Monday, November 23, 2015

Best laid plans – dealing with the unexpected in singing sessions

Always expect the unexpected. No matter how carefully you’ve planned your choir rehearsal or singing workshop, one day something unexpected will happen.

falling cannonballs

You can’t plan for every eventuality, but there are some precautions you can take. Here are some ideas.

you can’t plan for everything

If you tried to have a contingency plan for every single possible thing that might go wrong, you wouldn’t get much real singing done!

You can factor in a few obvious fail safes (make sure you have important phone numbers with you, don’t leave your music folder at home, double check you’ve got a method of giving out starting notes), but you can never fully prepare for the unexpected.

What you need to do instead is be flexible and be able to improvise in unexpected circumstances. Also learn from your past experiences.

disasters I have known (and what to do about them)

Here are some of the unexpected things that have happened in my career so far. There's a very good chance that you might encounter one of these at some point, so I hope you can learn from my experience.

  1. venue locked – first session of a four-week singing summer school and loads of new people arrived to find the main gates locked to our rehearsal venue. I didn’t have the phone number of the caretaker/ key holder and all other staff had gone home.

    SOLUTION: we walked to the nearby pub and asked to use their function room. Unfortunately it was being used, so as it was a beautiful evening we sang in the pub garden and entertained the customers.
  2. too many men – I always reckon that there will be roughly 10% men in any workshop I run. For that reason I make sure that the tenor part is suitable for women too (i.e. not too low). Once I ran a Beatles singing day and out of 40 singers, 20 were men!

    SOLUTION: I quickly checked all the tenor parts and made a few adjustments to some of the highest notes so most men could sing them. I also distributed the men evenly through any three-part arrangements thus doubling the octaves in each part.
  3. hardly anyone turned up – when I started my first choir, one week only two people turned up, both new. I stupidly tried three-part harmony and they never came back! Another time I was commissioned to run a six-week community project and one week I had just one person, at other times it’s been three or four.

    SOLUTION: don’t be over-ambitious and stick to the amazing four-part arrangement you’d planned. Ask the participants what they want. Many newcomers will feel put on the spot with such a small number of singers. But you could turn that around and end up giving a one-to-one singing lesson. Keep it simple and take your time.
  4. too many to fit into the venue – when I started The OK Chorale five years ago I hired a small room and kept my expectations low. I reckoned that if as many as 20 turned up that would be great and I could build on it over the coming months. But over 100 people came and they literally couldn’t fit into the room!

    SOLUTION: there was a large community hall next door. I managed to find the phone number of the contact person who said that the hall was available that evening and told me where I could collect the key.
  5. chose the wrong songs – sometimes I completely misjudge either the level or interests of a group. When you don’t know who’s turning up for a singing workshop it’s hard to plan accurately. I’ve occasionally been in a situation where the songs are just too ambitious for the singers who’ve come or they just don’t like the material I’ve chosen.

    SOLUTION: always come with more songs than you need. Have a variety of styles and levels of difficulty and be prepared to abandon some of your favourites.
  6. not enough men – or sopranos or tenors or ... I always hope that there’s a reasonable mix of vocal ranges so we can have roughly equal numbers of singers on each part. But sometimes it seems that everyone’s a tenor, or there is just one bass, or none of the women want to sing high, or all of the women want to sing high.

    SOLUTION: I make sure that all the arrangements I use are pretty much within any average singer’s range. So even if some women don’t like to sing low, I can usually persuade them to go along with it. If there aren’t enough basses, don’t be a perfectionist but let women join the bass part an octave up. If there really aren’t enough people for a part, just drop it.
  7. aimed at wrong level – I made a big mistake recently (what was I thinking?!) when asked to run a long session to help start a new choir. Most people who were coming had not sung before, but for some reason I’d chosen some really challenging songs. The opposite can also happen: you bring a load of simple chants and rounds but all the singers turn out to be really accomplished and easily bored.

    SOLUTION: carry on regardless. I didn’t tell the inexperienced group that the songs I’d chosen were hard, and we managed to stumble through them. It wasn’t the greatest rendition, but they had an amazing sense of achievement at the end. With the more experienced singers it’s great to have the opportunity to go back to really simple repertoire and work on blend, dynamics, unison singing, etc. Make it a technique session.
  8. singer who can’t pitch – there’s always one. Which is fine in a large group, but not if there’s just a handful of singers. It doesn’t really matter most of the time until they start putting everyone else off in which case you need to think of the whole group. It’s hard enough at a one-day workshop, but it’s happened to me at a residential weekend. It’s even harder then the singer in question has no idea they’re constantly singing out of tune.

    SOLUTION: I’ve soldiered on in the past, but the feedback I got was that the other singers really didn’t enjoy the experience, even though they were very supportive at the time. I tried all the usual tricks: sing in the person’s ear; address the whole section and not just the individual; incorporate loads of listening exercises in the warm up. When these don’t work, there aren’t many other solutions. Rather than ask them to sing quietly, ask them so listen more loudly. Put them at the front so they get reinforcement from behind and don’t put the others off so much. Make sure they’re in the largest section. 

don’t hold on to the past

The most important thing you can do when you meet the unexpected is to let go of what you’d planned. Don’t hold on to the past, let your expectations go and get excited about the new possibilities on offer.

What is is they say? Every unexpected disaster is an amazing opportunity in disguise (or something like that).

further reading

You might also find these posts helpful:

Don’t stress about things you can’t control

Planning ahead: leave space for the unexpected

I'd love to hear about unexpected things that have happened to you and how you solved the problems.

Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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