Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Music lives in flawed humans and not on the page

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Where does the music reside? in July 2007.

I met a painter a while back and he asked me if I was an artist. I told him that I didn’t paint, but that I worked with music. He then asked: “Where do you think the music resides? Is it in the written score?”

Carolyn Thompson

Carolyn Thompson by James Wm. Dawson

I was lost for words and didn’t really understand the question. Finally I answered: “I believe that music resides in the humanity of the people creating it”.

can a musical score ever be perfectly realised?

We went on to talk about how some people are attracted to the purity of the written score and the idea of the perfect realisation of it in practice. Of course, one can never perfectly realise a written piece of music (not least because music notation is not an exact system) because the people who create the music are error-prone and not perfect creatures.

But even if we could do that, wouldn’t that be rather like machine-produced music? I for one don’t enjoy choral concerts where the singing is so, so, ever so precise. The enunciation is perfect, as is the blend of voices – so much so that it can sometimes sound like a single voice singing. No! Give me some humanity and rough edges!

the imperfection and humanity of singing

I love the different textures of all the individuals in the choir, I appreciate everyone’s unique contribution to the overall sound. I enjoy it when not everyone is singing exactly the same pitch – that is where the harmonics, overtones and fullness of the sound come from.

I adore it when each person’s timing is slightly different, when small errors are made. In short, I love it when all the imperfections that we human beings are made up of are fully expressed through the singing.

I have heard singers who have ‘beautiful’ voices, who sing perfectly in tune, whose technique and talent are remarkable, and yet they leave me unmoved. However, I can hear some rusty old recording of a group of elderly villagers in the Balkans giving voice to an age-old traditional song, and I can be moved to tears.

They are communicating with me, they are working as one to express their humanity and their joy, and I in turn am moved.

singing in harmony is the great leveller

One weekend I was in the rare position of running three entirely different workshops in three different places with three different sets of participants. It reinforced for me what happens in singing workshops.

All three were open-access, no experience necessary, no musical scores in sight, no real expectations (except to have fun!), and yet they all produced the most wonderful, magical sounds. The whole experience was uplifting both for me and the participants.

It reminded me how universal singing is, and how egalitarian and levelling singing harmony together can be. I had no idea who these people were, what they did for a living, or if they had had any singing training or experience. The only instruction was to sing a part that they felt was comfortably within their own range.

strangers making music together

People ended up standing next to strangers who they had only just met, and yet they worked as a team helping to create an overall sound. Nobody was really worried about whether they had a ‘beautiful’ voice or not as they were soon taken over by the music itself.

And I just stood back and listened to the most beautiful harmony singing and was moved once more by the power of the music. And where did the music reside at that moment? In the hearts and souls of every single person who made up the group.

Yet still – unfortunately – people believe that they can’t ‘sing’ or that music-making is not meant for them. One of the workshop participants wrote to me: “I’m completely new to this kind of thing, having believed all my life that singing in choirs was something that ‘other people’ do.” Luckily he realised that singing is open to all of us and has now joined a local choir.


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Sunday, September 26, 2010

What to call yourself in the singing world

I’ve suddenly realised I don’t know what to call myself any more. I used to be a ‘choirmaster’ (a term I got from Gareth Malone and thought it sounded posh).

name tag wearing

But I don’t run any choirs at the moment, so what should I call myself? And what about singers? Are they just ‘singers’ or are they choristers or choir members?

sticks and stones may break my bones ...

So  you’re a singer. In a choir. Does that make you a chorister (sounds a bit fancy)? Or maybe you’re just a regular choir member? If you’re not in a choir and just sing for pleasure you could call yourself a songster or even a troubadour. And if you perform in public at all you could even be a chanteuse (with all that implies) or a crooner. Or simply a performer or entertainer.

If you’re the singer in a band, you usually get called the vocalist. That’s the same term used sometimes for backing singers. And if you don’t sing outside your bathroom ever you could be an amateur singer or a warbler.

I suppose if you take it seriously enough, you would refer to yourself as a musician: “My voice is my instrument.” And if you helped others find their singing voices, you might be a community musician.

but names cannot define me

I nicked the term choirmaster from watching Gareth Malone on TV. I looked it up in a dictionary and it says: “A person who trains, leads or conducts a choir.” Sound pretty spot on to me! But what about the small singing ensembles I used to “train, lead and conduct”?

They weren’t choirs, so I wasn’t a choirmaster. In fact, any term with the word ‘choir’ in wouldn’t do. What about conductor or musical director? Well, I did more than just conduct, and more than simply direct. For a full mouthful I suppose I could have said I was the leader of a small singing ensemble. But people might have thought I was the lead voice (like the lead violinist in an orchestra) rather than the teacher, conductor, director and arranger.

If choirmaster is too informal (or S&M) sounding, then you could always use choral or choir director, or choral conductor, or less formally: choir leader. All a bit posh and fancy for my taste though and conjures up dull and dusty thoughts.

Feeling humble, you could just be the choir’s facilitator or enabler. If big-headedness is your thing, then choose boss or maestro. Me – I prefer benign dictator.

job descriptions for the other stuff

Many of us who lead singing groups of any description also teach. The obvious term for that job would be singing teacher, but that always reminds me of old ladies in front parlours putting me through my paces in front of a huge piano they’ve somehow managed to squeeze into their tiny house. More importantly, it implies one-to-one work, whereas I only work with groups.

The best (and only) term I’ve used so far (and I’m open to suggestions) is singing workshop leader. Of course, that could be misconstrued as someone who leads carpentry workshops whilst singing, but hey, ho.

And what if, like me, you have lots of different roles in the world of singing?

As an individual, you could be a singer (solo performer), choir member (in your local church), section leader (of the town’s choral society), vocalist (who records their own music) and musician (whose instrument is their voice). I think the term singer covers pretty much all of that.

But I’m an arranger, choir leader (when I have a choir), composer (every now and then), teacher, performance creator and workshop facilitator – amongst other things. What’s a name for all that??!!

When I worked exclusively in theatre, I used to call myself a theatre practitioner to cover the fact that I created theatre, directed it, performed in it and taught it. But can I call myself a singing practitioner? After all, I am a Natural Voice practitioner – but that’s a bit long-winded and not everyone knows what it means.

does it matter what you’re called?

Actually, yes. It would make life so much easier when you meet new people or introduce yourself to funders. You start by explaining that you lead a choir then people jump to conclusions so you have to refine it a bit and before you know it half an hour has passed before they get the gist of exactly what it is that you do.

I’ve tried to avoid this in the past by saying “I do stuff”. Then people think you’re being rude and evasive. Or I just say “I work with singing” then the conversation moves to “My uncle likes karaoke too!”.

And finally, there’s insurance. I thought I had it cracked when one company asked my occupation and I said choirmaster and they actually had a category for it! But the next time there was nothing there beginning with ‘choir’ or ‘choral’ so I had to say I was a ‘singing teacher’ (which I’m not). “What sector do you work in?”. They tried to put me down as a private singing teacher, but then I said I worked in an arts centre sometimes so now they’ve put me down in ‘education’. So most insurers think I teach singing in primary schools!

is it just me?

Does anybody else have this problem of defining themselves precisely? I guess if you’re in the mainstream singing or choral world then it’s quite straightforward. Maybe it’s just weirdoes like me who like to inhabit the spaces between things. Do let me know if there are any kindred spirits out there.


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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How to use gestures to conduct your choir effectively

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as It’s just a bit of hand waving in July 2007.

Sometimes I describe my job as being the guy who stands out front and waves his arms about. “I point, you sing” is what I tell the choir.

Conductor 1

Caradog Statue, Aberdare by Darren Wyn Rees

That is basically what the job entails when the choir performs, but it can all too easily go wrong.

speaking the same sign language

There have been many times in concert when I have made gestures which have been totally misinterpreted.

Once I gestured for the choir to sing more quietly and suddenly only one part was left singing. Sometimes I’ve looked askance at a section and they’ve all got louder for no reason. When I’ve wanted the choir to repeat a section, they simply go faster. We’ve not been speaking the same language.

The choir usually manage to recover, and I’m sure the audience don’t notice anything amiss, but it does remind me how important it is that the choir know exactly what I mean at any point.

explain your vocabulary of gestures

Even if you think a gesture is screamingly obvious, you can never, ever assume that all your singers will understand it in the same way.

I was once ‘talking’ to a profoundly deaf person by gesturing in what I thought was a clear and unambiguous way. She didn’t understand a single thing! We ended up writing to each other on the tablecloth.

Sometimes after a whole bunch of new people have joined the choir, I run through some of my basic hand gestures and tell them what they mean. Disturbingly sometimes a satisfied “Ah!” goes up from the rest of the choir as the penny drops. Which makes me realise that they, too, may need a regular refresher.

When I first began conducting choirs, I thought that all my gestures were self-evident and that most conductors use similar hand movements. How wrong I was! So since then I have regularly double-checked that the choir know what I intend.

be clear and unambiguous

As choral directors, we all do things differently, but the common point is that we need to be clearly understood by our own choir.

I use one gesture which I have been told is a real no-no, but which seems to work for me and the choirs that I lead. It is to raise my two index fingers vertically (as if pointing to the sky) which is a signal that something is about to happen. It’s a kind of “heads up” to people that they should pay attention because we’ll be doing something significant in a moment like coming to the end of the song, or repeating the last section, or speeding up.

I have been told that this gesture is too subtle and vague to be useful. However I find it to be very effective, but only after you have rehearsed the song properly so that the choir know what to expect.

It means that I can often dispense with counting in a performance (“how many times do we repeat that section?”) so everyone can really be in the moment, repeating parts as many times as it feels right to do them in any given concert.

assume nothing!

I now realise that when I began this work I used to assume quite a lot. Now I work very hard to try and be aware of when I’m making assumptions.

For example, when I’m teaching a song by ear I signal where the tune goes up and down by raising and lowering my horizontal hand. This is just a rough map of course, but it helps people when they’re learning. I can be slightly more subtle too by indicating big jumps in notes, and sometimes angling my hand slightly to indicate semi-tones.

Once I was running a workshop and a French guy asked my why I was moving my hand up and down in the air whilst teaching the song. I explained that as my hand moved higher it meant the notes were higher, and when I moved it lower it meant that the notes were lower.

Then he asked what “higher” and “lower” meant! It was then that I realised that this is not innate knowledge but just a convention. If someone is familiar with a piano, then we could equally well describe notes as being more “left” or more “right”.

It has become a convention (related to sound frequency) to talk about “higher” and “lower”, but we cannot assume that everyone knows what this means!

all choirs have different language needs

Not all choirs need the same set of hand gestures. If your choir is regularly speeding up, then maybe you need to invent a gesture which means “Whoa! Slow down”. The gesture of raising my two index fingers (as outlined above) may only make sense to the choirs that I run.

Why not try swapping conductors with another choir for one session and see how many of their gestures are obvious?

It’s good to re-assess every now and then and to make sure that you are communicating with your choir members as clearly and accurately as you can. Do not assume that they always know what you mean!


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Sunday, September 19, 2010

What is YOUR choir horror story?

A while back I wrote a post called Over-rehearsed or under-prepared: which is better? One of the comments got me thinking about things that have gone wrong for me in performance or rehearsal.

shock horror

Shock horror by Jeremy Brooks

Then I thought: I bet people have lots of interesting horror stories from their own experience with choirs.

So here’s your chance! What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened with your choir?

I remember many, many times giving out the wrong starting notes in performance. Sometimes the choir just carried on regardless and sang their parts with the new starting notes. They sang impeccably and consistently producing the strangest harmonies! Other times they would point out before we started that something was wrong (phew!).

Other times we’d somehow get off on the wrong foot and the song would slowly, but inevitably, get worse and worse as it went off the rails both in timing and tuning. I would wince and choir members’ faces would scrunch up and a general air of terror would pervade the choir until I brought things to a halt. Sometimes we’d set off again and things would turn out fine. But once – with a particularly rousing Georgian song – we tried three times and it just wasn’t going to work. For the first time ever I abandoned the song (and we never dared tackle it again!).

Now it’s your turn. Do leave a comment and share your horror stories.


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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The lost generation of singers – why no provision for the under 50s?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Children and special interest groups first? in May 2007.

The Sing Up programme for schools has been running since January 2007 and has funding until at least next year. Their aim is to “give every child the chance to sing, with opportunities to develop their singing and performance skills.”

choir rehearsal

Rehearsal in Andrew Parrott's workshop by Boaz

There appears to be an abundance of singing schemes aimed at schools, children and ‘youth’ in general – and even for old people – but what about the rest of us?

the kids are all right

It seems to me that the Sing Up programme is another case of pendulum swinging: there was once vibrant music provision in schools (at least there was when I was a kid in the 50s and 60s) which has since been cut back, and now the government want to re-instate it.

But how will this affect the place of music in people’s lives as they get older? It’s all very well pumping money and effort into kids’ time at school, but what then? Why don’t people keep singing through their 20s and 30s?

All that money and effort goes into introducing young people to music, then they’re left to their own devices when they leave school. Choirs are often seen as fuddy duddy and formal, and evening classes are for grown ups (besides, who wants to go back to studying so soon?!), so those in their 20s and 30s often let singing go.

There are youth orchestras, youth bands, youth choirs, young people’s workshops, song writing initiatives for young people, studios for kids, etc. But then what? Once you reach your 30s, you’re out in the cold.

singing after your school years

The government would have us believe that the dark ages of music and singing in schools is over. No more: “Stand at the back and mime”, or “You’re not good enough to be in the choir”. Singing in schools is now assumed to create confident singers. There is plenty of singing provision which is supposed to turn us into a singing nation.

But us Natural Voice Practitioners still get people coming to us who were thoroughly put off by their experience of music teaching in schools – even people in their 20s and 30s. Have things changed that much?

Most people who attend choirs and singing workshops that I run are 50+. Many is the time that someone has come up to me after a workshop and told me that it’s the first time that they’ve sung since they left school all those years ago? I always wonder why that is. How come they’ve left singing that long even though they enjoyed it?

It could be argued that singing in a group is just not cool enough for young people once they’ve left school. But what about the pop role models of boy and girl bands singing in harmony? And how come that when people eventually do come back to singing, they say how much they’ve missed it? Is there anything we can do about these ‘dark years’ when we stop singing?

what about the rest of us?

There are so many initiatives these days for specific, well-defined groups like the young, the disadvantaged and the old. But what about people who don’t fit into any of these categories?

The Alzheimer’s Society provides a service called Singing for the Brain to help those with dementia. Age UK (formerly Age Concern) run Singing for Fun groups across the country for those aged 50 and over.

There doesn’t seem to be any support though for the huge majority of people in between: from 20 to 50s, say. It’s hard to get funding for this group as it’s not seen as a priority area. Money is pumped into schools, but then people stop singing. What can we do about it?

Do drop by, leave a comment and give me your ideas.

You might also like to read: Why do kids stop singing when they grow up?


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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Music is too freely available – and that’s a bad thing

Once upon a time you could only hear your favourite song if you travelled to a live performance. It was a special, one-off, shared experience.

bandstand busking

Bandstand busking by Dave Smith

If we wanted to hear Central African pygmies singing, we would have to travel to the Central African rainforest. But then recording arrived . . .

This post was inspired by a recent article in The Guardian: music needs to be precious again.

music becomes freely available

Initially wax cylinders were rare, delicate and expensive – as was the equipment that played them. But then came gramophone records and cheaper record players.

Next radio came and we could listen to live performances in the comfort of our own home with no effort at all. We could even hear strange songs from far-flung countries that we’d never heard before.

And now we have CDs, MP3 players, the internet, smart phones ... music at our fingertips. This is a good thing, BUT it has some serious downsides.

At this very moment I’m using the Last FM plugin to my Firefox browser to listen to tunes that My Neighbourhood has suggested. It’s great background music, but I’m not really paying attention, I don’t know who’s playing and I can skip to the next track if I’m bored.

we’ve lost something in the process

I really don’t like how my attitude to music has changed. Although it’s great that we have so much music available and we can listen to music that we would never have come across before, I believe that we have lost something in the process.

We’ve lost:

  • the communal experience – of being part of an audience listening to the same music
  • authenticity – what with auto tune and other audio manipulation, people are so used to hearing ‘perfect’ singing that anything other than that is deemed somehow ‘less’
  • cultural context – listening to an African initiation rite online or a CD of Bulgarian women bringing the harvest in is not the same in your front room
  • specialness – and uniqueness of the experience. We used to have to make an effort, but now it’s all too easy so we tend to take it for granted
  • stumbling across an unexpected delight – there is not much room for accidental discovery. Services like Last FM serve us up with “if you liked this, then we recommend this” which means we are unlikely to ever go outside our listening comfort zone
  • our appreciation of musicians and song-writers – because there is so much music on tap, we tend to under-value the talent of song-writers and musicians. Because music is so ubiquitous, we assume it just comes out of nowhere
  • becoming really familiar with a song – when I was young I used to save up my pocket money to buy an LP then listen to it again and again for months on end before I could afford another. I really listened to the music and got to know it intimately, discovering new delights each time.
  • our ability to choose – we are overwhelmed by choice. I used to be able to keep up with different genres of music, but now I just don’t know where to start because there’s simply too much to choose from, so I lose touch with the latest bands.
  • music slowly growing on you – we don’t stop to listen any more, but fast forward onto next track if a song doesn’t instantly gratify us. In the past I used to work hard at getting to know those tracks on a CD which were ‘difficult’ or not immediately pleasing. In the end, these were often the songs that stayed with me and made the most impact.
  • respect for the indigenous music of other cultures – we soak it up like water because it’s so readily available, not giving a moment’s thought to whether people are being exploited or what a song might mean to people from that culture.

a final word from Andy Kershaw

“Music and culture have never been divorced for me. How can you go to somewhere like Cambodia and have no sense of the history and the politics of the place? Music does not exist in isolation. It's dynamic, like language. It's self-referential and always changing.”

From an interview with Andy Kershaw in The Observer.

Do you agree that we’ve lost something by having music so freely available? Maybe I’ve missed out some of the things that we’ve lost, or perhaps you don’t agree with me at all. Do drop by and leave a comment.


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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Is community singing dead?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Singing from the same hymn sheet in April 2007.

Many people look back to the good old days when we all used to gather round a piano and sing for hours, or join in a good sing-song down the local pub.

singing round the piano

Singing round Grandpa's piano by betsythedivine

But – apart from football matches – where does this kind of thing happen these days?

the good old days

Most people seem to think there was a golden age where chimney sweeps sang in the streets, the pub would burst out singing at any opportunity and blokes warbled away whilst working with heavy machinery in the factory.

I do think this might be a bit of romantic wishful thinking though!

I have a book called “Daily Express” community song book which came out of the Daily Express’s Community Singing Movement launched at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1926. This movement seems to have been an attempt to get people singing together again. So it’s not a new problem.

The News Chronicle Song Book was a similar venture published around the same time. At the very least it shows that even then there was a desire for people to learn the same songs in order to sing them together in community settings. The implication being that the singing of songs together had started to die out.

the joy of singing together

It was this joy of singing together that prompted me to start my first choir back in 1997. I would often try to start a sing-along whenever a group of like-minded people gathered (see also How to have an English sing-along), but inevitably we would have no songs in common or would only know the words for the first few lines.

So I thought I would start a group and teach some songs so at least we’d have a bunch to call on whenever we were down the pub or fancied a good sing. It did take some while however before the first time we just burst into song in a pub without the need for lyric sheets or starting notes!

Things are getting a lot better now, and there is even a common set of songs known by an increasing number of community choirs across the country. So wherever we go in the UK and come across another choir, there’s a very good chance we’ll have at least one song in common that doesn’t need an associated religious ceremony!

singing and religion

I’m not a religious man, but it seems to me that nowadays people mostly sing together on religious occasions (or football matches – which amounts to the same thing!).

Many people only visit church at Christmas (or Easter) when pretty much everybody joins in with the odd carol. Most of us remember the hymns we learnt and sang at school assembly. And there are many songs associated with family occasions such as Jewish Passover and American Thanksgiving.

What unites these events is song.

An important part of the Passover Seder (the ritual feast which takes place on the eve of Passover) are the traditional songs. Every Jewish family will have learnt these as part of growing up. Similarly, most people brought up as Christians, even though they don’t attend church regularly, will know many of the familiar hymns. So, as well as being religious events, Easter and Passover are two examples of cultural occasions where people come together to sing songs that they have in common.

what songs do we have in common?

I was brought up as a Christian and only experienced my first Passover Seder a few years ago. What was interesting was that when the rituals had ended there was a desire to continue singing. However, once the few Hebrew and Yiddish songs that everyone knew had been exhausted, it became increasingly difficult to find songs that everybody knew.

Gradually the songs moved back into childhood: simple rounds, clapping games, playground songs, and finally theme tunes from children’s TV programmes, until eventually the whole enterprise fizzled out.

I’m sure it would have been the same after church on Easter Sunday. Even if people wanted to continue to sing, they would find it difficult (after they’d all sung Robbie Williams’ Angels and then perhaps Roll out the barrel) to find songs in common.

The desire is there, the willingness to join in and let the voice loose. The feeling of community and shared endeavour carries over from the hymn singing, but doesn’t last because we simply have so few songs in common other than those in a religious context.

I suppose the nearest equivalent in our increasingly secular society are the sing-alongs during rock and pop concerts and festivals where everyone there knows the lyrics and tune.

family is community too

I came across an article in The Guardian today by Michael Hann. He says:

“There’s no greater joy than singing with your family, when it doesn’t matter whether you’re in tune, or if you don’t know the words.”

He’s absolutely right! The problem is to be able to find songs that cross the generations. That is why we often revert to childhood songs. But are these being passed on any more? Do we still sing to our children when they’re young?

One of the issues is that there is so much music readily available that the chances of two people knowing the same song are pretty thin. I will be writing a post about music being too freely available next week.

what do you do?

What do you do to promote community singing? Is it thriving in your area? How do we get over the problem of not knowing songs in common? Is community singing important enough to want to save? Do drop by and leave a comment.

further reading

You might find these other posts interesting:

Singing together: despite the recent interest in programmes on TV about singing, we still don’t sing together much.

The devil doesn’t always have the best songs: about secular choirs including religious songs in their repertoire.

Is all choral music religious?: a question from Bangladesh prompted an examination of the religious roots of choral singing.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, September 05, 2010

How to get the best from your singers: don’t tell them it’s hard

For the last five  years I’ve created a choir from scratch for the Warwick Folk Festival. A bunch of strangers come together for six two-hour sessions and I manage to teach them at least eight songs, all in three- or four-part harmony and in foreign languages. Then we do a half hour performance at the festival.

Singing Safari 2009

It’s always worked out really well and we get a great reception from the crowd. But afterwards I realise that the whole venture has been extremely ambitious and could have failed miserably! How do I do it?

behave as if it’s easy

I must admit I do have a tendency to be ambitious and expect a lot from my singers. As I pointed out in a recent post (Balancing fun with rehearsing for concerts), my concerts are two halves of 45 minutes each which will involve at least 30 songs. That’s a lot of songs!

This is a lot to ask of the singers, but they always deliver and we have a lot of fun along the way. There are two secrets I’ll share with you to help you achieve more than you think possible.

The first secret is to always behave as if it’s perfectly normal and as easy as falling off a log. Never, ever let on that it’s hard or too ambitious. If you don’t tell people that something is hard, they will assume it’s easy and go along with you. Here’s why:

  • they’ll rise to the occasion – everyone likes a challenge
  • each singer will assume everyone else can do it – everyone else is just getting on with it, so I guess they must find it easy too
  • no room for doubts – just get on with the job in hand, so there’s no space for reflecting that it might be difficult
  • the confidence of the leader – acts as an ‘enabler’, allowing people to shine and do their very best in a safe, supportive atmosphere
  • it creates a ‘can do’ atmosphere – with this laid-back, confident approach it’s clear that anything is possible
  • nobody can fail – there’s no scope for failure, the question just doesn’t arise

singers can use this secret too

I often tell my singers: “Just behave as if you know what you’re doing.” If you’re a little wobbly on the tune, or don’t think you have the lyrics 100%, or this is the first time you’ve performed in public, or you’re not quite sure what song comes next – just behave as if you know what you’re doing. Then whatever happens the audience will buy it, you have tricked your brain into not worrying (so it can just get on with the job in hand), and you will enjoy the performance more.

what if it ‘fails’?

Aiming high means that sometimes you won’t hit the mark. We might aim to learn eight songs in six sessions, but it may be that it’s just too much to ask, or the songs turn out to be harder than I thought. What then? Have we failed? Is it a blow to the singers’ confidence?

The second secret is to not be disappointed, but just to let go lightly. It’s no big deal. We didn’t learn eight songs, so we’ll perform seven. No problem. And the reason that we didn’t manage it is all my fault. I was being too ambitious or didn’t choose the songs well. Never, ever blame the singers.


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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Singing and moving – at the same time!

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Making a song and dance of it in June 2007.

From my experience with choirs and singing groups it appears that we are a rhythmically challenged nation!

dancing and singing

I often try to introduce a bit of clapping or some steps into our warm-ups and songs and am always amazed at the apparent lack of co-ordination and body-awareness amongst the group.

i can’t dance, don’t ask me!

As soon as I begin teaching simple dance steps, or a simple clapping rhythm (especially one that is not on the beat), several people just sit out and don’t even bother to try because they ‘know’ they can’t do it. And some people sit out because “I’ve come here to sing, not dance!”

Of course, everyone does have a sense of rhythm, it’s just that we don’t practice it very often. So people give up too quickly thinking they can’t do it. Rather like people who think they can’t ‘sing’ because they can’t immediately pick up a tune – they are simply out of practice with their listening skills.

we live in a visual culture

It seems to me that this is a cultural phenomenon. Our culture has become very visual and rational. We use our eyes and thinking brains far more than our ears and bodies.

Once people have sung in a choir for some time, they get in contact again with their innate listening abilities. They learn to trust their ears and not just their eyes. Similarly, given time and patience, I believe that people can re-discover their innate sense of rhythm and body-awareness.

putting different activities in separate boxes

In our culture we tend to compartmentalise different activities. So, for example, when we’re singing we’re singing – we’re not dancing. So we think we don’t need to pay any attention to our bodies. Similarly, when we’re dancing or clapping, we think we don’t need our voices.

I came across this time and time again when I taught at drama school. The lessons themselves were even compartmentalised: a movement class followed by a voice class followed by a tap class. When I arrived and tried to teach everything at the same time, there were a lot of confused students!

in other cultures singing and dancing are the same thing

In many other cultures – notably African cultures – there is very little, if any, separation between dance, vocal melody and rhythm. You only have to see a group of South Africans, for instance, singing a song and you cannot see where the dance ends and the song begins – it is all the same thing.

So when learning songs from these cultures, we often find it difficult. It is no good trying to count some complex off-beat rhythm in your head using your conscious brain, it’s just too hard. You have to let your body ‘dance’ the rhythm and then the song’s timing will come automatically. Similarly with the complex 7/8 rhythms common in the Balkans – just learn the dance at the same time and it comes easy!

trust your body and instincts

Sometimes we find ourselves carrying out a complex task such as patting our head whilst rubbing our tummy and find that sweet moment when it all falls into place. But then as soon as we begin to think (“great, it’s working” or “I hope I’m getting it right”) it all goes disastrously wrong! We need to trust our intuition, our body intelligence, our non-rational brain which is just getting on with the task quite nicely thank you.

The Natural Voice approach to singing (which I follow) places the relationship between breath, body and voice at its heart. We believe that you simply can’t separate these components to be fully in the song. And it’s no coincidence that much of our repertoire comes from cultures which don’t make these separations.

I once met an instrumentalist who wouldn’t even begin to play tunes from another culture until she’d been to a few dance classes from that culture. She needed to embed the culture’s ‘dance’ into her body before she even picked up her instrument.

dancing the song is often better than reading the song

A few years back I was taught an amazing Ysaye Barnwell gospel-like song called Lawd it’s midnight (from LESSONS An a cappella suite of songs for mixed chorus, 1993).

This is an amazing song with some quite tricky rhythms. We learnt it by having the sheet music in our hands and it took a long time to get it right. Most of the difficulties were to do with the cross rhythms.

It occurred to me afterwards that we probably would have learnt it a lot faster if we had put the music down and simply let the rhythms into our bodies!

learn it all at the same time

It’s far easier to learn a movement or clapping sequence at the same time as learning the associated song. In the same way as learning lyrics whilst singing, it is stored in a different part of the brain. If you try to learn everything separately, it will be much, much harder.

A few years ago I tried an experiment which involved teaching a movement sequence at the same time as I taught a new song (Dancing the song). The movements had no connection with the meaning of the song, but I wanted to see if it helped people learn more quickly. It was a big success, and even years later when we revived the song, everyone remembered the movements! If I had asked people to just sing the song or just do the movements, I don’t think they would have been able to.

So next time somebody asks you to move or dance at the same time as you're singing, they're not trying to make life difficult for you, they're actually making it easier for you to learn the song. Just go with it!


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