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:


Chris Rowbury


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