Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tackling complex song structure without written music

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as Complex songs and learning by ear: musical maps in May 2007

The choirs and workshops that I lead are run on the principle that music should be accessible to all (see last week’s post The Natural Voice approach to singing). This means that I don’t use written music to teach since I can’t assume that everyone can read music.

La Bamba

But is there a limit to the complexity of a song that can be taught without using a written score?

keeping it simple

The kind of material that I use mostly comes from cultures and traditions where songs are passed down from generation to generation through the oral/ aural tradition. Such songs are often quite short and fairly repetitive without many words, so lend themselves to being taught by ear. These songs are particularly suitable for short workshops as they are quite easy to learn and I can offer a range of styles in a short time.

However, in a choir which meets regularly, singing such ‘easy’ short songs soon becomes unsatisfying so we like to add something more challenging to our singing diet.

One obvious development is to use songs which have several verses which we can then build up in performance by introducing harmonies as the song progresses, thus adding interest for an audience.

We can also tackle longer pieces that are basically several shorter songs tacked together, different ‘movements’ if you like. Many South African songs fit into this category (e.g. Nkosi sikelel'i Afrika, Ladysmith Black Mambazo's version of Amazing Grace, Akanamandla).

You don’t have to learn the whole song at once. We can learn a new part each term and gradually extend the song as time goes by. We’ve also tackled longer church songs from Eastern Europe. In these, the melody lines go through a few subtle changes as the song progresses, but the individual units of melody are quite easy to learn and the overall effect is to add interest and texture to a song.

getting more complicated

But then we come to more complex (usually modern) arrangements of songs, or songs which are fairly intricate and yet each section is frustratingly similar to the others so is very hard to learn.

Recently I tried to teach Samuel Barber’s vocal version of his famous Adagio for Strings (Agnus Dei), but had to give up because there were so many long sustained notes and no easy way of knowing how long they should each be held.

Then with a big choir I wanted to teach Ysaye Barnwell’s Lawd it’s midnight. I had originally been taught this using the written score, but the timing is complicated and I am convinced it would be much easier to teach the timing by ear and by allowing the rhythm into the body. The trouble is, the melody and parts are too complex to do this way!

I decided to teach a four-part arrangement of the Mexican song La Bamba. It is a fairly straightforward arrangement in that it follows the well-known tune and there are no weird chords, but there are lots of backing parts with short riffs that are repeated, then a short filler phrase, then the riff repeated again but with minor variations.

It is very easy to lose track of how many times you’ve sung a particular riff, and exactly when you have to put the little filler parts in. We managed to learn the song, but it took a long time and was easily forgotten if we didn’t revise it regularly.

I did get to the point where I wondered if it was worth persisting teaching it by ear or was there another (better?) way? Could I find a more effective way of teaching it by ear? Could I use something visual to help the singers know where they were?

solutions for learning complex songs

One way to tackle complex songs would be to record all the parts on a CD and give it out to the singers to learn at home. But this removes the fun and community spirit of learning together in our weekly sessions. Also, some complex songs would still be hard to learn like this by just listening, even if singers can hear the other parts at the same time. I don’t want to end up in concert with singers counting on their fingers to know how many times to sing a particular riff!

In many cases it seems it would help to have some kind of map to help the singers learn the overall structure of the song.

“Why not simply give them the music?”, you ask. Well, I suppose I could. Even if people can’t read music very well, they could at least use the scores to see where their part changes and how many times bits are repeated.

I’m reluctant to do this for several reasons. One is that it’s a slippery slope and there may be a demand to have the music for all the songs we sing (I know some individuals would be much more comfortable if this were the case!). This somehow goes against the spirit of the choir and the fun learning experience we have each session.

But perhaps more worryingly, having given out the music which represents a complex song, how can I persuade people to put it down when it comes to performance? It’s hard enough getting people to learn the words to songs!

putting singers in the picture

I did a weekend workshop with Northern Harmony some years ago. For some of the Georgian and Corsican songs in their repertoire, rather than produce a complete written score, they used a schematic technique to show a map of the melody lines of each part:


This was fairly easy to follow once a line had been sung to us a few times. (Strangely enough this is exactly the kind of notation that many bass parts in my choirs invent independently. It’s usually the bass part because they don’t often have an easily recognisable tune. When I point out that this is a music notation, they usually deny it, somehow believing that written music must be something far more difficult and clever!) This method is very effective for mapping out melody lines, especially when they vary just slightly throughout a piece, but not very useful when we're dealing with the overall structure of a complex song.

I took this idea and created a ‘musical map’ to teach La Bamba (see image at the top of this post). I was rather wary when I first unveiled my attempt, but most people seemed to find it useful. We did seem to go faster after I started using the wall charts. Trouble is there are so many of them and it takes ages to put them up on the wall!

what do you think?

So far I have used different shapes and colours to help guide people through complex structures. In the meantime, if anyone else has any ideas ... !

My question to you is: what is the limit in complexity that can be taught by ear? Can we teach anything by ear given enough time? If we need to resort to some kind of map or written score, how do we then get it out of people’s hands for performances?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Now THAT’S what I call singing! Volume 1

Last week I wrote about the kinds of singing that I like (I may not know much about music, but I know what I like!).


Now I want to give you some concrete examples of the kinds of singing that I love. This week Europe: Corsica, Georgia, Russian orthodox, gypsy, the Balkans and Bulgaria.

I could list songs forever of course, but have only chosen a handful of representative songs from each culture to give you an idea of where I’m coming from. Please contact me if you’d like to know any more about the songs listed or others that you might know.

Most of the links here are to available YouTube videos so are not necessarily my favourite versions. The recording of Nyne sily nebesnyia (Russian orthodox) is by my choir Woven Chords and is on their latest live CD.


First up is a song that I discovered on a cassette that I borrowed from the local library. Unusually for Corsican singing, it is by an all-female trio. The song is called Terzini Guagnesi and the title is apparently a place name: “Guagnesi, poem in three lines”. It is sung from the point of view of somebody who is about to go away to sea for some time and is asking to see their lover before they go to make sure they’re still an item.

Before ploughing the waves of the sea
I hope to see you once more
So that I can have a chance to say goodbye.
I’ve taught this song many times to small groups and never tire of it.

Another Corsican song that we have in the choir repertoire is Dio vi salvi Regina – notoriously difficult to get right!

This 16th Century hymn basically means “God save the Queen”, but ‘Queen’ in this case is the Virgin Mary who is the patroness of Corsica. It is effectively the Corsican national anthem.


I was lucky enough to be living and working in Cardiff in 1994 when the Centre for Performance Research brought over two Georgian ethnomusicologists (Edisher Garakanidze, founder of Mtiebi – who sadly died in 1998 – and Joseph Jordania – now based in Australia). We worked for a whole week to learn a range of Georgian songs. This was my first real encounter with Georgian singing (I had already heard a recording of the beautiful song Suliko, but that has very Western harmonies). I fell in love instantly!

Shen har venahi has typical Georgian harmonies and is guaranteed to send shivers up my spine. If you ever need a song for a wedding, this is it! It is a hymn from the 12th Century which compares the Virgin Mary with the vine, Georgia’s sacred plant.

It doesn’t matter which of the 300 or so versions of Mravalzhamier I hear, every version is a treat. ‘Mravalzhamier’ means Years and epochs of happiness to you (basically: “may you live a long life”) and is commonly sung as toasts at Georgian feasts. This version is from 1912 and is one of the first recordings made in the Republic of Georgia.

Russian orthodox

I just adore the lush harmonies of Russian church songs. I stumbled across one on a Dutch male voice choir’s website some years ago and begged them for the sheet music. It duly arrived, but the Russian transliteration was in a Dutch version, so very difficult to understand! Fortunately, one of WorldSong is a fluent Russian speaker and he was able to decipher it. The song is called Nyne sily nebesnyia (opens in new window).

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find out who composed it, but I have managed to track down a live performance which demonstrates how slow it's usually sung:

Another Russian church song that’s doing the rounds of community choirs is Tebe poem by Dmitry Bortniansky (1751 – 1825). We praise you, we bless you, we sing for you Lord.


I just adore the passion and heartache of gypsy singing whichever country it comes from. I learnt O postaris avel from the indomitable Czech gypsy singer Ida Kelarova.
The postman is coming And he’s bringing me a letter When I read it I will tear all my hair out Get lost, boy, I don’t want you anymore

Here’s a Russian gypsy song: Maliarka. It’s another one that I got from an obscure compilation cassette and got a friend to transcribe and arrange for me.
Maliarkitsa (a girl) is walking through the wood. Pashkale (a boy) follows her, he is sad. Pashkale addresses Maliarkitsa: “Let’s run away, Darling”. Then he addresses the Night: “Dark night, help us”.

the Balkans

One of the first songs I came across from the Balkans was Zaspo Janko which I learnt for a theatre piece whilst I was in Cardiff around 1988. It’s quite a mournful song, but we sang it rather more upbeat as we didn’t know what the words meant!
Zaspo sleeps beneath the poplar. “Oh, my dear one, look at me. I broke off a golden branch.”

Since then I’ve fallen in love with songs from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, many of which have associated dances. Here are a few I really like: Polegala (Croatia):

Crven fesic (Serbia):

Ajde Jano (Bosnia):


Although strictly part of the Balkans, Bulgarian singing is perhaps more widely known across the world than music from, say, Croatia or Albania.

Many people came across singing from Bulgaria through the amazing LP called Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares released in 1975. For most of us, this was our first introduction to The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir which was formed in the 1950s.

A very famous song of theirs is Polegnala e Tudora (try to see when they breathe!!) which we have almost cracked in the choir after many years of trying!
Tudora lay down under an olive tree to rest. A wind blows down from the mountains, breaking off a small branch, which wakes her. She curses the wind for waking her, saying, “Why did you have to blow just now? I was having a sweet dream in which my sweetheart was bringing me a bouquet with a golden ring inside.”

Another cracker which I’ve done with small groups is Dragana i Slaveja. Again, very hard to nail properly. It is a special Christmas blessing for a singer.
Dragana was sitting in the garden under a white rosebush embroidering a piece of cloth and singing, when a nightingale came by and challenged her to a singing contest. ‘If you win, you may cut off my wings. But if I win I shall cut off your fair hair.’ Dragana won the contest and the nightingale then pleaded with her, ‘Cut off my feet, but not my wings, for I need my wings to fly and to feed my young.’ Dragana answered, ‘Oh my sweet nightingale, I do not want to cut off your wings. It is enough for me to know that I have outsung a nightingale.’

And fiendishly difficult, but one which we perfected in Foot and Mouth voice-theatre is Ergen deda. The song comes from the Shope region near the Bulgarian capital of Sophia.
It tells of an old bachelor who struts down the street in festive attire, hoping to find a new wife as he joins the young ladies engaged in a circle dance at a village festival. But alas for the old bachelor, they all run away, leaving him only with Angelina, the youngest.

more songs

You can find some of my favourite songs from Africa, the Pacific islands, USA and even the British Isles in Volume 2 and Volume 3.

Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Natural Voice approach to singing

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as The Natural Voice approach in September 2007.

I often mention my membership of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network (NVPN) on this blog.

NVPN logo 

I thought I’d remind people of what this Natural Voice approach represents.

the Natural Voice philosophy

All Natural Voice practitioners share a common philosophy towards voice work. Simply stated, we believe that singing is everyone's birthright, and that:

  • everyone can sing (whether they think they can or not!)
  • singing should be accessible to all (so many practitioners teach by ear rather than using written music)
  • the voice begins from the body and the breath.

Many members of the NVPN run community choirs based on this philosophy, although we are a very broad church with members from all areas of voice work, not just choirs or singing groups.

what IS the Natural Voice approach?

What exactly is the Natural Voice approach to singing and voice (note the capital letters!)?

It’s something we often struggle to pin down in the NVPN. It may seem to many outsiders to be some kind of wishy-washy organic wholefood let-it-all-hang-out way of singing, but it is in fact a very specific discipline or approach to voice work (not just singing by any means).

When practitioners join the network, they state on the membership form that their

“approach to teaching voice and song is in harmony with the Philosophy and Working Principles of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network”.

By adhering to a common philosophy and set of working principles, the assumption is that we will end up with a network of like-minded individuals who all approach voice work in a similar way.

However, as the network has grown over the years, we have become a very broad church which includes a range of practitioners covering sound healing, community choirs, spiritual chanting, working with pregnant mothers, using voice for therapy, singing contemporary compositions, etc.

attempting to pin it down

Although many practitioners working in these areas do use a Natural Voice approach, there is a danger that the term itself is becoming a catch-all phrase of convenience which is beginning to lose its strict meaning.

A while back I helped to formulate a code of practice which I believe encapsulates more accurately what it means to use the Natural Voice approach. It turns out though that it’s impossible to find a code that suits such a broad collection of practitioners!

However, I thought I’d mention some of the key points here in order to to clarify what my own understanding of what the Natural Voice approach to voice is.

The code is divided into four main areas:

  1. physicality
  2. accessibility
  3. respect
  4. freedom


This is the foundation stone to the Natural Voice approach. It reminds us that the voice is connected to and rooted in the whole body. The whole body supports the voice and needs to find a subtle balance between relaxation and alertness. An understanding of the body, breath, emotion and sound connection is central to our approach and demands physical awareness and exercising. It also means that every voice session will begin with both a vocal and physical warm up.


Basically nobody should be excluded from music-making. Singing is our birthright and should be accessible to all. Hence we don’t assume any prior knowledge, try to steer clear of jargon, use a variety of teaching styles to maximise everyone’s involvement, and try to accommodate those with physical and other restrictions.


We need to respect the individuals we work with and all the cultures we draw from. We acknowledge and accept that each voice is unique to the individual. Wherever possible we find out and explain the historical and cultural context of a song and credit its composer or source. We also choose material for our work which is not exploitative and will be culturally accessible to everyone in the group.


We approach our work in ways that are unlocking, freeing, allowing, releasing, non-judgmental, and encouraging. We are playful, informal and forgiving, focusing on process and participants’ experience rather than any end-product.

how do I learn more?

You can find more information and a fuller description of the network’s aims, philosophy, working principles and training opportunities on the NVPN website:

To get a good grounding in the Natural Voice approach, and a chance to learn how to set up and run a singing group, Frankie Armstrong (founder and inspiration to the NVPN), along with her partner Darien Pritchard (a Feldenkrais and massage practitioner) leads an annual week's training workshop at Kinnersley Castle in Herefordshire. Full details can be found on Frankie’s website.

what do you mean by ‘natural’ voice?

Is there such a thing as an ‘unnatural’ voice? How does one find one’s ‘natural’ voice. I will be writing more about this later.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, June 20, 2010

I may not know much about music, but I know what I like!

Somebody asked me the other day if I do workshops on songs from the musicals. I hate musical theatre! So the answer is “no”.

bulgarian band

Often people come to singing workshops because they just love to sing. They’ll sing anything, as long as they’re singing. Me, I only like to sing particular kinds of music. I need to love the music before I can sing it. Any old thing just won’t do. So what is it I do like?

traditional songs

A long time ago I fell into harmony singing by encountering full-on songs from the Balkans, then Georgia, and then more generally Eastern Europe. I love klezmer bands, gypsy singing, Balkan brass, middle-Eastern lullabies – all that kind of stuff. Next I discovered the amazing harmony singing from South Africa. Later I moved onto other Southern African countries, then onto the whole of Africa.

I couldn’t get enough of the stuff!

Over the years I’ve focused on unaccompanied harmony singing. The kind of stuff you hear from countries like Bulgaria and South Africa. Some people call it ‘choral singing’, but for me that doesn’t do it justice. The songs I like tend to come from age-old traditions. They’re effectively folk songs. They’re sung in a full-voiced, passionate, open way without artifice.

I know what I mean, but it’s quite hard to pin down because we all have different definitions of the words we use.

harmony singing

I bandy the word ‘harmony’ about. By this I mean usually three or four different parts being sung at the same time. Sometimes the parts are far apart, at other times very close and slightly clashing.

In daily life we use the word ‘harmony’ to mean people getting along and working together, usually doing something similar to each other with some kind of implicit agreement and no conflict. But in singing, that would probably lead to unison singing, or at least only ‘nice’ harmonies. In singing ‘harmony’ means something different.

Then there’s ‘close harmony’. This is when the notes in different parts are close together. Unlike the clashing harmonies in Balkan songs, it usually means that all the parts are close together most of the time. This is the kind of thing you tend to hear in barbershop singing.

Some people don’t like harmonies with lots of ‘holes’ in them (e.g. fifths). They prefer ‘proper’ harmony, as opposed to more rhythmic singing where the parts are quite far apart.


Then there’s ‘acappella’. I try not to use that term. Most of the general public don’t know what it means so I use the phrase ‘unaccompanied singing’ or ‘singing without instrumental backing’. Acappella has come to mean vocal groups singing genres like doo wop and barbershop, or an ‘unplugged’ version of a well-known pop song. Whilst those with a more classical or religious background take it to mean early church singing such as madrigals.

choral singing

Is what I like ‘choral singing’? Not really as this is most often associated with church singing and/ or more formal, music-reading groups of singers who often focus on choral ‘literature’ and Western classics. The kind of music I love doesn’t tend be sung by ‘choirs’.

world music

I often say that the singing I like comes from the ‘world music’ repertoire. But so many people don’t even know what that means! It was a term invented by record companies to try to promote music that didn’t fit neatly into any of the existing categories. Even if someone does have an idea of what it means, they usually associate it with guitar music from Bali, or the Buena Vista Social Club.

what do you like then?

I’ve discovered that it’s hard to explain the kind of singing and songs I’m drawn to. I can’t sing them to people (I can only do one part at a time!), so I need to resort to other reference points (“You know that song that advertises baked beans or German cars?”), or more simply, play an example.

Which is what I’ll do next week. I’ll try to find some good examples of the kinds of singing that I like and give links to them: Now THAT’S what I call singing! Volume 1


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why do kids stop singing when they grow up?

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as When and why do we stop singing? in April 2007.

The average age of people who attend the choirs and workshops that I run must be around 50. I would say that about a third of any group is of retirement age, and the majority of the rest are in their early 40s to late 50s.

baby singing

Baby likes Finnish rock by London looks

Most of these people sang when they were kids, but then they stopped. Why?

my early singing experiences

I had plenty of opportunities to sing as a kid (certainly in my early school days in the 1950s): morning assembly, “music & movement” on the radio, the school choir (especially at Christmas), cubs and scouts, the local church choir. I sang in all of these regularly. I even persuaded my Mum to go to my primary school and complain when I didn’t pass the audition to get into the school choir! They relented (my Mum is a force to reckon with) and I joined.

When I was about 15 or 16 I started a band with my mates and we sang lots of Beatles songs. I distinctly remember sitting in the garden on the swing singing along with “I wanna hold your hand” on the radio when it first came out. I loved singing and used to harmonise automatically with all the pop songs on TV (“Juke Box Jury”, “6-5 Special”) and radio. So it’s not as if there weren’t any role models for adolescents.

suddenly we stop singing

Then it all stopped and I didn’t really come back to singing until about 25 years later in the early 1990s when I was working in theatre. They often say it’s because boys’ voices break and during that embarrassing transition they find something else to do. But I didn’t have that experience and also I have heard similar stories from the many women who join choirs or come to my singing workshops.

Just this weekend at a workshop a woman came up to thank me and said it’s the first time she’d sung for 50 years!

These people obviously love singing, but have let it lie dormant for such a long period. The desire to re-connect with their singing voice must be very strong as it’s a brave thing to walk into an open workshop when you’ve not sung for such a long time. I often wonder what has compelled that person to come back to singing at that specific moment. After 50 years, why now? Why this particular weekend? Why this particular workshop?

it’s so easy to put kids off

Many people who come back to singing were put off in some way when they were kids: “stand at the back and mime”, “will you stop that awful racket!”, “you can’t be in the choir, you’re not good enough”, “you just can’t sing”.

We have such a personal relationship with our voices that this can cause a huge set-back and put people off singing for a long time. Many participants in my workshops still believe that they can’t ‘sing’ because somebody told them they couldn’t 40 years earlier!

But the desire to make music is strong and can survive for many years. The need to express ourselves through our voices is a primal force, otherwise people wouldn’t come back to singing in later life having been put off so thoroughly in their youth.

what’s your story?

If you came back to singing later in life, perhaps you’d like to tell us your story. Why did you stop singing when you were a kid? And what prompted you to start again on that particular day all those years later? Why did you leave it so long?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Music jargon: questions, questions.

I’m planning to write a post soon which will be a complete beginner’s guide to the musical jargon that singers may encounter.

If there’s a particular concept, word, or bit of jargon that you’d like explained, then please leave a comment to let me know.

I’m not going to try and cover complete music theory, but just those bits that a singer in a community choir might encounter.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Don’t stress about things you can’t control

I’ve just finished reading a remarkable book called The Art of Possibility. It’s jointly authored by Rosamund Stone Zander and her husband, Benjamin Zander, who is an orchestral conductor.

Zander possibility

Ben Zander by p_c_w

In the book, Ben Zander tells an anecdote about absenteeism in a community orchestra. It certainly rang bells for me!

Zander writes:

“While the early days of rehearsing for a concert with a community or semi-professional orchestra are easy-going, with the full performance only a light on the distant horizon, absenteeism is initially taken in stride. ... [but] as the concert approaches, the pressure mounts ...”

He goes on to describe the penultimate rehearsal before a concert where many of the viola section were absent. To top it all, the assistant principal viola player wasn’t there and had failed to notify anybody.

At some point he stumbles across the woman and loses his temper big time.

No doubt his loss of temper was due to the enormous pressure he felt and the responsibility to present a high-quality performance with lots of important elements missing. He realised this afterwards and apologised.

This incident reminded me of the many times in rehearsal when people are late or don’t turn up or haven’t done the preparation. I begin to feel angry and tense and sometimes (despite myself) it leaks out.

It’s most evident when working with a small group. If you have a singing ensemble with eight singers and both altos are absent at a vital rehearsal, it feels like everything is falling apart and you just won’t be able to do the performance.

In a small theatre company you plan to rehearse a vital scene just before the show opens, but the two principal actors are away that week and you just can’t do it without them.

It’s very easy to forget that people have a life outside art. That most people have jobs, families, other hobbies, illnesses, etc. If it’s our job to lead a choir or run a theatre group, we can end up thinking it’s the most important thing in the world. We are so focused on it that we forget that it might not have the same priority for other people.

At the end of Zander’s story, he writes a letter to the woman he lost his temper with:

“I see that in a volunteer orchestra where players have many other commitments, I cannot assume that everyone’s priorities are exactly the same as mine.

I have come to realise that people will do what they want to do – which means the sometimes they will come to rehearsals and sometimes they won’t – and I must respect their decisions.”

We cannot control everything in our work. If something unexpected happens, we need to accept it and find a way of working with it. Getting stressed about it doesn’t make the problem go away and can result in tempers getting frayed.

I remember hearing about a film director who always rose to the challenge. For instance, arriving on set to be told that the 100 extras he was expecting for the battle scene weren’t coming, would exclaim: “Great! No extras! Now we can film an excellent battle scene.”

We have a big summer concert coming up soon, my last ever with Woven Chords. I promise that I will try my hardest to take these lessons on board and not get too stressed!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Choosing the right songs for a concert

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as Choosing songs for a concert in October 2007

Last week I wrote about Choosing a running order for your concert or CD.


This week I want to tackle the slightly easier task of selecting which songs the choir is going to perform.

look out, a concert is coming!

Once again a concert is looming. Time to figure out what songs to sing. Woven Chords has a repertoire of over 200 songs so it’s not as if we don’t have many to choose from! In fact, having such a large back catalogue can make selection much harder.

Some are warm-up songs, some are songs we’ve not done for many years, some we’ve done too many times, and some are only known to a few long-serving members of the choir – so I can rule those out quite quickly. On the other hand, coming across an old warm up song can give me an idea of how I might extend and re-vitalise it so it may well end up in the concert after all!

Of course, if your choir is just starting out, or you create brand new repertoire each year, then you don’t have the same problem.

is there madness in my method?

My first step is to look at what songs we’ve sung in the last concert and try not to duplicate entirely.

Next, I always put all the new songs we’ve learnt this term into the concert. This means that any new members can join in with at least six songs or so without having to tackle any of our vast back catalogue. I also try to keep in songs that are relatively new, perhaps all those learnt in the last two terms.

I like to ring the changes so my next step is to make sure we’re not doing too many of the same songs each year. If someone attends several concerts in a row they don’t want to keep hearing the same set. I also try and accommodate those people who perhaps only come to see the choir once a year at our Christmas or Spring concerts.

down to the nitty gritty

I keep good records of the songs we’ve sung in each concert (I am a Capricorn after all!), so I look up the last couple of peformances we’ve done, and also the same time slot a year earlier. Then I cut out songs that we’ve done in both of the last two concerts, plus most of what we did the same time last year.

I add all our new ones, and a few that we’ve not sung for a year or more. Then I look at the spread of genres and countries of origin and try to get a good cross-section. Although we’re a world music choir, I make sure I throw in a few English language songs to appease those in the audience who don’t like too much ‘foreign’ stuff.

Finally I look at the mix of upbeat versus gentle songs and again try to find a balance.

how many songs make a concert?

I have rough timings of all the songs in our repertoire, and I reckon that as a rule of thumb, we need about 2/3 of song material to fill a concert. So, for a 90 minute concert (two 45 minute halves), we’ll need 60 minutes of song material. The rest of the time is taken up with my between song banter and singers getting into position. I find that this formula is pretty accurate and we usually end each concert on time.

Most of our songs are very short, so we might get through 30 or so in a 90 minute concert. The next problem is to find some sensible kind of running order. See last week’s post on how I go about this: Choosing a running order for your concert or CD

I did start a trend a way back of joining songs together. These segues only work if I can force several songs into the same key, and seem to work best (for some reason) with African songs. I guess if I tried a little harder I could squeeze enough songs together into some kind of medley that we could fill up a complete concert!

I realise that I’m quite ambitious in that we do (at least) three concerts a year, each with two 45 minute sets. That’s a LOT of songs to rehearse! I know of choirs who maybe perform only once a year and get through no more than a dozen songs.

Still, it keeps people on their toes, helps to raise the standards (and keeps them high), gives people something to aim at, AND we manage to keep it all fun and light-hearted. Not bad for a choir that’s not really a performing choir!!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Music and a sense of place

I have lived in Coventry in the Midlands of the UK for the last 13 years (gosh, doesn’t time fly!), although I’m originally from South London. This summer I will be moving East to Suffolk.

Both my partner (who is an artist) and I aren’t linked to any particular area for our work. We can work from anywhere. This actually made it much harder to choose a place to move to!

Snowshill, Cotswolds

The move has set me wondering if a sense of place has any effect at all on my work.

I’ve never really felt that I belong to the English culture. I’ve always felt more at home in, say, Brazil or Spain, although I doubt if I have any Latin blood in me. The male line of my family tree goes back to 16th Century peasant farmers in Herefordshire!

But I’ve always been attracted to the crunchy harmonies and passion of Balkan singing or Fado from Portugal or South African gospel. I’ve never really been turned on by English folk (too many words!).

I did try to find a ‘local’ song once for a gala concert in Stamford, Lincolnshire. I came across the Lincolnshire Poacher quite quickly (although many other counties claim the song as their own), but settled on the Stamford Bullards, a rather boring slice of history from way back.

One English folk song (although not strictly ‘traditional’) that I do love happens to come from just up the road in Nuneaton: The Old Miner which I first heard on the Silly Sisters’ (June Tabor and Maddy Prior) LP: No more to the dance. But that’s just coincidence.

Apart from that, where I’m based has no effect whatsoever on which songs I teach. Much of my research these days relies on the internet. I can correspond with people from all corners of the globe, order song books from exotic countries, and find lyrics, recordings and background information on all sorts of music.

Maybe if I’d been born in Sheffield, the Hebrides or the East End of London, I might feel more connected to my locality.

Are you influenced in any way by where you’re based? Does your local area have a strong singing tradition? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Choosing a running order for your concert or CD

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as Order, order! in July 2007

It’s that time of year when summer concerts come around and I have to think of a programme of songs. We’re also releasing a new live CD so I have to figure out a good track order.

running order

Choosing songs is not too hard, but programming them in a sensible order can be a challenge.

choosing songs

This is the easy part! Selecting songs for a concert is not too difficult and I’ll be writing about that next week.

Woven Chords are just about to release their second, live CD. Choosing songs for that wasn’t too hard either as I was limited mainly by the quality of any recordings that we had (and, of course, whether we were singing in tune on that day!).

I do find it difficult to compare audio recordings though. Unlike images which you can put side by side to compare, you have to rely on your memory as to which of two tracks sounds better.

putting them in order

What I find much harder is to find a suitable running order for the songs that I’ve chosen.

There are several schools of thought: some people group songs from the same country or style, whilst others sprinkle the different genres throughout the concert or CD and focus on aspects such as the dynamics of a particular song, whether it is anthemic or gentle, smooth or rhythmic.

I am do the latter – scatter different styles throughout – although I do sometimes put two songs together if they are from the same part of the world, and maybe stick in a song with English lyrics if I feel there’s been a run of foreign ones.

does anybody notice?

I try to make some sort of thread that runs through the programme by taking people on a journey with highs and lows. Whether I succeed or not is another matter. But is the effort worth it?

I spend a long time thinking of the running order for each of our concerts, and I’ve spent even longer on the new CD. But does it really matter to audiences? Do they notice the ‘journey’ through a concert, or do they just take the songs one at a time?

And with a CD, people can jump about and play tracks in any order they choose, so is the running order of any importance at all?

I guess I hang on to the fact that nobody has ever commented on the running order, and being the optimist that I am, I assume that means that I’m doing something right!

Do you agonise over the running order? Does it make any difference to you as an audience member or listener?


Chris Rowbury's website: