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.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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