Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Men and singing 2: your collective wisdom

A few weeks ago I started a discussion here on Why men won’t sing and last week I debunked 15 myths about men and singing.

men singing

photo by erin m

I also sent out an email to everyone on my mailing list asking for advice on how to get more men singing. This week I want to share some of the suggestions I received. Do leave your own suggestions as a comment and we can try to get more men singing!

start slow and easy

“I would suggest easy, emotive, powerful songs with plenty of unison. Make it easy for them with familiar songs like ‘You'll never walk alone’. Once hooked then you can branch out !!” Trevor

target religious groups

“Target churches, synagogues and Bible colleges where men sing regularly ... although there are overall only 10% of Church attendees that are men!!” Ann-Marie

However, Marie points out that her “church choir is always desperately short of men.”

time to go to the gym!

“Perhaps the proprietors of a gym will let you have a table top and a CD player, and you could have a little advertising session for a morning.  Better still, get some singers along for a quartet/octet sing on the spot, with some posters saying ‘Singing is Healthy/ Singing is Fun’ sort of message.”  Teresa

make it a manly activity

“Lads [like to] go to the pub for a pint or so. Perhaps encouraging your basses to bond after choir would make it feel more like a ‘manly’ pursuit.” Fiona

“In some singing groups there is the emphasis on the gentle, romantic, caring and sharing, non competitive, easy-going nature of the activity as opposed to the more overtly challenging: ‘Let’s do it better; that was atrocious; we have a performance tomorrow for *’s sake; surely you can give more volume; shake the walls, blast it out'; sing this war chant as if you're going into battle for *’s sake!!!’

Obviously this is an exaggerated scenario, but would some men possibly prefer a better balance?” Malcolm

“Many of the songs are not what I would call robust; I wonder if they appeal more to women? (I now feel that if someone asks me to sing another preachy song I’ll scream!)  I would like to see maybe sea shanties. What would it be like if men had the tune and women were the backing?” Patricia

offer financial incentives

“If an existing choir member recruits a bass, offer a 50% discount on his/ her subscription.” Fiona

avoid the ‘choir’ word!

“Men will commit to things like Rotary, Masons, etc. Why? Is it because they can say: ‘I’m off to my networking event/ charity fundraising event’ rather than ‘I’m off to choir now, dear’?

The word ‘choir’ might seem rather churchy to some ... I personally love being in bands and adore your workshops but I’m not sure I would want to commit to a ‘choir’ ... and I’m not even a man!” Fiona

singing as a motivational tool

“Introduce singing as a motivational tool in business and sport settings: ‘sing to win'!’” Jeremy

go where the men are

“Base a workshop in a pub?? A football ground??? Set it up as a competition?” Linda

emphasise the health benefits

“If you’re advertising from the point of view of health benefits, why not advertise via GP surgeries/ health centres/ pharmacies and get the cooperation of the health professionals there?” Marie

allow men to be ‘bad’ singers

“I think people need permission to be bad singers before they learn to become good singers, otherwise they are frightened in case they are not good enough and will ‘fail’ and embarrass themselves. Maybe you could advertise for ‘bad singers who’d like to be good’ or something!!  Aimed at those who sing in the shower or the football match but nowhere else.” Marie

“Make it OK to come along and just listen. Fear of the unknown is part of it.” Theresa

don’t insist on regular commitment

“Men may be willing to come if you set a quota that you want at the event and make it clear that they are really, really needed. But they don't need to make any long term commitment — it's only a one-off.” Frances

“[I know of] a group that meets monthly, just to sing, rarely to perform, and has a good proportion of men. I think many of your comments ring true here, some like the drop-in, non-commitment idea.” Angela

vocal range isn’t everything

“Many men know their voices are limited — the notes you can’t reach. Most men have no idea that actually a choir offers the chance to sing parts that allow them to optimise their vocal limitations; that their gravelly rumblings can actually be very valuable.” Lionel

offer/ emphasise voice training

“I don’t think I would have tried [the choir] if I hadn’t done Vocal Academy first. They offered seven weeks of voice TRAINING which made all the men think they were amongst novices who wouldn’t judge them. They advertised quite widely.” Lionel

“Would it be worth doing a half day workshop, just for those men who think they cannot sing?” Alan

build a workshop around a sporting event

“Maybe a ‘preparation for the six nations rugby’ singing course might work for dads and lads where they can learn some of the well-known rugby songs, but then you can also chuck some African songs in there without them knowing.” Mags

start with men-only

“Start some men-only choirs to mirror your mixed choirs. Keep it simple for as long as it takes, keep it fun always.  Once your men get comfortable singing with themselves and each other then that is the time to introduce them to the horrors of a mixed choir.” Rodger

keep the male harmonies interesting

“Perhaps men need to get to sing the tune more. Bass parts can be extremely boring. Tenor parts can be baffling.” Jeremy

create a choir for a one-off event

“For one or two men to join an established choir with an extensive well-rehearsed repertoire is very daunting and it may seem to take ages for the new boy to feel comfortable and competent to sing in public. So this model sets up a choir for a limited period with the aim of performing in a major concert for charitable reasons. It requires a lot of money and commitment from quite a lot of people.

... we did extensive advertising through a 35,000 leaflet drop

... So far we have spent nearly £3000 and it has been very demanding of members’ time.” Peter

take singing to the workplace

“I used to give massages at work and men would come to have massages but wouldn’t go to a health therapist in their own time. So maybe start a choir in a big business block during lunch time!!! That might get them interested and give them a good taster” Mirjam

target the business world

“I was speaking to a friend who is a human resources executive and she suggested you target  the business world — especially large companies and organisations — and pitch it as a ‘stress-busting’ exercise.  Singing could be used as a team-building exercise or even as competition between different departments!” Veronica

give the singing a purpose

“Give them a reason !!!! Men like a challenge.” Nick

“Maybe men need a ‘real-life’ purpose for their singing, not just singing for the sake of it? Workplace (miners for example) or church/ chapel or political activity (African townships), football terrace, or even rugby club. Many of the cultural spaces in which singing is ‘normal’ have disappeared from British society over the past generations.” Robert

have men-only time in choir sessions

“What I found helpful is a men-only time within choir practise. Our pianist takes the men for about 20/30 mins. and rehearses their parts.” Beate

create a challenge or competition

“Most men are competitive. Singing in a choir requires collaboration. Just turning up and singing for the sake of it doesn’t make sense to men. There needs to be a challenge, either a competition against other choirs or the challenge of a difficult piece of music, which needs to be finished and performed to an audience.” Simon

offer plenty of praise

“Men love public praise and appreciation. Whilst I can understand that it is difficult in your Saturday workshops to complete a piece to a polished standard, men need to experience a completed product that is finished to a high standard and then be praised for it.” Simon

“At the end of the workshop get the men to perform at a concert — a couple of songs learnt that day.” Grenville

“[I was in a choir that] was lead by a husband and wife team who were both technically excellent. However the husband made jokes at the male singers’ expense. I realised that as a bass singer I have got used to that as it has happened in other choirs but it annoys me.

Occasionally his wife would take the men’s sectional rehearsals. She never made jokes about us, she was always encouraging and always saw the positive in our singing. That made such a difference. Those rehearsals have been real highlights in my singing life. Give men lots of warm and genuine praise.” Simon

run a sporting anthem workshop

“Arrange a sporting anthem workshop targeting all the men who regularly sing football and rugby songs. There is a superb selection of songs: ‘When the Saints’, ‘You’ll never walk alone’, national songs like ‘Bread of Heaven’ (Wales), ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Swing low sweet Chariot’ (England). I've forgotten what Scotland’s and Ireland’s are, but you get the idea.

A mail out to all the football and rugby clubs would be manageable.  The workshop would probably have to be out of season in the summer.

The theory behind this is that this is for men who love singing with their mates but who wouldn’t think about joining choirs. If they enjoy the experience, then who knows?” Irene

get secondary school boys singing

“Most boys are happy to sing, enjoy it no end in fact, but in about the last six months to a year of Primary school it becomes harder to retain them in the choir. Once they’re at the comprehensive there will be nooooooo singing. Singing (lack of) at Secondary level is a huge issue

I’m sure it's about what happens between 10 and 16. Work with male teachers!” Theresa

“Do a schools presentation about singing and trot along the best and most macho of the men you have to speak about it.” Linda

set an upper age limit

“The perception of many male choirs is of old men — and in fact this is true! Set a senior age limit ... unpopular / ageist but the only way.” Grenville 

catch ’em young

“[There has been some] success with dads and lads choirs. You could still have an age restriction: no under-tens, etc. The breakthrough seems to come with a real family connection and support plus younger children all being enabled to perceive themselves as singers before the age of ten, then moving onto all-male choirs later.

When the younger lads get into singing, the more likely they and the dads continue to join choirs.” Gloria

get a celebrity in!

“Hire in someone with a reputation for getting men to sing — a TV face not a choral conductor — the men you want will have no idea who they are. Bob Chilcott would attract choral singers but the men you want won’t have the faintest idea who he is.” Grenville

any more ideas?

Over to you now. I’m sure there are lots of other great ideas out there. Do drop by and leave a comment to share them with us.

Next week I’ll share with you what I think are the best ideas and practical ways to take this forward (Men and singing 3: seven ideas to get more men involved). Do let me know if you have any suggestions or are actively trying to recruit men yourself.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Choirs: is old age an issue?

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

After reading my post Over-rehearsed or under-prepared: which is better? Dawn contacted me about a problem she has with her choir.

Dawn writes:

“Enjoyed reading your article. As usual.

My problem is slightly different as we only meet once a month, and all the members are over 60. Often they tend to forget the points we worked on the previous month, or they are anxious to move on to other songs (or both, to be honest).

Where do I go from there? Any ideas would be gratefully received.”

choristers are getting older

The fact is that singers in choirs these days are getting older. For some reason singing in a choir seems to attract 50-somethings and people who have retired. In all the community choirs and singing workshops I have run, the majority of people are at least in their mid-forties and older. We are all finding it hard to recruit younger members.

Does this matter? Does it affect the way that a choir is run or its repertoire? Personally, I don’t think it makes a difference.

forgetting things from session to session

Dawn says that her singers tend to forget points that they worked on the previous month. Well, some of my singers forget what they were doing the previous week or at yesterday’s rehearsal!

The longer the gap between sessions, the more likely that people will forget what they did. If you do have to have long gaps between sessions then there are two obvious solutions:

  1. make each session self-contained and don’t depend on anything needing to be remembered from one session to the next
  2. give aids to people to help them remember, e.g. recording of parts or written outline of what happened in the session

wanting to move onto new material

This taps into my recent post on specialist versus generalists. Some people feel that they’ve done enough of one song thank you very much and want to move onto new songs. Whereas some of the group might want to keep on working on the same song until it’s perfected.

In this case you need to steer a course between the two extremes. Maybe leave a song for one session, and bring it back in the next one so it feels fresh.

Some people just come for fun and don’t really want to work on a song too much, they just want an opportunity to sing. Maybe they’re in the wrong group and need to go to a ‘songs from the shows’ kind of choir where lots and lots of songs are sung each session to a piano accompaniment. Learning a song properly is a different kettle of fish.

If you are clear about the kind of choir you want to establish, then you need to stick to your guns. People sign up to your choir because they like what you do. You need to decide exactly what kind of choir it is that you want to create.

If you don’t want to keep moving onto other songs, then don’t. People will respect your authority and you will eventually end up with a choir of singers who agree with the way you run things. Don’t stand for any nonsense!

songs for a particular era?

Many people seem to remain stuck in the music of their youth. I can’t relate to that myself as I’m always on the lookout for new stuff. But the fact is I know people in their 50s who still only listen to early 70s bands and people in their 60s who only like rock and roll.

But this is to stereotype people. Just because somebody is old, does it mean they only want to sing ‘White cliffs of Dover’ or ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’?

In fact, unless it’s a simple sing-along session, trying to learn an arrangement of a well-known song can be very hard (see my post: It’s hard to teach songs that people already know). Why not find material that is fresh and new for everyone in the group?

we’re not that old!

There are so many offers and schemes out there for the “over 50s”. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel like I’m OLD and on the scrap heap at 57 (I know, I know, I don’t look that old ...)!

Age is in the mind. I know 16-year-olds who behave like 80-year-olds, and we have an 84-year-old woman in my choir who acts like a spring chicken. It’s all about attitude. The fact that your singers are over 60, Dawn, is irrelevant I believe.

do you work with older singers?

Of course, working with singers who might have health issues (limited mobility, dementia, breathing problems, etc.) can be problematic, but generally I don’t think that age is an issue.

What do you think? Do you work with older singers in your choir? Do you find that they are more forgetful or want to keep moving onto new songs? Do leave a comment and share your experience.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Men and singing 1: 15 myths debunked

A few weeks ago I started a discussion here on Why men won’t sing.

At around the same time I sent out an email to everyone on my mailing list asking for advice on how to get more men singing.

rugby singing

time for another song by willposh

I have been overwhelmed by the responses I got, so many, many thanks to all of you who took the time to respond. Many people wrote long and thoughtful replies which it is taking me some time to read through.

I did promise that I would feedback the responses as a post on this blog. Well, it’s coming, but it might take a little longer than I thought!

This will be the first in a series of posts analysing all the responses I received and throwing some more ideas into the pot.

First off I thought I’d identify a few myths (in no particular order) that seem to keep cropping up. Do let me know if you agree or not!

myth 1: men sing at sports games

Men don’t sing at football matches or rugby matches or ball games, they chant – sometimes in rhythm (which is quite tricky to do). Another way of describing it is shouting (roughly) in tune . But it’s not singing as we know it. It’s rather like that scene in Cabaret where Liza Minnelli stands under a railway bridge and screams her head off as a train passes above her. It’s just a way of letting off steam.

myth 2: bass parts are always boring

Many men complain that the bass parts are just a drone or a load of ‘dum dums’. “Basses never get the tune” they moan.

I did a little survey of the 30+ songs we did in our recent concert. Hardly any of them were drones, in several cases the men got the tune. In any case, with a well-written arrangement, every part will feel like the tune. And if it’s not a familiar song, who knows which bit is the tune any way?

myth 3: men’s confidence is easily destroyed

And women are supremely confident all the time? Both men and women are often under-confident about singing or any other thing that they don’t think they’re very good at. But the women step forward and give it a go regardless. Why not the men?

myth 4: men are shy, vulnerable creatures ...

... who are afraid of getting things wrong or standing out in a crowd

Yeah, right! You really believe that men (who will posture, compete, show off, be loud, draw attention to themselves, etc. at the drop of a hat) are shrinking violets?

myth 5: men are scared of women

At least they seem to be scared of women en masse. I hear this a lot. I have spent most of my life being in the minority in mixed groups. So much so that I don’t notice it any more. What is there to be scared of exactly? This is just another myth that perpetuates the ridiculous idea that men are small frightened creatures who need to be protected from the harsh world out there!

myth 6: men don’t leave the house much ...

... and if they do it’s to go down to the pub.

Apparently 52 pubs a week are closing in the UK. More men than women tend to go to pubs, so it’s clear that men are deserting pubs in their thousands. Where do they go? Do they stay at home and open a six-pack? Are you seriously telling me that men don’t need stimulation (evening classes, cinema, fishing) and are happy to sit in front of the box every evening?

myth 7: singing is not a macho activity

Try telling that to the New Zealand boys doing the haka! Or the Shouting Men from Finland. Or Only Men Aloud. Or the Zulus surrounding the British at Rourke’s Drift in the movie Zulu. Or the seriously macho Corsican guys in their quartets. Or the Sicilian tenores who look like they should be in the mafia.

myth 8: there are ‘men’s songs’ ...

... and there are ‘women’s songs’

Oh, please! Don’t get me started!!! Women like pink and fluffy and men like blue and rugged? Most of the male group songs that have topped the charts have been wishy washy ballads (see Westlife, Boyzone, etc. or Il Divo and the like). Women who top the charts tend to be raunchy and gutsy (Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Madonna). You think men like hard rock and women like ballads? Think again!

myth 9: men only like challenges ...

... and are very competitive

Sure, they might have that tendency. In which case why not try singing. They seem to think it’s difficult so there’s a challenge for you! And why not compete to be the best (singer, choir, performance)?

myth 10: men don’t like being part of a group

Try telling that to a bunch of football supporters – or bowls club or stag party or army squad or stock exchange floor or rugby team.

myth 11: men don’t like commitment

In which case there would be far less marriages out there! Again it’s assuming that men are wishy washy and can’t make their minds up or put their money where their mouth is. If that were the case, businesses would be folding daily. Maybe they don’t like certain commitments. I guess it’s about priorities and men don’t prioritise singing (or the arts or socialising or sharing their feelings).

myth 12: men are put off singing when their voices break

I’ve talked to loads of blokes about this and most of them can’t remember their voices breaking. Most of us go through this quite quickly and move on. The idea of a squeaky uncontrollable voice that wavers up and down for months on end to the ridicule of all your mates is a bit of a stereotype and tends to happen just in movies (or to a minority of lads). In any case, it’s just a small thing in a long life and soon forgotten.

myth 13: men have more work commitments than women

I have met loads of high up female executives, consultants, and business leaders in my choirs and singing workshops. They attend regularly and are always keen and on time. On the other hand, I often hear that a bloke “can’t make it tonight, I have to work late”. How come there’s one rule for women and another for men? If the blokes really want to come singing, they’ll find a way.

myth 14: men find harmony singing harder than women

Oh, yeah??!! Nonsense!

myth 15: if you introduce singing to boys at primary school they will continue to sing throughout life

I sang at primary school. We had loads of music and singing at school when I was a kid. I joined the primary school choir and I was in the local church choir. When I went to big school at 11 I pretty much stopped singing (except for the school song on founder’s day and a bit of camp fire singing at boy scouts). I only took up singing again in my late 30s. I meet lots of people – both men and women – who start singing again in their 40s and 50s even though they sang regularly at school.

do you agree?

Well, that’s a few myths debunked I hope. Do you agree? I’d love to hear from you.

Next week I’ll share some of the ideas that you came up with for how to get more men singing (Men and singing 2: your collective wisdom).


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Two approaches to choirs and singing: specialist or generalist?

Last week I wrote about whether it’s better to be over-rehearsed or under-prepared. I talked about people who like to spend a long time working on one thing in order to perfect it versus those who like to do just enough work on a piece before moving onto something new.

special vs general

We can characterise these two kinds of people as specialists (focusing in depth on just one thing) and generalists (having a wide range of interests and influences). I want to look at how these apparently opposing approaches affect singing and choir leading.

two kinds of person

There are two kinds of people in the world – those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t!

You can divide the world up in lots of ways like this. Here are two different approaches to life, music, the universe and everything:

  1. single minded – a deep immersion in one thing: this requires a narrow and focused approach which involves constant working away at a single idea
  2. broad interests - trying lots of different alternatives: this involves a wide and eclectic approach and looking at many different ideas

We can think of these two kinds of people as:

  1. specialists – they know a lot about a small range of things
  2. generalists – they know a little about lots of different things

east vs. west/ deep vs. wide

I was once told a story about these two different approaches. It was to demonstrate the basic differences between how we do things in the West, and how those in the East tackle the same problems.

Two people are in a field looking for buried treasure. One is Japanese, the other British (sorry, it’s racial stereotype time!).

The Japanese person chooses a likely looking spot in the middle of the field and starts digging. And keeps on digging in the same spot, the hole becoming deeper and wider with time.

The British person also chooses a likely looking spot and begins to dig. But after a reasonable depth, it is clear the treasure is not there, so they choose another spot and try that.

Slowly the Japanese person turns the whole field into one big hole, and finally uncovers the treasure. In the meantime, the British person has dug many, many holes which cover the entire area and also finds the treasure.

Specialists will tend to dig in the same spot, going deeper and deeper into a topic, becoming more expert in one particular area in their chosen field.

Generalists will look at a wide range of possibilities, checking each one out until they get an overall view of the whole field interest.

the specialist

The specialist will want to know a lot about the song that’s being worked on. They will find out all about the meaning, where it comes from, what different versions there are. They like to spend a long time rehearsing the song in order to tease out all its subtleties and to really go deep into the music.

Over time, the specialist will slowly increase their repertoire until they have a small body of songs within the same genre. They will know a lot about the performance styles of these kinds of songs and will always attempt an ‘authentic’ performance.


  • knows a great deal about one specific area
  • is an expert in their chosen field
  • goes deep into the subject
  • pays attention to details (lyrics, dynamics, meaning, pronunciation, etc.)
  • rehearses a lot until the song is perfect
  • can result in ‘authentic’ performances within a specific genre
  • tends to stick at the job at hand until it’s done
  • focuses on  product rather than process
  • disciplined in rehearsal
  • offers a lot to those interested in a specific genre (e.g. gospel, Bulgarian)


  • can lose sight of the bigger picture: individual singers can sound great, but the overall sound of the choir might not be that good
  • as a singer, can become self-absorbed: only focusing on your part can mean you freak out when the other harmonies are introduced
  • singers can end up being control freaks: they complain that the people around them in their part are not singing exactly what they’re singing
  • choir leaders can end up being control freaks: they try to realise the perfect performance of a song and forget they’re dealing with human beings
  • rehearsals can end up being too much like studying and not enough fun
  • restricted diet of songs: like having a gourmet meal, but every course is made of smoked salmon
  • songs can end up being over-rehearsed
  • has limited appeal (i.e. to those interested in just the one genre)

the generalist

The generalist often choose songs that simply speak to them and move them. They tend not to be too interested in the background of a song, but are more concerned with bringing it to life in the here and now. They rehearse quickly and effectively until the song is pretty much up on its feet before moving onto the next song.

Over time the generalist will build up a huge repertoire ranging over a large number of different styles, genres and cultures. Performances will always be rich and varied with songs presented in interesting and different arrangements and formats.


  • knows about lots of different styles, genres and cultures
  • sees the overall picture
  • offers variety and an introduction to a wide range of music
  • tends to be concerned more with process than product
  • makes songs their own, not as concerned with ‘authenticity’
  • more interested in the sound of words rather than their meaning
  • rehearsals are fun and relaxed
  • good at making connections between different genres
  • doesn’t get bogged down, but moves on when necessary
  • offers something for everyone


  • approach can be seen as too lax: some people like more discipline
  • not enough attention paid to details or to individual singers
  • choir leaders can end up feeling burnt out as ‘song factories’ always having to offer something new
  • never quite get to grips with one genre, always moving on
  • rehearsals can be fun, but performances might not be polished enough
  • too much focus on the overall sound might mean you don’t pay enough attention to learning your own part well
  • laid-back leadership might mean singers don’t work hard enough
  • singers may get confused by lack of clear instruction and not sure what song they’re working on or what style they’re supposed to be in

what type are you?

Personally I’m always looking for new challenges, new kinds of song, new adventures. I can get bored quite easily so I’m very much in the ‘generalist’ camp.

Of course, this division into two types is very artificial. The ideal choir leader or singer is always a mix of both these approaches.

But which type do you tend to be? What about your choir leader? What if there’s a mismatch between singers and choir leader in their approach? Can you think of anything I’ve left out in my upsides and downsides?

Do drop by and leave a comment!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Trust me – you know it makes sense

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as In you I trust in March 2007

The idea of trust has come up quite a few times in my last few posts.

trust building

Trust that you will eventually learn the song; trust that, even if you’re slightly under-rehearsed, your musical director will guide you through the concert OK; trust in your co-leaders if you teach with others.

trust your choir leader

When you join a choir, you give a huge amount of control over to the choir leader. You sign up for their particular vision and approach to choral singing.

Gradually you get a sense (I hope!) that the choir leader knows what they’re doing. As you encounter tricky songs and difficult songs, but come through unscathed, you begin to trust your director more and more.

In an earlier post I introduced the idea that your director is rather like the leader of an expedition: they know how to map read, what to do if you get lost, and they have all the right equipment. But they don’t necessarily know where you’re going to end up. You have to trust that they will lead you somewhere interesting. (see What the job of choir leader involves: your MD may know the ‘how’ but not the ‘what’)

trust in the process

The concert is fast-approaching and you’re not 100% confident with some of the songs. You’re not sure which song comes next, where you enter, whether you’re doing the third verse or not, and plenty of other details seem very fuzzy. It all seems to be a mess and it looks like it’s going to go horribly wrong.

But you’ve been here before. Remember that you’ve done lots of successful concerts and they’ve all turned out OK. And if you think hard enough you’ll remember that you had exactly the same misgivings the last time you did a performance! Trust that it will turn out OK – it usually does.

The song is really, really tricky. You just don’t seem to be able to get it. The structure is complex and the lyrics are particularly difficult. Maybe you should just let this one go and not bother learning it.

But remember all those other songs when you’ve felt the same thing. And now they’re some of your favourites and you can sing them with no problems at all. Just trust that you need to go through some learning pains to get there, but you will eventually learn the song well.

This song is just awful! You really, really don’t know why your choir leader chose it. It’s a dirge and will never sound any good. The tenors keep messing their bit up and your part is really, really boring. The audience will hate it!

But think about all the songs in your repertoire. Did you like them all equally at first? Almost certainly not. And there’s just one song you don’t like (even though you love all the others), that’s not a bad percentage. Somebody else is bound to like it. Trust that your choir leader has taste and an overview of what songs will work for your choir.

trust your fellow singers

As I pointed out the other week, there do tend to be some control freaks in the world! There are also people who focus on the details (I’ll be writing about this next Sunday) without getting a good overall picture.

These people often worry about the other people singing the same part as them. They notice if someone gets a note wrong, or forgets to sing a passage quietly. They begin to notice the other singers (and parts) more and more and stop focusing on their own singing and learning. This makes them quite tense and means that they can end up focusing on the wrong thing and not pay attention to the conductor.

You need to trust your fellow singers. They are all in the same boat as you and are all as competent as you, it’s just that they may learn and develop at different rates. You can’t control them individually, so stop trying, trust they will do their best, relax and enjoy your own singing!

trust (and believe in) yourself

I’ve had people come up to me who are convinced they are the worst singer in the world. They feel under-confident, insecure and insignificant (although feeling that you are the worst ever singer is rather arrogant and self-centred!).

These singers are often convinced that they shouldn’t be in the choir. They are obviously spoiling the overall sound and making it difficult for the other singers who are much, much better than them. Actually, it’s probably best if they leave the choir altogether – after all, nobody will notice that they’re not there.

But what if every singer thought this? There would be no choir at all!

You need to believe that every other singer is the same as you. They all have their doubts and difficulties, you’re not the only one. Trust that you will do your best (like everyone else), that you are as important as every other singer, and believe that you can deliver the goods.

do you have to earn trust?

Some people find it difficult to trust until someone has really proved themselves in all sorts of situations. Even then, they might not trust them 100% (ah, yes, those control freaks again!).

But instead, what if you trusted people on sight and gave them the benefit of the doubt?

What if, when you first join a choir, you assume that the director knows what they’re doing. Trust them totally from the off and see what happens. Similarly, trust your fellow singers even if they’re strangers. After all, you’re doing your best, so why not assume they are too?

I often say to my choir that they should behave as if they know what they’re doing and the rest will follow. Behave as if you know the song well and you will surprise yourself by how much you DO know AND you will look confident.

Behave as if you are relaxed and enjoying yourself and you will soon find that it all feels like so much fun.

Behave as if everyone else is 100% trustworthy and you will find that they seem to rise to your expectations and prove themselves worthy.

having an off week

What prompted my original post In you I trust was that I had a bad choir session. These happen when I’m not feeling very well, or I’m distracted, or it’s just one of those things, like the weather. Or when you have a ‘difficult’ rehearsal, nothing seems to go right, and the choir seem to have collectively forgotten everything they ever knew.

You can either panic, throw the towel in, or trust that it’s all going to work out OK.

All we can do is trust that we have done our preparation, both collectively (I have taught the songs well and we have rehearsed them sufficiently) and individually (choir members have done their homework, learnt their words and know their part). That is all we can do: prepare well. We then need to trust in the process and try to relax and enjoy the performance.

This same notion of trust comes in when people don’t think they can ‘sing’. If I behave as if everyone can sing and the song we are learning is not difficult, then it’s as if am giving permission for people to be their best. It is handing over responsibility to the individual, giving them space fully to be themselves, trusting that they can do it. And the results are usually marvellous!

Trusting people doesn’t mean becoming complacent and not trying. You do have to do the work and make sure you prepare well. It doesn’t matter how many times we have performed well, I still need to make sure that we work hard to make the concert the best it can be (maybe even better than last time!). Otherwise we will just rest on our laurels and the whole thing may be a disaster.


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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Over-rehearsed or under-prepared: which is better?

I don’t like rehearsing. I’d much rather turn up on the day, trust the singers I’m working with and just busk it.

bad singing Tenors

                photo by Prestwick                             photo by ~BC~

But some people love to rehearse. They worry away at a song for months until they feel that they’ve perfected it.

Neither of these extremes seem to be ideal, but which is better?


I really, really don’t like rehearsing. Neither as a singer nor a choir leader. I get bored easily. Once a song is pretty much up and running, I’m done and want to move onto the next thing.

Personally, if I go over something too many times it becomes stale. Sometimes it even gets worse!

I used to play squash from time to time. When I first went out on the court after not playing for a while, I was really quite good. But if I ended up playing several days in a row, I got gradually worse. I work very much from instinct and if I repeat something too many times, I become analytical which gets in the way.

Similarly the choir might have been having trouble getting a song right. We rehearse it week after week and it just doesn’t gel. Then we have the summer break. First week back we give the song one more try and it’s perfect!

The same thing’s at work here: if you worry away at something too much, your intellect gets in the way and stops you from doing it well. Rather like the amateur golfer who is asked to analyse their swing. As soon as they focus on what they’re doing, it all goes wrong.

I’d much rather rehearse just enough then leave the rest up to a mutual trust of the other singers and their musicianship, and being focused and in the moment.

The positive aspects of this approach are that the performance can be:

  • fresh and new – as if for the first time
  • exciting and alive
  • with a sense of total focus (and slight danger!)

The negative aspects are that it can end up being:

  • unpolished and rough round the edges
  • amateurish
  • full of mistakes
  • a display of fearful and under-confident singers


Some people like to rehearse a lot and go over a song many times. They feel that this in-depth treatment improves their understanding and performance of the song and also enables the singers in the group to get to know each other better and hence work better together.

The positive aspects of this approach are that:

  • everyone always knows exactly what they’re doing
  • subtle nuances and depths of songs can be brought out
  • the singers can be playful with the song and each other because they feel totally secure with the material

The negative aspects can be that:

  • the performance can feel tired and uninspired as if the singers are just going through the motions
  • the song is too polished and soulless
  • the singers appear to be over-confident and arrogant

which do you prefer?

I’ve nailed my colours to the mast, but what about you? I’m of the opinion that, like seasoned session musicians, you can work with complete strangers after just a few rehearsals as long as you trust their musical abilities.

Do let me know which of these two camps you belong to. Or maybe there’s a middle way that I’ve not thought of.

specialists vs. generalists

Following on from this topic, in next week’s  post I’m going to look at the notion that people are either specialists (focusing in depth on just one thing) or generalists (having a wide range of interests and influences) and what effect this has on the choirs they lead or the singing they do.


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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Learning songs by ear

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared in February 2007 as Papa’s got a brand new song.

Many people have no idea how a song is learnt by ear. They assume that written music is a must. But don’t forget that people have been singing (and learning) songs for thousands of years without music.

Listening ears

my listening ears by niclindh

But what is the best way to go about learning a song by ear? How long does it take? Are there any shortcuts? Why bother?

new season, new songs

The beginning of any new season with the choir is always shaky as I usually start three or four new songs at once. We never finish a song in a single session, but keep a few on the go for several weeks at various stages of completion. I personally believe that this variety is a better way of learning (but what do I know?!).

In the first few weeks singers often don’t have a clear grasp of where a song is going or what the final version will actually sound like. Some people have suggested that I play the choir the full song before I start to teach it, but often I don’t have a recording or perhaps it’s a new arrangement that I’ve not tried before. In any case, I want people to keep an open mind about how we might end up presenting the song, rather than slavishly trying to reproduce what they’ve heard on a recording.

it’s new for me too!

Another issue is that I might not be familiar enough with the song, despite the fact that I’ve spent ages on it at home!

I practice and practice and think I know it inside out, but then in front of the choir when everyone’s a bit tired and we’ve already begun two new songs that evening, I suddenly realise that I’ve not totally nailed a particular interval or part of the harmony and it all goes pear-shaped.

This can also happen when choir members are learning or revising songs on their own. You practice at home and think you know it perfectly, but once you’re at choir with a bit of pressure and all the other singers around you, it all goes out the window.

My advice is to practice the song in as many different contexts as possible: whilst doing the washing up or driving or cooking or gardening ... in fact anywhere other than just sitting quietly doing nothing. This will help to prepare you for the many distractions when you’re back with the choir.

repetition, repetition, repetition

Unlike most people in the choir, I get to learn all the parts of every song. This is mainly due to simple repetition. I now know all the parts to over 600 songs!

People often ask: “how do you manage it?”, “how do you remember them all?” Maybe I have some talent for it (I know I have a good ear) but the main thing is that I get to repeat each song or part at least four times when teaching a new song – that’s four times more than most people.

So here’s a hint when learning a new harmony song: listen to the other parts attentively while they’re being taught (resist the temptation to natter!), you then learn the words more easily and can also sing your part in your head at the same time and see how the harmony works. In short, you get to repeat the new song or part many more times.

we’re no longer an aural or oral culture

In many of the cultures that I source songs from, people start “learning” songs when they are children. They repeatedly hear others singing the same song, over and over again from a very early age. Even if there’s no conscious effort to learn it, a song will get into the brain of those who hear it despite themselves.

We see a similar effect with the children of choir members who hear their parents singing their part around the house. Before we know it, they know the song better than we do!

Basically, we are trying to short circuit years of repeatedly hearing a song in different contexts, so what we are doing is slightly artificial. To make things easier, musical notation was invented and people started using written scores instead of really listening and relying on their own memory. But then you never really get the song inside you.

it takes time

It turns out that some people believe that they can’t sing because they think that ‘proper’ singers only have to hear a song once before they’ve learnt it perfectly. It often comes as a surprise when I tell them that even professional singers take a few months before they really get to grips with a new song.

So be patient. It will take many weeks before a song is really under your belt. I teach a new song for several weeks, then have a little gap before revisiting it. I also try to revisit it after a break, and again at regular intervals thereafter. Finally, after several years (!) the song will have finally bedded in.

why bother?

Sometimes when I explain to people what it is that I do, they find it hard to understand that I don’t use written music (or a piano). It is beyond their comprehension that songs can be taught and learnt without these aids.

Occasionally somebody joins my choir with music-reading ability and finds it a real struggle at first to learn by ear. But music is an aural medium and not a visual one, so why do we insist that people look at bits of paper instead of really listening?

That’s one reason I don’t use written music: I want people to develop their listening skills. But the main reason is that I want singing and music-making to be accessible to as wide a range of people as possible, regardless of any musical training or experience they might have. Consequently I don’t assume any prior knowledge and thus teach by ear.

Being in a choir is about working as a team and paying attention to the hand-waver out front (or musical director if you prefer!). It’s much, much easier to do this when you’re not looking at a piece of paper.

I believe that singers who learn by ear develop a better sense of musicality and aural awareness. So just put that score down and listen!


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Sunday, April 04, 2010

I’m a control freak and that’s exactly how I like it!

Some people lead their choir or singing workshop with another person. I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t really work for me.


Control freak by .m for matthijs

I like to be in full control and I think I do a better job of it as a consequence.

two heads good?

Don’t get me wrong, I can and have worked with other people. I used to regularly lead theatre workshops with a good friend of mine and it was wonderful. We’d come up with a rough plan for the workshop, who would be leading which bit, and then we’d just riff off each other and go where the action took us.

But the whole nature of a theatre workshop is that you work in the moment with what is happening with the group. You can end up going off to really interesting, unexpected places. You can bounce ideas off each other and come up with ideas on the fly because the end product is not important.

four heads bad!

But singing is an entirely different kettle of fish.

I’ve team taught songs with one leader on each of the four voice parts. Before the workshop we agree on how to break up the song and which order to teach the parts in. Then we just teach the part we’re responsible for whilst the other parts wait their turn.

The trouble with this is that there is no scope to respond in the moment. If it turns out that one part is having a particular difficulty, or you realise as you’re teaching that one section of the song is much harder than you realised, there’s not much you can do as you have to stick to the plan.

I can’t see any particular advantages in having one person leading each part. The only plus is that a person can lead one of the harmonies quietly in the background while you’re focusing on teaching your part. But in large choirs there are already people who do that: section leaders.

I did it my way

When I’m teaching a song on my own, I have complete freedom to change the way I’m teaching as I go along. I plan how to ‘chunk’ the song in advance and which order I’m going to teach the parts in, but I can also respond in the moment if things don’t go to plan.

I might find that one phrase is more difficult than I thought, so I can teach it to all the parts and try different combinations singing together.

I might realise that I’ve split the song into chunks that are too large, so I’ll change that as I go.

I might have planned to teach in one order, but suddenly realise that it makes more sense to bring the voices in in a different order.

I might find that people waiting are getting a little bored, so I find a way to bring them in sooner than I’d planned.

Nobody can plan everything in advance. There needs to be a lot of leeway to be able to change things as you go. If you’re on your own, this is easy.

If there are two of you who work very, very well together, then it might just be possible.

But if there are four of you, I’m not sure that it can be done. And if things do change and all four leaders don’t pick up on that, or disagree in some way, then it doesn’t look good in front of those you’re teaching!

and your way is ... ?

Of course, many large choirs have several leaders and it works very well. I’m the first to admit that I don’t have much experience of team working in this way. Do you have good reasons why more than one leader is better? Or maybe you have stories of how it didn’t work out. Do leave a comment and share your experiences.

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