Sunday, May 12, 2013

Instant choir – just add people

Most choirs rehearse for months to perfect their songs before they perform.

Children in Need choir PRESS
the Big Night Out Community Choir for BBC Children in Need 2012

But there is an alternative: gather a bunch of strangers together, teach them a set of songs quickly and then perform them before they forget. This approach has many advantages ...

In November last year I was commissioned to make a choir from scratch for a local BBC Children in Need concert. Around 60 people gathered in a large rehearsal space and we spent just three hours learning three songs which were then performed as part of BBC Suffolk’s Big Night Out.

Last Sunday I was at London’s Southbank as part of their Chorus weekend. I ran a singing workshop from 11am to 5pm with an hour for lunch. I taught six songs all in three- or four-part harmony to 160 people without using lyrics sheets or written music. Then at 6pm we performed to an enthusiastic audience.

This week I’ve set off on yet another Singing Safari: six weekly sessions to teach eight songs which will then be performed in a half hour set in beautiful gardens in Suffolk. This will be the 10th Singing Safari that I’ve set up, each involving a random group of singers from 40 – 80 in number.

Oh, yes, and did I mention that several of the songs I teach have accompanying dance moves!

How is it possible to learn so many songs in such a short time, and how come such projects are so popular?

Here are some of what makes instant choirs work so well:
  • not enough time to think – to teach a lot of songs in a short time means that singers have to be pretty much in the moment (or they’ll miss something important!). There is no time or space for people to worry about how hard the songs are, how difficult it might be to learn the words, whether they know the harmony well enough, and so on. It forces singers back onto their natural abilities and doesn’t leave space for doubts to creep in (see also last week’s post The only thing stopping you from being a better singer).
  • no long-term commitment – many people find that family and work responsibilities make it hard for them to commit to a regular choir. An instant choir with just a few sessions becomes a very attractive proposition and is easier to fit into a busy life.
  • huge challenge – many singers like a challenge. Even if they’re in a regular choir, having to learn songs quickly without sheet music and then perform them can be a real stretch.
  • performance opportunity – some choirs, especially those who just meet to have fun, don’t perform often (or ever). Also, some people like to have a goal to work towards or just love performing in front of an audience.
  • involves the audience – due to the nature of instant choirs, the performance is often in non-traditional venues and the audience is much more receptive and almost becomes part of the project. After explaining how quickly the choir came together, I often teach a song which involves the audience so there’s a strong sense that we’re all in it together.
  • people are capable of more than they think – some singers join an instant choir project with some trepidation. I always make it clear that performing is optional and that they can try out the first session before committing. We usually manage to get three or four songs up on their feet in the first couple of hours and people tend to get swept along by the enthusiasm of the group, ending up with achieving something that they might not have thought possible. And if they stick with the project to the end, they might discover a whole new side of themselves.
  • not a ‘proper’ choir – the word ‘choir’ can put people off (see Avoiding the ‘C’ word): long rehearsals, formal costume, Classical repertoire, draughty church halls ... or whatever other image springs to mind. An instant choir is inherently un-stuffy and fun and gives people a chance to dip their toes into the choral world and – who knows – they may like it and join a regular choir afterwards!
  • sense of community – even though there might not be time to build up a real sense of ensemble or even to get to know other singers in any depth, the fact that we’re all in it together and we need to deliver something at the end (a seemingly impossible task at first) focuses people’s minds and creates a kind of ‘Dunkirk spirit’ with everyone pulling together. We have to work as a team, there is no space for disagreement or divas.
  • the standards are high – just because it’s an instant choir doesn’t mean that we don’t perform to a high standard. The results demonstrate to singers that rehearsals can be fun and that with a bit of focus and concentration they can still deliver the goods.

That’s not to say that regular, on-going groups don’t have their place. What you can’t do with an instant choir is tackle very complex material or long songs, and there’s not much scope for vocal development work or building a sense of ensemble.

However, instant choirs have their place, can help with recruitment to on-going choirs and can re-invigorate regular choir members. Why not try one?

Do let me know if you’ve had an instant (or ‘scratch’) choir experience. What was it like? How did it differ from a regular choir? What worked (or didn’t work) best? I’d love to hear from you. Why not leave a comment (no matter how short)!

Chris Rowbury’s website:

Chris Rowbury


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