Sunday, March 27, 2011

Asking for sheet music in a ‘learn by ear’ choir

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.

Philippa writes:

“How do you respond when you get asked directly for sheet music? I’ve had this a few times now, usually by men interestingly! I’ve not had a woman ask me for dots yet, although when I first joined a community choir five years ago I was the person asking for music.

“I have managed to say no nicely until now, and explain my logic for not giving out music. I find it hard to refuse as I’m a people pleaser, but I totally agree that as a choir leader you can never please everyone and I’m not going to tie myself in knots trying to!”

I met a woman the other day who was interested in joining my choir, but it clashed with another choir she was in. She then said that if she had joined my choir she would have to have the music. Even if I didn't give it to her, she would write it down herself!

This woman is a control freak. She needs to be in control and hates that eggy place where you’re not quite sure what’s going on (see The importance of being confused). She has a method (sheet music) that she knows works and sticks to it. It’s her security blanket.

You need to point out to people that reading music is a learnt skill and is not necessary to be able to sing (see Music notation – do singers need it?). It’s an invention, an aide memoire originally developed to help those learning hundreds of chants (easy to get lost with them!). The vast majority of the world’s singers do not read music, neither is most of the world’s music written down.

People need to trust the learning process (it takes longer than they think) and not expect instant results. We have become a visual culture, so need to re-learn how to LISTEN. See Learning songs by ear.

So ... I don’t hand out written music to teach songs. I use it myself to remind me of parts because I have 600 songs in my repertoire and am not good at remembering all of them! Once we have learnt a song and sung it for a few months, I might hand out music if someone asks so they can play it at home on the piano or pass it onto someone else. But only if they know it perfectly by ear first.

I make it very clear that my groups do not use sheet music. There are plenty of choirs out there who do, so they can go and join one of those if they want.

Men often request sheet music because bass parts are usually very hard to remember as they often don’t have a recognisable tune. In fact, many of my basses invent their own music notation for just that purpose. But if you teach them to listen to the chord changes, then they will soon know when to go up and down.

You can’t please all the people all the time. Be assertive and clear about what you offer. There are plenty of other choirs that people can join.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why tenors shouldn’t sing on their own

Many community choir members enjoy practising at home. And so they should!


Ernest Williams, tenor, Croydon Male Voice Choir by Philip Talmage

They sing out loud whilst washing up or mowing the grass, re-living last week’s choir session and hearing the full glory of all the other harmonies in their head. Trouble is, we can’t hear what they’re hearing!

It’s like when people sing along with their iPods. They can hear the guitar solo, the backing group and the other singers in the band, but we can’t. They’re lost in the midst of a glorious mix of sound which we can’t hear. We just get to hear their part on its own with a tinny “tsh tsh” backing coming from the earphones.

It’s the same when a single choir member is singing their part on their own. If we’re lucky it might be a recognisable melody which is pleasant to listen to. But there’s a 75% chance that it’s not. It will be a harmony they’re singing and we can’t hear the main tune so it doesn’t make much sense!

The worst is usually tenors and basses who often don’t have recognisable melodies. Basses at least tend to follow the chords and can have a nice bouncy fun line. But tenors very often have just one note for ages, or those strange accidentals which make for weird chords when put with the other parts. But we can’t hear the other parts so it’s often not very nice.

It’s also not that nice to sing on your own unless you can really hear the other parts simultaneously in your head. Many’s the time I’ve had a tenor complain that their part is boring or tuneless. But when they get to hear a concert (usually only when they’re ill and can’t take part) or listen to the CD they realise that they’re an important part of the mix and that their part makes so much more sense when heard with the others.

So, hats off to the tenors who have a difficult job of it most of the time. We couldn’t do it without you!


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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Starting a new choir: my story

Having written about starting your own community choir, I recently put my money where my mouth is and started a brand new singing group – my first in 15 years.

Woodbridge poster

I learnt a lot from this process and thought I’d share with you.

pastures new

Last autumn I moved to a completely different part of the UK – Woodbridge in Suffolk. I knew that at some point I would need to start a regular weekly group as I have to earn a living! I decided to wait a while to settle into our new house and start something up in the new year.

Before I moved here I thought I would start a group in the nearest big town, Ipswich, as that had the largest population and was a central point for the surrounding area. But I also decided that I wanted to cut down on my travel.

So I decided to take a risk and set up a group in the small town that I live in (population 11 – 12,000).

In January this year I put my modest publicity machine into action, gave the group a name (The OK Chorale – I wanted to keep it light-hearted and avoid the word ‘choir’), found a venue (this was very hard as most decent spaces are already used on a regular basis), and waited.

the first session

I had modest expectations. I reckoned that if 20 people turned up, that would be OK as I could build over the coming months. If only 10 people turned up, at least I could cover my costs and it would be a start.

The start time was advertised as 7.30pm. A handful of early-birds turned up just after 7pm. By 7.10pm this had turned into a steady trickle, and by 7.15pm all the seats in the room (about 30) had been taken. By 7.30pm there were almost 100 people squeezed into the tiny room that I had booked with no room to move!

Fortunately, I was able to contact the person who books the large adjoining hall which (luckily for me!) just happened to be empty on that one night that month. We re-assembled in the big hall and only then did I realise how many people were there.

Panic over, I began the session with some trepidation as I’ve not worked with such a large group before. The acoustics were great for singing, but I had to really project my own voice to be heard above the hubbub. The evening went fast, and people seemed to enjoy themselves.

I got everyone who was interested in coming back to jot down their email address as clearly I had to find a new venue by the following week. I was amazed at how many names there were! I had thought we maybe had 60 or 70 people, but it was only when I counted them all up that I found there were over 100.

following on

I spent the rest of the week phoning round madly to find a suitable new venue. I thought I’d exhausted all the possibilities when I booked for the first session, but finally managed to find a school hall only 5 minutes walk from my house!

The following week pretty much everyone who said they would come back did, plus a few more who had heard about the group. Now that the dust has finally settled I have 93 fully paid up member for this term (I work in blocks of 10 weeks). And I still have people contacting me to go on the waiting list!

We have just finished our sixth session and everyone seems as keen as ever. The biggest problem I now have is what to do with such a large group and how to deal with those people who still want to join. A nice problem to have!

what I’ve learnt

  • plan for success – most of us have a contingency plan for when things don’t work out, but I didn’t plan to have such a successful choir!
  • big isn’t always better – yes, it’s great to have a large sound, keen singers, and lots of voices, but there are drawbacks to working with such a large group (I’ll be writing about this in a later post)
  • there are never enough men – amazingly I managed to attract around 17 blokes out of a total of 93 singers. I usually reckon on there being only 10% men, so that’s a great turn out (we even have a decent male tenor section). BUT it would be nice to have around 40 blokes at least. Same old story (see Why men won’t sing).
  • it’s the usual suspects who turn up – same old constituency: older white women. That seems to be a fact of life with any arty workshop. I have nothing against older white women, it’s just that it would be great to have a cross-section of (at least) ages (see How to recruit singers to truly reflect your local community). I have to admit though that I didn’t put a great deal of effort into widening the net.
  • get help! – with such a large group of people, the logistics of collecting money, getting contact details, dealing with questions, etc. means that I couldn’t have done it alone. Fortunately my partner Susie Mendelsson helped enormously.
  • start as you mean to carry on – it’s no good pandering to what you think other people will want only to do what you really want to do later on. You need to start as you mean to carry on. People will get used to your ways quite quickly so it will be difficult to change tactics later down the line.
  • it’s not just down to you – don’t let success go to your head. You might like to think that everyone turned up because they’d heard of you, or because your publicity was wonderful, but most probably it was due to luck, their friend told them, or it happens to be the one night of the week they have free.
  • keep tabs on everyone – even with smaller groups, it’s important to have everyone’s contact details (in case you need to cancel or move a session). Everyone also needs to feel valued and noticed so make sure you keep your eye on everyone (even those at the back) and try to learn everyone’s name. I’m getting photos of everyone and learning their names in the holidays!
  • create a sense of community – if you want everyone to stay and work well together you need to create a strong sense of community and team work. Introduce everyone to each other, be playful and make everyone laugh, put people in different groups each week, move people around, create social events outside the sessions.
  • make it clear what it is – you should have done this at the publicity stage, but it’s certain that some people will mis-read or mis-understand. People often hear or read what they want to, no matter how clearly you describe something. Make it clear from the beginning by the activities in each session and the songs you teach. Tell everyone several times and in different ways what they can expect. The OK Chorale is not currently a performing group and I’ve made that clear. But neither is it just a ‘singing for fun’ group. I’ve said that it’s “challenging but rewarding work” which means that I can keep the standards high.
  • you can’t plan for everything – no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to plan for every eventuality. The first venue I chose had a huge car park, so even though 100 people turned up, there shouldn’t have been a problem. BUT ... the car park also serves the local independent cinema which was showing The King’s Speech to packed houses so the car park was full to capacity!
  • you can’t please everyone – even though you might try. There will be people who don’t like some of the things that you do or want to learn more slowly (or faster) or who hate the warm-ups or who don’t like moving and singing or dislike songs that are not in English. Tough. This is what is on offer and if people don’t like it, there are plenty more choirs out there who can accommodate them. (see also Trying to please all the people all the time)

and your experience?

Several of you have contacted me over the last few months to say that you’re setting up your own choir. I’d love to hear how you’re getting on and what you have learnt from the experience. Are there things you would do differently? Did you make any mistakes? What was your biggest success? Do drop by and leave a comment and share your own experience.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, March 06, 2011

Are you tone deaf? Very unlikely!

Very, very few people are tone deaf. Tone deafness is an abnormality of the brain which can also affect the understanding of language and certain spatial abilities. So unless you are one of those rare individuals who are born with amusia or have suffered a brain injury or have hearing problems, you aren’t tone deaf.


Photo by twinxamot

So now that’s out of the way, you can get on with singing!

When I tell people that my singing groups and workshops are open to anyone and that I believe that everyone can sing they often ask “But what about people who are tone deaf, people who just can’t hold a tune?” They just jump in and start being negative and putting obstacles in the way!

Now, what if I’d said I was starting an amateur soccer team or a beginner’s cookery class or a tennis academy for kids? Most people would probably say: “Well done, great idea! Can I join?”, not “But what about those people who can’t kick straight or those whose taste buds are under developed or those who have to wear glasses?”

Somehow singing is different. People who sing are expected to be perfect from the off, be able to “hold a tune” from the get go, to have a lovely voice without any practice, to never dare to “inflict” their horrible tuneless voice on others. They must be able to sound like Pavarotti or Britney Spears or Justin Bieber or Lesley Garrett as soon as they open their mouths.

But we don’t expect someone starting to learn soccer to be able to play for the premiere league next week, or someone to open a Michelin starred restaurant the week after they sign up for cookery classes, or new tennis players to play at Wimbledon next summer.

A person can kick a ball about in their back garden and nobody minds if they’re good or bad. Someone can practice their serve on their own until they get it right, even though the ball hits the net most of the time. A beginner cook can experiment at home to create new dishes which, at first, may be virtually inedible.

But when it comes to singing, somehow expectations are different.

“No, no, no,” you cry, “I don’t mind if someone sings in the bath or around the house, as long as they don’t do it in public or inflict it on others”.

So let’s take our new footballer out of her back garden and to the first practice session of the local amateur soccer team. Now it’s in public and her team mates depend on her and can also see how well or badly she can kick a ball. In the beginning her passes will be rubbish, she’ll miss easy shots at goal and she’ll run out of breath quickly.

But as the weeks go by she’ll get better and become an important part of the team. She may never get to be as good as, say, Wayne Rooney, but few do. She’ll have fun, face challenges, be better or worse than some of the other players, possibly compete with her team, get much better at soccer and become a valuable team player.

Same with singing. Ears and mouths are just like eyes and feet: it takes time to connect the two. Just as our soccer player can’t pass accurately at first and a beginner tennis player keeps serving into the net, the singer just starting out in a group might not be able to accurately reproduce with their mouths what they hear with their ears.

But be patient. Like any skill the ability to hold a tune accurately will develop in time. It’s not that you’re tone deaf, it’s just that it needs practice. And any way, most of the time in a group it’s not a big deal if you’re slightly out.

So next time someone says “I can’t sing, I’m tone deaf”, just tell them to join a choir and get practising!


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