Sunday, February 27, 2011

Using sheet music to teach and learn songs: pros and cons

Last week I looked at what music notation is for and if you need it to sing.

sight reading

Sight reading by discopalace

This week I’d like to lay out what I think are the benefits and shortfalls of using sheet music to teach and learn songs.

advantages of teaching by ear

  • no looking at pieces of paper – singers can focus properly on their director (and it’s not a problem when they forget to bring their music with them!)
  • no need to photocopy – or buy lots of copies of the music (cheaper and less hassle)
  • complex rhythms will be learnt through the body – and not intellectually on the page
  • emphasis on ears and not eyes – it is, after all, an aural and oral medium
  • easier to add clapping, dance steps, etc. – without bits of paper getting lost or books being dropped
  • no ‘perfect’ rendition to aim for – the singers won’t have the constant reminder of an ‘ideal’ version of the music staring at them
  • no possibility of reading ahead – seeing the whole score at once can seem daunting, also if the song is taught and built up in segments, it can often be learnt better
  • learning together creates a sense of community – people are able to look at and listen to each other and feel they are all part of one whole
  • complex rhythms often look very difficult when written down – whereas if you just teach it by engaging the body and getting everyone moving together, it can be much easier

advantages of using sheet music

  • can teach very complex songs – especially very long or structurally difficult ones
  • helps visual learners – although it’s good to exercise ears more than eyes
  • have a back up – the written music can remind us of our parts and/ or we can rehearse on our own at home
  • egalitarian – musical director doesn’t have all the power or act as gatekeeper, everyone is in the same position with the music in front of them
  • easy to disseminate music (but we now have recording devices, so not so relevant)
  • creates ‘product’ – a composition or arrangement that can be sold

Is there anything I’ve left out? Do leave a comment. If you’re reading this by email or in an RSS reader, you should find a ‘comment’ link at the bottom that you can click on.


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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Music notation: what is it good for and do we need it to sing?

Do you have to be able to read music to sing? Lots of people believe so and are put off joining choirs as a result.

Mensural Notation

I don’t use written music when I teach, but does that mean I am limited in what I can teach? And am I making life difficult for those who can read music?

I want to make music as widely accessible as possible, so I don’t use unnecessary musical jargon or rely on sheet music. All the groups and workshops I run are open-access in the sense that everyone is welcome and no experience is necessary.

My argument is that the vast majority of the world’s folk or traditional music has never been written down and it is learnt by ear in the cultures that it originates from. And that is my repertoire.

I teach by ear

I don’t use written music when I teach. I teach by ear, singing each part in turn and getting people to sing back until they’ve got it. This is partly due to the fact that a lot of the repertoire I teach comes from cultures where songs are passed down orally from generation to generation.

Of course, what I do is artificial. If you came from the same culture as the song you would have heard it repeatedly since you were a baby. Gradually you would have become more familiar with it until you knew it off by heart. At no point would you have seen either the music or the lyrics written down. You would have learnt everything by listening.

Trying to replicate that in a choir or singing workshop is fairly ridiculous as we’re trying to short-circuit years and years of repetition. But we try, and after a few weeks it’s surprising how much has gone in. More importantly, people retain it for a long time. All without seeing anything written down. (OK, maybe I do put the lyrics on the wall from time to time, but it’s not our native language!)

So what do we need music notation for? (Liz Garnett has also written on this subject recently: On Musical Literacy)

what is musical notation for?

There are forms of music notation dating back to Ancient Greece and before. These simple ways of describing music visually consisted of symbols representing relative pitch and note duration. The original urge to notate music was probably for several reasons:

  • to be able to pass songs and music over long distances as accurately as possible
  • to remind the singer of how a newly learnt song goes
  • to make sure that we’re all singing the same version of a song
  • to help with the learning of a song which has a fairly monotonous melody

In 8th Century Europe, monks in monasteries regularly used symbols (known as neumes) to put plainchants down on paper. Because the notation couldn’t express exact timing or absolute pitch, the parchments served mainly as a reminder to those who already knew a tune. They were not that useful to people learning a new tune if they had never heard it before.

Gradually systems of music notation became more sophisticated until we arrive at the five-staff system that most people are familiar with today. This system originated in European classical music, but is not the only system around. There are other forms of notation in, for example, India, China and Indonesia, as well as alternative Western notation systems (such as Solf├Ęge) and graphic and pictorial forms invented for specific experimental compositions.

In many of the choirs that I have run, the basses often invent their own notation, a version of early neume-based notations. The length of a horizontal line reflects the length of a note, and the vertical distance between lines shows the relative pitch. Like early Western notation, this is just an aid to memory and can’t be used to learn a song from scratch. The basses tend to invent it because bass parts often don’t have a recognisable tune so they need to know where notes go up and down and how long they stay on it (rather like plainchant).

Since music notation has evolved and can now express complex rhythms, absolute pitch, and accurate note duration, it can be used as a tool for learning and not just an aid to memorising a song already learnt. It was also a useful means by which music could be disseminated over long distances before the advent of recording devices.

what music is notated?

It is important to remember that much of the world’s music is not written down. The vast majority of music in the world is traditional or folk music which is transmitted orally. When early song-collectors (usually Westerners trained in music theory and notation) arrived they would have to notate what they heard because they had no recording devices.

However, not only is it very difficult for Western notation to cope with complex rhythms, microtones, unusual scales or modes, but the song-collectors would often ‘edit’ what they were notating to fit in with preconceived notions of ‘proper’ musical structure. Sometimes a harmony would appear ‘wrong’ or each verse might have a different rhythmic structure which would get simplified when notated, or a tricky rhythm might be mis-heard. Also, since these songs came from living traditions, the song might be entirely different depending on which day of the week it was collected or who was singing it!

The vast majority of notated music is composed by a known individual (rather than being created by ‘Anon’ and handed down over generations) and of Western origin. This gives a very distorted picture of the world’s music if we only pay attention to written scores.

learning to read

Rather like when the bible was only available in Latin, the fact that you have to learn to read music means that it is easy for an elite to arise. Those who could read and write music became musical gate-keepers who decided what people could hear and what music got passed on. Inevitably it became a class issue.

The middle classes, who wanted to behave and sound different from the ‘rough’ working classes, promoted the idea that ‘proper music’ (i.e. notated) was ‘high art’ and anything folk or traditional was somehow less worthy. Because traditional music was passed on orally and not written down, it didn’t count.

Andrew Emmet has written in a comment on this blog:

“We have a lot in common, but I know one of our differences is that you choose not to have written music available. To me this is like reading a story to someone, but never teaching them to read.”

The implication in Andrew’s comment is that only music ‘literature’ counts. Only stories (or songs) written down in books are worth reading or singing. Stories and songs passed on through the oral tradition don’t count.

But the oral tradition is a living tradition. Books are fixed and set in time. Sheet music is like an insect in amber. There is no longer scope for change, embellishment, or additions.

Reading a book is one experience as is watching a movie. But seeing a live theatre production or hearing a great storyteller is something else. There is room for both, but one is not less than the other. It is, of course, possible to sing without being able to read music.

the notation is not the song

It is impossible to notate a song accurately whether it is a written version of a song heard ‘in the wild’ or the score created by a composer. If it were possible, then there would be just one, perfect, canonical performance of every song or piece of music in the world.

However, some people believe that the written score somehow represents a Platonic ideal that we strive to achieve. But we can never know exactly what the composer intended, or whether the piece of music we have in our hand is an accurate representation of the song it is notating.

next week

Next week I’ll consider the pros and cons of using sheet music, and in a later post I’ll consider what to do in a ‘learn by ear’ choir if someone insists on having the written score.

In the meantime, do let me know what your attitude is to sheet music. Do you use it? Do you find it useful or does it have its drawbacks? What kind of repertoire do you sing? Do you use an alternative system to the popular five-staff system? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Standing up for your choir (or do you use chairs and sit down?)

To sit or not to sit, that is the question. Whether ‘tis better to be standing whilst singing, or to rest one’s weary bottom on the nearest chair.


Photo by Malingering

I’ve tried both standing and sitting, and there are pros and cons either way.

why I prefer standing

When I started my first choir, there were only 12 or so people and we used to sit in a semi-circle whilst learning songs and stand when we sang. But in my one-day workshops I often get 70 or so people and by the time we’ve got the chairs out and tried to arrange them in a sensible way, a good ten minutes or more have passed.

I always start with a physical and vocal warm up any way, so people are already standing. Then we can easily move into simple steps to help keep the tempo whilst learning a new song. I always make it clear that individuals can sit if they need to (people might have injuries or illnesses that I’m unaware of), but I stand throughout. If I sit down, my energy levels drop and I fall asleep!

When I’ve been in workshops using chairs, people become extraordinarily attached to them. I was in one workshop where people arrived and sat in identical orange plastic chairs wherever they wanted. Then the warm up started and we all moved around the room at random, ending up scattered far from where we’d started.

The workshop leader then said we should pull up a chair. I watched one woman walk right across the room to get ‘her’ chair (the one she’d sat on when she arrived), carry it right across the room and sit on it. It was an empty chair, she hadn’t put her coat or bag anywhere near it. But because it was the one she’d used when she arrived, it had become hers!

Most of the time I lead workshops and choirs with people standing. Sometimes in smaller groups, or when we are doing difficult songs (so singers end up hanging around for a long time whilst other parts are being learnt) I will use chairs in a semi-circle.

the advantages of standing whilst singing

  • it’s better for breath control – the abdominal area is free, loose and available. On chairs people tend to slump.
  • you can change choir formation quickly – try out different arrangement of parts, do some dance steps, sing whilst processing, mix parts up, etc. etc.
  • it keeps people on their toes (literally) – alert and energised with no time to nod off.
  • singers have freedom to move parts readily – I encourage people not to get stuck singing the same part all the time.
  • it helps to avoid habituation – “That’s my chair”, “I always sit next to Ethel”, “The altos are always seated in this corner”. Habit is the enemy of creativity.
  • it’s easier to take rhythm and timing into the body – I always encourage engagement with the body when people are singing.
  • it avoids the hassle of getting chairs out – and of putting them away afterwards!

the advantages of sitting whilst singing

  • people don’t get as tired – although they may well nod off!
  • everyone can see the conductor – usually. It depends very much on how the seating is laid out.
  • it’s easier to keep tabs on how many in a part – if you put out a set number of chairs, you can make sure you get equal numbers of people in each part (although you’d be surprised how enterprising people are at sneaking their own chairs in or stealing them from another part!).

As you can see, I’m rather biased towards not being seated!

I’d love to hear about your own experience and how your choir or singing workshop works. Do you have more advantages (or disadvantages) that I haven’t thought of? Do drop by and leave a comment.


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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Handy hints for hesitant singers – 10 tips for singers new to choirs

It can be tough joining a new choir, especially if you’re an under-confident singer.

Little Little Girl 29

Painting ("Little little girl 29") by susie mendelsson

Here are ten tips to help you make the most of being in a choir.

  1. everyone is in the same boat – looking around, you might assume that everyone else is comfortable, confident and knows what they’re doing, but you’re wrong! You’d be surprised how many other people feel the same as you: they can’t sing, they don’t know what they’re doing, everyone else is better than them, it’s hard, etc. etc. (see also, Everybody has a place in the choir)
  2. be patient – if you’re new to singing you might think that ‘proper’ singers can pick up a song by hearing it just once. They don’t. Even for a professional singer, it might take up to six months for a new song to really settle in. So after the first stab at learning a new song and when you get home you can’t remember a single word or even how the main tune goes, don’t panic. Slowly, slowly over the coming weeks and months that part of your brain where songs live will absorb the song until it feels like you’ve known it forever. (see also, The importance of being confused)
  3. you are vitally important – lots of new singers, especially those in large choirs, don’t think they count. “They won’t miss me if I don’t turn up”, “I’ll just stand at the back and mime, nobody will notice.” Wrong! If everyone thought that, there would be no choir at all. Everyone is a vital part of the greater whole. Everyone is equally responsible for creating that amazing sound. (see also, How to be a good choir member)
  4. sing loud and proud – and don’t care what anybody else thinks. If you’re going to make a mistake, make a BIG mistake then you can fix it later. If you always sing hesitantly, you will never know if you’re singing your part correctly or not. And if you don’t like your voice at this stage, you still need to sing out loud and proud so it will develop over the coming weeks. If you sing quietly every week, you’ll never get any better.
  5. stand at the front – it’s natural, as a beginner, to want to hide at the back. You’re nervous, don’t think much of your voice, and you’re not sure you’ve got the part right yet. But if you’re at the back you can’t hear the others in your part very well, won’t hear what your director is saying and maybe not even be able to see their hand gestures. Scary as it is, if you stand at the front, you have the whole of your section backing you up and reinforcing your part by singing into your ear. The director will also be able to see if you’re struggling with anything and be able to help you. (see also Hey, you at the back!)
  6. behave as if you know what you’re doing – it’s amazing, but if you just behave AS IF you are a wonderful singer and know your part inside out, then it WILL HAPPEN! Just go for it.
  7. smile! – to help even more with looking like you know what you’re doing. It will improve the resonance of your voice and your diction; even if you’re feeling miserable it will cheer you up; and it will cheer up those around you and inspire them to sing better.
  8. mind the gap! – there are two main gaps to avoid. One is the gap between you and the other people in your part. Stick close to them and work as a team. You’ll be amazed at how supportive that will feel.

    The other gap is the one between different parts. If you’re not comfortable (yet) with harmony singing, then standing right next to another part may well put you off at this stage. Make sure you’re embedded well in the middle of your own part until you feel confident enough to enjoy the way harmonies work. Then you can head for the gaps between parts and enjoy the singing even more!
  9. if it’s not working, change something – anything: where you stand within your part; how you stand (are you in a balanced, easy position or do you slump to one side with your hands in your pockets?); change parts – the one you’re in may be too high or low for you (although maybe just for this one song); your attitude – if at first hearing you don’t ‘like’ a song, imagine it will become your favourite and give it even more attention than normal; become someone else (pretend you’re Italian/ African/ a diva/ famous) as it helps to liberate you. The ultimate change is to change choirs if this one is not working for you.
  10. don’t switch off – when the focus has moved on from your own part and others are learning theirs, it’s all too easy to switch off and start daydreaming or (worse!) chatting. But this is a wonderful opportunity to stay focused (it’s less tiring than switching off) and hear the words one more time, check that you’ve got the rhythm right, sing your part in your head at the same time (to feel how the harmonies work), and if you’re getting pretty good at this choir lark, you can even learn another part.

So stick with it and you’ll soon find the joys of singing in a group. Check out The pleasures of being a choir member to see what other singers get out of being in a choir.

And please do drop by to leave a comment and let us know of any other handy hints that can help new choir members.


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