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.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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