Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why our singing voices have different accents

Many English pop groups in the 60s started off by emulating their cousins from across the pond and sang with an American accent. Cliff Richard still does!

Then The Beatles arrived and we began to hear regional accents creeping in, then punk came along and we got used to hearing different English accents and dialects.

Beatles mural

Beatles mural - Croxteth Avenue, Litherland by Gary Rogers

So nowadays it’s a bit of a shock when there is a big mismatch between how somebody speaks and the accent they choose to sing in.

where did her accent go?

A well-known example is Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent. Her speaking voice reveals a strong Scottish accent, but when she sang “I dreamed a dream” her accent magically vanished and she sounded like a posh woman from London.

It’s often the case that people imitate the accent of the original version of a song. It’s also true that choirs and opera singers can sound very ‘posh’ and English when they enunciate ‘correctly’.

Yet some singers, even when singing their own original material seem to put on an accent which is not their own (I’m sure you can think of lots of examples – I won’t name names!). It’s like they have a special ‘singing voice’.

Most common examples are an American accent when singing pop songs, or a one-size-fits-all West Country or Northern accent when singing folk songs. It’s as if this transformation is expected and the song wouldn’t sound ‘authentic’ otherwise.

singing in a ’merican style

The Americans have a lot to answer for (don’t get me started!). The fact is that a lot of popular music emanates from the US so it’s inevitable that people will try to imitate the accents of their favourite pop stars. But there’s an imbalance between what happens in the US and what happens in the rest of the world.

For example, when watching a strongly accented American movie set in the deep South, English audiences are expected to struggle and catch on as best they can. Yet whenever an English movie is shown in the States which contains regional accents, it is often subtitled. It’s as if the American language, with all its different regional accents and dialects, is somehow the norm for spoken or sung English.

Another mainly American import is musical theatre. Many of the productions that reach these shores are written by Americans, originate from the US, or are set in the States. So it makes sense that when English singers tackle these shows, they sing in an American accent. But there seems to be a trend these days for every musical to be sung in an American accent, regardless of whether it’s appropriate or not.

why people sing in different accents

When somebody’s speaking voice has a very different accent from their singing voice, which is the ‘real’ them? (see my earlier post Your singing self vs. your everyday self – which is the real you?)

Are they putting a voice on? If so, why would they do that?

  • a singing accent can be learnt behaviour – something picked up when younger by listening to other people singing, then it becomes a habit.
  • you might be imitating someone else because that’s what you think a ‘proper’ singer (or a rock singer or an opera singer ...) should sound like (see also Why can’t I sing?)
  • using an accent can be a way of escaping your under-confident self – putting on a different voice allows you to hide and become a different character (see also Learning to love the sound of your own voice)
  • it’s a way of fitting in – when it became popular for English bands to sing in an Essex accent, many posh singers faked it in order to blend in
  • some accents are easier to sing in – e.g. Italian vowels
  • you may think the song calls for a different accent – for example, it would sound pretty odd singing the blues sounding like you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth!
  • you might have been trained that way – certain singing ‘methods’ or styles seem to dictate that the singers end up sounding the same, either accentless of highly enunciated

how do you sing?

Are you aware that you put on a different accent when singing? Do you have a special ‘singing’ voice? Can you think of other reasons why people might do this? Do drop by and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Learning to love the sound of your own voice

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Why people think they can’t sing in August 2008

Last week I wrote about some of the reasons why you might think you can’t sing.


Suessian megaphone by theparadigmshifter

One of those reasons is that you might not like the sound of your own voice, especially when it’s recorded and played back to you.

I don’t like my voice!

Some time ago I was lounging around the house watching daytime TV and came across an interesting little item.

The programme encouraged a diverse bunch of people to sing one line each of “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” then stitched it all together into a complete song.

But one woman refused to sing.

First of all she said she couldn’t sing; then she said she had a horrible voice; then she said her voice was really gravelly and not nice to listen to. Finally she did sing a part of the line (beautifully I might add), but cut it short by saying: “That’s all you’re going to get”.

There was clearly a huge mismatch between what she thought she sounded like and what she actually sounded like.

We all get embarrassed by our own voices sometimes. We’ve all had that experience of hearing our recorded voice for the first time and realising that it sounds nothing like the voice we have in our head.

That’s understandable since we are hearing our voice from a very different perspective, projected across space rather than through bone and gristle. But I think it’s more than that. Somehow we have an internal perception of how our voice sounds to others and are shocked when it doesn’t match reality.

inside or outside – which is real?

It’s rather similar to when we catch sight of ourselves in a mirror and we don’t look as beautiful as we think we do! At the extreme, this is called body dysmorphia and is thought to be the basis of illnesses like bulimia and anorexia.

Of course most people don’t have such a drastic mismatch, but I wonder if there is something similar at work here with our voices?

Our brains maintain an internal map of our body, but sometimes there is a disparity between what we see externally and what our internal map is telling us. As well as the illnesses mentioned above, this is also the cause of the phantom limb sensation sometimes experienced by amputees. Although they can see that the limb is no longer there, their internal body map still gives them the internal sensation that it is. Hence the mismatch.

What if something similar goes on with sound? Maybe there’s an sound version of our internal body map which gives us the sensation of our own voice, but when we hear a recording of our voice, there is a mismatch.

I’m sure it is much more complicated than that since our voices are an integral part of ourselves and are also connected to our emotions and memories, not just our hearing.

So the woman who was reluctant to sing may have an internal sensation of her voice being unattractive or gravelly. Perhaps she has never heard a recording of her voice, or if she has she might have not believed what she heard.

learning to love our own voice

After we’ve heard recordings of our voices many times, the mismatch between what we hear in our head and what the recording device is telling us starts to become less. Eventually we might even get to like what we hear! Perhaps if this woman experienced hearing her own voice more often, she could grow to love it.

This is just one possibility, of course, and I’ve mentioned some others in my previous post Why can’t I sing? Maybe someone many years ago told her that they didn’t like her voice because it was too gravelly and that opinion stuck. Or maybe her own sense of a ‘singing’ voice is one that is high pitched and not low like hers.

But maybe, just maybe, if her voice was played back to her more often, then she would get used to it and be able to share her beautiful voice with the rest of the world.

So sing out, share your voice, listen to recordings and learn to love what you have to offer.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Exactly who’s in charge of my choir?! – how to deal with change

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:

“The church I work for is presently in talks of amalgamation with two other churches - one is smaller, the other is the ‘Mother’ church. Both congregations are great but totally different. What advice do you offer when amalgamating groups?

The ‘Mother’ church is steeped in traditional music and most members are unwilling to change to anything more modern (that is within the last 25-30 years).

I have a problem with committees TELLING me what has to be done, and how, who and when. I don’t mind suggestions but ultimately it is my decision along with the minister, as to what we can or will not do.”

Ah, committees and big organisations. Doncha just love ’em?!!

Although the question comes from a church context, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who’ve been in a similar situation when the organisation or committee that runs things starts to interfere with artistic decisions, or when two different choirs amalgamate, or when a new musical director takes over, or when a big influx of new singers joins the choir and upsets “the way we’ve always done things.”

change is good!

The first thing to realise is that when two choirs (or congregations or audiences) amalgamate, or when a new musical director takes over a choir, things will change. It is inevitable. So the sooner people give up the idea of “this is the way we’ve always done it”, the better!

Changes like this are a wonderful opportunity to discover something new. Not the way Choir A did things, not the way Choir B did thing, not the way the previous choir director did things, but a new, third way that is different and more suited to the new situation.

Think of the amalgamation as an opportunity to shake things up, dust things off, and make things generally better. This is a wonderful chance to re-examine what your aims are, to think about how things have been done in the past and if there are better ways of doing things, to reinvent this ‘new’ choir that you have on your hands.

take charge with your vision

There will always be grumblers and stick-in-the-muds who don’t want change. Some of them may well end up leaving because they won’t accept change. Let them go – it’s their loss! You can’t run a choir by consensus. The best way is to have a strong leader with a clear vision and that’s what the choir members sign up to.

As a new choir leader (or choir leader of a newly amalgamated choir) you will need to take on board the opinions and tastes of members (send round a questionnaire, sound individuals out, find out who the ‘opinion makers’ are – sometimes they have the loudest voices, but often a minority view). But you can’t please everyone!

Make a plan which incorporates the views of the majority of members, but also add in your own personal taste and ambitions for the (new) choir, and maybe completely new elements(songs, warm ups, rehearsal methods) which are new to ALL choir members. In that way you won’t encourage any division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the ‘original’ choir and the ‘incomers’.

whose choir is it any way?

Of course, this all assumes that you (the new choir leader, or person who inherits the newly amalgamated choir) are free to make your own creative and artistic decisions. But what if there is a committee overseeing you, or you feel that one of the choirs in the new amalgamation somehow has more ‘clout’?

I’ve written before about this topic before in Whose choir is it any way?

A choir is basically its members and the person who leads them. You need both. The choir wouldn’t exist without either, so you need to find the balance between the different demands of leader and singers. Any committee, arts centre or governing body is incidental to the business of music-making. A choir can exist without them!

A lot depends on the relationship between the choir’s leader and the governing body of the choir. Sometimes a choir leader is employed by the committee or arts centre, in which case there should be a contract or at least some kind of agreement. If there isn’t, now is the time to meet and thrash one out! If there is, then you know what is expected of you and you need to abide by it, or leave the job.

Sometimes a committee can begin as a helpful, supportive body which helps the musical director do their job well. But sometimes particular individuals on the committee can be forceful and it ends up becoming quite dictatorial. Some people love meetings, being on committees, and having power!

If you’re clever, there should be written into the choir’s constitution something which prevents strong individuals from taking over a committee, or stopping a committee from interfering too much in the choir’s artistic work. If that’s not there, maybe it’s something to address at the next AGM!

keep talking!

Above all, there needs to be clarity. Keep communication channels open between all the interested parties (singers, choir leader, committee, minister, arts centre, etc.) and try to resolve who is responsible for which element of the choir.

Has anybody else been in this situation? What was it like when you amalgamated with another choir? Have you felt that your committee has been too dictatorial? What changes occurred when your new musical director took over? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why can’t I sing?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as But I can’t sing! in December 2007

“Why can’t I sing?” The short answer is: “You can. Everybody can.”

The whole of my singing work is based on the belief that everyone can sing. All my choirs and workshops are open-access, no auditions, no experience necessary.

FHM choir

Choir of the Munich University of Applied Sciences by Mark Kamin

Yet very often when I say that, I get the response: “But not me – I can’t sing at all.”

Some time ago I came across a blog post which mentioned a guy who seldom hits a wrong note, knows lots about music and how it works, is very keen, but who still thinks he can’t ‘sing’.

It turned out in this instance that the guy believed he couldn’t sing musically. He thought that in order to ‘sing’ it’s not enough to sing on pitch, get the notes in the right order, be exact with your timing, etc. there’s also a need for musicality.

In my book, this guy can sing! He’s pretty advanced compared with many people and clearly wants to go onto the next level. But there are complete beginners who believe they can’t sing and that stops them from even trying in the first place. And that’s a terrible shame.

It got me thinking about what people might mean when they say they can’t ‘sing’.

Here are some persistent myths that keep people believing that they can’t sing:

  • ‘real’ singers only have to hear a song once, then they will know the tune perfectly
  • I don’t sound like Pavarotti/ Lady Gaga/ Elaine Paige/ Thom Yorke
  • I haven’t had any training or singing lessons
  • my friends told me once that I sounded awful
  • I’m just an amateur, only professionals sing properly
  • I can’t hit the really high notes
  • ‘real’ singers can learn lyrics in a few minutes – it takes me ages
  • I don’t like the sound of my own voice
  • I can’t hit the very low notes
  • it takes me a long time to learn a new song
  • I can’t sing in harmony
  • sometimes I make mistakes – I’m not as good as other people I know
  • I can’t hold a tune to save my life
  • I hate hearing a recording of my voice
  • I wouldn’t want to inflict my voice on anyone else!
  • I’m scared of singing in public
  • my teacher asked me to mime in the school concert
  • my husband can’t bear me singing around the house
  • I don’t have a beautiful voice
  • I can’t read music

All these are, of course, myths. But quite prevalent and persistent myths. It’s quite hard to disabuse some people of these erroneous beliefs.

Here are a few truths:

  • Billy Holiday had a very small range of notes she could sing – it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it!
  • Thom Yorke/ Lady Gaga, etc. are admired because they sound unique – what’s the point in sounding like them? Use your own voice!
  • ‘beauty’ is in the ear of the listener – one friend will like one voice, another will hate it. One teacher can’t bear a kid singing, whilst another simply loves their sound. You may think your favourite singer has a ‘beautiful’ voice, but I might hate it.
  • professional singers can take up to six months to really get a new song under their belt, before they feel that they can really perform it
  • Pavarotti (and Paul McCartney and LOADS of other professional singers) couldn’t read music
  • many of your favourite pop stars and even  musical theatre stars have not had any kind of training
  • some people try to shut you up because they are jealous or scared to reveal their own singing voices

One way to help people realise they can sing is to offer workshops to people, but don’t tell them that they’ll be asked to sing. Start off with a few warm-up games, some running around and being silly, being playful with the voice (call and response silly sounds, for example), then quickly teach a very simple three-part round.

Point out afterwards that they’ve just been singing unaccompanied three-part harmony which is a very, very difficult skill. In the process they’ve proved that they’re all excellent singers, so now we’ll learn a song. Always works!

Have you got any handy hints on how to persuade people that they can sing? Do you think you can’t sing? Do you have any more reasons why people might think they can’t sing? Do drop by and leave a comment.

You might also be interested in a discussion on The Mudcat Cafe forum:

Why can’t I sing?


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Your singing self vs. your everyday self – which is the real you?

We bandy terms around like ‘authentic voice’ and ‘natural voice’ when we talk about singing.

Photo by Jean Spector

But how do we know when singers are truly being themselves?

Remember Stacey Solomon, one of the 2009 X Factor finalists? Offstage she had a strong regional accent, was quite nervy, jiggled about, laughed a lot (in a rather unattractive way!), looked very young and innocent, and spoke in a breathy way. Yet, when she sang, she was poised, confident, without accent, still, controlled, strong voiced, grown up and quite beautiful.

Then there’s Rebecca Ferguson in this year’s X Factor final. Not quite as big a difference as with Stacey, but there is still a disparity between her offstage persona and when she sings.

Are these singers somehow being inauthentic? Not true to themselves? Putting on an act?

I think not. We can see their personalities and vulnerabilities shine through. Many of the other participants have been criticised for not allowing that to happen, but these two seem to be ‘real’ and are simply being themselves when they sing.

How do we account for the differences? I think that when these two sing, they lose themselves in the music. They are genuinely delighted and in the moment so there is no room for them to be uncomfortable or under-confident. In some sense we are seeing the real them without all the nerves and jitters.

People like this would probably say “I am a singer” rather than “I love to sing”.

This is very different from those singers who put on a voice. Many singers set out to try and be someone else. Perhaps they don’t have enough confidence in their own singing voice or are in thrall to some famous singer. They start out by copying the style, mannerisms and accent of someone they admire. Hopefully at some point they will discover their own voice, but many times they end up just being bad impersonators and don’t allow any of their own personality to shine through.

We can detect very quickly when someone is ‘putting on an act’ when they sing. This is the basis for many of the comments on shows like the X Factor.

We all have our own singing voice. It is unique and should be celebrated. It may reveal a different persona to our everyday self, but it is no less genuine.

In a few weeks I will be looking at a related subject: where do people’s accents go when they sing?

Chris Rowbury's website:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I hate a choir in uniform

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Dress to impress? in October 2007

Many choirs dress identically when they perform. Some have a choir uniform, some choose a particular colour for a particular concert, some have specially made t-shirts. I had occasional requests from my own choirs for some kind of uniformity when we perform.

formal choir

Unfortunately for them, I really dislike identically dressed choirs!

send in the clones!

For me, wearing the same uniform removes any sense of individuality. I can only assume that is why some choirs do it: they want everyone to look identical so there is an overall sameness and nobody stands out.

Why create such an identity for a choir? I presume that this is to:

  • show that everyone belongs to the same unit, that they are all part of the same team
  • give a clear indication that this choir is different from all other choirs
  • use the chosen colour or design as some kind of logo or aid to recognition.
  • give individual choir members a sense of belonging, a kind of banner or flag to unite them and under which they perform for the honour of the choir
  • avoid distractions for the audience so they can concentrate on the music

On the other hand, what I see is a group of clones, an attempt to wipe out any sense of uniqueness and to promote the (false) impression that everyone is the same.

This also carries over into the sound that such choirs make. There is every attempt to arrive at a perfect ‘blend’ of sound so that no one individual voice stands out. There is no scope for individual expression, there is a conscious suppression of any kind of difference. For such choirs I imagine that the prospect of actually cloning their best singer would produce their perfect choir!

most choral concerts are boring to watch

When I see such choirs performing I wonder why I am there. Why not simply listen to the choir on the radio or on CD? There is nothing to look at: everyone looks and sounds the same, they’re even encouraged to use the same mouth shape and facial expression.

If there is something special about hearing the choir live, then simply hide them behind a backdrop or have them perform in the gallery or from behind the audience. Perhaps there could be some kind of film or video projection or dance performance to watch whilst we’re listening.

To my mind it is very much like watching an orchestra: a sea of identically dressed violinists all bowing at exactly the same time, all focused on their music and paying us no attention whatsoever.

It seems that this is what most people think of when they hear the word ‘choir’. It represents a passive experience sitting for a couple of hours in fixed seats watching nothing much happening and hearing some ‘perfect’ rendition of a particular piece of music.

It doesn’t really compare well with a rock concert or a stage musical or son et lumière or River Dance. So why bother? And in fact many people don’t bother. It’s very old fashioned and rather unexciting. Which is perhaps why the average age of audiences at concerts is quite old.

It’s rather safe and non-threatening. There is a sense of control and order – identical costume, identical voices, no quick movements – no surprises.

there are alternatives

Maybe we need a different word for ‘choir’. Maybe we need a different form of performance to bring in younger audiences and audiences who wouldn’t normally go to a ‘choral concert’.

colourful choir

Choir choir pants on fire by Simon Nathan

If we do that, however, I don’t think we can get away with static rows of identically dressed singers. To my mind, aiming for uniformity destroys the humanity inherent in a group of human beings coming together to give voice. I want to hear the individual voices which have chosen to work together as a group, I want to hear the tiny errors and individual accents that make people who they are, I want to experience the rich texture and spine-tingling harmonies that result when a group of people choose to share their voices together.

further reading

You might also like following related posts:

Picture this – photographing choirs

Avoiding the ‘C’ word – problems with using the word ‘choir’

What do you think? Does your choir have a uniform? Do you get pleasure at a concert when all the singers look identical? What other alternatives are there? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, November 07, 2010

How to get people back after the break

We all know that singing workshops are just an excuse to string together a series of tea breaks and lunch breaks. And concerts are an excuse to have a drink during the interval and catch up with old friends.

empty house

Empty house by B Rosen

However, some people do come for the singing! The question is, having let people have a break, a drink and a chat, how on earth do we get them back to the job in hand?

Once I ran a workshop for around 50 kids aged between 8 and 16. I don’t work with kids and was worried about crowd control so I asked a teacher friend what to do. She told me to tell them at the beginning that when they saw me raise my hand in the air, they were to stop talking and copy me. Eventually everyone would have their hands in the air and there would be silence.

Or not! I stood there like a lemon with my hand in the air and nobody took a blind bit of notice.

When I started my first choir, WorldSong, I used to have a 15-minute break half way through the two-hour session. People would wander off for a vending machine coffee, or go outside for a fag, or gather in the corner for a chat. The break always ended up being at least half an hour long.

When I run a one-day workshop, I seldom have a formal break in the morning. I reckon that by the time 50 people have got a cup of tea, an hour will have past. So I have a short ten-minute break for water and loo. Then I usually wander round and let people know we’re starting again. That’s the cue for people to go to the toilet!

After lunch it’s a slightly different situation. Before we break I always ask how long people want for lunch. If the workshop is going well, someone will usually shout “20 minutes!” I suggest that’s not really long enough, so we agree on half an hour. I allow for an extra 15 minutes for people to finally gather, so plan for 45 minutes. We always end up with a one-hour lunch break by the time everyone is back.

In small village churches or community halls, the concerts are never very formal. There is seldom anyone there to help other than choir members and their friends and family. We all end up collecting tickets, handing out tea, telling people where the loos are, selling CDs, etc.

At the interval everyone mills around chatting or wanders off outside if the weather is nice. I tell people before the break how long it will be (e.g. 15 minutes), but always allow an extra five. Then someone goes round and tells people the concert is starting again. It takes ages to get everyone back in their seats!

What I do sometimes (especially with small ensembles) is simply to take our places and begin to sing. It soon attracts attention and people start to hush and sit down.

In more formal situations, like theatres, there is often a bell or announcement over the loudspeaker. In other situations, it is possible to have a bell or someone with a loud voice.

In workshops, some leaders use a drum or shaker to attract attention.

What do you do? Do you have a simple, fail-safe method for getting people back after the break?


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The pros and cons of using churches for choir performances

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Not enough venues to go round in September 2007

It is always difficult to find suitable venues for choir performances.

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall at night by Ben Dodson

Churches are usually very welcoming (and often free), but with their fixed architecture they can be limiting. There is also the problem of the associations that people make.

squeezing big choirs into village churches

A while back, a few of us sang at a friend’s wedding in a beautiful old village church with a wonderful acoustic. We just about managed to squeeze 18 people in front of the fixed pews, next to a stone pulpit and between two tall pillars.

(We chose not to sing from the choir stalls. Why on earth do they have these things? Don’t the two halves of the choir just end up singing to each other? I really can’t see the reasoning behind the design!)

The organist reminded me that the main Woven Chords choir had sung there one Christmas and been very well received. Of course, those were the days when we had less than 40 members (and it was a tight squeeze even then).

He wondered why we hadn’t come back and I had to explain that it would be impossible to fit 80 singers into such a small church. In those early days the choir used to frequent such small village churches and manage six or so concerts each year. But we soon outgrew the venues.

Some of the modern Methodist and Baptist churches have a more flexible layout and some even have stages, but not every town has one of these. Apart from large regional theatres (which tend not to take local community groups, or whose auditorium is just too large to fill), there are really not many venues available to us. Hence churches, which I now see more and more as a valuable community resource independent of any religious affiliation.

if a performance is in a church, it must be religious

There are, however, certain small-minded individuals who think that – just  because a choir performs (or rehearses) in a church – it must be a ‘church choir’. And since these individuals are not religious they don’t come to see us perform.

This is despite the many varied local and rural music touring schemes (e.g. Music in Quiet Places) which have small instrumental and vocal ensembles performing in churches regularly.

It’s a shame that these ‘certain people’ are so small minded, as they just don’t know what they’re missing!

So the fact that we often perform in churches adds yet another stereotype image to what we do in addition to the word ‘choir’ which itself puts lots of people off.

alternative venues?

I’m not a big fan of performing outdoors (see Performing outdoors – tips and tricks) or in unusual spaces which have a bad acoustic. Village halls are a possibility (as are church halls), but the sight lines are usually awful and it’s difficult to create any kind of ambience with lighting, etc. Which leaves us with big theatrical venues.

I’m more and more tempted to use theatrical rather than musical venues. I have a current bee in my bonnet about making singing performances more varied and interesting as I don’t think it’s enough these days for an audience just to see a static semi-circle of identically dressed singers standing on stage. But that’s my bee, and my bonnet.

What do you find? Are you in a large choir which has a solution to finding suitable venues? Do  you find that performing in churches has limitations? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website: