Sunday, February 05, 2012

How to plan and run a singing workshop

Planning a singing workshop is a lot like planning a regular choir session.

singing rehearsal

Photo by Pink Singers

The main differences are that a workshop is usually a one-off and the participants will usually be strangers.

does it do what it says on the tin?

Your first consideration is to make sure that what you’re offering matches the finely-honed publicity that you sent out months before. If people’s expectations are not met, then they won’t come to any of your other workshops.

choosing the songs

The songs you choose to teach must:

  • match the theme – go back and look at what you first wrote when you publicised the workshop. Choose a range of songs that fit within this theme.
  • be at the right level – if a song’s too complex there’s no way you’ll teach it in a day, but you might manage it over a weekend. However, if your singers are complete beginners, you’ll need to stick to easier stuff.
  • have variety – select some easy, quick learners to balance the harder songs. Long ones vs. short ones, different styles, gentle vs. upbeat.
  • suit the voices – choose arrangements to suit those who are attending. No good having a cracking bass line if no blokes are coming! Don’t have very high soprano parts (or low tenor parts) if the women attending are not that experienced.
  • be well learnt by you – you have to know the songs you’ll be teaching inside out (and upside down). It’s not enough to pick them out on the piano the night before. If you have a 4-track recorder, then record you singing all the parts against each other. Then you’ll discover (and be prepared to teach) the tricky bits.
  • not have too many lyrics – it’s maybe OK to hand out all the verses of a song at the end of a workshop, but it’s much easier to deal with less words whilst teaching. Some African and Georgian songs or chants have very few words and can be learnt by ear. Others might have a few more so write them on a big sheet and put it on the wall. Try to avoid giving out lyric sheets when teaching. The singers won’t pay enough attention to you!
  • be plentiful – make sure you have enough songs to fill the available time. It’s OK to have too many, but a disaster if you run out.

overall structure of the workshop

You will need to consider the overall structure of the workshop and come up with a suitable timetable.

Depending on the length of the workshop (one hour, one day, a weekend, a whole week) you will need to fit in tea breaks, time off, lunch, etc.

Here are some things to consider:

  • breaks – when, how long and how many? – however long you set up a break to be, it will always take longer! Imagine 40 people getting a cup of tea. Allow 30 seconds each to grab a cup, then add on the time to drink it and you’ve easily used up half an hour. In my experience people are fresher in the mornings and need less breaks than in the afternoons.
  • how long for each teaching session? – in a one-day workshop I try to stretch the mornings and have a late lunch so I can try to fit all the teaching in before the afternoon when people become brain dead!
  • time for socialising – sometimes it seems that people only come to drink tea and chat rather than sing! Remember that this is a leisure activity and people need a chance to hang out. On a weekend workshop you might think about having a sociable sing-along one evening rather than a teaching session.
  • shared food – is another great way of socialising and helps people bond over lunch.
  • don’t overload the participants – it’s very easy (I know, I do it all the time!) to think that you need to deliver lots as people have paid decent money to attend. But it’s easy to overload people and tire them out. Find a balance. You may need to adapt as the workshop goes on. Keep asking how people are doing.
  • time off? – on longer workshops, especially those in beautiful parts of the country, people may well want to have a break from singing in order to explore the locality.
  • build in options – not everyone needs to do everything. In longer workshops you can build in optional sessions.
  • lay down ground rules – tell everyone at the start what the structure of the workshop is, what they can expect, any house rules like fire regulations, whether you’re allowing people to record songs, etc.

content of individual sessions

Once you’ve decided the overall timetable for your workshop, you’ll then need to get down to the nitty gritty of actually teaching the songs.

  • warm ups – you need to begin with a warm up. In a one-day workshop you might also include a very short wake up exercise after lunch. In a weekend, you’ll only need warm ups at the start of each day’s singing. See Preparing to sing for ideas.
  • start simple – don’t launch into the hardest song of the day. Start with a simple round, move onto easy songs in a few parts to ease people in.
  • interleave songs – you don’t need to teach a whole song in one go. You can do, say, the verse and then move onto a different song before coming back later to do the chorus. I believe that this is a more effective way to teach which is borne out by a recent article Everything you thought you knew about learning is wrong.
  • sing more, teach less – people come to workshops to sing and not to learn, so make sure you get the balance right.
  • revision – once you’ve taught a song, it’s a good idea to revisit it before the end of the workshop so it’s cemented in people’s minds and they can take it home with them
  • teaching by ear – you might want to check out How to teach (and learn) a song by ear if you’ve not had much experience.

be prepared

Whether you’ve set the workshop up yourself or you’ve been commissioned by the local arts centre, you need to be prepared by getting to know your venue:

  • venue – make sure you know how to get there, where to park, how to get in, which room you’re using, etc. Take important phone number with you, e.g. the organiser or caretaker.
  • room layout – visit the room in plenty of time. You might need to move chairs, deal with unexpected pillars, find out how the blinds work, find the best way to set up, etc.
  • parking – you should have dealt with this at the publicity stage, but make sure the participants know where to park and how much it might cost them. Try to choose a venue that decent parking.
  • collecting money – if you’ve set the workshop up yourself, you may well need to collect money on the door, even if some people have paid in advance. It’s much better if you can find a volunteer to help. Make sure you have cash in case people need change.
  • refreshments – are you providing them or is the venue? The urn may need to be put on well in advance of the workshop. Make sure you have milk on the day. Are there plates and cutlery at the venue if you’re having lunch? Bring some bin liners to be on the safe side.
  • toilets – know where they are. Make sure they’re working!
  • temperature – some people will get hot whilst others get cold. You can’t please everyone, but know how to adjust the heating and/ or open/ close windows.

best laid plans ...

Even if you’ve set the workshop up yourself, there will always be some things out of your control and you will need contingency plans:

  • number of people who turn up – unless you have a specific limit and everyone has paid in advance, there will usually be people turning up on the door. Make sure you have songs (and a plan) suitable for five people as well as for 25 (or 50) people if you don’t know how many to expect.
  • male/ female mix – again, unless you know in advance, you might end up being surprised. I ran a regular workshop once a year in Coventry and usually got about 40 singers. I didn’t know until the day exactly who was coming. The usual average is 10% men, so I would often get just three or four. But I did a Beatles workshop once and 20 blokes turned up! I had to swiftly adapt my arrangements as I had assumed that it would be women singing the tenor lines.
  • weather/ illness/ the unexpected – you definitely can’t control these! What if the weather’s so bad that nobody can get to the venue? Do you have a cancellation policy if someone can’t make it? What if you’re ill – do you have someone who can substitute?
  • traffic/ parking/ public transport – check online on the day of the workshop. There may be an accident or a football match so you can plan a later start.
  • group dynamics – I’ve been lucky so far and all my groups have gelled well together and been fun to work with. BUT ... it is possible to work with a group which just doesn’t seem to get going. There is a variety of possible reasons, but sometimes nothing you can do will get the group to chill and work well together. Chalk it up to experience and move on.
  • experience of group – often you won’t know until people start singing how experienced they are. You should adapt your style to suit the level of the people you’re working with. Some will take a long time to ‘get’ the harmonies, others respond well to jargon like ‘interval’, ‘octave’ and ‘parallel thirds’.
  • speed of learning – I tend to teach fast (see How many songs can you teach in an hour?). I believe in sketching through a song quite quickly rather than breaking it up into pieces that are too small. Once singers have got a rough overview, you can keep repeating it and tweaking it until it’s polished. You will quickly get a sense of how fast you can take thing. Be adaptable and don’t go into the workshop with too many expectations. You may get through less (or more) than you planned.

wrapping things up

What to do at the end of the workshop to tie it all up neatly?

  • final ‘performance’ – I usually revive all the songs at the end of the workshop. Sometimes we invite a few friends and family to perform to. But even if there’s no audience, putting on a ‘performance’ is a good way of raising the bar, getting the best out of the group, and sending them home having really nailed the songs. 
  • handing out lyrics – I often get away without handing out lyrics, but often people want to know more about the songs I’ve taught, or want to have a copy of the lyrics so they can sing the songs at home. Have enough copies to go round. 
  • sharing arrangements – it’s not part of the deal, but occasionally someone will ask to have the arrangement of one or more of the songs you’ve taught. I usually point them in the direction of the arranger or songbook I got it from, or might offer to email the song if it’s one of mine. 
  • making a recording – I now record the final ‘performance’ at the end of each workshop and make it available (free of charge) privately on the internet. Many people want to have a reminder of the workshop, or want to sing the songs again but forget them by the next day! 
  • get feedback! – you will only improve as a workshop leader if you constantly reflect on your own teaching practice. To help this, ask for feedback on the workshop: what worked well, what people wanted more or less of, etc. Have a comments book. Any good feedback you can use to promote your next workshop!
  • build up your mailing list – if someone’s enjoyed your workshop they might want to come to another one. Get their contact details and put them on your mailing list. Once they’re out the door, you’ve lost them.
  • tidy up – make sure you leave the space as you found it (including washing up cups!). People are usually happy to help, just give them a gentle hint.

exceed expectations

I went to a marketing seminar the other week. It’s quite obvious that we all want our punters to have their expectations met, but I hadn’t realised that if we exceed their expectations, they are SIX more times likely to return!

have I left anything out?

Now it’s over to you. I’m sure I must have left out some important elements. Do drop by and leave a comment and share your experiences. Have you ever run a workshop and have something to add? Have you attended a workshop that has gone terribly wrong? What is the best workshop you’ve attended and why?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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