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:

Chris Rowbury


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