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:

Chris Rowbury


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