Sunday, October 31, 2010

A choir is a shining example of the perfect community

Last weekend I ran a singing workshop for 25 strangers. As always everyone worked well together (no prima donnas!) and we produced a wonderful sound at the end of the day.

working together
Working together by lumax

I do workshops like this so often that I take it for granted. But somebody came up to me at the end and reminded me how impressive it is that a group of people can come together for one day and produce such amazing results. That got me thinking about how singing groups and choirs are a model of how communities should work together.

A choir is basically a team of individuals all working towards a common goal. Singing in a choir is a great leveller. What matters is the part you sing, not whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, male or female, young or old. As such, a choir can be seen as a shining example of how a community can work together.

A choir is a microcosm of the real world and choral singing can be seen as a metaphor for life itself.

how it should work

  • no room for egos – to participate fully in harmony singing, you can’t be a prima donna
  • everyone has their part to play – even the director is a cog in the machine
  • everyone is equally important – without every single individual, the thing wouldn’t work
  • co-operation is the only way – if people don’t work as a team, there will be no end result
  • trust and support your fellow singers – you have responsibility for yourself but at the same time total trust and dependency on others – otherwise no harmonies!
  • strength in numbers – but still all individuals
  • a single purpose – apparently having a focus or purpose on something outside oneself brings happiness 

things can go wrong

But just as in real life, things can go wrong. Not every choir is perfect

  • dictators – the leader might be a bit of a fascist
  • selfishness – certain singers can be too selfish and not support others
  • judgment – more experienced singers end up looking down on newcomers
  • blocking – it only takes a few individuals with strong views to block ideas that might suit the choir better as a whole 

why not aim for the best?

I really don’t understand why some choirs end up being less than perfect. It’s just so much easier to be supportive, encouraging, work together, selfless, trusting, etc. It takes much more energy to be fearful, angry, egotistical, disruptive, obstructive and selfish.

I’ve been very lucky in that pretty much all the singing workshops and choirs I’ve ever run have ended up being excellent examples of how communities should work. My theory is that choral singing attracts the right kind of people. If an ego is too big, then solo singing becomes more attractive. If a person is too disruptive, then they will never get to make beautiful music so end up leaving.

So let’s raise a glass to all those fantastic model choirs out there! I do hope yours is one of them. Do drop by and tell us all about it.

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Chris Rowbury



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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When audiences applaud – or not

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Thank you, thank you – you’re too, too kind! in September 2007

There are times when it’s not been appropriate for an audience to clap. Funerals and weddings are the obvious ones.

audience clapping

Audience by Linda Thomas

But not getting applause can throw singers. Maybe it means they don’t like us!

silence is not always golden

Once we did a concert in a church and the first song was met with silence. I guess people thought that since they were in church it wasn’t appropriate to clap. After all, we don’t applaud the church choir every Sunday.

I subtly mentioned to the audience that they were allowed to clap if they chose to, and from then on it was just like a normal concert.

Funerals and weddings tend not to involve clapping. However, at one wedding there was applause after we had finished our little set when the vicar thanked us for singing. Of course, at the funeral, it simply wasn’t fitting.

I was singing myself at the funeral in a trio. It was then that I realised how much I had become used to applause after each song. It was very, very strange to perform a song to complete silence and have no feedback whatsoever. It’s similar to performing outdoors in a public space when people just pass by and ignore you.

I’ve written before about how audiences’ reactions can affect us in How audiences behave and how we respond.

what are they clapping for any way?

Why do we need the applause? After all, it’s pretty much a convention. It’s quite rare that people don’t applaud at all. Sometimes it may be more enthusiastic or longer, but usually there’s some smattering. So it’s not as if we need approval since the audience will probably clap under most circumstances. Maybe it’s just for us to know that they’ve actually heard us, whether they’ve enjoyed it or not.

In many cultures the idea of a separation between audience and performers is an alien one. Everybody is a performer, and everyone is an audience at the same time. The ‘performers’ are not special in any way, they haven’t spent time rehearsing and polishing, they just perform – singing, dancing, whatever – because that’s what everybody does in that culture. So the notion of applause and appreciation is not relevant.

some times we don’t want the applause

Sometimes applause can be a little embarrassing. Many of our songs are very, very short so we can get through up to 30 songs in any one concert. On those occasions it feels like we’re expecting the audience to clap every few minutes (which they do), but it does feel a little like overkill.

Also, with a big choir (Woven Chords has around 80 members), it can be a little awkward when we make our first entrance. As the first few singers enter onto the stage there is enthusiastic applause which slowly but surely begins to die out as the audience realise that there are many, many more choir members to appear yet!

Another embarrassment is when an audience don’t realise a song has finished or think it’s all over when there’s another verse still to come.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, October 24, 2010

The pleasures of the untrained voice

I was watching the Culture Show on BBC2 last week. Ben Lewis introduced a piece about Turner Prize nominee Susan Philipsz and referred to her “untrained singing voice”.

fat lady sings

The fat lady sings by Lamerie

This got me thinking. Why had he bothered to say it was untrained (it sounded good to me)? What do we mean by ‘untrained’? And why do we need to make the distinction between ‘trained’ and ‘untrained’ singing voices?

Susan Philipsz has made a sound installation called ‘Surround me’, a song cycle for the City of London, 2010. Ben Lewis said that “visitors will chance upon recordings of her untrained voice singing 16th and 17th C madrigals.”

Why did he need to say that her voice was ‘untrained’ and what exactly did he mean by that?

Here are some reasons that I can think of why someone would want to refer to a voice as ‘untrained’:

  • grudging praise — “her voice is really quite good even though she’s never had any singing lessons”
  • politeness — “his singing voice is pretty awful, but it would be rude if I said that directly”
  • being a snob — “of course, she’s not a proper singer as she hasn’t been trained”
  • real vs. artificial — “his voice sounds authentic, not like those trained opera singers”

But what does it mean when we say that someone has an ‘untrained’ voice? Is it possible to tell by just listening?

Many people think they can’t ‘sing’ unless they’ve had singing lessons. The idea that someone can just open their mouth and sing is beyond them. Even though the vast majority of the world’s ‘singers’ are from traditions and cultures where the idea of training the voice just doesn’t exist. People sing from an early age and just get on with it.

Yes, it’s possible to get into some bad habits (especially if you try to copy somebody else’s singing voice), but generally speaking, there’s not much point in having singing lessons (in my opinion). See Do you need singing lessons in order to sing?

The inherent danger in having any kind of voice training is that you end up sounding like everyone else who has had similar training. Not only that, but a voice can become somewhat ‘artificial’ if a person lets the technique get in the way of their expression.

Personally, give me an ‘untrained’ voice any time! There’s something about those old villagers sitting around late one evening bursting into spontaneous song that sends shivers up my spine (in a good way!) whereas a highly-trained singer can leave me stone cold.

I will be writing more on what a person’s ‘natural voice’ might be in a later post. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, what do you think of untrained voices? Does the one-size-fits-all, shiny, auto-tuned, could-be-anyone voice move you in any way? Do you consider your voice to be ‘untrained’? Drop by and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you – as always.


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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Finding a niche for ‘world music’ choirs

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Fitting into the right musical box in August 2007

I regularly get emails out of the blue from various singing groups scattered across the globe asking for gigs. Recently I had one from a Russian ensemble, and before that one from a women’s group in the US. They all ask if I can help them to set up a tour in the UK.

Bulgarian women's choir

Bulgarian national women's choir by Bruce MacRae

I usually turn down their offer. I’m not a producer, I don’t have any particular connection with any venues, and besides which, I really don’t know whether this kind of stuff goes down well in the UK. It’s all a matter of finding the right ‘musical box’ for these niche choirs, and I don’t think it’s here in the UK.

it’s different across the pond ...

The US has several well-known “world music” singing groups, for instance Kitka, Northern Harmony and Libana. They regularly gig in the US, have a large following and release CDs on a frequent basis.

Northern Harmony has toured the UK several times, but even though their gigs are well-attended, they’re usually off the beaten track, often in churches and small village halls.

I was once told by a local rural touring producer that “acappella just doesn’t sell”. So not only is it hard for groups such as Artisan and Coope, Boyes and Simpson from the folk world to get gigs, but virtually impossible for any groups who sing so-called “world music”.

There may well be audiences in London for specialist groups like the London Bulgarian Choir and Maspindzeli, but elsewhere groups like this are few and far between and seldom seen at gigs or festivals.

I once approached a big summer festival only to be told that they want “music that people can dance to”. i.e. loud and boppy. So is there no room for those gorgeous unaccompanied harmonies from Georgia, Bulgaria, Russia and beyond? Do African songs always need big dances and accompaniment, or can we do the occasional Zimbabwean lullaby?

... or is it?

How come there are more groups in the US and they get regular audiences? Is it because they have a bigger immigrant populations from harmony singing countries like Croatia and Macedonia, for example?

In a comment on the original of this post, Allen H. Simon reckoned that there are more world music groups in the US because:

“Americans are suspicious of high culture and have no loyalty to a centuries-old choral tradition such as you have in the UK. Choirs which offer something exotic are more appealing than those which require any kind of intellectual commitment.”

Putting aside for the moment the fact that being ‘exotic’ does not preclude having any kind of ‘intellectual’ challenge, I’m not sure that things are that different on this side of the pond!

what is ‘world music’ any way?

I always used to think that the sort of choirs that I run are unique in their repertoire, and hence something special and different. That may well be the case, but instead of that being a unique selling point, it seems to be a drawback because nobody knows exactly which ‘box’ we fit into.

I use the tag “world music choir”, but either people don’t know what the phrase “world music” is or think it has to involve guitar playing from Mali.

I get loads of requests from people wanting a choir for their wedding and I think we offer a really interesting alternative: South African wedding songs, church songs from Georgia – all to make your day special and unique. But when I write back, I never get a reply because most people want the standard Ave Maria or the gospel singers that they saw in the movie Sister Act.

So I tell these groups from abroad looking for gigs that I can’t help. I simply don’t know who to approach, which venues or producers may be interested.

It took both WorldSong and Woven Chords 10 long years to build up a half-way decent following in their own back yard. I just hope that there are enough similar groups out there that we can build awareness across the whole UK and get to see more “world music” singing. Spread the word!

Of course, this presupposes that we can clearly describe exactly what it is that we do do. Many people just aren't familiar with terms such as “world music” or “roots music”. This was the subject of an earlier post: Finding an audience 1: identifying what your choir does.


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Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to deal with problems in a small chorus

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.

A choir leader asks:

“I would very much appreciate your response to something that has happened to me with a small group that I started. I have had my 35 member chorus for some years, but a couple of years ago I wanted to do something with better singers, so I auditioned a group of singers to form an eight-person a cappella group.  We have sung together for two years, but now it seems now that it has all fallen apart.

The social dynamics started to take over the group instead of the singing. Also there was a kind of split in the group – with some people wanting to become more of a professional a cappella group and some people not being able to put that kind of time in. What I was imagining was a kind of a small choral group. Do you have any thoughts to share?”

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt! There are no easy answers, but I outline 12 ideas below that I think are very important.

When you’re working in a small group, any differences (musical or social) are magnified. There is nowhere to hide!

Depending on who forms the group, there is often a mismatch in what people want the group to be and how they expect it to develop. This is why you often hear of pop bands breaking up due to “artistic differences”. It is very rare for a group of people to come together and share exactly the same vision for a group. If you have a very small group – say four – it may be possible if you’re lucky. But with eight it’s very unlikely.

Like you, I have started several small groups over the years expecting it to turn magically into some amazingly cohesive group of singers all on the same wavelength. It hasn’t happened so far.

The first time I did it, I made the mistake of asking people to self-select (rather than auditioning). I soon realised that people’s self-awareness and opinion of their own abilities far outstrips the reality of what they can actually do. I had to ask some people to leave the group – which was rather painful.

I was left with six singers and I managed to knock them into shape and we ended up making a reasonable sound. However, after a while I realised that I was in exactly the same role as I had with the bigger chorus: teacher, arranger, song-finder, conductor, etc. I had imagined the smaller group would be more of a peer group and we would all share the running, but it wasn’t to be.

I also found myself having to deal with weird dynamics within the group. Sometimes there was am air of dread in rehearsals with people not wanting to talk to each other. I sometimes felt that the group could have done with some kind of family therapy!

I disbanded the group, but three of us (more or less peers) stayed together. I still did most of the sourcing and arranging, but it started to feel a little more equal. But after a while I realised that we all wanted different things from the group so I left. The other two have carried on.

Finally I started an all-women group of 12 singers for which I auditioned. I raised the bar considerably (some of the singers were already in my larger chorus) and really put them through their paces. I cranked up the difficulty of the repertoire, made demands on performance standards, spent a lot of time getting the ensemble to gel, and made it very clear that if somebody didn’t pull their weight, they were out.

In the end, the ensemble really came together and performed to a very high standard. Eventually I stopped conducting them in performances (see Does your choir really need a conductor?) and finally I left the group, encouraging them to continue on their own – which they have done successfully.

From all these experiences I have learnt the following:

  • be clear what you want – if you start a group on your own you must have a clear idea of what you want it to be before you start.
  • you’re on your own – if you do decide to start a group yourself, don’t expect help or support from the others. You’re in charge. People like to follow and don’t like responsibility.
  • it’s a vision thing – people will sign up to your vision. If they don’t like it, they can leave. Leading or starting a group on your own is not democratic.
  • be specific about who can join – decide what the entry requirements to join the group will be and stick to them (be consistent). If you decide to audition, be very clear about what you’re looking for.
  • groups need consensus – if a bunch of you decide to form a group together, talk a lot about it beforehand to make sure you all have the same vision, aims and ambitions.
  • ambitions will change – the direction of the group may well change over time. Allow it to, but keep talking so you’re all on the same page. Don’t make assumptions.
  • you can’t create by committee! – even if you’ve started the group as a bunch of friends, it’s always good to have one individual in charge. You could take turns at leading each rehearsal or allocate clearly defined roles to each person.
  • how to fire people – have clear rules about when someone can be asked to leave and enforce them. Be fair and apply the rules equally to everyone in the group.
  • rehearsals need to be professional – they are not social events. Don’t let personal issues creep in. Socialise before or after the session, don’t try to deal with personal stuff in rehearsal.
  • can new people join? – inevitably people will leave over time. Now that you have a group that gels, how easy is it to introduce new members? Will the entry requirements be the same? Make sure you think it through and discuss with the rest of the group.
  • the group is more than the individual members – it will develop an identity of its own. So much so, that it will eventually be possible for all the founder members to leave and the group continue.
  • be clear what you want – I can’t emphasise this enough. If you start a group off with only a vague idea, then frustration and confusion will inevitably follow.

Have any of you tried to start a small chorus? What kinds of problems have you come across? Are there any major points that I’ve left out? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Song meanings lost in translation

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Sing it like you mean it in September 2007.

I have to admit that I’m not really a lyric person. I might have been listening to a particular pop song in English for years when I suddenly realise what it’s actually about! Or someone might point out the really obvious meaning to me, which until that point has totally gone over my head.

foreign language books

Foreign language books by tvol

Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to foreign language songs. I love the sound and feel of the words and aren’t really that interested in what they might mean. But many singers and teachers believe that you can’t sing a song properly unless you know the meaning of it.

singing what you mean

I’ve read quite a few books on working with choirs and singing in general, and without exception they all talk about how to convey the meaning of the song and how the meaning affects the vocal delivery. You will also find many professional singers and singing teachers banging on about the same thing. But what if a song is in a foreign language and you don’t have a translation or the meaning is not clear – does that mean you can’t sing the song?

Many of the songs in my repertoire come from traditions where expression and communication is mainly through the music rather than the words.

Often, cultures with rich harmony traditions have songs with very simple – even banal – words. In contrast, in traditions where the lyrics are important – such as ballads and storytelling songs – the song text is not complicated by harmonies or complex musical accompaniment.

lost in translation

Some of the songs we sing don’t make much sense, even if we do have a translation! So how do we go about singing such songs?

For example, the following are rough translations of a few love songs that we have in our repertoire:

“Oh, Dobric, your cool waters flow to three towns. There, gather the young boys and girls of Sibenik.” Oj Dobriću (Croatia)

“As my own I graze you, and you are dragging yourself behind me, little doll.” (to a sheep!) Ja Helo (Helokane) (Czechoslovakia)

“There’s a handkerchief on the road where my dear one passes. He made a new cart with two horses and no driver.” Maramica na stazi (Croatia)

Maybe something of the poetic nature of the lyrics has been lost in the translation (or there’s some culturally-specific sub-text that I’m unaware of), but I personally don’t find that these English translations help me to sing the song.

Also, there are often other cultural differences. What to our ears might sound rather like a military march, or a dirge, or an upbeat dance song might just as easily be a love song or a song of loss and grief.

the ‘meaning’ of a song is encoded in its music

Some people say that as long as you stay true to the spirit of the meaning of a song, then it’s OK. But I believe that every song has its own unique feel which cuts across cultures. I believe that as long as you stay true to the music of the song, then you can’t go far wrong.

The sound of the lyrics (even if you don’t understand them), the melody and the harmonies all go to make up a whole which suggests a mood or feeling, regardless of what the song means (if it’s a well-written song!).

Sometimes it’s even useful to do this with a song that you can understand. Why not try singing a song with English lyrics using nonsense syllables and try to find the underlying musicality of the song? Sometimes the music can get lost beneath the words and the desire to communicate the meaning of the lyrics.

Even though I’m not a lyric person, I try not to teach a song unless I do have a rough translation and some sense of the background and cultural context. We may not use the meaning to help us sing, but it’s important that we respect the tradition that the song has come from and try not to sing anything which is offensive or exploitative.

For more discussion on lyrics and meaning: Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing

there are two types of people in the world ...

There are lyric people and there are people like me, and we’ll never agree with each other!

Neither group is right or wrong, we just respond differently to words and music. Some people can’t even begin to join in with a song in one of my workshops without knowing the meaning of each individual word. Whereas I simply enjoy the sounds that the words make.

Which type are you? Does the meaning of a song matter to you? Does it affect the way you might sing it? What if you don’t know the meaning of a foreign song – does that mean you can’t sing it? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, October 10, 2010

The song is not the sheet music!

Recently I wrote about an artist who thought that music resides in the musical notation.

Sight reading

I disagree completely – the sheet music is not the song!

songs are alive!

I ran a workshop recently where I taught songs from across Eastern Europe. Many of the songs are from traditions stretching back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and have been handed down orally from one generation to the next. Inevitably changes happen over time:

  • ornamentations are embellished,
  • new verses are added,
  • extra harmonies are introduced,
  • melodies are mis-remembered and slightly changed,
  • lyrics are mis-heard so the song changes its meaning over time

Songs are living entities which mutate and develop over time, never becoming stale or fixed.

At the end of the workshop – as is always the case – somebody came up to me and asked for the sheet music. She had learnt the song perfectly, but somehow thought that encoded in the dots she would find the real song, the proper and exact version.

Then there are the people who ask what the song means as soon as I start teaching it. “Difficult to say” I answer “it’s in a rather obscure Croatian dialect and in any case it’s full of poetic symbolism which doesn’t make sense in our culture.”

If only they had the exact, correct words, a decent translation, and the printed sheet music, everything would be OK. The song would become real in some sense, and they would have the definitive version.

It’s like trying to stop the sand shifting, or trying to freeze the waves. You can’t capture a living tradition.

chasing shadows and capturing the wind

If only these people understood that the sheet music is just an aide memoire. A feeble attempt to jot down what somebody heard at one particular time in one specific place. If they went back the next day, it would probably be different. (I have the score of a wonderful South African song which says that it was notated on a particular day from the singing of a particular woman – the implication being that if it had been a different singer on a different day, the score would have been different.)

The sheet music version of a song will inevitably be very different from the song as heard in the wild. Not only will the song change each time, but trying to notate the exact twiddles, tempo changes and microtones is impossible. We also unconsciously (or even consciously sometimes – stand up Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams!) impose our own culture and understanding of music when we notate.

We hear what we imagine to be a ‘bum note’ and automatically correct it. We don’t like (or understand or even perceive) the complex 11/8 rhythm and end up notating it as 3/4 or 4/4. The harmonies seem strange to our ears so we ‘correct’ them. The subtle and unusual vowel sounds of the foreign language are edited out and approximated to sounds that we are more familiar with.

songs that start off as notation

Even with composed songs (i.e. those which were created by one individual and notated) the sheet music will never tell the whole story. The composer aims to notate what she hears in her head in all its subtlety and complexity. But musical notation can never, ever exactly replicate what the composer intended.

No amount of comments, instructions, grace notes or note markings will ever accurately capture their intentions. There will always be scope for misunderstanding, ambiguity and interpretation. Otherwise we would get really bored with endless performances of the same piece of music. If truly accurately notated it would sound exactly the same each time.

Music-making is an aural activity and not a visual one. Don’t ever mistake the sheet music for the song!


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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Does your choir really need a conductor (and if so, how many)?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as How many conductors does it take to lead a choir? in May 2007

I used to run a small women’s choir of 12 singers. One day it dawned on me that my job was to make myself redundant.

Invisible conductor

I researched, arranged and taught a variety of songs to the group each week. But when it came to performance, I thought they didn’t need me to conduct them.

do you really need a leader out front?

With a small group, not having a conductor encourages the singers to really pay attention to each other and to work as a team rather than focusing on me out front. Also, I feel very conspicuous standing in front of them and often block the singers from the audience’s view.

But the group as a whole were reluctant to let me go.

I wondered if this was because they were used to me conducting so hadn’t yet developed the necessary skills to “lead” themselves. In a later reincarnation of the group, I spent a lot of time focusing on group performance skills and gradually spent less time each concert conducting them. Finally, I ducked out entirely. I had been planning it, but an opportunity arose that I couldn’t pass up.

We had a gig coming up and I became ill. I hoped I’d get better in time, so didn’t bother to say that I might not make it. As the gig approached I realised that I wouldn’t recover in time. I knew the singers were ready to do a performance by themselves, so left it to the very last minute before telling them. It was then too late to pull out of the gig! Of course, they pulled the whole thing off amazingly well. It was a big boost to their confidence and made them realise that they didn’t need anybody out front.

Eventually, other work commitments meant that I stopped leading the group, but they have continued to perform regularly with no leader.

size matters

Is there a size of group below which a conductor is simply not needed (at least not one who stands out the front and waves their arms)? Or to ask a slightly different question: how big can a group get without having someone lead them out front?

I have seen several examples which have made me think. Although I haven’t seen them personally, the Russian Ensemble Hermitage often tour the UK. The ensemble consists of six men, all very accomplished with years of opera and conservatory training behind them, and yet one of them acts as conductor.

On the other hand, I recently saw Northern Harmony on tour with around 15 singers and they had no conductor out front. One individual is usually responsible for giving a starting note, but different individuals “lead” from where they happen to be standing. It might simply be to count in, or they may subtly move their hand to keep the song in time.

Another group I have seen is The Shout who had about a dozen singers on stage. Their musical director Orlando Gough often performs with them, but when he’s not, he simply sits in the auditorium watching rather than conducting.

The trio that I used to sing with had no conductor. I used to give the starting notes, but we used to watch and listen to each other very closely to keep in time and in tune.

At the other extreme, I know of two large community choirs (the Manchester Community Choir and the Gasworks Choir) who have had two conductors/ leaders. The two leaders also run the rehearsals jointly.

So maybe with a group of just 12 it is possible to go either way: with or without a conductor. But is one way better? Does a conductor mean a better, tighter performance? Or does not having a conductor lead to a more accomplished, together group who are really listening to and paying attention to each other?

What do you think?


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Sunday, October 03, 2010

How to deal with unwanted talking during choir rehearsals without killing anybody

I’m usually the last one to notice, but often when I’m teaching one section of the choir, there’s chit chat from the rest of the singers.

hand over mouth

Hand over mouth by Mel B.

It’s not necessarily off-topic and is often about the song in hand, but it can be distracting. What can we do about it?

not my responsibility

In many ways it’s not the choir leader’s job to keep people quiet. It’s not kindergarten after all. Since singing in a choir is a team effort, I would like to think (in an ideal world) that singers will care for each other and be aware if they are causing a disturbance.

There are some choir leaders who do attempt to control the rehearsal atmosphere though. If you can maintain a friendly, calm atmosphere of focused work, all well and good. But too often I’ve seen silence maintained by fear which is the enemy of creativity. And shouting – which is a bit ironic.

Here is an extreme example of a musical director losing it:

see video Don’t talk during rehearsals!

His patience has finally run out and he takes it out on the musicians. I do know the feeling! But it’s not a good idea to kill people who talk, or you’d soon run out of choir members.

gentle discipline

We’re all here to learn songs and sing them to the best of our ability in a fun, creative and friendly atmosphere. This implies a certain amount of gentle discipline and politeness. When you join a choir, you implicitly agree to:

  • listen to the director when she’s addressing the choir and take her instructions on board
  • accept personal responsibility to learn your part and be attentive at all times
  • not hurt, upset or exploit any other choir members – be helpful and supportive instead
  • remember that music-making in a choir is a team effort
  • find an appropriate time to ask questions about the song you’re learning
  • not talk or misbehave whilst others are learning

how to pass the time

What can you do whilst standing around waiting for another section to learn their part?

Well, it’s definitely an opportunity to learn and cement what you know already. By doing this, you can be one step ahead of the game. You can:

  • go over the words as they’re singing
  • sing your own part in your head to practice it
  • sing your own part in your head to feel how the harmonies work
  • pay attention to what the choir leader is saying to the other section in terms of dynamics, speed, etc.
  • develop a clear sense of the structure of the song
  • learn the other part too

do unto others ...

It’s very easy when you’re focused on your own part to forget the other singers in the choir. Especially when you’re excited by a new song or have a question for another person in your section, or want to try out some pronunciation. It’s all too easy to forget that your low chatting gets multiplied if everyone in your section is doing it and can often be a distraction for the other singers who are learning their part.

When you’re learning your own part, it’s easiest when everyone in the room is focused and there is silence apart from your own singing. Remember that when other sections are learning their part. Do unto them what you would have them do unto you – keep quiet!

why don’t I notice?

The reason I don’t notice the background chat when I’m teaching a section is that I’m totally focused on what I’m doing! There is no room for being distracted. So the answer is: be in the moment and get on with the job at hand and you won’t notice any distractions.


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