Monday, March 02, 2015

Less is more: don’t feel you have to teach or learn new songs all the time (by Betsy Sansby)

Many choir leaders end up feeling like song factories because we feel that our singers crave novelty. If we don’t keep giving them new things, they might leave.

One World Community Choir
One World Community Choir conducted by Betsy Sansby

Actually most singers in a choir welcome singing the old, familiar songs and find it hard learning new stuff all the time. It’s important to find the balance.

Many choir leaders end up feeling like they’re a song factory, churning out song after song, week after week. It all ends up feeling a bit like a production line.

But we bring this upon ourselves! We feel that unless we’re continually bringing new, shiny things for our singers they’ll get bored and run away to join another choir.

Not so.

Most singers relish going over old, familiar material. It’s a chance to have a good sing (see We’ve come to sing, not to learn!) and an opportunity to refresh and polish old songs.

less is always more

Betsy Sansby, who co-leads the One World Community Choir in Minnesota sums it up really well:

“What I’ve learned these past seven years since starting our choir is that less is always more.

“In the beginning, I was hot to teach new songs each week, so people wouldn’t get bored. Finally, after making myself — and everyone else, it turned out — crazy, Al Dworsky (my husband and our source of comic relief each week) suggested I ask the choir what percentage of new material they wanted each week, compared to going over songs we’d been doing for quite some time.

“I was shocked. The consensus was (drumroll, please) 75% old to 25% new each week. I now believe they had it right. The songs we know and love are getting richer and deeper, with much greater nuance in dynamics and emotion. The longer we stay with songs we’ve learnt, the better they sound, and the more we enjoy them.

“So rather than aim for so many songs in so many hours, I try to deepen songs we’ve been working on that have the potential to grow better over time. I have yet to have anyone in my choir say: “Can we stop singing Follow the Heron? We sing it every week!” And it’s been seven years since I first taught it.

“I think the fact that I’ve elected to have a non-performing choir has helped me enormously. My friends whose choirs do regular performances are without exception, stressed out most of the time: always rushing, never having enough time, neglecting other activities and people they could be enjoying more in order to put up flyers or hold extra rehearsals.

“All week I work with people who are in some kind of pain (in my therapy practice). Choir is where I get to laugh, and make mistakes, and take my time. That way, I can pretty much teach anything I want, even if the rhythm or words are tricky.

“Al used to tell me to simplify parts to make them easier to learn. But I've always refused. I find that our choir — made up of mostly people in their 50s who don't read music — can do anything, no matter how hard it is if we go slowly enough. My goal is not to simplify songs to make them easier, but to simplify my life by going slower and enjoying small bits more completely.

“I like to treat each line or phrase as a chant or groove we sing over and over before moving on. It took some getting used to for some people, but because I’m fond of African and East Indian chants, my choir members are all used to this way of singing now.”

(you might also like to read Betsy’s account of the first seven years of her choir: How to run a choir without driving everyone nuts)

other related posts you might find interesting

How many songs can you teach in an hour?
Why I teach so fast and try to squeeze too many songs into a session.

Helping new choir members learn the old songs
If you’re always teaching new repertoire, how do new choir members catch up?

Over-rehearsed or under-prepared: which is better?
Is it ever possible to over-rehearse a song, or will you always go deeper?

10 ways to breathe new life into old songs
If you get bored going over old songs, here are some ideas for refreshing them.

Sometimes old is best – finding the balance between new and familiar
This is the last time I wrote on this topic where I also consider warm ups.

How long does it take to learn a song?
It takes much longer than you think to really get a song under your belt.

How to keep the old songs in your repertoire from going stale
10 more ideas for refreshing old material.

Process vs. product: are you along for the singing ride or just the final performance?
Really learning and polishing a song can be a long process and some people want to rush to the end.

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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