Sunday, January 30, 2011

Is this blog for singers or choir leaders – you decide!

It’s been just over four years since I started writing this blog. My aim was to share thoughts and ideas that arise from my work as a community choir leader and to try to generate discussion on those topics. It’s not for me to say how successful I’ve been!


Over the years I have written some posts which are directed at singers, and other posts which are directed at choir leaders. Am I trying to write for two completely separate groups of people? Should I focus the subject of this blog on just one group? I need your advice.

If a singer checks in to find out how to sing better, or how to improve their breath support, they might be put off by a post about how to start a community choir.

If a choir leader reads my blog to find out more about how to lead a choir or how to choose repertoire for a concert, they might not be interested in how a beginning singer learns to match pitch.

So over to you! My question is, should I focus the blog and be clearer who it’s for?

I could:

  • alternate weekly between posts for singers and posts for choir leaders
  • write a blog just for choir leaders (or just for singers)
  • divide the blog into two: one for singers and one for choir leaders (rebranding I think they call it!).

There are pros and cons for each of these options (losing readers, more work for me, alienating everyone), so I’d like to hear what you, the readers, have to say.

Are you happy to read all the random things I throw at you, or is it a little confusing? Maybe choir members enjoy getting an insight into the world of their choir leader, and maybe choir leaders like to be reminded of the basics of singing technique every now and then.

What would you like this blog to be about? Do you have other ideas on how I might develop and improve the blog?

Do, please, drop by and leave a comment. After all, this blog is for you and I couldn’t do it without you!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, January 23, 2011

10 things to consider before choosing or planning a singing workshop

Instead of writing this, I should be planning a one-off two-hour singing workshop for this Saturday. I’m also starting to think of what I’ll do with my new singing group when it starts next week.

 singing flier

Of course, these are very different beasts. The kind of work I’ll do in my one-off two hour workshop will be very different from what I do in ten weeks of two-hour evening sessions.

The content and outcomes of a singing workshop depend on lots of different elements. This is important both for those who plan workshops and for those who attend them.

I reckon there are ten things (at least) to consider before you start planning your next singing workshop or before you decide whether to attend one that you’ve seen advertised. After all, you want to make sure that the experience is what you and everybody else expects!

Here are ten questions to consider and some brief notes on how the answers might affect the workshop planning and those who attend the workshop.

  1. one-off or ongoing?
    If a workshop is a one-off then it needs to be self-contained, but if it’s part of an ongoing series then you are able to develop and grow over the weeks. You can begin learning a song in one session knowing that you have plenty of time to go over it and learn other verses later. Vocal training is easy to incorporate as you can see people’s voices develop over time. Ongoing workshops also give a group of singers time to gel as an ensemble.
  2. short or long
    One hour? Two days? A whole week? Obviously you’re not going to get through many songs in a one- or two-hour workshop, and they’ll have to be easy ones too. An extended workshop gives you more scope to tackle complex songs and to really bed a song in. More singing, less learning!
  3. taster or self-contained?
    Is this a taster to try and hook you in to a bigger project? Then the workshop leader will be on their best behaviour and try to dazzle you with their skills and fascinating repertoire! Things can be left hanging as a device to tempt you back.
  4. themed or general?
    Is the workshop around a specific theme or targeted at a specific audience, or is it just a general singing workshop? If it does have a theme or specific audience in mind, then you know what to expect and things should stay within the advertised guidelines. But if it’s a general workshop, then anything goes – certainly as far as types of songs go.
  5. open-access or prior knowledge needed?
    Can anyone attend, or do you need to know how to read music for example? If the publicity states that a workshop is open-access then you wouldn’t expect there to be any musical jargon used or assumptions of previous experience. Anybody should be able to attend, but this doesn’t mean that it’s a beginner’s workshop. If prior knowledge is needed, then it should be stated very clearly on any publicity.
  6. small or large group?
    Will there only be six singers or 100? This will affect the repertoire of songs, but also the style of teaching and intensity of the work. With a large group the work will not be focused on individuals, and a big sound can be made. With a small group there is a chance to focus on individual skills, fine-tune harmonies, and maybe even do some solo work. Small groups mean that you are more likely to feel exposed, whereas you can hide more in a large group.
  7. mixed or homogeneous?
    This can apply to gender (men-only), age (under 16s), experience (musically-trained), vocal range (sopranos only), and more. This obviously affects the kind of songs being tackled and the possible arrangements (equal voices, SATB, etc.).
  8. freely chosen or imposed?
    It could be that the workshop is part of some corporate team building exercise that is compulsory to attend, or it may be that you have chosen it from a whole range of other workshop options. If it’s imposed, then you can’t assume that everybody wants to sing or is even comfortable singing. It may also be that the group will be composed of a very wide range of abilities. If people have chosen to come, then you can assume they are up for whatever you throw at them.
  9. familiar faces or strangers?
    Does the workshop leader know the singers and vice versa? Familiarity with the way a workshop leader works and familiarity with the capabilities of a particular group mean that you start from a common base of knowledge and experience. Things might not have to be explained in as much detail, jargon can be used, conducting gestures won’t need to be explained, etc.
  10. existing group or random people?
    Are the people attending the workshop already part of a group or choir? If you attend a workshop that is predominantly people from an existing group, it can be all to easy to feel like an outsider. If you’re trying to lead an existing group that you haven’t worked with before, you might find them resistant to ‘new’ ways.
  11. free, cheap or expensive/ one-off payment or term in advance?
    People’s attitudes to a workshop change depending on how much they’ve paid to attend. Certainly their expectations will be higher the more expensive it is. And if it is a series of ongoing workshops, asking people to pay for a number of sessions in advance can improve attendance and commitment. If people pay one session at a time, then the first cold rainy night that comes along can easily persuade them to stay at home!

OK, I lied, there aren’t ten things here, but 11! In fact there are almost certainly many more factors that you should consider before planning or choosing to attend a singing workshop.

I’d love to hear other suggestions. Do please drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, January 16, 2011

How to enjoy singing and not worry what others think

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.

Here is a very familiar story.

Fred writes:

“I started singing at a very young age, maybe four or five and sang mostly rock stuff like Elvis my mother was listening to in the mid-to late 50's.  I thought I was good and sang my heart out but one day my mother listened and told me how bad I was.

“Then in about the fifth grade I had a music teacher telling me to lip-synch when my class sang a song at Christmas. Wow, did those two things curb my enthusiasm and give me a complex about even trying to sing!

“So ... I've sung to and for myself in my car, in the shower.

“The funny thing is that I think I know when I'm on or off pitch.  I had a good speaking voice as a kid did a lot of that in HS, like radio plays and morning announcing.  And I've taken some basic ear training online to know that I can tell when one note is higher or lower than another very accurately, which surprised me.  I also play guitar and jam with some friends.  Most of them don't sing very well and I can tell (!).

“But I will not try to sing in front of others.  Seems I have a bit of a complex about this.  If only that music teacher had been able to teach instead of just criticize!  Now at 61, I really want so bad to feel confident enough to sing with my guitar.  Please give me some advice, thanks.”

Pretty much all the people who come to my workshops or join my choirs have stories like Fred’s about lip-synching at school or being told to stop singing by someone close to them. Yet there is a need within them to sing and they come back to it 30 or 40 years later. I blame the teachers. How dare they crush a youngster's enthusiasm!

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. It’s so very common.

Singing for yourself, in the car, in the shower ... why not??!! There's no need to sing for anyone else. And if you’re just singing to your guitar, the guitar won’t mind at all.

Knowing when you’re on or off pitch is an excellent start. As Fred says, LISTENING and ear training are the keys, not the PRODUCTION of the sound. Playing guitar (or any other instrument) is a good start and means that Fred obviously has a good musical sense.

If you’re not even sure whether one note is higher than another, then there is plenty you can do to train your ear on your own. You might want to start off finding out how you know if you’re singing in tune or not. Then check out my series of posts Learn how to sing in tune.

Do you judge your friends when they're a little bit out of tune? Does it bother you that much or are you all just having fun? If it's not a problem for you, why not throw your own voice in the mix, sing out loud, and all have a laugh about it if anyone goes a little 'off'? After all, singing out of tune isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s very easy to get a complex about singing out of tune, especially when (like Fred and many others) important people in your life have told you that you’re a ‘bad’ singer.

But the solution lies within you. You need to get to a point where you just don't care whether you're perfectly accurate or not. Isn't the point to enjoy your voice? You're not in an exam!

I don't feel that you need any outside input. Anything online is a waste of time. Singing teachers are expensive (especially the top ones). You have everything within you to succeed, you just need to build up your confidence.

If not now, when are you going to let rip? Why not join a local community choir (i.e. non-auditioned) who sing just for fun? You can hide in the back for a while as you slowly get more confident. Even when you’re feeling comfortable you'll have a whole bunch of other singers to support you. It's just a matter of time. Be patient!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Looking forward/ looking back 2

Time to look forward to the coming year.

2011 looking forward

With thanks to my lovely assistant susie mendelsson

Look back first to realise all the big mistakes you made, make a note of all those missed opportunities and unrealised dreams, then forward ho!

you can ask yourself ...

What am I expecting this year? What do I hope to achieve? What goals can I set myself? What resolutions shall I make? How can I be a better person/ singer/ choir leader? How can I lose weight and influence people?

But that all seems a little boring and old hat.

maybe you could ask ...

How can I have fun in 2011? How can I revitalise my singing world? How can I make a difference? How can I help more people laugh/ sing/ dance? What’s the highest note I can reach without my eyes watering?

two ways forward?

You saw last week how I failed quite miserably at quite a few of the goals I’d set myself for 2010. I feel bad about that. I had all good intentions, but somehow real life intervened.

If we don’t want to fail miserably, I reckon we have two choices:

  1. set more realistic, achievable goals; or
  2. make sure we definitely achieve the goals we set

The first option is a bit of a cop out I feel. We’re simply setting the bar deliberately low so we know we’ll reach it. Even though we might realise our goals, it won’t give us much satisfaction or stretch us or help us to grow and develop.

The second option seems a bit harsh. It might mean being hard on ourselves and focusing too much on our goals rather than getting on with life. Most people fail to keep up with their New Year resolutions any way so it’s pretty hard to insist that we stick to them when others can’t.

what are goals for any way?

OK, setting goals at this time of year is a bit of a cliché. However, I do believe that it’s good occasionally to take stock of where we’re heading and how we’re going to get there, whether it’s at the turn of the year or otherwise. So maybe you might want to come back to this post when the time is right for you.

  • Goals give us something to aim for and work towards. Which is why lots of choirs end up performing. Sometimes it’s not enough to just do something, we need to show what we’ve done or have some kind of result or outcome.
  • Goals (whether we achieve them or not) give us a yardstick to measure our own development and improvement over the years (otherwise we might not notice how good we’ve become).
  • Goals are an indication to other people that we’re taking what we do seriously. And letting other people know that we have an objective in mind helps us to achieve it (we don’t like letting people down now that we’ve made our goal public).
  • Goals are a bit like shining a bright light off into the future. We might not end up exactly where we’d intended, but the light illuminates the path for us and helps us on our way.
  • Goals focus the mind and help to remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing, and where we were headed in the first place.

maybe there’s a third way (apologies to Tony Blair)

Instead of watering down our aspirations (option 1) or giving ourselves a hard time (option 2), there might be an alternative approach.

Dream away. Fantasise about your perfect (singing) life (it is a singing blog after all). Imagine being famous/ successful/ top of your game/ number one/ internationally respected/ whatever. Picture yourself exactly where you want to be (which may or may not involve pool sides and lithe, scantily clad gorgeous people).

Now set some goals to achieve those dreams. Don’t worry how unrealistic/ crazy/ daft/ pointless/ arrogant/ scary they are.

Your job is then to go into 2011 open-minded and full of optimism with these goals at the back of your mind. They will inform your journey over the next 12 months.

You may not achieve all of them, but they will help you on your way.

Don’t give yourself a hard time if it looks like you’ll fall short; don’t ignore them entirely, but equally don’t focus on them too much or they’ll get in the way.

share your goals

Goals are there to help you. And if you feel like sharing them with us, we’ll certainly cheer you on and encourage you on your way.

Drop by and leave a comment with your aspirations for 2011 and you’ll hear our approval from way over here where we live.

Good luck!

(By the way, if you receive these posts by email, you’ll find a little ‘comment’ link right at the bottom. Just click on that and it will take you to the blog where you can leave a comment. That’s much better than just emailing me because everyone will be interested in what you have to say, not just me!)


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, January 02, 2011

Looking forward/ looking back 1

It’s that time of year when I take the opportunity to look back over the past year, and to look forward to things I might want to achieve in the coming year.


I believe it’s a good to do, whether it’s at the start of a new year, on your birthday, or in the summer break: a time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going.

I thought I’d share a few of my own highlights together with some general questions that you might help get you started on your own process of taking stock. First off: looking back.

I wrote a post in January about 10 things I wanted to achieve in 2010. I guess it’s time to see if I actually achieved any of them! I also posed some questions which may have given you some food for thought for the year ahead. You might like to dig out your responses (or come up with new ones for 2011) and see how things panned out.

These are the ten things that I came up with.

  1. More ‘theatrical’ concerts

    QUESTION: have you ever performed in or attended a choral concert which was out of the ordinary in some way?

    I wanted to present concerts that were not just a choir standing still. I wanted to play with entrances and exits and different groupings of singers.

    I had two opportunities this year, both with Woven Chords, both in proper theatre spaces. We did manage to spice up the performances a little, but I was frustrated because there was simply not enough time in the spaces to practice different groupings, etc. and to do a decent lighting plan.

    What I’ve learnt from this is that the theatricality of a performance takes at least as long to put in place as does learning the songs in the first place! It would be a good idea to incorporate moving in space into our weekly rehearsals rather than adding it on at the last moment. Also, a good solid one-day rehearsal in the actual performing space would work wonders. 
  2. Professional development

    QUESTION: what are you going to do next year to develop your own practice as a singer or choir leader?

    I really wanted to attend more workshops this year, but it just didn’t work out. I even had the opportunity to apply for funding for professional development, but I either couldn’t make the time or couldn’t find a suitable workshop.

    I tend to get booked up at least six months in advance, but I often get to hear about great workshops only a few weeks before they happen. Also, I’m more and more interested in unusual workshops which are few and far between. 
  3. Engage more with readers

    QUESTION: what is stopping you from leaving a comment on this blog?

    I still haven’t figured out why some posts attract loads of comments and others none. Nor why some people are happy to leave comments whilst others just sit back and read or email me personally. It does get a little frustrating and I often feel like I’m sending messages out into deep space which just never arrive! 
  4. Develop more social networks

    QUESTION: do you have any experience using social networks that you can pass on? If you’re already in one of these networks, how about connecting with me there?

    Well, it looks like Digg,, Stumbleupon, etc. seem to be falling by the wayside and Facebook is taking over. I’ve spent more time on LinkedIn, but am finding it difficult to find my particular ‘tribe’. My ‘official’ Facebook page garnered a further 70 likes this year which is great, but still a drop in the ocean. You can also connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn
  5. Get more guest blog posts

    QUESTION: what are you passionate about that you could write a short article on?

    Still rather underwhelmed by the amount of guest posts I have! This year I had posts from Janet Shell (How do you keep your natural sound yet develop real tone quality?) and Jocelyn Lavin (It’s all arranged).
    If you fancy writing a post on something dear to your heart (and believe me: if I can do it, anyone can!), then drop me a line and let me know that you’d like to write a guest post. 
  6. Re-evaluate exactly what I do

    QUESTION: what is the most important reason that you either attend or lead a choir?

    I asked: “Am I simply a teacher of songs or a community builder or a singing enabler?” And I still don’t have an answer! I suppose the very fact that I keep asking the question keeps my practice alive. 
  7. Run less pop song workshops

    QUESTION: have you ever been labelled in a way that became restrictive? How did you change the situation?

    Well, I managed to succeed in this one! I’ve taken all the pop song workshops off my website and only offer them as an ‘under-the-counter’ option.

    I realised some time ago that not only do I not like choirs singing pop songs, but pop song workshops are actually very advanced and should be advertised as master classes (It’s hard to teach songs that people already know)! 
  8. Re-design the blog

    QUESTION: do you have any hints on how I might best re-design this blog to make it easier to use and nicer to look at?

    As you can see, the blog didn’t get re-designed in 2010! But it’s still very much on my ‘to do’ list. The point I made about freelancers still stands: how do we fit in all the admin (publicity, web design, accounts, etc.) and leave time for our actual job? 
  9. Attract more audiences for choral music

    QUESTION: how do you publicise your own concerts and do you have any tips on how to widen your audience base?

    I wrote about this again during the year as Finding an audience, breaking it down into Identifying what your choir does, Describing what we do, Letting people know, and finishing off with 20 ways to increase your concert audience.

    I’m not sure that I managed to attract more audience to our concerts, and we still get people saying that it wasn’t what they expected, but they really enjoyed it.
  10. Regularly reflect on and evaluate my own working methods

    QUESTION: are there any assumptions you make about singing in a choir that maybe you’re not aware of?

    It’s not enough to reflect on our practice just once a year, it’s something that should be done on a regular basis.

Next week I’ll be looking forward to the coming year and raising some questions which might help you reflect on what you hope to achieve in 2011.


Chris Rowbury's website: