Monday, August 30, 2010

I must go down to the seas again

I’m in the middle of moving house from pretty much the centre of England (Coventry) to be near the sea (Woodbridge in Suffolk).

Woodbridge (17)

I’m a bit behind the times and all my blogging is done from my home office PC which means that things might get a bit hectic over the next few weeks!

We complete our purchase next Friday 3 September. We are then going down the following week to do some decoration and plan to move fully in the middle of September.

I’ve written the next few posts already (wow!) and they will be auto-published (clever!), but I won’t be able to moderate or respond to comments (shame!) until we’re properly settled in (when? when?).

So this is by way of a little advance apology that I may not be on top of things as much as usual for the next few weeks. Please bear with me, and I hope you enjoy the next few posts:

  • singing and moving (at the same time!)
  • how to get the best from your singers (don’t tell them it’s hard!)
  • is community singing dead?
  • music is too freely available (a bad thing!)

... and much, much more.

Remember: if you have a suggestion for a post, a question you’d like answered, or would like to write a guest post, then please don’t hesitate to contact me.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dealing with individual singers in a large choir

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

Morning Star asks:

“What do you do with your big chorus, when there are some folks that have real trouble with the pitch and some of them tend to sing loudly and throw others off?

I have spoken to the whole group many times about blending and we have done exercises to work on blend, but when those people get back in the group it often continues to happen. Do you ever speak with people individually?”


Fortunately, this hasn’t happened to me very often!

things usually balance out

If you run an open-access choir there will always be a range of different voices, experience, talent, needs, interests, etc. etc. This is one of the joys of community choirs – the amazing mix and variety of people.

Usually there is a reasonable spread of ability across the choir so things tend to even out. The more experienced singers carry the less experienced along with their enthusiasm and confidence, and any small tuning problems or glitches are ironed out in the overall mix.

But sometimes you will find that your choir is quite evenly balanced, with most people having similar experience. So if you get just one or two people who have far more or far less experience, they will stick out like sore thumbs.

giving individual attention

I often get frustrated with large choirs (anything over 20, say) because I can’t give people individual attention.

In a community choir there is always an element of training and vocal development in the warm ups each week. Sometimes I can see that people are struggling or just getting an exercise wrong and would love to go over and spend some one-to-one time with them, but there are 60 other people in the room who need my attention too.

For this reason, I try to pitch the warm ups so that everyone is challenged, whatever their level or experience. I constantly remind people that they are not to judge themselves against others, but only against themselves. Also, even if a warm up is very familiar, there is always something new to be learnt. In this way, I hope that each individual will develop at their own pace week on week.

However, there will always come a time when you get down to learning or singing a song and one voice will dominate.

the odd one out

The issue of whether or not they’re in tune, singing the correct part, have too much vibrato, have a screechy quality, etc. can be dealt with in the warm ups, but you need to be patient.

The only reason that there is a problem is that the person is singing too loudly. It will upset the overall sound and also put off other singers in their section.

There is a variety of reasons why someone might be singing too loudly:

  • they have little self-awareness and just don’t notice
  • they need to sing loud in order to hear their own voice
  • their voice is very powerful and they have not yet learnt how to control it
  • they have not yet learnt how to control their breathing properly
  • they are over-confident
  • they are under-confident
  • they don’t have enough experience of singing in harmony

Most of these can be fixed in the warm up session, but again it will take some time. The one thing that is very hard to fix is lack of self-awareness!

singing too loudly

You can take individuals aside and point out that they’re singing too loudly and draw their attention to how to blend in in terms of volume:

  • if you can only hear your own voice, you’re singing too loudly
  • if you can only hear everyone else, you’re singing too quietly

It’s a bit like Goldilocks: you need to find the “just right” volume.

The aim is to sing and hear your own voice AND the other voices in your part AND the other parts which make up the harmonies. A tricky balance, and one that only comes with experience.

If you do need to have a chat with a particular individual, make sure it is in private and not in front of the rest of the choir.

for the greater good

There is only one time I’ve had to ask someone to leave a choir and I felt awful! After all, the choir was founded on the principle that everyone can sing and everyone is welcome, no matter what their experience is. But there was one person who consistently sang loudly and out of tune. It didn’t affect the overall sound of the choir too much, but it DID affect the other people in the part who kept getting put off.

For good of the choir as a whole, I had to ask the person to leave. What I said was that they needed to go and develop their listening skills (not their singing skills). The fact was that the other people in the choir had more experience in this area. I told the person to go an get more experience singing in unison, for instance, singing hymns at church. In this way they would learn when they were singing the same notes at the same volume as everyone else.

It was a hard thing to do because I didn’t want to knock the person’s confidence, but I felt that I had to do it for the greater good of the choir.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When rehearsals go bad

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as Blame it on the weather in April 2007

Occasionally a rehearsal goes totally pear-shaped and I have no idea why.

fingers in ears 

la la la la ... I don't wanna hear this! by hebedesign

Despite my best efforts everything goes horribly wrong, and there’s no easy explanation. Perhaps it’s down to the weather?

everyone’s having an off night

Sometimes we’re really bad. All of us. Whether it’s six, or sixteen or sixty singers – everyone is out. They’re out of tune, the harmonies aren’t working, the pitch is dropping, the timing’s off – nothing is right.

If this were just one or two people then OK, perhaps they’re having an off day or are tired or had a difficult time at work. But the whole group??!! What’s going on here? A few out-of-tune voices might have a slight effect to those around them, but how come the whole choir is off key? Or out of time, or coming in at the wrong place?

This doesn’t happen often, but it’s happened enough times for me to realise that it’s a recognisable phenomenon. There is nothing I can do about it (I’ve tried!). So I just blame it on the weather, chalk it up to experience, and move on.

just one of those things?

It’s not the singers’ fault, it’s something outside them that’s affecting the whole room. Maybe it’s the full moon, or we’re in a high pressure area, or the humidity’s low – whatever it is, it’s nothing to do with us.

This is very different from those rehearsals where things are going wrong, but it’s just a case of a bit of a pep talk, a heightening of focus and attention, or simply running the song again and everything's back on track. This we can fix. In those cases we get back in tune OK. But not on bad weather days.

It’s happened enough times for me to just point it out and try to get everyone to accept the situation: “It’s just one of those nights! Next week will be fine.” They trust me and breathe a sigh of relief.

At first it really spooked me. We had such a good session the previous week and now it’s all going pear-shaped. It must be my fault, I’m not teaching very well or maybe I should be doing something different – like becoming an accountant.

Then I remembered my days as a runner.

no expectations

I used to be a long-distance runner, culminating in a half-marathon before I had to give it all up (don’t ask!). Most nights I would go out jogging for a good few miles come rain or shine. Often I’d get home on a real runner’s high. No matter how wretched or tired I felt when I set off, I’d come back glowing and full of energy.

The next night I’d set off perhaps feeling a bit low but knowing that at the end of it I’d feel great. Only sometimes I didn’t.

I began to realise that how I felt at the end of my run was kind of random. Many times I’d feel good, but sometimes I’d feel lousy. If I tried to hang onto the memories and feelings of the last good run and expect to come back feeling wonderful, I’d only get doubly disappointed. So I learnt to have no expectations. What happened would happen, despite me.

I think this is what Zen calls Shoshin or beginner’s mind.

as if for the first time

The idea is that each time you do something – no matter how many times you’ve done it before – you approach it as if it were the first time.

This also connects with my time as an actor. I used to do a lot of improvisation and at first would try to repeat the things that went well the last time. But of course it’s never as good or as spontaneous the second time round. So I learnt to approach each improvisation as if it were the first time (which of course it was!).

This can be applied not only to ‘bad weather’ rehearsals, but also to warm-ups and performances. I try to vary the warm-ups and vocal training each week, but inevitably (and usefully) we often repeat the same exercises.

There are two ways of dealing with this: either you can just go through the motions because you’ve done it loads of times before and you just want to get through it to get onto the singing (the fun part!), or you can have a beginner’s mind and approach the exercise as if you have never done it before. You may then discover new things about how your body and voice work, you will stay engaged and fascinated, and you will benefit from the warm-up much more.

Similarly, when a concert comes along, you can try to re-create the wonderful performance that you had the last time and fail. Alternatively, you can remember that awful concert last year which will stop you from being in the moment and doing your best for this concert.

Or you can behave as if you have never done this before, be totally in the moment, and move into the unknown, learning, wondering and developing as you go.

who can we blame?

Sometimes things just go totally wrong in a rehearsal or at a performance. We need to blame someone.

Often we blame ourselves (“I knew I was a rubbish singer!”, “If only I’d spent more time learning my part”), or sometimes the person in charge (“Our last musical director was much better than this one”), or the song (“I don’t know why we’re singing this stupid song any way”), or the venue (“It’s so cold in here! No wonder we can’t sing properly”). Or maybe it’s just the weather.

But blaming something doesn’t change the situation, nor does it help us move forward.

Thinking about the phenomenon has made me believe more and more in the principle of ‘living in the now’ or ‘being in the moment’. If you’ve done all your preparation and you come to the rehearsal or performance without expectation, you will always be rewarded – often in unexpected ways. But if you come to the warm-up or concert with a particular outcome in mind, you will almost always be disappointed. A hard skill to practice perhaps, but a very worthwhile one.

Have you had bad rehearsals where everyone seems off form, but you just can’t figure out why? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Songs and copyright 7: alternatives

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen how copyright works and considered both the legal and moral angles.

copyleft symbol

Some people have a problem with the current law, feeling that it is too restrictive. However, they still want to have some control over their intellectual property. This week I look at several alternatives to the existing copyright laws.

public domain

The simplest way to make a song available to everyone is to put it in the public domain. Sometimes people use the term ‘public domain’ in a loose fashion to mean ‘free’. However, ‘public domain’ is a legal term and means, precisely, ‘not copyrighted’. A work is in the public domain either because its copyright has expired, or the owner of the work forfeits their rights over it.

Under the Berne Convention, which most countries have signed, any literary or artistic work is automatically copyrighted. Therefore, if you want a work to be in the public domain, you must take some steps to disclaim the copyright on it. This isn't very hard to do — the copyright holder merely has to make a statement that they release all rights to the work. Once this irrevocable act is complete they no longer have any power over how the work is used since it is then owned by the public as a whole.

It is controversial, however, whether it is possible for a copyright holder to truly abandon the copyright of their work. Some scholars of copyright law, agree that it is difficult to put works in the public domain, but not impossible. The Creative Commons website, for example, has a public domain dedication form which produces an electronic receipt which is meant to act as legal backing for the dedication. It might be that another licensing option, such as the Creative Commons Attribution-Only license (see below), is a safer choice.

creative commons

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to making it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the rules of copyright.

They provide free licenses and other legal tools to mark creative work with the freedom the creator wants it to carry, so others can share, remix, use commercially, or any combination thereof.

There are a range of licenses available where you keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work provided they give you credit — and only on the conditions you specify. Ranging from attribution only (i.e. as long as people say where the work came from, they can then do anything they like with it), to attribution, non-commercial, non-derivatives (i.e. people must say where the work came from, can’t use it commercially, and can’t alter it or build on it in any way).

If you visit the home page of this blog: you will see that it is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 which means that I am allowing anyone to copy and make derivative works of any of my posts as long as they acknowledge that I wrote the original.


In general, copyright law is used by an author to prohibit others from reproducing, adapting, or distributing copies of the author's work. In contrast, an author may give every person who receives a copy of a work permission to reproduce, adapt or distribute it but require that any resulting copies or adaptations are also bound by the same licensing agreement. This is called copyleft. Copyleft type licenses are a novel use of existing copyright law to ensure a work remains freely available.

Copyleft is usually associated with computer programs, but it can also be applied to music. When a work is ‘copylefted’, it means all derived works (even if they mix in other works as well) must be distributed under the same terms (usually the same exact license) as the original work. Licenses can be obtained through Creative Commons. Copyleft is sometimes known as Share Alike.

informal arrangements

Whilst retaining copyright, you can make clear that you are giving users certain freedoms over your intellectual property. For example, putting “This page may be photocopied” on sheet music (e.g. the OUP’s Voiceworks series)

change the law!

Some people believe that the current copyright system is failing, but rather than adapting it, they are calling for wholesale change. There is a recent article from the BBC World Service – Copyright: time to change the laws? – which considers why the current system is now out of date.

further reading

Tom Ewing wrote an article in The Guardian pointing out that modern music marketing (i.e. giving away music for free) is close in spirit to the Native American practice of potlach.

A story in The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses lessons from the history of book publishing, the evolution of copyright and what might happen in the future. “History shows that intellectual property is more complex than either its creators or copiers care to admit.”

Counterpoint online has started a debate on the future of copyright. It’s 300 years since the passing into law of the very first copyright act the British Council Creative Economy Team has launched a debate and year-long series of forums framed by the question: if copyright hadn’t been invented, what kind of copyright would we want?

The Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University has created a course called ‘Copyright for librarians’. Module 6 of the course looks at Creative Approaches and Alternatives.

the end

Well, that wraps up this series of seven posts on songs and copyright. A complex subject, but I’ve tried to give as clear an explanation as I can. I’d love to hear your views on the series. Do drop by and leave a comment.

If you’ve missed the rest of this series, here are links to the other posts:


UPDATE (14 July 2015)

Since I wrote this post I’ve written two others that might be of interest:

Choirs and copyright: a beginner’s guide for the bewildered

Copying music: how to stay on the right side of the law


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Balancing fun with rehearsing for concerts

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as What a performance! in July 2007.

Last week I wrote about choirs that choose not to perform. None of the choirs or singing groups that I have run were formed as performing groups.

Stellenbosch choir

I’ve always made it clear that our main priority is simply to have fun and to sing together. But if (and when) performance opportunities arise, how can we balance having fun with the requirement to perform well? (Coincidentally, Liz Garnett recently wrote about the balance between fun and discipline on her own blog: Are we having fun yet?)

we didn’t plan to be a performing choir!

Life being what it is, performance opportunities arise and people like to perform. So we ended up doing the occasional performance, and before we knew it, we were doing regular concerts.

I make sure that everyone understands that performance is an added bonus and is in no way compulsory. Yet almost all choir members want to perform. Having put all that hard work into learning and perfecting songs, it’s inevitable that people want to share them with others.

So we perform. And we do – even if I do say it myself – perform to a high standard. We often sell out many of our regular local gigs, and have a strong following amongst our audience. But this brings its own problems.

Whilst each week the emphasis is on learning new songs and having fun singing them (plus reviving a few ‘oldies’), there has to come a time when we ‘rehearse’ for our upcoming concert.

finding a balance

Many performing choirs can have a dozen or more concerts each year. This means that their emphasis is very different from ours: each week’s session is a rehearsal for the next concert, always brushing up on performance skills and honing songs drawn from a relatively small repertoire.

But we have a repertoire of over 200 songs to draw upon (not all of which are up to speed at any given time) and we only perform a maximum of three times a year.

The skill then is to balance fun singing sessions with the more serious business of getting songs ready for the next concert.

My usual plan is to introduce a small number of new songs at the beginning of each term (roughly 12 weeks), whilst going over some golden oldies at the end of every session. As the concert approaches, I stop introducing new material and just focus on polishing the old stuff.

Two weeks before the concert we spend one session running through the first half of the concert and the next weekly session running the second half. On the day of the concert we have a full rehearsal in the afternoon running the whole concert in order.

Sometimes – if circumstances permit – we spend a whole Saturday near the concert just running through the set. This is less pressured than a regular session as it’s most people’s day off and we share lunch and try to make it a fun, relaxed day.

so many songs, such little time!

Since many of our songs are relatively short (between one and three minutes long) it means we use up a lot of repertoire in a concert. Our concerts are usually two halves of 45 minutes each, which may mean we get through up to 30 songs – most of which are in foreign languages. That’s a lot of material to get through in a term whilst still trying to have fun!

There is always the frustration that if only we had more time to work on the songs, then the concert would be even better. And if we were a proper performance choir then we could work on performance skills each week and really get good. But I think we’ve got the balance right.

performing vs. not performing

If we never performed, there would never be a need to really hone in on a song, get the subtleties right, play with the dynamics, find the right voice for it, really get to grips with the strange words, find the joy of actually singing the song rather than feeling that you never quite know it properly.

Yet if we performed all the time we would lose a lot of the fun from our weekly sessions, there would be more pressure to “get it right”, our performances might end up just that little bit too slick (our audiences really like our laid-back informal approach coupled with accomplished singing ability), we wouldn’t be able to keep adding fabulous songs to our repertoire, we couldn’t afford to experiment and play around with songs or to try to learn something really complex without the pressure of having to deliver at a certain time.

fun or discipline?

Of course, you need both if you’re going to perform. But if I had to sacrifice one, I would definitely keep the fun element. If everyone's having fun it creates the perfect atmosphere for excellence. If the focus is entirely on product, then it's oh so easy for fear and lack of confidence to feed in.

How about your choir? Do you feel you have enough fun? Are you always frustrated because you never really get to grips with a song? How does your choir find a balance? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Songs and copyright 6: how to get permission to use a song

We’ve seen that songwriters, music publishers, recording artists, song arrangers, etc. all have copyright over the songs that they ‘own’. We’ve seen how the law works and what you can and can’t do with other people’s songs.

If you want to use a copyrighted song (to teach, record, arrange, copy, perform, broadcast, etc.), how do you go about it?

copyright warning

Office Depot copyright warning by gruntzooki

Before you can use any work that is in copyright, you must first get permission. Often that permission is not obtained directly from the creator, editor, recorder, performer or arranger of the song, but from an organisation that helps to deal with creative rights.

Also, as we saw last week, the original creator may have sold the rights to their work to another person or organisation. You will need to find out who that is so you can ask their permission.

Each country has its own organisations. The rest of this post refers to the situation in the UK.

important UK organisations

The Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) – now part of the MCPS-PRS Alliance, PRS for Music (see below).

PRS for Music (formerly the Performing Right Society) is a royalty collection society that was founded in 1914. As the MCPS-PRS Alliance, it is an organisation which pays royalties to composers, songwriters and music publishers when the music they have created is sold. This includes sales of the music alone such as CDs and downloads, and also products which use the music as a part of their soundtrack, such as films and computer games.

PPL (formerly Phonographic Performance Ltd.) is the company which licenses recorded music and music videos for public performance, broadcast and new media use. The income generated is then allocated and paid as royalties to their record company and performer members.

Music Publishers Association (MPA) is a non-profit organisation representing music publishers in the UK. It exists to safeguard their interests, and those of the writers signed to them.

UK Music is an umbrella organisation which represents the collective interests of the production side of UK’s commercial music industry: artists, musicians, songwriters, composers, record labels, artist managers, music publishers, studio producers and music collecting societies.

who to ask for permission

For permission to:

  • arrange a song – you need to contact the copyright owner. The MPA can help to direct you to them
  • record music – contact PRS for music (MCPS)
  • perform music live – contact PRS for music (PRS)
  • broadcast music – contact PPL and PRS for music
  • play a recording of music in any public space – contact PPL and PRS for music

what does that mean in practice for my choir?

  • If you perform a copyrighted song in a concert, you will need to pay PRS. The payment is usually collected by the venue that you are performing in (if they are licensed). This also applies to performing live for broadcast.
  • If you want to make a CD, you have to first get permission from MCPS who will tell you which songs are in copyright and then you will have to pay a fee for each copyrighted song based on a percentage of potential income from the CD. You should do this even if you are only selling the CD for peanuts to choir members or friends and family (although in practice, many choirs don’t bother!).
  • If you want to arrange a song that is in copyright, you will need to ask permission of the person who ‘owns’ the song (not necessarily the original song writer). The MPA can help direct you.
  • If you want to write a song using text or lyrics that are in copyright, again, you have to ask permission of the copyright owner. In both this and the case above, you may have to pay a fee.

Once you have obtained the right to record or perform a copyrighted song (see above), then you need to protect your rights as a choir in terms of any recordings that are made. Once you’ve legally produced your CD or download, then you will need to protect your rights over someone using that recording to sell, broadcast, copy, etc. PRS for music will be able to give you advice or ask the distributor you use.

if you’re a song writer or arranger ...

There is no need to register a work in order to obtain copyright protection, but there are certain precautionary measures you can take. MPA has a useful guide: How do I protect my music?

You will need someone to administer the rights you have over your work.

  • If you become a member of PRS, your rights will be transferred to them. Whenever your music is performed in public or broadcast, they will collect the royalties for you.
  • If you become a member of MCPS, they will act as an agent on your behalf to administer your rights if someone wants to record your music, and sell or rent CDs, downloads, etc.

further reading

PRS produce a very useful document covering all aspects of copyright law.

Sound Rights is a free online learning resource produced by UK Music, written by professionals in the music industry and music education expert Leonora Davies to answer the national curriculum's new requirement regarding the music industry and copyright.

British Copyright Council is a national consultative and advisory body representing those who create, hold interests in or manage rights in literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, films, sound recordings, broadcasts and other material in which there are rights of copyright or related rights; and those who perform such works.

As a liaison committee and pressure group for change in copyright law at UK, European and international level, the BCC provides its members with a forum for the discussion of copyright matters.

The Copyright Licensing Agency is aimed at organisations which regularly photocopy and distribute documents (such as sheet music). They license organisations for copying extracts from print and digital publications on behalf of authors, publishers and visual creators.

next week

In the final post in this series on songs and copyright I’ll be looking at alternatives to the familiar copyright law: copyleft, public domain, creative commons, etc.

This is the sixth in a series of seven posts about songs and copyright:

  1. Even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it
  2. Basic principles of copyright
  3. Different kinds of rights
  4. How the law works
  5. Who owns the song?
  6. How to get permission to use a song
  7. Alternatives


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Choirs that don’t perform

Over the last few weeks I’ve been looking at ways of finding an audience for your choral concerts. But what if your choir doesn’t perform?

Sangstream rehearsal

Sangstream rehearsal by fiddledidee

When I started my first community choir back in 1997, the idea was for people to come once a week and have fun learning songs and singing together. Performing in public wasn’t on the cards.

Eventually we did end up performing, but I always made it clear to new members that it was optional. You could have the full experience of being a member of the choir by just coming along each week and singing together.

Since those early days, I have taken choirs and singing groups out in public on many occasions and performed in a wide range of venues: from a prison to the Royal Festival Hall in London; from a stately home to a tiny village hall. But there are many choirs who make a conscious decision never to perform in public.

I want to look at the advantages and disadvantages of making this choice.

7 good reasons NOT to perform

  1. scary for less-confident singers – many singers who join the sort of choirs that I run are attracted by the “anyone can sing” approach. They tend to start off being rather nervous (“I can’t sing!”) and the idea of performing in public would send them running.
  2. puts pressure on weekly sessions – people come each week to have a good sing. I also try to develop vocal skills week on week and teach a range of songs. If we have to rehearse for the next concert, all this gets put on hold.
  3. hard work finding venues and audiences – it takes time and effort to find suitable venues and to attract a decent audience. This time and effort could go into making the weekly sessions better.
  4. can go horribly wrong – for an inexperienced choir, a disastrous concert can set them back months. It’s one thing to get it perfectly right in rehearsal and an entirely different matter being in front of a paying public.
  5. need to keep learning new songs – if your choir performs regularly, you will have to keep refreshing your repertoire or audiences will get bored hearing the same old thing. That doesn’t give you much scope for experimentation and detailed work on existing songs in your repertoire.
  6. takes the fun out of it – many people join choirs for the love of singing with others and the social aspect. Having to rehearse each week – drill the songs, work on details of pronunciation and dynamics – can take the fun out of sessions.

    (Next week I will look at how to find the balance between having fun and the serious business of getting songs ready for the next concert.)
  7. can restrict your repertoire – if you know that you’re going to perform, it might mean that you have to choose particular songs that you know will go down well with your local audience. It stops you from experimenting and exploring unfamiliar territory.

7 reasons why it’s GREAT to perform

  1. nice to share what you’ve learnt – having put all that hard work into learning the songs, it’s great to share them with others. Getting feedback from an audience can boost confidence and morale.
  2. helps raise standards – performing in public helps raise the bar. You have much more to lose singing to an audience which can help singers put more work into perfecting their performance of a song.
  3. gives singers something to aim for – sometimes there can be a lack of motivation simply learning new songs each week. Having something specific to aim for can bring focus to the choir.
  4. attracts new members – performing in public is a great recruiting tool. What easier way to show what it is that you do and how much fun it is than demonstrating?
  5. raises the choir’s profile – if you stay in your rehearsal rooms, nobody will ever hear of you. Getting out in public is the easiest way to spread the word of your existence.
  6. way of making money – charging people to come and see you perform is an excellent way of raising money for the choir.
  7. make art more accessible – many people think of the arts as elitist and expensive. Not only will you be bringing art to the people, but you will also be showing that you don’t have to be a seasoned professional to make beautiful music.

are there alternatives to performing?

You don’t need to be a fully-performing choir to reap the positive benefits of taking your work out to the public. Here are some alternatives:

  • hold ‘sharings’ for friends and family – rather than full-blown concerts open to anyone, just have an end of season/ term ‘sharing’ in your regular rehearsal space for friends and family. Make it an event by bringing food to share.
  • perform, but don’t make it compulsory – yes, have the occasional concert, but make it very clear that singers are able to opt out.
  • make a recording public – rather than a live performance, make a sound or video recording of a rehearsal or closed performance and release it to the public (burn a CD, put it on YouTube).
  • bring the audience into the choir – set up a short project where you invite everyone in your local community to become a temporary choir member. The ‘audience’ then becomes part of the choir!

what does your choir do?

Is your choir a performing choir? Do you do full-on concerts? How many times a year do you perform? If you don’t perform, how do you hold singers’ interest from year to year? Can you think of any other alternatives to public concerts? Do drop by and leave a comment.

Next week I’ll be looking at how to balance fun with rehearsing for a concert.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Songs and copyright 5: who owns the song?

We saw last week that copyright law is an attempt to protect the rights of the creator(s) of a song. These rights include being acknowledged as the song’s writer(s) and having control over how the song is used by others. The song writer is said to own the song as a piece of intellectual property.

Indian village musicians

Indian village musicians by Sukanto Debnath

But what if we don’t know who wrote the song or if the song writer is dead or if the music publishing company has gone out of business or if two different people each claim to have written the song?

Before we can even begin to speak about what rights somebody might have over a particular song, we need to know who owns it.

the original owner

When a song is first composed, the owner of the song is the person or people who wrote the music and the lyrics. These song owners then have automatic rights over their creation for a period of time established by law.

If the song is later written down and published or recorded in any way, then those publishers have ownership of the publishing and recording rights. Publishing and record companies are free to sell their songs to other people, thus getting further and further away from the original song writer.

For example, Michael Jackson used to own the publishing rights to pretty much every Beatles’ song. To beat bankruptcy, he sold his share of the rights to Sony in 2006.

traditional songs

Traditional songs that have been handed down from generation to generation seem to have come from nowhere, but somebody wrote them at some time. Unfortunately, we often don’t know who that individual is since such songs mutate and evolve over time. That is why there are so many songs credited to ‘anon’!

Many world cultures have never written their songs down and don’t even have the concept of ‘authorship’. In these days of global communication, it is very easy for Western musicians to appropriate such songs and claim rights over them.

The Smithsonian recently held an online conference on the subject of Who owns music? looking at the ethical and even philosophical questions which Smithsonian Folkways Recordings must wrestle with as it gathers the music of cultures around the world.

Click on “Access Archive” to hear a recording of Folkways’ D. A. Sonneborn telling stories of the music makers he’s met in a session that considers the idea of ownership in its largest sense.

selling songs to other people

For a variety of reasons, song writers sometimes decide to sell their songs to somebody else. Maybe they need to make money, or they’ve been tricked somehow, or they think that by selling it the song will get wider recognition.


Many of us are familiar with the pop song “The lion sleeps tonight” which was a hit for Tight Fit in 1982. This song is an adaptation of an earlier version called “Wimoweh” recorded by The Weavers in the 1950s.

The original song, “Mbube” was written by Solomon Linda in 1939. It was a huge success in his native South Africa. Linda sold his rights to the song for 10 shillings (less than $US 2) to the record company shortly after the recording was made.

The original recording was discovered by American musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1950s who passed it on to his friend Pete Seeger who was in The Weavers. Seeger assumed the song was in the public domain so The Weavers credited it to Paul Campbell, a fictitious entity used to copyright material.

Years later the song was used by the Disney Corporation in their movie The Lion King, earning an estimated US $15 million in that movie alone. Solomon Linda didn’t see a penny of this and died in poverty in 1962.

In February 2006, Linda's heirs reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney.

you are my sunshine

Another example is You are my sunshine. First recorded in 1939, the song is copyright 1940, words and music by Jimmie Davis (who later went on to become Louisiana’s state governor) and Charles Mitchell.

The song was first recorded by the Pine Ridge Boys on August 22, 1939; the Rice Brothers Gang recorded it on September 13, 1939; Jimmie Davis bought the ‘rights’ to the song from Paul Rice for $35 in late 1939. Davies never claimed to have written the song, but Paul Rice claimed to have composed it in 1937.

But the song wasn’t Rice’s to sell. According to an article by Theodore Pappas in 1990, There are still people alive, who remember hearing the song long before 1937 - in particular, a mid 1930s performance of the song by Riley Puckett himself - and what these people remember is the name of the musician with whom both Riley Puckett and Paul Rice played in the early 1930s:  Oliver Hood of LaGrange, Georgia.

disputed ownership

There are many other examples of disputed ownership, some of which have never been resolved. Here are two examples.

tsena tsena

Tsena, tsena is another song recorded by The Weavers! It is a very popular Israeli song composed by Issachar Miron in 1941.

In about 1947 an American, Julius Grossman, added a third part to Miron’s song which ended up being published in 1949 and credited entirely to Grossman. Miron took Grossman to court in 1954 and won.

The court case makes fascinating reading and gives an insight into the complexities of copyright law. One interesting claim was that neither party wrote the song at all, but that it was in the public domain long before 1941 so was freely up for grabs!


The song Malaika was made famous by the South African singer Miriam Makeba although it was first recorded by Kenyan musician Fadhili William and his band Jambo Boys in 1960.

Authorship of the song is often attributed to Fadhili William, but that is somewhat disputed. It appears that the song was written in the 1940s by a Tanzanian, but at least two song writers claim it. There are also claims from Kenya and other East African countries. It may be that William wrote one of the verses, but it’s almost certain that he didn’t write the whole song.

There is no clear owner of the song, although Fadhili William is now generally recognized as the composer for royalty purposes.

stealing songs

Whether consciously or not, many song writers end up ‘borrowing’ tunes or lyrics from other songs. Some even go as far as claiming a song as their own composition even though they know it was written by somebody else.

A famous example of ‘borrowing’ bits of tune was George Harrison’s court case claiming that he had plagiarised the melody for “My sweet Lord” from the 1963 hit single “He’s so fine.”

is it really in the public domain?

Many songs appear to be in the public domain (i.e. not covered by intellectual property rights) because they are very old or nobody knows who owns them. But the way that copyright law works, even if the original song writer is long dead, somebody may still ‘own’ the song.

A couple of years back I released a live CD with my community choir WorldSong. Before we could produce the CD, we had to check whether we had permission to record each of the songs.

One of the songs we wanted to put on the CD was How can I keep from singing? This song is a Christian hymn written by American Baptist minister Robert Lowry (1826 – 1899). Since he died so long ago, I naturally assumed that the song was now in the public domain.

When I received the paperwork back from MCPS (the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society) I was informed that the song’s UK copyright is held by Harmony Music Ltd. and the song is credited to Sankey and Plenn.

The song was published by Lowry in 1869. He claimed to have written the music, but he didn’t say where the lyrics came from. In 1878 the American gospel singer and composer Ira D. Sankey published his own setting of the words, writing that the words were anonymous.

Doris Plenn learned the original hymn from her grandmother, who reportedly believed that it dated from the early days of the Quaker movement. Plenn contributed an additional verse around 1950, which was taken up by Pete Seeger and other folk revivalists who modified much of the overtly Christian wording.

So it seems that the song is still in copyright because of the extra lyrics added by Plenn in the 1950s. I still haven’t found out how come the copyright is held by Harmony Music!

Just because a song is old, doesn’t mean that it’s automatically in the public domain.

next week

Next week I’ll be looking at how you go about getting permission to use a song in order to perform it, record it, arrange it, etc. Also how to claim rights over your own song writing. This will refer to the situation in the UK only I’m afraid.

This is the fifth in a series of seven posts about songs and copyright:

  1. Even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it
  2. Basic principles of copyright
  3. Different kinds of rights
  4. How the law works
  5. Who owns the song?
  6. How to get permission to use a song
  7. Alternatives


Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Finding an audience 4: 20 ways to increase your concert audience

Over the last three weeks I’ve been looking at the traditional way of getting audiences to come to your concerts: identify what your choir does, describe that accurately, then get the word out.

empty seats

Piper auditorium by brettstil

This week I’m going to show you 20 other ideas to increase your concert audiences.

  1. use a smaller venue – of course you won’t fit a bigger audience in, but the audience you do get will seem bigger and give the choir confidence, you might sell out (leave them wanting more!), and you will create a buzz.

  2. tailor songs to suit the circumstances – make sure you choose the most appropriate songs from your repertoire for the venue or festival or event.

  3. do a joint concert – with a local school or other (different kind of) choir. They will bring their own audience and both choirs will benefit.

  4. set up time-limited project – and involve other singers who aren’t in your choir. Time-limiting the project gives it focus and requires less commitment from the participants. You never know, they might end up joining the choir afterwards!

  5. be a support act/ guest slot – offer your services to other choirs, orchestras, bands, singers, etc. Make sure you complement what they have to offer.

  6. special deals on tickets – half price special, discount for certain groups, competition prize, etc.

  7. create a ‘friends’ scheme for the choir – charge a nominal fee to cover costs of a regular newsletter and other ‘goodies’ like advanced notice of concerts, priority booking, cheaper tickets, etc.

  8. get someone else to find the audience – offer your services to another organisation or festival who might want to raise money for charity in exchange for them doing all the marketing. Charge a percentage of the box office.

  9. pay a PR person – employ an expert to market your concert or,if you can’t afford one, send a choir member on a course.

  10. offer food and drink – it doesn’t have to be free (how many concerts do you go to just because they offer a free glass of wine?), but could be unusual fare that fits in with your programme of songs. Your concert will have “Added value”.

  11. link concert to another event – don’t just do joint concerts with other choirs, it could be a non-musical event like a summer fair, lecture, guided tour, food tasting, etc.

  12. have a “pay what you can” gig – no charge in advance, but leave a big bucket by the entrance for people to pay what they think the concert was worth.

  13. create an afterlife – that you can then use to promote your next concert. Video, sound recording, photo display, etc.

  14. get feedback – from your audience which you can use as copy for your next press release or website. Even better, get a review from your local music critic and get it published.

  15. vary the concert – make it a more interesting evening by adding variety: repertoire, small groups, solos, instruments.

  16. take it to the audience – don’t just expect them to come to you. Find other events or venues where lots of people gather and take your singing to them. Even if it’s a taster rather than a full concert, you will interest a few people.

  17. make sure there are no other events on the same day – easily done! Make sure you’re entered in any local ‘clash diaries’. Plan well in advance.

  18. steal someone else’s audience – choose music-makers that you admire and busk outside their concert.

  19. try different kinds of venue – if you find that you’re almost always performing in churches, try your local sports centre. If you’re always in the local concert hall, try a church instead. Go further afield.

  20. recruit more choir members – if each choir member brings friends and family, then increasing the size of your choir will automatically increase the size of your audience!

... and more?

I’m sure there are plenty of other good ideas out there for increasing the size or composition of your audience. If you’re not afraid of other people stealing your best idea, do leave a comment and let us know your good ideas. The more the merrier!

In case you’ve missed any of the other three posts in this series on finding an audience, here they are:

  1. identifying what your choir does
  2. describing what we do
  3. letting people know

Next week, I’ll be considering choirs that choose not to perform at all.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Songs and copyright 4: how the law works

Every song was written by somebody and it seems fair and reasonable to acknowledge (and maybe reward) that person. This is the basic principle underlying the copyright laws, even though such laws may seem heavy-handed at times.

Last week I looked at the kinds of things we might want to copyright and what kinds of rights we can give people over these things.


Policeman by Ian Britton

Now we come to how all these good intentions have become embedded in law.

what you can and can’t do

If a song is protected by copyright in any form (sheet music, CD recording, arrangement, etc.), then there are certain things that you can do, certain things that you need permission to do, and certain things that you can’t do.

The one thing you definitely can’t ever do is to claim work as your own if you didn’t make it. The creator of the song has the moral right to be identified as its creator.

The most important thing that you can’t do is to copy a song in any way without permission. Hence the phrase ‘copy right’.

What you can do, having bought the sheet music or recording of a song, is to play it or sing it for your own enjoyment, but you can’t make copies for your mates or choir members.

isn’t it mine when I’ve bought it?

When you buy a song in the form of sheet music or as a recording, you have effectively been granted a license which allows you to do certain things with it. The terms of these licenses vary, but basically they allow you (within reason) to do what you like with the song for your own personal use.

Usually (unless otherwise stated) you can’t do anything with it from which you will gain financially (teach it, lend it, perform it, play it at a club, sell copies of, broadcast it). And as we’ve seen above, you can’t copy it, although in practice it’s probably OK to burn a CD of some MP3s that you’ve bought so you can play them in your car. But even then I’m not sure it’s totally legal!

types of copying

Depending on the medium of the song (written music, recording, etc.) there are many different ways of copying it, some more obvious than others:

  • Sheet music can be photocopied, scanned or written out again by hand.
  • Recorded music can be duplicated (by burning a CD, ripping tracks to your PC, recording off the radio onto your cassette machine, copying a digital file off the internet).
  • A live performance can be recorded in a range of different ways (on your phone, on a dictaphone, on your camera, with portable recording equipment).

apparently grey areas

There are other ways of copying a song which people think aren’t really copying so it doesn’t count:

  • Transcribe an arrangement or melody from a recording – listen to a recording carefully and work out what the melody and harmonies are, then note them down in some way.
  • Record a song-teaching session – many people bring recording devices to workshops and record the parts as they’re being taught.
  • Teach a song by ear that you’ve heard somewhere – either from a workshop or a recording or being taught by a friend.

These are all forms of copying and as such are subject to copyright laws.

where does that leave people who teach/ arrange by ear?

In a traditional choir which uses written sheet music, the choir have to buy one copy of the music for each and every choir member. To save costs, it’s sometimes possible to borrow or rent a whole set of scores for a one-off performance.

But in a choir that doesn’t use sheet music, the situation is different. The choir leader may buy the sheet music and then teach the song by ear. In which case, the composer/ publisher/ arranger is losing out on their ‘normal’ revenue. Some song writers and arrangers ask you to pay the equivalent of buying one copy for every choir member even if you only need one copy because you’re going to teach it by ear.

And what if your choir leader uses their single copy of the sheet music to make some parts CDs which are then sold or distributed amongst choir members so they can learn their parts? This is a form of copying so is breaking copyright law.

Some song writers and arrangers don’t read or write music. They pas on their work by recording their songs or producing teaching CDs with the individual parts on. You may find that buying a song in this way is a lot more expensive than buying sheet music. The reason is that the arranger/ song writer knows that you will probably be teaching their song/ arrangement to your choir or workshop so factor that in to the price (rather like publishers insisting you buy one copy of the sheet music for each choir member).

It is all too easy, especially when teaching by ear, to just buy one copy of the sheet music, or make parts CDs without realising that you’re  making money from somebody else’s work.

how long does copyright last?

In the UK, copyright in a musical or literary work generally lasts for 70 years after the composer or author dies. A sound recording is typically protected for 50 years from when it was made (although some artists are lobbying to have that extended!), and a printed edition is generally protected for 25 years from when it was first published.

what do those weird symbols mean?

You are probably familiar with the © symbol. This is the copyright symbol used to indicate that something is protected by copyright. To explicitly assert your rights to a piece of work that is written down, simply put the copyright symbol (or the word ‘Copyright’) followed by the year of publication/ creation then your name.

The symbol for sound recording copyright is a ‘p’ in a circle. You will need this on CD recordings of your song for example.

Other symbols you may come across are the registered trademark symbol ®. Trademarks that have not been registered use the symbol TM. A trademark is typically a name, word, phrase, design or logo. This may apply, for example, to your choir or band name or logo if you wish to protect it.

how do I know if something is copyrighted?

Pretty much every piece of sheet music or recording is copyrighted, even if there is no explicit copyright symbol. Just because it appears to be an old song, don’t assume that it’s in the public domain (i.e. not subject to copyright).

It is up to the creator of a piece of work whether they want to restrict what you can do with their song. You may find at the bottom of a piece of sheet music “Feel free to photocopy and pass on”. There are also other ways in which creators can protect or license their work (see a later post in this series), so you can’t assume that all work is protected in the same way. Do your research!

copyright law in the age of the internet

It is so much easier these days to copy material due to its digital format (no loss of information – remember those hissy tapes that your mates used to pass around?) and our networked world (mobile phones, internet). That just means that illegal copying is harder to keep control of than before. The same fears were around when the printing press was invented. Prior to that, sheet music and lyrics had to be copied by hand.

Illegal downloads and file sharing abound. Copying a CD for your mate is a breeze. Making a half-way decent recording of a live gig is almost undetectable. So copying is easier, but it’s still against the law.

But which law? Because of our global connectivity, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know which law applies and who is responsible for breaking it (the downloader, PC owner, ISP, mobile network?).

how is the law enforced?

We’ve all read recently of the heavy-handed and perhaps misguided attempts by record companies to give huge fines to individuals who are found to have downloaded material that they hadn’t paid for. We also know about the cheap knock-off DVDs that are sold at car boot sales alongside pirated copies of the latest release of Windows.

Most stories that hit the news are about recorded movies, music or software and involve large multi-national corporations. If someone rips off a Madonna or Robbie Williams song and makes a fortune from it or passes it off as their own, the lawyers will be all over it in seconds.

But what about the world of choirs and community singing? Are the police likely to raid a concert where you’re performing your illicit, unlicensed arrangement of a Beatles song? Will the music publishers be down on you like a ton of bricks if you teach said song in a workshop?

What if you’ve very properly bought a licensed arrangement of a Beatles song as sheet music, but then go on to teach it by ear to your choir or even produce parts CDs? And if you your friend passes you the recorded parts of this amazing African song that’s been doing the rounds, are you definitely going to check that the arrangement is not in copyright or the song is really in the public domain?

The reality is that we can (and almost certainly do) get away with these things. But are you comfortable making a living from other people’s hard work? For instance, that African song I was sent recently turns out to be a modern arrangement that has been published as sheet music which I really should have bought.

It may seem OK doing a few Beatles or ABBA arrangements and making a few quid teaching them in a workshop, after all, they probably don’t need the money! But what if the song in question was from a struggling singer-songwriter who is desperately trying to make a living? In a later post I’ll show exactly how you can get permission to do all these sorts of things without breaking the law (if that makes you feel better).

But a lot of what we do ends up being about individual conscience. Next week I want to look a bit deeper into the moral aspect of copyright. Is it just a capitalist invention? Can there really be such a thing as intellectual ‘property’? Who ‘owns’ the music of a particular culture or tradition? Can the ‘ownership’ of a song be bought and sold? Who owns the song?

This is the fourth in a series of seven posts about songs and copyright:

  1. Even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it
  2. Basic principles of copyright
  3. Different kinds of rights
  4. How the law works
  5. Who owns the song?
  6. How to get permission to use a song
  7. Alternatives


Chris Rowbury's website: