Sunday, April 24, 2011

In praise of imperfection in art

Some people just love anything that’s finely honed, all shined up, squeaky clean, highly skilled and perfectly rendered. Not me.


Give me imperfection and humanity any time!

I like my art to be dirty and messy. I’m not a fan of art that just copies real life – illustrative or representative art. We have the real thing to look at after all. Or art that airbrushes out all the little blemishes and mistakes of nature.

I’m not keen on skills-based art, the kind of thing where people go “Oh, how clever! I could never do that.” Then you’re not looking at any kind of creativity or humanity, but the skills and techniques behind it.

I don’t like dancers who have perfected their technique, but have nothing to say with it. You know the ones where you can tell exactly who they’ve studied with. Or people who study Alexander technique and walk down the street like they’re balancing a book on their head.

And I really don’t like jugglers. At least those who only juggle. We can all learn to juggle if we want, it’s not that hard. I have more time for the bad juggler who keeps dropping things.

The best juggler I ever saw was in Covent Garden. He had this amazing act whereby he juggled a range of differently sized things at the same time, but it was only at the end that I realised he had been juggling at all! The skills and technique were very much secondary to his act.

Give me an artist whose technique and skills are invisible and who has something to say about the world. Or even a creative person who is not perfect where we can see the imperfections and humanity behind the finished product.

Which is why I don’t like singers or choirs or music which is just so, so perfect. The blend is perfect, the rendition is perfect, the enunciation is perfect, the costumes are perfect. I may as well stay at home and read the score and imagine the music in my head.

If you ever go to one of those kinds of concerts you will tend to find the audiences on tenterhooks, unable to relax. As soon as the singers walk on stage you know what you’re in for and you start to worry for them. Perfection is impossible, of course, but you will them to succeed. You’re on the edge of your seat hoping against hope that there won’t be a bum note or a missed cue. Then you applaud wildly (and over-enthusiastically) at the end, because it’s all over and you can relax.

Then there are those concerts where the musical director puts you at ease with a bit of light-hearted chit chat, where the singers are obviously relaxed and enjoying themselves, when a wrong starting note is given and the world doesn’t end. At the first laugh or mistake you can feel the audience relax and sigh and settle in for an evening of entertainment without having to worry. We’re all human, and we’re all in this together. They’re on our side!

Sure technique and skill and practice are important, but don’t let it dictate. If you have nothing to say with the skills you have acquired, then better just keep them to yourself.

At least that’s my two ha’p’orth. What do you think?


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hearing ALL the harmonies – you sound better than you think

At the end of each of my one-day workshops I’ve recently started to record all the songs I’ve taught during the day. It’s nice for people to be able to take something away to remind them of the songs.

But one comment recently gave me pause for thought: “In all the years I have been attending singing workshops I have never heard how we sound. I think we should be proud of what we have achieved.”

No matter how singers are positioned, and even if one half of the choir sing to the other half, it’s hard to get a real sense of how the group sounds as a whole.

Sometimes singers in a choir can’t do a performance for one reason or another and they come as an audience member. Every time this has happened in one of my choirs, they’ve come up to me afterwards to tell me how wonderful the overall sound is and that they had no idea how good we sounded!

So no matter how many times your musical director says how fantastic you sound; no matter how many times you position yourself in order to hear the other harmonies; no matter how many times you hear the other half of the choir sing to you; and no matter how big your ears are – you never quite get the sense of how good your choir sounds unless you stand outside and listen.

Make sure you get a recording of your choir or workshop. Or even better, resist the temptation to sing at every concert and take time out to be an audience member for a change. You will be surprised by what you hear.

Have you had this experience? Do drop by to leave a comment and let us all know what you think of what you heard.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Working with a big choir

Size is in the eye of the beholder. How ‘big’ a choir is depends on the context of course, but working with a large group of singers in any circumstances can prove to be difficult.

big choir

Photo by -bartimaeus-

I recently started a choir in my new home town of Woodbridge: the ok chorale. I was lucky enough to have over 100 people turn up to the first session. Working with such a large group from the outset has set me thinking about how one works with large choirs.

can there ever be too many singers?

From personal experience, I find that working on my own with more than 70 singers at a time is very tiring. I don’t know why it should make a difference that there are 20 singers in each part instead of 15, but it does.

The maximum number of singers you can work with also depends on the space available and how you work. Obviously a larger room can take more singers, but even a large space might be too small if you need to do lots of moving around. If you work with the singers seated, you can squeeze more people in.

The singers also need to be able to hear you clearly, so even if you think you can work with 200 singers, there might be trouble ahead if you’re in a large hall with no amplification.

When you start out with a new choir, you may think that bigger is better, but there are definite pros and cons to having a large group.

the advantages and disadvantages of a large choir



  1. big sound – you can really tackle those big, juicy songs that need a large sound
  2. less confident singers can hide – until they feel more confident, new singers have plenty of places to hide whilst still enjoying the experience of singing with others
  3. plenty of people on each part – nobody is exposed and there will be enough people to paper over any cracks or deal with any wobbles
  4. lots of enthusiasm and energy – which can buoy up the choir leader and keep things moving along
  5. good earner! – if you’re charging by the head, there will be greater income from a larger group and hence more financial security for the choir leader or organisation which runs the choir
  6. more likely to have spread of vocal ranges and abilities – you won’t end up with a group of totally inexperienced singers. There will be enough variety for singers at different stages to help and learn from each other.


  1. individuals can feel redundant – it’s so easy to feel like a member of a crowd. Individual singers might feel that they don’t count
  2. not possible to give individual attention – the larger the group, the harder it is to keep an eye on those struggling or to help individuals with their technique
  3. very tiring for the leader – the bigger the group, the more tiring it is for those who lead
  4. hard to keep track of people in each part – if you encourage people to swop parts regularly (as I do), it becomes hard to keep track of how many people in each part for each song
  5. often not enough space to move around – if you attempt any kind of choreography or different choir formations, you might find the room is not big enough
  6. can lose subtleties – it’s great being able to have a big sound, but it becomes harder to work on subtle dynamics with a big group, also articulation, ends of lines, etc. all become more tricky
  7. hard to hear overall harmony – since there are so many singers in each part, if you stand in traditional choir formation, it soon becomes difficult for individual singers to hear other parts and hence harmonies

some solutions to the difficulties

  1. break into smaller choirs/ groups in each session – rather than work with the whole group all the time, divide the choir into smaller groups (e.g. split the choir in half and have one half sing to the other) and work separately with them. If you have enough people you can have sectional rehearsals in different rooms (if you have the space!)
  2. mix ‘n’ match people/ partners – don’t let individuals always be surrounded by their own part, do work in pairs/ trios, etc. getting people to sing with others they wouldn’t normally sing with
  3. get help (more than one conductor) – there are lots of examples of this. Some big choirs have two leaders, others have four – one for each part. You’ll have to work well as a team though, and usually one person has overall responsibility
  4. split the group on different nights – turn one choir into two separate choirs, or keep the whole choir, but have rehearsals over several nights and people choose which one to attend 
  5. limit numbers in each part – to keep track of who’s in which part, you could use chairs. Once the chairs in a part are filled, there is no more room in that part.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Sunday, April 03, 2011

Why singing is bad for you (and 7 reasons why you shouldn’t stop doing it)

People don’t often talk about the downsides of singing. Yes, we bang on about the health benefits, social aspects, etc. but seldom mention the bad bits.


Here are 7 terrible things that might happen to you if you start singing.

  1. singing can become addictive — once you start singing, it’s very hard to stop. It’s such an enjoyable activity that you will start noticing it everywhere and begin to take every opportunity you can to sing.
  2. singing takes up valuable time — you start by joining a choir once a week, then you do concerts at the weekends, then all those social events, and that great weekend workshop ... before you know it, it’s taken over your whole life. 
  3. you will abandon your friends and family — and spend more time with your new singing chums and on the tour bus and in the pub after the concert (and after weekly rehearsals). You’ll also be listening to more CDs on your own, checking out YouTube videos, learning lyrics, etc. No time left for family and friends at all. 
  4. you will become unbearable to live with — singing makes you so happy that you will wear a constant smile and be humming along all day long in a state of bliss, much to the annoyance of everyone you live with (who will be insanely jealous).
  5. singing stops you sleeping — after rehearsal or performance you will be so buoyed up with enthusiasm and joy that you will find it hard to come down off Cloud 9. Not only that, but you’ll have all those wonderful tunes bouncing around inside your head. Sleep – who needs it??!!
  6. you will spend more money — nice new costume for the next gig, more CDs, songbooks, weekend workshops, maybe even a musical instrument.
  7. you might lose your job — for some people singing takes over their lives entirely and they end up singing the whole time. They turn professional or start leading a choir of their own, and before they know it, they have a new career.

So be warned: approach singing with caution. Once you start you might not be able to stop. And it’s like a virus which you can easily pass onto someone else. Remain alert at all times in case the bug gets you!


Chris Rowbury's website: