Sunday, May 30, 2010

Singing workshops: what is it you do exactly?

Back in January this year I shared with you my journey so far of Becoming a choir leader.

Singing safari 2009

Yes, I am a choir leader, and I have one community choir, but the majority of my living comes from running one-day singing workshops. By accident, I now earn my living entirely by teaching songs to people! This is what I do ...

what is it you do exactly?

“So what do you do for a living?”

I teach songs.

“Ah, a singing teacher! I wish I could sing.”

No, I’m not a singing teacher, I teach songs. And I believe that everyone can sing.

“Well, not me! So you work in a school?”

No, I don’t work with kids. I teach songs to adults who like to sing.

“What, you mean like a choir? That’s posh!”

Well, I do have a choir, it’s a community choir. We do it for fun, it’s not really posh. But most of my work is leading singing workshops.

“Singing workshops? Like how to make a song?”

No, more like a one-off class where I teach songs.

“Do you do songs from the shows? Pop songs?”

No, that’s really not my kind of thing. I did do pop songs for a while as I thought they would be popular workshops, but I realised that pop songs are very hard to learn.

“What kind of thing then? Mozart? Handel’s messiah?”

No, traditional songs from all around the world. Folk songs from different countries.

“We used to do ‘Kookaburra sings in the old gum tree’ at school! I remember ‘Kumbayah’ too.”

They’re not really folk songs, they were written in the 1930s. Also, I teach songs in their original languages, we don’t do many songs in English.

“But what if you can’t speak foreign languages?”

You don’t need to. I give out the words phonetically and you just learn them by rote. I spend some time on getting the pronunciation right though.

“I think it’s really clever when people can just pick up a piece of music and sing.”

We don’t use written music. You don’t need to know anything about music or music theory to come to one of my workshops. I teach everything by ear. Most of the traditional songs I teach are passed down orally and not written down.

“Do you use a piano or have backing tracks?”

Neither. I teach songs without any musical accompaniment. We make a wonderful sound just using voices and creating amazing harmonies.

“I couldn’t come to one of your things, not only can’t I sing, but I wouldn’t know any of the songs.”

You don’t need to. Most people won’t have heard the songs before.  Everyone will be in the same boat learning new songs from scratch. And lots of people are like you and don’t believe they can sing.

“What kind of songs do you do? I don’t think I know any foreign folk songs.”

I bet you do. They use loads of them on TV ads these days. There was one time they used a Ladysmith Black Mambazo song (they’re from South Africa and sang on Paul Simon’s Graceland album) to advertise baked beans, and the amazing Bulgarian women’s choir to advertise a make of car. You’d be surprised where this stuff pops up!

“So you think I could come along and learn something?”

Sure. I don’t assume any experience and my workshops are open to anybody over 16 who loves to sing, even if they think they can’t. I get people who only sing in the bath, people in their 50s who haven’t sung since school, and people in their 80s who’ve been in choirs for years.

“Won’t they all know more than me? It seems a bit daunting to walk into a room of people who think they can sing.”

You’d be surprised. Most people feel as nervous as you and assume everyone can sing better than them. Everyone’s a bit hesitant at first, but I always start with a warm up which involves lots of silly noises and actions so people are soon laughing and relax pretty quickly.

“How long are your workshops? I wouldn’t have thought I’d learn much in a couple of hours.”

My one-day workshops are usually six hours long with an hour’s lunch break, but I also do one-off workshops as short as two hours. You’d be amazed at how quickly a group of strangers can be singing in harmony and making beautiful music! I reckon to get through between four and six songs in one day. That means really getting to grips with them and singing them well at the end of the day.

“So where’s your next workshop?”

You can find details of all my workshops on my website. I go all over the place and work three Saturdays out of every four, so you can bet there will be one near you. I also do occasional residential workshops where you can go and stay for the whole weekend and learn loads of songs in a relaxed atmosphere.

“What if there are no workshops near me?”

I go where I’m asked! You can find out about the kinds of workshop I offer on my website, then you can book me to come to your area and run a workshop just for you and your friends or your choir.

“I’m based in Los Angeles. When will you next be there?”

Well I’m based in the UK, so probably not in the foreseeable future I’m afraid! The furthest I’ve been for a one-day workshop is Brussels, and I’ve also run a whole week’s workshop in France. But as I say, I go where I’m asked, so who knows!

“Are you the only person who does these kinds of singing workshops?”

Not at all! I’m a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners' Network (NVPN) which has over 200 members across the world. We all share the belief that everyone can sing, that everybody should have access to music-making and that no prior musical knowledge is necessary. You can find loads of singing workshops on the NVPN website.

“In LA?”

We only have a few members in the US, and none of them are in LA. But I have lots of contacts over there and I’m sure I can point you in the right direction. There’s an organisation based in Canada similar to the NVPN which covers North America: The Ubuntu Choirs Network.

“So this kind of work only goes on in the UK and US?”

Not at all. There is a lot of similar work in Australia, and to a lesser extent in other countries.

“I might check it out then, see if I can find a singing workshop to go to.”

You do that! You’ll find that you love it and who knows, maybe it’ll become a new lifelong passion.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Know your place: singing AND moving!

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as Get in line! in March 2007.

Sometimes trying to get your choir to stand in the right places is like dealing with an unruly kindergarten class. It seems as if spatial awareness and singing don’t go together.

line up

Care Bears line up by johntrainor

NB this is a fictional account based on truth and many, many rehearsals. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Any similarity to any choir or individual living or dead is entirely coincidental. No animals were harmed in the making of this post.

lining up for the off

“OK, let’s just get into two rows in a semi-circle”. They all look at me. Some of them go and stand somewhere they think is a good place to stand. They’ve stood there before, so why not try it again? It was a nice place. Another person sees this initiative and goes to stand next to them, even if they don’t sing the same part. Maybe they are friends.

People begin to stand in rows of three or even four. Sometimes five. One person is vaguely wandering around because they’ve forgotten which part they sing in this song. “Which part do you sing in this song?” Middle. “But it’s a four part song” I always sing middle. “Yes, but it has four parts, there is no middle”. I always sing middle.

One half of the choir is in a dead straight line, whilst the other is in a weird spiral shape. I point out where the front of the stage will be. They look at where I’m pointing, look back at me, then just carry on doing whatever they were doing before.

“Two rows please, not three”. Those in three rows nod wisely because they know they’re doing the right thing. “Somebody’s going to have to move, we only want two rows”. Yes, they nod, and stay where they are.

“This is the centre of the stage so you’ll have to move to your left. No, left. Not that left, the other left. Yes, you. And you. Not that way. A bit more please. No, not you, you’re fine where you are. Where are you going? You were in the right place!”

“Why is there a big gap between the tops and the altos? Do you not like each other?” Gap? They don’t see a gap. “Just move to your left a little. No, not that left …”

“And why is there a big gap here?” That’s where Jane stands. “But Jane’s not doing the concert”. I know, but that’s where she always stands. “And this gap?” What gap? “This one”. They look at each other and don’t move. “Can we just fill this gap up please?” That’s not our gap, we’re in the right place. It’s them. They point at the tenors. That’s where Jane stands.

Finally – somehow – we end up in some kind of choir formation. I stick tape down at the feet of those in the front row. “OK, now just remember who you’re standing next to, then when we line up to come in, you’ll all be in the right positions”. What song? they ask. “The first one, of course, the one we start the concert with”. Then I’m not in the right place (Neither am I!). So we start again.

These are intelligent, confident, experienced adults who have done this many times before. But something about standing in rows as a choir suddenly becomes very difficult. It’s what takes up most of our final rehearsal: finding our starting positions and moving around between songs. It’s always been like that. At least it gives some of us a good laugh!

nothing’s fixed

Unlike more traditional choirs, we don’t have fixed sections of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Of course, some people might prefer to sing higher or lower, but I always encourage people to move around, try different parts and explore different areas of their vocal range. Also we often have songs with more than four parts or some songs with only two or three parts, so it’s not possible to stick with the traditional divisions.

This is all very well in our weekly sessions where we are free to move about as we like, but when it comes to a public performance, then things get a little more complicated. Somebody might sing in one part for one song, then have to move right down to the other end of the choir for a different part in the next song (if they remember). Sometimes this might involve most of the choir so the results can be pretty chaotic!

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made a rod for my own back and fantasise about individuals being bar coded on their necks at birth with the part they sing and the place they have to stand in. I’d just wave a laser thingy at them and it would tell them where they needed to be.

trying different shapes

Even if we do manage to get into a reasonable choir formation, I try and sabotage that too by introducing dancing and moving around the stage. I figure that going to a concert can get a little boring if the choir just stands still for the whole performance. Not only is it strange to be static whilst singing an upbeat African song, it’s nice to have some variation to keep the audience interested.

I’ve tried teaching some simple dance moves. Straightforward steps to the side or forwards and backwards, sometimes some arm movements to Maori songs. Suddenly people forget what they’re singing. They can either sing or move, but not both at the same time. Even if they’ve known a song for years, adding some moves washes it out of their brain.

Even when we get the moves down and it’s not looking too bad, there will always be some people with two left feet or not much sense of rhythm. Fair enough. Not everyone has the same skills. I don’t mind. But why do these people have to be on the front row and those who can do the moves stay at the back??!!

It gets even more complicated if we have any stage management involved. Sometimes I have women only on stage so the men have to leave and enter later. Sometimes the men come in first and wander round the stage and then the women enter and all are supposed to get into choir formation.

Anything out of the ordinary and people’s sense of space goes out the window.  You end up with a bunch of people aimlessly walking around the stage looking as if they have no idea why they’re there or what happens next. And that may well be the case!

start as you mean to go on

At the very least I reckon it’s always good to enter slickly at the beginning of a concert and to take a neat bow at the end.

As I’ve outlined above, it’s the devil’s own job to get the choir to stand in the right shape to begin with, but then as the concert goes on (and people move parts or get excited during a song) the shape begins to drift. Gaps begin to appear, the front row start to look raggedy, the whole choir seems to shift to one side of the stage.

But as long as we start out neatly and end with a big flourish, hopefully the audience will forget all the raggedy shifting about in the middle of the concert!

it’ll be all right on the night

But we do get there in the end. It may take some time, but it usually works. They look slick on stage, any aimlessness is not noticed by the audience and we seem to impress them with our African dances. So all is not lost. I just wish it wouldn’t take so much time!

During rehearsals it’s as if everybody leaves their individual sense of space at home, along with their ability to understand the difference between left and right. They also forget how to count, they go deaf and their legs stop working properly. Grown adults who can cope with tricky tunes, strange harmonies and foreign beats suddenly become four years old all over again.

Does anybody else have the same experiences? And more importantly: does anybody have any good solutions??!!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The pleasures of being a choral director

Last week I wrote about the pleasures of being a choir member.

Conductor 2

Choir conductor Marjukka Riihimäki by Kanttila

This week I want to write about the pleasures to be had from the front of the choir.

a finely tuned instrument

The other week I was asked back to WorldSong, the first choir I started, to run a couple of sessions whilst their new director is on sabbatical. Apart from being a bit weird (it’s three years since I last worked with them), it reminded me of what a great bunch of singers they are and how far they’ve come over the years.

At the end of the session they sang a couple of ‘oldies’ which I conducted. It was a joy! Like driving a finely tuned sports car – smooth, responsive, easy to control, luxurious, handles well.

When you’ve rehearsed a song with a choir plenty of times and it’s really under the singers’ belts, conducting a choir is like playing a large, complicated instrument. They don’t need to worry about the words or the tune, they just watch attentively and you can guide them with amazing subtlety and really play the song in the moment.

it’s all in the mix

The front of the choir is the only place where you can really hear all the harmonies working together. Yes, it’s possible to get a sense by listening to a recording of the choir, but nothing comes close to being there in the moment.

As a choral director, not only can you control this awesome blend of sounds, but you can also position yourself in different places to experience the different ways in which the harmonies work.

the pleasures of being a choir leader

In no particular order (and I’m sure I’ve left some out) here are the pleasures I get from leading a choir:

  • choosing repertoire
    I get to spend hours researching and listening to great music and then I can choose my favourites to present to the choir
  • teaching (and learning) songs/ harmonies
    By teaching the songs I get to learn (on the fly) all the different parts and go much deeper into a song than I normally would
  • developing voices
    I get to help people develop their singing voices and see individuals improve week on week
  • conducting
    I’ve mentioned this one already, but I actually get paid to ‘play’ my favourite ‘instrument’!
  • refining performances
    Rehearsals can sometimes be a drag, but most of the time it’s wonderful to be able to tease out the best performance of a song possible
  • selecting songs for concerts
    I get to plan the ideal concert – the one that I’d want to go and hear!
  • working an audience
    It didn’t use to be a pleasure at first, but I now love being in front of an audience at a concert working the crowd, trying to make them laugh, and telling them all about the songs and the choir
  • seeing pleasure on singers’ faces
    When a song is up and running there is nothing greater than seeing a sea of happy faces having fun singing
  • hearing the harmonies
    Being at the front of the choir is a privilege as it’s the only place that you really get to hear the harmonies work together
  • making friends
    And the icing on the cake (if you’re lucky) – you get to make friends with some lovely people!

and you?

Have I tempted you to become a choral director??!! And if you are one already, what are your particular pleasures? Have I left anything out? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How mixed choirs are different to single-sex choirs

This is inspired by a post from January 2007 about Minor Chords, the first women’s ensemble I ran.

Vicoria Choir

Victoria Choir, Uganda by Adamesmith

How do mixed choirs and single-sex choirs differ, if at all? I was partly inspired to write this by an article on ChoralNet (Are women’s choirs different?). There are clearly some differences, but are they important and does one kind of choir have an advantage over the other?

women’s groups

In 2001 I set up a women’s singing ensemble called Minor Chords (a weak pun based on the fact that all members are also in the bigger choir Woven Chords). The group consisted of 12 women who had the singing skills and commitment to meet alternate Saturdays for three hours to tackle more complex and difficult material than the main choir.

I didn’t hold formal auditions, but required members to be able to hold a part on their own. Over the years the standard of the group rose considerably and it became harder and harder to find suitable new material which was sufficiently challenging.

In 2007 I decided I wanted to raise the bar even higher and work with a group to develop performance skills rather than simply teaching songs each session. I disbanded Minor Chords and formed a new group (by audition this time) called Vox Mondiale. It was still a women-only group.

Over the next couple of years I helped develop the group’s confidence and performing skills. Last year I took off the training wheels and handed over the group to its members to run without me.

men’s groups

In 2004 I decided to run a men-only workshop in an attempt to get more blokes singing. Over the next few years this became an annual fixture attracting between 20 and 40 men each year. It was a great opportunity to do some of those real blokey songs from Georgia mixed with a few sea shanties, chain gang songs and songs from other male traditions such as Corsica and South Africa.

I’ve also been involved in a couple of workshops where we’ve invited both men and women, but then split into gender groups to learn songs separately. We began with a joint warm up and taught a song to everyone, then split up for the rest of the day. At the end of the workshop the women sang what they’d learnt to the men, and vice versa.


Over the years I have noticed certain differences when running a men-only or women-only workshop.

When it’s men-only, there tends not to be any chit chat when lunch is being prepared (and no chat whilst songs are being learnt either!). One year a bloke who usually sings with a mixed choir pointed this out: “Quiet, isn’t it?”. The savoury course tends to be pies and quiches bought from Morrison's, whereas the sweet course is home-made cakes (made by the men themselves). Washing up and tidying up is quick and efficient.

With women-only groups there is plenty of animated conversation during breaks. In fact, it’s hard to get them back after tea breaks! There were always lots of cakes in the break when I used to run Vox Mondiale. In fact, I think it became a little bit competitive and the singing was maybe just an excuse to come and eat cake!

In a women’s workshop, the savoury course for lunch tends to be home-made healthy salads, etc. whereas the sweet course is almost always shop-bought gateaux and cheesecakes. Washing up is effective, but takes time (with all the chat going on).

Just my observations!

the origins of single-sex groups

In the Balkans it is typical for girls to form close friendships at school from a very early age. They will sing together with their friends in groups that will sometimes last a lifetime. Imagine how well they get to know each other’s voices and abilities!

Male groups of singers tend to be based around occupation (in Britain at least): coal miners, police, fishermen, etc.

mixed groups

All my community choirs have been mixed (when I took over Woven Chords it was women-only because the previous director thought men were too loud and disruptive!). Although men have always been in the minority.

There is nothing really to compare with a full-on four part (SATB) arrangement of a song with a meaty bass part. It’s nice to vary the diet every now and then so we do occasionally slip in a women-only or men-only song.


... of being in a mixed choir:

  • you can do full-on four part arrangements
  • it’s great to have the different male and female vocal qualities in the mix
  • some people don’t like being in single-sex groups
  • the men can impress the women with their voices and the women can impress the men
  • men’s focus and discipline can be balanced with women’s sociability to make for a healthy mix

... of being in a single-sex group

  • the voices blend much better
  • there is just one dynamic within the group
  • some people prefer to be in a single-sex group (e.g. some men are frightened of women!)
  • you can specialise in a particular type of singing/ music


... of being in a mixed choir:

  • there can be a clash of cultures – the way men and women approach things is different
  • male and female tenors sound quite different
  • men can be loud and overbearing which doesn’t help with overall sound balance
  • there is possibly a different learning style for men and women

... of being in a single-sex group

  • it’s hard to make four-part arrangements for equal voices without it being close harmony
  • women’s songs miss out on a proper bass part, and men’s songs don’t have soaring high voices on the top
  • it can be too much of the same thing – hard to have variety when you’ve only one voice type to play with

what flavour of leader?

Does the gender of the choir or workshop leader make a difference?

Bill Henderson of the Forres Big Choir reckons that the reason they have roughly 50% men in their mixed choir is that they have a male and a female leader.

Simon said that although his choir was lead by a husband and wife team, the husband made jokes at the men’s expense whilst the wife was more supportive and encouraging.

When the choir leader is of a different gender to the singer, there can be problems with pitching and giving starting notes (see Singing the same note – differently!). This can easily be overcome though. Women in my choir are used to automatically singing an octave higher than the note I give out. But when Michael Harper came to give a workshop (he’s a respected counter tenor) he gave the notes at pitch and the women freaked out when they couldn’t sing an octave higher than him!

what’s your experience?

Have you had experience of being in (or leading) both a mixed choir and a single-sex choir? Did you notice any differences? Does the gender of the choir leader make a difference? Can you think of any other issues that I’ve left out? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The pleasures of being a choir member

I’m going to fess up here: I’ve never really been in a choir.

Munich uni choir

Choir of the Munich University of Applied Sciences by Mark Kamin

When I was a kid in Croydon, I sang with a whole bunch of other primary schools in a big concert at the Fairfield Halls.

We sang The Daniel Jazz (music by Herbert Chappell, lyrics by Vachel Lindsay):

“Daniel was the chief hired man in the land, he stirred up the jazz in the palace band”.

I think it was all in unison. I just remember hearing my Dad coughing in the audience (he has a very recognisable cough) and feeling totally embarrassed.

The only other ‘proper’ choir experience I ever had was at the first Sing for Water on London’s South Bank in 2002. Set up by Helen Chadwick, this project began as a mass choir performing as part of the Mayor’s Thames Festival in London to raise money for WaterAid.

Loads of separate choirs and individuals independently learnt the parts to half a dozen songs, then we all congregated in London and sang them together as a single choir. There must have been about 500 singers at the first event.

My own experience then is very limited. As a member of a large choir I found that it was just an excuse to belt out a melody in unison with all the others standing around me. I didn’t really get a sense of the other harmonies as they were too far away.

Which set me wondering: what are the pleasures of being in a choir?

Since I love harmony, I get huge pleasure out of singing with a small group, or standing out in front of a choir, or being in the audience. But I’m not sure what I get out of actually being in the choir itself.

Next week I want to write about the pleasures of leading a choir, but first I’d like to hear about what you get from being in the choir rather than standing outside it.

Many’s the time a choir member will have to sit out a concert due to illness or absence and they are always totally blown away by the sound we make. It’s usually the first time they’ve ever heard the full effect of the harmonies and the quality of the singing. You can’t hear it as well from the inside, and most singers are reluctant to sit out when they can be performing.

Choirs attract so many people these days there is no doubt huge pleasure involved. So my question is this: what are the pleasures to be had from singing in a choir?

Do please drop by and let us know of your own experiences. I’m not asking about the pleasures of singing (we all know them!), but of being in a large choir (say, 40 singers or more).


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How similar choirs can be so different

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as Vive la différence! in April 2007.

Over the years I have run choirs and singing groups all based on the same principles, but in different locations. The general mix of genders, ages, backgrounds, etc. tends to be very similar.

choir and reverse

Yet each group ends up with a very distinct personality of its own.

fitting the song to the group

I have run three adult community choirs (WorldSong, Global Harmony and Woven Chords) as well as four smaller singing groups (Minor Chords, C-Section, Vox Mondiale and Foot and Mouth voice-theatre). In each case I have had to think carefully when choosing which songs to do. It’s great to be able to do big, lush arrangements with an 80-piece choir, but it’s just as wonderful to be able to do more subtle, quieter material with just 12 voices or less.

The choice is made more difficult when I run a one-day singing workshop as I usually have no idea how many people will turn up, nor what the male/ female mix will be. I usually assume that we won’t have many blokes, so I always adapt the tenor line so women can sing it. However, at one workshop a couple of years ago about half the group (20 or so) turned out to be men! I had some quick re-arranging to do.

but we don’t like those songs!

What I have found really surprising though is the difference in flavour of the community choirs I have run. Each of the choirs have been mixed and of roughly the same size and composition. They were all founded on the same principles (i.e. that anyone can join regardless of experience and all songs are taught by ear), covered the same sort of repertoire, and met for the same length of time each week on a weekday evening from 7.30pm. They also each ended up being a performing choir.

Yet each choir has its own distinct personality and dynamics.

Some songs work really well with one choir, but not with another. One choir might be able to cope with a tricky rhythm or harmony, yet another choir (which perhaps has been going for longer) finds it just too difficult. One choir may love folk songs whilst another may hate them.

Over time I started to realise which songs would appeal to which choir. So when I am sourcing material, it is usually quite obvious which choir I will teach a particular song to – regardless of mix of voices or size – just because that choir will appreciate it and enjoy it more. Some songs which have not worked with one choir, will come alive with another.

where does group identity come from?

Why is this? How come two groups of adults formed in exactly the same way can end up having such a different group personality? The only difference being the geographical location!

The gender and age mix of each choir is very similar; the tastes of the singers is similar (i.e. they’re all attracted to the kind of repertoire I offer – generally world music in unaccompanied harmony); everyone enjoys the way that I teach and is now very much used to it; there is the same mix of members who have been with the choir for some time together with people who have joined this term. So why the difference?

Can the demographic of a town account for such a different group dynamic? Or is it that within a choir, a very small group of individuals can have a big effect on the larger group?

peer group pressure

I remember once doing a theatre show which was very funny (all audiences so far had laughed a lot each time we’d performed the show), yet one night we got hardly a titter. There must have been about 40 people in the (capacity) audience (it was a very small venue!), yet hardly any audible laughs.

When we talked to some friends about it afterwards, they said that although they had found the show very funny, they had felt that the atmosphere in the room somehow meant that they couldn’t laugh out loud.

Similarly, when we played to around 120 people at a Christmas concert one year, we walked on stage to complete silence! Not a single person clapped. It was as if they had all discussed it beforehand and come to an agreement. And another time performing in a church, nobody clapped after the songs until I pointed out that it was allowed!

I find group dynamics endlessly fascinating. It may be that when I have tried to blame it on the weather, it was simply the group dynamic having a strong effect on one particular evening.

I wonder how many individuals it takes to affect a large group? Can one person influence a whole choir or does it need a small group? Are local demographics that strong to make a difference?

What do you think? Do drop by and leave a comment. I always enjoy hearing what you have to say.

how do single sex choirs differ from mixed choirs?

Following on from my recent posts on men and singing, next week I’ll be writing about my experience with women’s singing groups. How do they differ from men’s groups, and how do single sex groups differ from mixed choirs?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The importance of being confused

There is a time of blissful ignorance before you hear a song for the first time.

Later on, there comes a time when you know the song thoroughly, your own harmony part is second nature, and you can recall the lyrics without effort.


In between these two states there is confusion. And that’s the best place to be!

it’s uncomfortable, but exciting

Most people don’t like the feeling of being confused or lost or uncertain. People like to know where they are, what’s happening next, where they’re going. We like to be in control of the situation, to have things mapped out in easy to understand steps. But art and creativity and learning are not like that!

There will always be a time whilst learning, rehearsing or performing a song when you will feel lost. You can’t control the process because you are just one amongst many and you have ceded control to your musical director in any case.

It can be an uncomfortable feeling, but the more you give yourself up to it, the greater the rewards can be.

trust in the process

It will turn out all right in the end. Honest.

Learning and rehearsing is a process. It doesn’t all happen at once. You start off knowing nothing, and you end up knowing everything, but in between is a weird state of confusion, unfamiliarity, being lost, and out of control. You have to accept that this is a necessary part of the process. Don’t fight it, but believe that you will come out the other side.

embrace the vagueness

This feeling won’t last and it’s one of the most creative and exciting places to inhabit. Make the most of it!

It’s in this state of uncertainty that accidents happen, we discover interesting things, we stumble across new ways of seeing and doing things. Because everything is new (and scary!) in this state, we tend to be more alert and notice all the little things. We struggle to make sense and to make connections, to build structure and understanding.

When we feel that we know something well, it is in danger of becoming habitual and we just go through the motions. We stop noticing things and become unconnected and unfocused.

But when something is new and unfamiliar we tend to be more in the moment, we can make new links and develop new understandings. Not nailing things down too soon and staying open (because we’re not quite sure where we are) means we are far more receptive.

nothing is certain

If it were, you wouldn’t discover anything new or find other ways of doing things. You wouldn’t bother getting out of bed because you would know exactly what the day held in store for you.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Voltaire.

If you do not embrace uncertainty and confusion you will be in for a difficult time. You can’t control the process or the future so you will be frustrated. If you think things are certain, then you automatically close off all those possibilities that you can’t (yet) conceive of.

leave the comfort zone

My job is to confuse people, to take them outside of their comfort zone, to get them to live in that weird space of not knowing. People are more alert when wrong-footed.

When we are being creative and artistic we have to step outside the everyday, familiar, predictable world into a different space where anything and everything is possible.

I like to play with that eggy moment in a room full of strangers before a workshop starts. Often I behave as if I am just another punter and chat with people to find out why they’re there. I may not reveal that I am the ‘leader’ for some time.

When teaching I may move the chairs around to unfamiliar places, or group people in an unexpected part of the room, or start the session with a strange and different warm up, or take people outside into the street. Anything to upset the daily routine.

For people who aren’t familiar with the Natural Voice approach, they may find the warm ups we do (very physical, playful, lots of visual imagery, non-technical) very weird.

All this weirdness and unexpectedness and confusion can make people feel very uncomfortable, so it’s important that we put people at ease. One way is to use humour. Another is to emphasise that everyone is being as silly as everyone else – we’re all in the same boat (the ‘leader’ should always join in and be as daft as everyone else).

celebrate the uniqueness of the moment

There is only ever one time before you hear a song or see a play or watch a film for the first time. You can never repeat that.

Similarly, there is only that one time when you are in a room full of strangers not knowing what’s going to happen next. So celebrate it, embrace it, use it to the full. It’s a special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Do you struggle with being in a state of not-knowing or do you embrace it fully? Do you find uncertainty and confusion useful tools? Do drop by and leave a comment and share your experiences.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Men and singing 3: seven ideas to get more men involved

A few weeks ago I started a discussion here on Why men won’t sing. Next I debunked 15 myths about men and singing and last week I shared your collective wisdom on how we might get more men singing.


haka, WOMAD 2009 by Matthieu A.

This week I want to wrap up this subject by outlining seven ideas that you might use to get more men in your choirs and singing workshops.

  1. it takes time and effort
    Getting more men involved doesn’t happen overnight. You will need to create a critical mass before new men will feel comfortable. How many this is really depends on the overall size of your group if it’s mixed.

    Finding the men in the first place will also take a while. Peter pointed out last time that his choir did a 35,000 leaflet drop, spent £3,000 and demanded a lot of choir members’ time just to recruit 60 – 70 men for a one-off event. If they’re really lucky up to 35 men might stay on to join the choir which means each new member cost around £100!

    If you’re serious about recruiting more men, you will need a proper long-term strategy. Just hoping and asking is not enough, you really have to sell the idea.

  2. take singing to where the men are
    It’s not enough to just send out tantalising publicity. Most people are creatures of habit and allow inertia and lethargy to get the better of them. It will take a huge effort to drag someone away from the TV in their warm, comfortable living room after a hard day’s work to try something new, risky and unknown.

    Men will be put off by the fact that they think they can’t sing, the use of the word ‘choir’, having to commit to weekly sessions, not wanting to make a fool of themselves – and plenty of other excuses.

    But I believe that if they try it, many men will love singing in a group. Just don’t expect them to come to you. Take the singing to where the men are: working men’s club, Rotary or Lions meeting, football match, the local gym, canteen at the local factory. Drop in unexpectedly and run an amazing, fun, light-hearted workshop and have them singing in harmony in a short while. Get them hooked and they will want more.

  3. emphasise training
    Many men think they can’t sing or won’t be as good as the others or don’t like their voice or are afraid of trying something new or are reluctant to attempt a new skill in front of others or think they need to understand music. So let’s embrace all those fears and doubts and make it clear that we’re offering to train men up.

    Offer a set number of training sessions (limited commitment!) and detail what the men will get from it. Emphasise that everyone will be a beginner, that nobody will need any musical experience or knowledge, and that nobody will be asked to sing solo. Make it men-only. Once they get comfortable singing, then introduce them to the women. Perhaps have a one-off concert with the local women’s choir?

    If you’re already running a choir, perhaps have a one-off training session for men or an introductory workshop that they must attend before joining. Rather like a foundation course. This might well make joining the choir more attractive since they have a challenge/ obstacle before they’re good enough to join the ‘proper’ singers. It also makes your community choir look more professional!

    Even if your choir is well-established with fairly experienced singers, it’s worth pointing out that there’s an element of voice training each week in the warm up which will help men learn to sing better.

  4. involve competition, challenge and non-commitment
    Men like these things (apparently!). If you emphasise the rational, practical benefits and maybe give a clear reason (e.g. for a charitable event), it gives men something to hang onto rather than it being a wishy washy art activity for its own sake.

    Get a group of men to sing together for a one-off event; sign the group up for a singing competition so they have something to aim for; say that you’ll only be taking the best singers on for your choir; tackle a big, challenging piece of music.

  5. treat men seriously
    As Simon pointed out last time, men in a choir are often the butt of jokes. Male choir leaders can often be disparaging of the bass section. I know I’m guilty of this myself. I always thought it was a way of lightening the atmosphere and keeping things jokey and not serious, but Simon has pointed out how this can backfire, whereas men crave warm encouragement and praise.

    Make sure you praise the men regularly. Acknowledge that it’s hard to hold a drone note! Men need to feel valued and that they are contributing to something.

  6. once you’ve got them, you’ve got to keep them
    Although it’s hard to get men to join choirs, you can’t just stop once you’ve got them. You need to put in some work to make the men feel valued and welcome or they will leave.

    Make sure the existing men in your choir/ workshop welcome the new boys and involve them in any social activities like going to the pub. Make the new boys welcome, ask their name, make them laugh, involve them, praise them, give them important things to do.

    Make sure that that parts you give to the men aren’t always the boring bass drone or the tricky tenor line. Also, acknowledge that many men don’t fit easily into either of these categories either: most men are baritones – the tenor is too high and the bass is too low. Ensure that the arrangement you use take this into account or you will lose men who feel that it’s too hard for them.

  7. it’s a team thing
    Yes, men maybe competitive by nature, but they love playing team games. Team games are all about collaboration, working together, mutual support, being part of the same gang, training together, etc. etc. Sounds familiar? These are precisely the elements that make for a good choir who sing in harmony.

    You can take the team idea further by pointing out that singing together (a very egalitarian activity) can actually help to build team-spirit in an existing group: e.g. football team, workplace team.

more ideas?

I think I’ve distilled what I believe to be the most important elements in attracting men to singing. But I’m sure I must have left some things out! There were lots of good, specific ideas last week, but I guess I’m looking for some more general approaches that we might try. Do let me know if you have any others.

further reading

If you’re interested in this subject you might find these forum discussions interesting:

Are women’s choirs different?

Advice on starting a men’s choir


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, May 02, 2010

How do you keep your natural sound yet develop real tone quality?

This is a guest post by professional singer and qualified teacher Janet Shell. She writes here about how to maintain your own unique vocal quality whilst improving your tone. Contact me if you’d like to submit a guest post.

As a professional singer and teacher, I am very keen on developing a technique which allows the singer to be in control of their own sound and for it to sound like the person you know singing rather than some kind of manufactured robot!

Janet Shell

Janet Shell

Do you ever think that when somebody sings, the sound they make does not match what you are seeing? Here are some ideas to help you maintain your authentic voice whilst improving your tone.

don’t force it

The fundamental rule is never to force the voice into sounding louder than it is, or deeper or bigger. People associate largeness of voice with success. In fact that only serves to push the vocal mechanism into bringing in other muscles to support it. You see this by the muscular strain around the neck, you know those neck muscles sticking out like veins?

using your resonators

Strong tone comes from picking up your inbuilt microphones – your resonators. It is rather like bringing a camera image into focus. Nothing has been forced, but the result is cleaner and clearer. You can feel these working when you hum and then open up the sound, imagining it pouring out between your eyes.

A great way to feel the resonators is to sing the word LUNG and sit on the NG part of the sound. You can move through lots of pitches on this sound and as you do so, if you gently place your fingers against your nose, you will feel it vibrate.

The trick is to place all the sounds you make in this part of the face when you start singing properly. It will have the effect of feeling the sound going away from you.

avoiding breathiness

When working with singers, whether in a group or individually, I spend some time eradicating breathiness and huskiness. Ironically, this is caused by not getting enough breath flowing through the vocal cords. They come together because air is sent out of the lungs. If you don’t expel air out of the lungs, you cannot close your cords! It is the opposite of what you may think.

How do we get a strong sound which is not breathy and which allows the voice to glide easily from pitch to pitch? It really is to do with the preparation before singing. The intake of air needs to open up everything inside in your thought process. So taking a breath in means your ribcage expands and therefore moves outwards. If your shoulders raise up, you have not opened up sufficiently.

Try expelling all your air so that you have to take in a breath – that way your body will be in crisis and take in a lot of air in its most efficient way, which does not involve squeezing and raising the shoulders! You will notice the expansion of your rib cage. Try bending forward and breathing: here you can feel the ribcage working naturally. Now try and create that when you are upright!

building the layers

The development of tone for me is like layers. The first layer is the childlike, simple sound – with no hint of maturity. As you develop your voice, it is like adding layers: however, you should always be able to access the simplest layer – a healthy voice can make a complex sound or a very ‘straight’ sound at will. Sometimes I am asked what I mean by that. The ‘straight’ sound is the one where you make a childlike sound. To make that your cords come together cleanly giving a clear and uncluttered tone.

If you can manage all these things, and it is a process which you have to practise until the muscles respond automatically, then you will have a natural and unforced tone.


I sometimes hear people talking about creating vibrato but this is a ‘put on’ element if you approach it in this way. Vibrato happens naturally as the voice develops. Uncontrolled vibrato is almost always a sign of tension in the voice and a forcing of the muscles. It is the very thing which ages a voice and is not the sign of a mature technique but actually quite the opposite!

To sum up, natural developed tone quality comes from managing the breath and placing the sound so the muscles are free to work and therefore the tone can be true and strong without being interfered with!

Janet Shell offers active voice management and communication skills training through her website


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