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:

Chris Rowbury


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