Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The archives are now closed

On 6 January this year I began to revisit the archives. Every Wednesday throughout 2010 I dusted off an old post from 2007, updated it and gave it new life.

file cabinets

File cabinets by jono dot com

But now the time has come (*sound of heavy creaking door being closed*) to shut the archives once more (*large iron door clangs shut*), leave them to gather dust (*lights click off*) in the dark and turn to new topics (*sound of footsteps echoing into the distance*).

I hope you’ve enjoyed re-reading some of the old stuff or maybe coming across it for the first time.

So now I’m returning to posting just once a week on a Sunday morning (UK time). See you in 2011!

As always, if you have any burning questions or ideas for posts, do contact me, and please pop by to leave a comment even if it’s just to say “Hi”!

Happy New Year to all my readers (I couldn’t do it without you!) and I hope all your dreams and plans for 2011 come to fruition.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The 10 most popular posts of 2010

Since most of you will be too busy with Christmas to read this Boxing Day post I thought I’d revive an old tradition that goes way, way back to December 2009.

turkey carcass

The turkey carcass by Clevergrrl

Rather than a normal post, here is a list of the most popular posts from 2010 (and a few others that I think are worth a look) in case you missed them first time around.

the 10 most popular posts of 2010

  1. Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs
    It’s not big, it’s not clever and it rarely works – just don’t do it!
  2. Finding songs for your choir
    Tips and hints on finding song material for your choir.
  3. Why men won’t sing: a discussion
    This was the beginning of a series of posts on why men don’t (or won’t) sing and how we can get more of them to do so. Loads of comments with lots of good ideas.
  4. How to deal with unwanted talking during choir rehearsals without killing anybody
    Prompted by a (spoof) video of a conductor losing his cool and breaking someone’s violin, this looks at less drastic ways of trying to stop chatting during rehearsals.
  5. Men and singing 3: seven ideas to get more men involved
    Seven ideas that might help to get more men into your choirs and singing workshops.
  6. Men and singing 1: 15 myths debunked
    People come up with all kinds of reasons and excuses as to why men don’t sing. Here are 15 of them and I debunk them all!
  7. Don’t stress about things you can’t control
    Being a choir leader or choir member can get stressful when you get upset with things like lateness, people not turning up, singers not knowing their part, etc. But you can’t control any of these, so find ways of letting them go.
  8. Is all choral music religious?
    Prompted by a question from Bangladesh, the short answer is “No”, although a lot of choral music does originate from the Christian church.
  9. Becoming a choir leader – it’s a long story!
    My personal story of how I became a choir and singing workshop leader.
  10. What are rehearsals for exactly?
    A fresh look at why we rehearse and what we can expect from the process.

10 posts that generated lots of comments

  1. Audiences at choral concerts: who are they?
    Are they all over 60 and predominantly women? If so, what can we do about it?
  2. Tackling complex song structure without written music
    How complex can a song be and still teachable by ear? Plus some hints and techniques for teaching tricky songs.
  3. I’m a control freak and that’s exactly how I like it!
    I much prefer to teach or lead a choir on my own. I think one person leading is better than two or more.
  4. Over-rehearsed or under-prepared: which is better?
    I don’t like rehearsing, but some people love it. However, it’s possible to overdo it whichever way you think.
  5. Songs and copyright
    Start of a series of seven posts on how copyright affects the teaching, performing, arranging and distribution of songs.
  6. Why feedback is important when teaching and learning songs
    We all need feedback, both the teacher and the learner.
  7. The pleasures of the untrained voice
    What ‘untrained’ might mean and why I prefer it.
  8. It’s hard to teach songs that people already know
    People flock to my pop song workshops because they are familiar with the songs, but actually that makes it much harder to learn harmonies and other arrangements!
  9. The pleasures of being a choir member
    Never having been in a choir before, I raised the question and received lots of interesting answers.
  10. Know your place: singing AND moving!
    The difficulties of getting singers to line up. And stay in position!

the one post that I think got overlooked

One of my own favourite posts of the year arose because I realised that I’m often very ambitious both with my choirs and in my singing workshops.

I tend to teach lots of songs and often choose tricky ones with difficult harmonies. Yet everyone always seems to rise to the occasion.

I often get comments such as “I was amazed how much you made us achieve in such a short time; I enjoyed it way above my expectations” and “A wonderfully invigorating day. I’m amazed at what can be achieved in such a short time!” ... so I must be doing something right!

I realised that what I do is to never tell people how ambitious the programme is or how difficult the songs are and just get on with it. I wrote up my approach as:

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

I do believe this approach has many ramifications. If you behave as if everything is easy, under control and achievable, then you can achieve great things – whether you are a choir director or singer.

happy christmas!

Which only leaves me to say: 

A very merry Christmas and happy New Year to one and all and thanks for reading. I couldn’t do it without you!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The value of concert reviews

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Read all about it! in December 2007

I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but here in the UK it’s notoriously difficult to get any kind of review of a concert in the press — local or national.


Newspapers by Ian Britton from

When I approach the local papers, they tell me that they won’t review any concert that’s not on for at least five days. How are we to get reviews for our concerts?

I can see their point I guess if you think that the only point of a review is to attract more punters to come to shows. With that view, there’s no point in printing a review if, by the time it’s printed, the show has finished its run.

But aren’t reviews more than that? I enjoy reading reviews in my daily paper (The Guardian) which has national coverage. I regularly read reviews of theatre, pop concerts, opera, classical concerts, etc. in places far from where I live to which I am very unlikely to go. Or I’ve missed the show any way. It keeps me in touch with what’s going on, even if I never get to see the live show.

For the reader, a review can:

  • stimulate new ideas;
  • introduce me to new critical language;
  • bring a new artist to my attention;
  • make a connection with other things that I might otherwise not have made;
  • by making comparisons, introduce me to a new book/ film/ piece of music/ artist that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of;
  • remind me of an act that I’ve not seen for some time (so I dig out their CD)
  • bring a venue to my attention that puts on interesting work.

I’m sure there are 101 other things I get from reviews, but way, way down the list is an urge to go and see the show.

Most reviews these days (of any medium) are basically of the star-rating type: does the reviewer think it’s worth your while to go and see it? There doesn’t seem to be any space for more critical, analytical reviews of the arts if a show is on for one night only – except, of course, if the director/ conductor/ performer is suitably famous. And reviews in the local papers tend to be simple descriptions of what happened and what the costumes were like.

But I still would like a review!

For the performer(s), reviews can:

  • be good publicity (even if they review is bad!);
  • present an objective view of what you’re offering (sometimes you can be too close to the material);
  • unearth some good quotes or descriptive language that can help describe your work;
  • help to validate what you do (you hope the audience will enjoy the concert, but until the performance, you won’t know for sure);
  • give feedback as to how you can improve and develop the work;
  • build confidence (yes, you are that good!);
  • remind you why you put up with all those really difficult rehearsals.

So reviews are a good thing, but how on earth do we get them??!!

In short, I have no idea.

I think a lot depends on your particular local newspaper and its circumstances, the status of your choir, the kind of music you perform, whether you have personal connections with journalists, and if you are on a prolonged tour.

I don’t think there are any easy answers, but I’d love to hear any hints that you might have.

What are your experiences with the local press where you are? Can you get your concerts reviewed easily? Do you find some kinds of concert get reviewed more easily than others? Do drop by and leave a comment, I’d love to hear your ideas.

This is my last post before Christmas, so I’d like to wish all you loyal readers a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, December 19, 2010

How to make a song your own

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.


Blue Cat asks:

“How do you develop your own singing style or use your own voice when singing another artist’s song instead of copying that artist’s style and voice?”



This is what we call “making a song your own”. A difficult but very rewarding challenge.

cover versions

I don’t know about you, but when I come to sing (or arrange) a well-known song that I really like, I have the original going around in my head.

As I sing I can hear the gorgeous backing singers, the sumptuous string arrangement and the pulse of the rhythm section. I float along on this cushion of loveliness imagining I’m the best singer in the world. And usually I end up imitating the original singer.

How can you break out of this and truly make the song your own, as if it belongs to you and you alone?

The best cover versions of songs are when they manage to erase the original from your mind. They are so good that you can’t imagine anyone else ever doing the song. Often these versions become the best-known versions and people often don’t realise that there is an original lurking around somewhere. Good examples of this are:

Then there are the cover versions which are not a patch on the original. The younger generation come across a song by their favourite group and assume they must have written it, although it’s actually a cover version. There are loads of example of this, but one that springs to mind is:

Somehow the arrangers and singers of good cover versions have adapted the song in a way that makes it sound fresh and new and totally suited to their voices. How do they manage this?

for singers

Here are some hints on how you might make a song your own without trying to impersonate the original singer:

  • be playful – try the song as a country and western standard, as an opera aria, in a reggae style, as a mournful ballad. Choose as many different and ‘inappropriate’ styles to sing the song in. Put on funny voices. Be playful. Wash your head of the original and you will feel more free. You may well stumble across a completely new, more relevant (to you) way of singing the song.
  • discover (and enjoy!) your own voice – many singers start off by imitating their favourite singers. Trouble is, it can become a habit and you end up with a voice that is not really your own. So first you need to discover what your own unique, natural singing voice is and learn to love it. You might like to check out these posts: Your singing self vs. your everyday self, Learning to love the sound of your own voice, Why our singing voices have different accents, Does your singing voice reveal the real you?
  • choose the right song – you need to be able to relate personally to a song before you can really make it your own. It might be the lyrics, the overall feeling, the quality, the melody, but there must be something that really moves you and attracts you to a song. If not, don’t do it.
  • find an angle – rather than rushing in and impersonating your favourite singer’s version of a song, reflect on why you’ve chosen it. Try to relate it to something in your own life/ psyche/ philosophy/ history/ memories. Then sing it as if you had written the song for just that situation. They lyrics or feeling of the song will become far more relevant and there is a better chance that will sing it with your own natural voice.
  • go back to basics – figure out exactly what it is that draws you to the song. If it’s the lyrics, spend some time with them reading them, reciting them out loud, declaiming them, making them your own. If it’s the melody, strip the words out and play with the melody (speed, volume, dynamics, etc.) until it really emphasises the mood that you’re trying to create. If it’s the backing/ production, try to isolate exactly which bits that are vital and then try to find a way of bringing the essence of this into your singing.
  • try it out – perform your new version to a friend and get their feedback. Do they recognise the song? Do you still sound like the original singer? Get them to ask you questions about ‘your’ song: why did you write it? why have you chosen it? which is your favourite part? how can you perform it better?

for arrangers

A lot of the points aimed at singers above can equally well be applied to those who want to arrange a song to make it their own. In addition:

  • strip out the production – figure out what are just production/ arrangement features in the original, and what is vital to make the song what it is. Often there is a particular riff or instrumental that really makes the song. If you were to just pick out the melody line, something will have been lost. Don’t just slavishly reproduce the original’s production.
  • decide on your approach – is there a particular style that is suggested or that you’re interested in? You might be surprised at how readily a seemingly odd choice of style fits an existing song. For example, Sue Jorge giving Bowie songs a Brazilian tropicalia make-over in The Life Aquatic.
  • seek out other versions – there may be lots of other arrangements of a song already out there. Not only do you not want to reinvent the wheel, but you also want to get an idea of what things are possible.
  • listen to the original – and keep on listening until the song is really inside your head. Then stop. Walk around with the song like that for a LONG time until it ferments and gestates inside you and it will slowly begin to transform into your very own version. Your memory is fallible, so use that fact and don’t keep referring to the original recording. The things you remember will be just the things that are important to you.

other hints

Despite all that I’ve written above, I still find myself impersonating other singers and find it really hard to not simply reproduce a song exactly when I’m arranging it for voices. So please, do let me have some other ideas that I can use! Drop by and leave a comment if you have any other handy hints on how to make a song your own. I do really appreciate it.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why are there always too many altos in a choir?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Parts creep (or why there are always too many altos) in November 2007

At the start of term we have an equal number of singers in each part, but by the end of term, there are always too many altos (or sopranos or tenors – never basses)!


Smarties by gadl

Does anybody else have this problem with their choir? Please say you do, and please say you have a sensible solution – it’s driving me nuts!

moving around the choir

Partly because we’re a community choir, partly because of the kind of material we do, but mainly because I think it’s good for people to exercise the whole of their vocal range, I encourage people to swap parts for different songs.

We don’t stick to the normal soprano/ alto/ tenor/ bass categories (we're never that high, and never so low!) and I don’t allocate people to a fixed part or role. We don’t use seats so people are free to move around.

Some songs have three parts, some five or more, some the ‘standard’ four. Not everyone is present every week for a variety of reasons. This is the background to the problem.

start as you mean to carry on ...

When we first start learning a song I try to make sure each part is made up of roughly an equal number of people.

The weeks go by, people come and go, I fit people who missed the first week into a part that is a little thin on the ground. Then suddenly, out of the blue, one week (usually when a concert is looming) EVERYONE seems to be singing alto!

There are no tenors to speak of, the tops look pretty thin on the ground, and the basses are the usual suspects. This is parts creep.

When I turn around people sneak from their part to another part without telling me. They do it on purpose (I'm sure of this!). What was once a well-balanced and orderly choir is now entirely out of kilter. And they deny it!

“I thought you guys were all singing tops when we started?”

“Oh, no, we’ve always been altos for this song”.

And so it goes.

... until it all goes pear-shaped

Of course, some people are in the ‘wrong’ part, some people deny ever having learnt the song in the first place, and some are just doing it (I’m sure of this too!) to wind me up. What’s worse – yes, even worse – is that then half the tops tell me that they can’t even do the concert after all!!!!!

Apart from nailing people’s feet to the ground, labelling them with a barcode on their forehead, making them wear different coloured shirts to represent the different parts, compelling everyone to learn every part of every song equally well, forcing the excess altos at gun point to rejoin the tops, or even culling the spare voices, what does one do??

Suggestions on a postcard, or leave a comment. PLEASE!!!

possible solutions

When I wrote the first version of this post, several people posted suggestions.

1st mate: “Give people a ‘range test’ to see what they can actually handle as opposed to what they think they can.”

I have done this in the past. There are difficulties with this approach though (of course!). The range test may tell you that you have a choir 3/4 of which is made up of altos (damn!). The arrangements I use are designed for community choirs so they are usually within everyone’s range. Although someone may be able to sing very low, they might not want to sing the low parts (what can you do??!!).

M. Ryan Taylor: “I like the idea of having them switch around on a part for an exercise, but I would definitely assign them a permanent part and write it down in the choir's roster.”

Write it down? Roster??!! I think you mistake my choirs for ‘proper’ choirs! We are far more informal than that, and I would never like to impose upon the singers in that way. Besides which, I would lose the roster or the singers would swear blind I wrote them down wrong in the first place!

Karen: “Sometimes I target individuals by saying: ‘You’re so good at picking things up, could you move to this other part?"’ Yes, I do use subtle emotional manipulation with my singers, but hey, whatever works!!”

Great idea Karen, but ... (you knew there would be a ‘but’ didn’t you?) most of the altos are there because they are under-confident, go for the middle ground and safety in numbers, so are least likely to be swayed by flattery and encouragement.

Babs: “Most groups I know of have a surfeit of sopranos, because they get the melody. What I have noticed is that group members tend to follow the strongest voices, so on lines with unassigned voices, there is a drift towards singing whatever the strongest vocalists are singing.”

In my choirs I don’t often give the sopranos the melody line (nasty man!), besides which, they probably have never heard the song before so it won’t help them. And if the song is well-arranged, ALL the parts will sing like melody lines and nobody will think they have the harmony.

You’re right about following the strongest (or loudest or most confident) voices. I try to spread them about to confuse people!

no biscuit!

Great ideas all, but no biscuit I’m afraid. All the decent solutions seem to involve some kind of formal accountancy with books and pens and serial numbers. Not really my style. In any case, you get it all set up and an entirely different group of singers turn up the following week. AND they’re not in the book!

So, my plea once more: any other ideas out there? Please do pop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, December 12, 2010

How to recruit singers to truly reflect your local community

For the first time in over 13 years I will soon be starting a choir from scratch. And I’m asking for your help!


The Illuminated Crowd by Raymond Mason (photo by albany_tim)

I’ve written a whole series in the past about how to start your own community choir, and I will be taking a lot of my own advice on board (time to put my money where my mouth is!).

But the nut I’ve been unable to crack is to recruit a truly representative set of people from my local community: in age, gender, race, culture, background, education, disability, etc. In short, a real community choir.

The sad fact is that most choirs in the UK don’t reflect a true cross section of society.

They majority are made up of white women in their 50s and older and often don’t represent the racial, cultural or gender mix of the community they’re based in. How can we change this?

I’ve written on the subject of choir membership and recruitment before.

Why people don’t join choirs:

The difficulties of an ageing choir:

How to recruit new choir members:

The lack of men in choirs:

The experience of joining a choir for the first time:

I’ve realised that there is no easy answer to recruiting a representative set of people from your local community! So I’m asking for your help.

Do you have any ideas or experience of recruiting successfully from right across your local community? Would you like to share your solutions with us? Please drop by and leave a comment.

It seems to me that we can break down the problem as follows.

describing what your community choir is about

First you need to be clear what your aims are and then find the right words to explain that clearly to prospective choir members. It may be that you have to use different language for the different groups that you’re trying to attract. Each group will use different language and have different shared points of reference.

getting the word out to the right people

Then you have to get this information in front of the relevant people. It’s probably no good putting an advert in the local press to attract 16-year-olds, and it’s no good handing leaflets out after a live pop concert if you’re looking for older singers. You’ll need to take the word to the people you want to attract. That may mean identifying places where groups gather. For example, colleges, adult education classes, churches, cultural clubs.

making the group look right

I’ve pointed out before that when a prospective new choir member walks into their first choir session, they want to see a lot of people like themselves. Otherwise they will feel that they don’t belong and wont’ come back.

If you have a single man or just one 21-year-old, that’s just not going to work. You’ll need to make sure there are large enough sub-groupings within your choir to attract more similar people.

divide and conquer?

It may not be possible to start from scratch with a truly representative group of singers. It may be that your description, publicity sources, venue, etc. may have to be tailored for each particular group. You can then combine them at a later stage.

For instance, you could start a regular choir (which will probably be older women), a men’s choir, a choir at the local Afro-Caribbean centre and a youth choir. Once these are up and running, you could have a joint concert (involving  a couple of joint songs where everyone needs to rehearse together), then gradually amalgamate all the different groups into one choir.

over to you

On the face of it, that seems like a lot of work! It may be that you simply don’t have the time or resources to go the whole hog (I know I don’t!), so please, please write in with your own solutions and let’s see if we can all crack this particular nut together.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Are ALL songs suitable for purely vocal arrangements?

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as When is a song not a song? in October 2007

I’m always on the lookout for new songs to use with my singing workshops and choirs.

singer songwriter

Sara Bareilles in concert by Anirudh Koul

There might be a stunning song that I’ve known and loved for years, but when I come to arrange it for unaccompanied harmony, it doesn’t work. How can we decide which songs will work for a choir and which won’t?

First off I need to ’fess up (you probably know this by now!). I don’t like:

  • ‘dum dum’ bass lines
  • choirs singing pop songs (see Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs)
  • voices impersonating instruments
  • beautifully enunciated traditional songs
  • lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ under a single melody line

Many times a choir member will come up to me and suggest a song for me to use. Often the song is simply not appropriate for an acappella arrangement or just won’t work with a large group.

Many recorded songs these days have integral instrumental backing and if you take those familiar riffs away, there is often not much left of the song. Personally I am not a fan of those acappella arrangements where the voice impersonates an instrument or has too many “dum dums” in the backing.

I recently heard a version of a song from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It was an amazing effort, using the voices to replicate instruments and almost sounded like the original.

My reaction was: “What’s the point? Why bother?” Apart from admiring the singers’ skills, I’m really not sure where the artistry and creativity is here. Why not just listen to the original? Or if there’s a trumpet needed, then simply use a trumpet. I just don’t get it.

I’m not a fan of showing off skills for skills’ sake. For me there needs to be some element of creativity or the adding of something extra to an existing song, or there’s no point in doing an arrangement for voices only. Where the voice is concerned I want to hear the humanity shine through, not be convinced that I’m not listening to a human voice at all, but really a keyboard!

Then there are wonderful, delicate ballads with many verses telling an extraordinary story. However, if arranged for a large choir the delicacy can be destroyed and the story and words completely lost in the mix. I was once told by an ethnomusicologist that in singing traditions which have lots of harmony, the words are always very simple, often repetitive, and not the most important element of the song. Whereas in cultures where the lyrics are important and tell complex stories, there is seldom a harmony tradition.

So the question is: when is a song suitable for a purely vocal arrangement and when is it not? I guess some of that is down to taste, but it’s not true that anything can be adapted for voices alone.

For me, I want voices that sound like voices, an arrangement that sound like it was only ever meant to be sung using voices only, and lush harmonies without too many tricks (or cheesy key changes!). If you can’t make the song your own, then leave the original alone.

My point also extends to cover versions generally. If you’re going to cover an existing song, then you have to add something to the original or else there’s no point. Just reproducing the original is a waste of time.

I’ll be writing more about how you can “make a song your own” in few weeks’ time.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, December 05, 2010

Have voice, will travel

I love my job, I really do. I just need some space and a bunch of people and we will make beautiful music together.

carrying equipment

No equipment, no special work-wear, no musical instruments, no particular room or building, no need to speak the language, no vetting the people – just me and you and our voices. Have voice, will travel!

People are often surprised when I say that I don’t need a piano – they can’t seem to imagine that we can make music with voices alone. Or pick a staring note out of the air.

People are often amazed when I say that I don’t use sheet music – they seem to believe that ‘proper’ music-making is somehow connected with pieces of paper.

People are often suspicious when I say that anyone can join in regardless of experience – they seem to think that it must be for beginners only and besides, nothing of quality will come of it.

People are often stunned when they hear the results after working with a bunch of strangers for just a few hours – they can’t believe the beautiful music we make after such a short time.

People often don’t believe me when I tell them I have no music training – they assume that I must have studied somewhere otherwise how on earth could I be doing this job.

People often stumble over some of the foreign words and find the physical warm ups a bit strange – but that means I can teach anywhere in the world. Who needs language when you’re making music?!

People often think that you need a decent room with proper acoustics and maybe a microphone or two – they can’t understand that singing can be done absolutely anywhere under any circumstances.

I feel rather smug sometimes when watching a so-called ‘acoustic’ band set up with all their leads and amps and microphones and mixing desks and sound-checks and stands and speakers and effects boxes.

I can just stand up and sing.

Or I can grab a bunch of people and we can sing in harmony. Anywhere, anyhow, anywhen with anybody.

That’s the beauty of my job and I love it!

So if you fancy having me over to run a singing workshop for you – anywhere in the world just to see how I do it, please feel free to contact me and I’ll see what I can do. Do call, it’ll be fun!

Or maybe we’ll bump into each other one day in an unfamiliar place and we’ll sing together, just for the hell of it, with no preparation or equipment. Just you and me and our voices.

Keep on singing!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Where is a culture’s music tradition to be found?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Hidden culture in August 2007

A few years ago I spent two weeks travelling through the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I was really looking forward to hearing lots of traditional singing since I had been told that all three countries have a rich and well-preserved history of song.

Baltic traditions

Women in Saare county, Estonia dancing in traditional costumes by Avjoska

But I didn’t see or hear a single singer in the whole of my trip! I did manage to track down a few traditional CDs, but there were hidden amongst the usual pop and heavy rock. Where had they hidden their traditional culture?

the Baltic tradition of song

The Lonely Planet Guide says: “Song is the soul of the Balts. And nowhere is this expressed more eloquently than in the national song festivals that unite Estonia, Latvia and Lithuanians worldwide in a spellbinding performance of song. The crescendo is a choir of up to 30,000 voices, singing its heart out to an audience of 100,000 or more, while scores of folk dancers in traditional dress throw a bewitching kaleidoscope of patterns across the vast, open-air stage”.

And the Rough Guide says: “The characteristic Baltic singing festivals – hugely popular events – played a major role in expressing the national identities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during their move to independence.”

Unfortunately most of the big folk song festivals had already happened earlier in the year!

In the 19th century, great collections of folk lyrics and tunes were made: over 1.4 million folk lyrics and 30,000 tunes have been written down in Latvia and the largest archive in Lithuanian folklore alone contains over 400,000 collected songs.

I also read in a local guide book that if you ask a Lithuanian about his country’s traditional culture, you would most likely hear about Lithuanian songs and love of singing. Apparently, only a few decades ago, most women of the Dzukija region still knew a hundred songs; the most accomplished singers remembered as many as four hundred. Often, people sang more than they spoke!

The choral folk and runo-song arrangements of Estonian composer Veljo Tormis are very popular, having influence as far away as the Estonian community in Australia! And it’s not just old, dyed-in-the-wool folk fans who follow the traditional songs, the annual Viljandi folk festival in Estonia each July attracts a young audience to see a variety of roots bands. And only the other day there was an article about how Estonians are keeping their singing traditions alive.

are today’s ‘traditions’ populist rubbish?

So how come in the restaurants and shops the music was Russian pop or Bob Marley or classical muzak, and the new Baltic MTV was full of Baltic rock of the bad 1970s kind? Where was this vibrant traditional culture that I’d been reading so much about?

I was also yearning to see some kind of authentic folk craft in the shops rather than the usual watered-down tourist rubbish (is that what people really want, or do we buy it because it’s the only thing on offer?).

It got me thinking about how visible so-called traditional culture is in any particular society.

There is clearly a rich and vibrant folk tradition in the Baltics in both music and applied arts, yet on an everyday level it is invisible. What happens to all those thousands of people who join in the song festivals the rest of the year? Do they simply stop singing?

What is a culture’s ‘folk tradition’ any way? I guess you could say that the derivative Baltic pop music on the radio, and the buying of cheap Russian clothes imports in the markets is an expression of today’s traditional culture.

invisible culture and tradition

Yet my background reading suggests that there is a lively, current interest in songs and music that has been handed down over generations – songs for every occasion: weddings, rye harvest, summer solstice, funerals. It is an integral part of Baltic society and runs deep. So why did I have to go hunting in modern record shops to try and find recordings of folk music hidden amongst the stacks of death metal and American pop?

What would a foreigner’s impression of our folk traditions be if she arrived at Heathrow, took the tube into London and wandered down Oxford Street? Sure we have many lively and well-attended folk clubs throughout the country, but they’re not that visible at first glance.

A country’s traditions and artistic culture is part of what gives it an identity. But if that culture is invisible, it seems at first glance that all cultures are merging into one: shopping malls, light entertainment on TV, pop music on iPods, street fashion and leisure-wear, fast food.

But scratch the surface and you will find a rich hidden culture that seems to survive the onslaught of globalisation and commercialisation. You just have to go and look for it. I guess if something comes too easy, then it’s not appreciated.

So when you visit a foreign country, don’t jump to conclusion. Wait a while and see past the Americanised trappings of the modern world and you will find cultural riches which will surprise you.

And to those of us who enjoy traditional music-making, culture and arts – keep on doing it or it will not survive!


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