Sunday, December 09, 2012

How to keep the old songs in your repertoire from going stale

It’s that time of year again. Out come all the Christmas songs that everyone loves – songs that you’ve sung hundreds of times before.

moldy bread
photo by John Bencina

But how can you stop them from going stale and keep them fresh for performance?

I’ve written about this subject before (10 ways to breathe new life into old songs), but I thought it was worth revisiting the subject since Christmas is the time when we’re most often faced with this problem.

As well as the 10 ideas outlined in my earlier post, here are 10 more things to try:
  1. don’t assume you know the song – if you’ve been singing a song for years, it can become over-familiar and you start to make assumptions without going deeper into the song. Maybe time to look at it again and dig a little deeper: make sure you understand the meaning, pronunciation, dynamics, etc.
  2. stop focusing on yourself (or the song) – listen to the other parts, the other singers, the harmonies. It’s so easy to stop listening to others and just focus on your own part. The well-known actor Simon Russell Beale was asked in a recent interview how he coped with a long run, doing a play night after night:

    “I've something I do when I’m getting stale. It sounds pathetically simple but it does work. You stop worrying about your own performance and you really listen to the other person, and it becomes interesting again.”
  3. rip it apart – then put it back together again. Destroy the song and then re-assemble it: mix lines up; sing every other word; move verses around; sing it backwards line by line.
  4. make it playful – sing two words at random from any part then get the choir to join in at the exact right point. Harder than it seems! Try other ways of making it a guessing game. Stop being precious and rekindle the fun.
  5. turn it into a useful exercise – that will benefit the choir generally by acting as a voice training exercise. E.g. sing just the vowels; sing it very quietly (or loudly); bring different parts to the fore at different points;  sing it extremely slowly; focus on the breathing points and phrasing.
  6. don’t assume your audience knows it – just because you’re familiar with the song, doesn’t mean the audience is. Only YOU are sick of the same old songs, it may be the first time they’ve ever heard it. Behave as if that’s the case.
  7. find new challenges – find a different, more challenging way of presenting the song – a new arrangement; add another part (or verse); split the song up differently; turn it into a procession; add (or remove) instruments; add (or remove) harmonies; put in some choreography. 
  8. go foreign – translate the song into a different language or maybe go back to the original language. If you’ve been singing Silent Night for years, why not try Stille Nacht instead?
  9. take personal responsibility – many of these suggestions are external to you, the singer, and will come from your choir director. But there are things you can do yourself in order to freshen up a familiar song. E.g. you can vary your focus of attention; you can create an inner visual journey to accompany the song; you can pay particular attention to the conductor or engage more with the audience.
  10. don’t sing it! – no matter how many times I tell people not to sing songs they don’t care for, most choir members will join in with all the songs (see Don’t sing what you don’t know (or don’t like)). If a song has really lost its charm, then opt out of that song and maybe when you come back to it next year it will feel fresh.
Don’t forget to read the earlier post too: 10 ways to breathe new life into old songs.

I’m sure there are plenty of other tactics that I’ve not mentioned here. Do leave a comment and let me know if you have any others, of if you’ve tried any of these and found them useful. Good luck with your Christmas concerts!

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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