?

I wish you many good and enjoyable rehearsal where you playfully discard all the ‘wrong’ things and end up with a cracking concert.

new way to comment

Those of you who subscribe to this blog by email or RSS feed often don’t leave comments because there’s no need for you to visit the blog’s website!

Well now there is any easier way to leave comments. At the bottom of each post that is emailed to you, you will see something like the following:

* Comments * Share on Facebook * Twit Me!

Just click on Comments and you will be taken to the comments section of the blog where you can leave your feedback.

You can also share the post on Facebook and send it to Twitter by clicking on the relevant link.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, March 07, 2010

It’s hard to teach songs that people already know

I seem to be running lots of pop song workshops these days. But real love is for workshops where I can teach a lot of relatively simple songs so people can spend more time singing and less time learning.

kids singalong

But people keep asking for workshops to learn songs that they already know! And you’d think that would be easier – but it’s not.

Recently I ran a pop song workshop and it was hard work. We only got through three songs in six hours (with a break for lunch). That’s a lot of time, and not many songs. We didn’t even manage to learn the whole songs.

I could see people getting more tired and disillusioned as the day went on. After all, they’d come to sing simple pop songs – what’s the problem?

I was musing on this afterwards (in proper ‘reflective practice’ mode!) to see if I could improve things the next time I taught such a workshop.

Here’s what I came up with.

it’s hard to learn a song you already know

Most people are attracted to a Beatles or a Paul Simon or an ABBA workshop because they are already familiar with the songs. And there lies the problem.

In a harmony singing workshop this gives singers just two options:

  • sing the tune (a bit boring if that’s all you get to do all day), or
  • learn a harmony. Trouble is, it turns out that the harmonies are very hard to learn if you have the main tune fixed in your head – you keep reverting to it!

Yes, you can get the song up on its feet quickly because people are familiar with it, but as soon as you start working in detail, all sorts of problems arise. It’s not just the harmonies, but the lyrics and the rhythms prove difficult too.

You may well find that you’ve been singing the lyrics slightly wrong for years (the well-known ‘misheard lyrics’ syndrome). But now we have a room full of people who need to be singing the exact same words at the exact same time.

Then there are the tricky rhythms. Lots of pop song melodies use off beats. Most of us find off beats hard.

When we sing along to the record, we don’t notice that we’re slightly out with the timing because the lead singer is louder than us and getting it right.

But when we’re on our own, without the rest of the band, in a draughty church hall, it all begins to sound a bit dodgy.

I thought pop songs were easy!

Lots of people come to pop song workshops because they think the songs are straightforward. After all, it’s just disposable three minute pop fluff, not ‘serious’ music. Plus I can sing along in the car, so it can’t be that hard.

Yet the reason that classic pop songs stay with us and we enjoy hearing them again and again is that they are finely crafted pieces of work, often with surprises of harmony or rhythm. That’s what gives them their charm and makes them memorable.

As soon as we start to pick the songs apart in a workshop and strip them down to their basic components, we find out that most pop songs are very hard to sing!

At the very least we come away at the end of the day with a greater appreciation of the song writer’s talent, but it can be frustrating during the day as we struggle to make the song sound like it does on the record.

what do we mean by a ‘classic’ pop song?

Another disappointment for a punter can be that the songs that I’ve chosen for the workshop are not the ones they would have chosen. Everyone has their own list of favourites, which are usually different from their friends’ lists.

What I consider to be a ‘classic’ song might be unknown to another person or their least favourite song of all time. You can guarantee that for most people in the workshop, they won’t be learning what they’d hoped to learn!

I did a Beatles workshop once and planned to teach a great arrangement of John Lennon’s Across the Universe. Trouble is, nobody on the workshop had ever heard of it, even though it was one of my personal favourites.

let’s have a sing-along!

I offer a whole range of workshops: African, Eastern European, gospel, world music, sacred songs, and so on. For people to choose a particular workshop, they need to have some kind of reference point.

When people see ‘gospel’, they might think of Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. When they see ‘African’ they might remember that Ladysmith Black Mambazo once did the Heinz baked beans advert on TV. When they see ‘sacred’ it might bring back memories of boring church sermons when they were young.

And when they see ‘pop’ they feel young again and remember loads and loads of songs that they know and love. So they come to the workshop with huge expectations which can oh so easily be disappointed.

I reckon what most people who come to these workshops really want is to be in the band, or at least to sing along with them. Failing that, they’d like to sing along with a bunch of other people maybe with someone on the piano, or even a karaoke machine.

What most people don’t want to do is to put in the hard work to learn the harmonies and tricky bits (that are usually played on instruments any way). They want to be instantly in the groove of the song that they are very, very familiar with and which conjures up very specific memories for them.

That would be a sing-along workshop then. And there are lots of them. But it’s not what I – and many others – do.

it’s not just pop songs that are the problem

I teach unaccompanied harmony singing. It means you have to put a little bit of work in to get the songs sounding great. It often means choosing songs from cultures and genres that people aren’t perhaps familiar with, but I know from experience that when the songs are up on their feet, people usually love them.

But if it’s a pop song, it can be a big disappointment for all the reasons I’ve outlined above.

Actually, it’s not just pop songs, but any songs that people know well. It could be a bit of swing (Tuxedo Junction), some gospel (Oh Happy Day), hymns (Amazing Grace), folk songs (Blowin’ in the Wind). They all come with the same expectations and the same familiarity. And (unsurprisingly) they’re all in English.

To sum up: in my world, often the most satisfying and rewarding harmony singing workshops are those where people have never heard the songs before and are often in languages that they don’t know. We get through lots of songs, and we end up singing more than learning.

The workshops that are the hardest, cover less songs, and are least satisfying are those which deal with songs that people already know. And you end up doing more learning than singing.

a dilemma

From my perspective I’m faced with a dilemma.

If I offer a workshop people need to know about the songs I’m offering otherwise they won’t be interested. But if they’re familiar with the songs, we run into all the problems that I’ve outlined above.

If I offer an obscure foreign song workshop, people won’t come because they have no point of reference, but if they did, they would probably have a great time.

I guess it’s a marketing problem.

I’ve decided to take a risk and not offer my pop song workshops for the time being. If my work totally dries up I might have to have a rethink!

One option is to offer pop song workshops as more advanced singing workshops, not for the inexperienced.

what do you think?

I’d love to know what you think about my rambling rant. Have you had a disappointing experience at a singing workshop? Have your expectations not been met? Have you found familiar songs surprisingly difficult to learn in four part harmony? Why are you attracted to pop songs? What would attract you to an unfamiliar workshop?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

How songs are stored in your brain

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as The singing memory in February 2007.

In How to deal with song lyrics 2 a few weeks back, I said that I believe that song lyrics are stored in a different part of the brain from, say, poetry, phone numbers or lines from a play.


So how does the singing memory work? Where are songs stored in your brain?

time and memory

After only a short break from regular choir sessions, it’s as if people forget much of what they’ve learnt. Unlike riding a bicycle, just a short break from regular singing and it’s as if that part of the brain ‘forgets’ everything that it’s known. Even if we’ve been going over a song every week for the previous few weeks, just a short time off and the singing mind goes blank.

However, this only seems to affect short-term memory for songs.

Sometimes we really struggle with a song without ever quite getting it right. Then perhaps a year later – without re-visiting it at all in the meantime – we decide to sing it again and it comes out perfectly! There has been no extra practice or rehearsal or repetition. It’s lain dormant in the brain, and yet the subconscious seems to have been at work in that time.

having a break might help you remember

This phenomenon points to something about how the brain stores melodies and lyrics. A short break of just a week may have devastating effects, but a whole summer off and the choir often comes back sharp as nails.

Understanding this better might help us find more effective ways of teaching and learning songs.

After learning a new song for a few weeks, I get the choir to sing it through for a few more weeks. Then I leave it for a few weeks before we try it again in the belief that the subconscious has been squirreling it away more effectively in the memory.

how the brain remembers songs

There is definitely a different part of the brain involved in learning songs than that used to learn melodies for instruments or when learning ‘lines’ off by heart (e.g. poetry, plays, etc.).

Many times I can be asked what the lyrics to a song are and can only recall them by singing them. I can’t speak them or I’ll forget what’s coming next. The brain has stored the sounds and the words together, inextricably linked.

Similarly, when someone is struggling with a tune, often reminding them of the first few words is enough for the whole thing to kick in.

When singing a song we’ve not done for a while, I’m often convinced I don’t know the words (or the harmony). But I trust the process and just open my mouth and – as if by magic – the whole thing comes out almost despite me. There is even a conscious part of my brain that observes this process taking place and marvels at where the words and tune are coming from.

trust your own memory

Recently somebody asked for clarification of their harmony part so I sang it to them, believing that I knew it perfectly. Afterwards they said that they weren’t sure that’s exactly what I’d taught them originally. This sowed a doubt in my mind so I went to get the written score.

The second time I sang it, I realised that I had been absolutely spot on the first time! It was my subconscious brain that had remembered it. I just opened my mouth and trusted what came out. But as soon as someone asked me a question, my rational brain kicked in and I began to doubt myself.

I often see people singing hesitantly because their conscious mind is telling them that it’s not sure that they know what they’re doing. However, nine times out of 10 they’ve got it right, if only they’d trust themselves and the learning process.

At times like that I tell people to behave as if they know what they're doing and invariably it will come out right.

what can we learn from this?

Of course, everything I’ve written about here is anecdotal. I have no idea if there is any scientific evidence backing it up. But what I’ve learnt is this:

  • leaving a song alone for quite a while allows the brain to consolidate its learning in peace. You might want to build in gaps like this when teaching or learning new songs.
  • it’s no good drilling extra verses at home like you would when learning lines. You need to link the music with the lyrics. Better is to sing along with a recording whilst looking at the lyrics, then gradually hide them as you repeat the process.
  • you know songs better than you think. If you’ve not sung a song for a while, don’t panic and get the music or lyrics out, just trust the process and you will be amazed at what your subconscious mind has remembered.
  • don’t panic when you’re in the early stages of learning a song. If you learn a song quickly, you will forget it quickly. If you have a break from singing too soon in the process, you will forget the song quite easily. But it WILL come back. Just be patient.

do you have any handy hints?

Do you have any personal experiences you want to share about learning songs and lyrics? Do you have any handy hints that might make the lyric-learning process easier? Do drop by and leave a comment!


Chris Rowbury's website: