Monday, January 18, 2016

What to expect at my singing workshops (and those run by other Natural Voice Practitioners)

I started a brand new project last weekend called Sing Out Saturdays. It’s a monthly drop-in singing session for anyone who loves to sing.

SingWiv January 2016 (2)

It was quite clear that many people came with little idea of what was going to happen! I thought I’d answer some frequently asked questions about what to expect at one of my workshops.

Even if someone has been to lots of singing workshops, they might never have been to one which uses the Natural Voice approach.

As Natural Voice Practitioners we take our work very seriously, but the singing sessions we run are always fun and relaxed. It often requires people to be a bit silly (to help shed inhibitions) and always involve using the body (in ways which might be unfamiliar to those used to a more formal choral approach).

However, even though there is a lot of laughter, messing about and general silliness (and maybe even some weird dancing), the musical results are usually really, really good.

frequently asked questions

So put your prejudices to one side, let all your expectations go and let me introduce you to a typical singing workshop.

Q1. Is there an audition and will I have to sing solo?
A. There are no auditions. My workshops are open to anybody who loves to sing. No experience is necessary and you will not be asked to sing solo because all songs are sung in harmony with others. My work is all about the joys of singing together.

Q2. You say "no experience necessary". Do you really mean that? I have absolutely no experience of singing except to myself!
A. Yes, I really mean it! Some people come with some singing experience, but many don't. I've you've ever hummed along to a song on the radio or sung in the shower and think it might be fun to sing with others, you've got all the experience you need.

Q3. Do I need to have a 'good' voice? What happens if I sound really awful? I don't want to ruin it for others.
A. All voices are welcome. The great thing about singing together as a group is that we can have a real mix of different voices and no individual ever need stand out. As long as you are prepared to have a go, listen well and remember you're part of a group, not on your own, it will be fine.

Q4. My friends and family tell me that I'm tone deaf. I don't think I can hold a tune. Will that be a problem?
A. Almost nobody is tone deaf unless there is some brain damage. Like any physical activity (e.g. tennis, football), it takes a while to be able to control the necessary muscles to become accurate. It's the same with singing. It might take a while to be able to hold a tune accurately, but remember you are never alone in group singing!

You might also find this article interesting: Are you tone deaf? Very unlikely!

Q5. Do I need to be able to read music or understand music theory?
A. I never use sheet music in my workshops so you don't need to be able to read music to join in fully. I also don't use any unnecessary musical jargon or assume people have prior musical training of any sort.

Q6. What does "learning by ear" mean?
A. Songs will either have just one or two simple words or I will put large lyric sheets on the wall. You then learn the song bit by bit by me singing, you listening and then singing back. Slowly the parts and the song will build up, all by using your ears rather than your eyes.

You might also find this article interesting: Learning songs by ear

Q7. What exactly is "unaccompanied harmony singing"?
A. The "unaccompanied" bit means that there will be no piano or other instruments playing and I don't use recorded backing tracks. It's just voices only. "Harmony singing" is when two or more notes are sung at the same time. That means the group is divided into different parts or sections of singers, each of which learns a different melody. When all the parts sing together, then it is singing in harmony.

Q8. What kind of songs will we be singing?
A. I usually give some idea of the songs in the workshop title. For example, Good time gospel or Sing Africa! I tend to draw on traditional songs from all around the world. Some countries don't have harmony singing traditions, so we won't usually be singing songs from Asia or the Middle East for instance. My particular love is for songs from Eastern Europe (Russia, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Georgia, etc.) and Southern Africa. I have been known to run the occasional pop song workshop too!

You might also find these articles interesting: I may not know much about music, but I know what I like! and Why don't you sing songs from India?

Q9. How will I manage with foreign words? I don't speak any languages.
A. Most of my repertoire comes from countries where they don't speak English. Don't worry though, I don't expect you to be fluent in a whole bunch of foreign languages! I carefully choose songs which don't have too many words and I will break the foreign words down into separate syllables. It's sometimes easier to learn in a foreign language because it takes you outside yourself (you become less self-conscious) and you learn syllable by syllable (instead of paraphrasing the English).

You might also find this article interesting: How to sing a song in a foreign language

Q10. What does "natural voice" mean?
A. I am a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners' Network (bit of a mouthful!) or NVPN. We all approach our work in a similar way and adhere to several basic principles:

  • everyone can sing (hence no auditions, no experience needed)
  • singing should be accessible to everybody (hence no sheet music or unnecessary jargon)
  • singing starts with the breath and the body (so we spend quite a while preparing to sing using physical, vocal and breathing exercises)

The NVPN ethos states that "We believe that singing is everyone's birthright and we are committed to teaching styles that are accepting and inclusive of all, regardless of musical experience and ability".

Your 'natural voice' is the unique voice that you were born with through which you express yourself. It can be trained to be more free and expressive, but you shouldn't become a slave to a particular technique or try to be someone else.

You might also find this article interesting: The Natural Voice approach to singing

Q11. What happens in a typical workshop?
A. I always begin with some physical and vocal exercises to prepare for singing. I believe that the voice is rooted in the body, so there will be a mix of gentle shaking and stretching of both voice and body to prepare us for singing. There will also be some elements of vocal development which will help you to sing without effort and extend your singing abilities.

You might find this article interesting: Preparing to sing: why bother?
We'll then begin with a simple round or chant and then move onto songs which have three or more separate harmony parts. In a one day workshop I'll often reprise what we've learnt at the end of the day and record it so you can hear how good you sound!

Q12. What do you mean by "bring lunch to share"?
A. Singing together is a great community and social experience. It's great to extend this to eating together. All the food you bring will be put together on a table and we will have a buffet. People sometimes bring something that they've made at home (it's helpful if you label these!), or you can pick something up at your local supermarket. I will provide plates, cutlery, etc. I'll also provide various teas, coffee, milk and biscuits for other breaks!

Q13. I can't stand up for very long at a time without needing to sit down, is this a problem?
A. I always encourage people to stand as much as possible as it's much easier than trying to sing sitting down (and it keeps the energy up!). However, there will always be chairs available and people can sit down if and when they need to, as much as they need to. You can take part fully in my workshops even if you need to sit down the whole time.

Q14. What if I've paid in advance for a workshop, but find that I can't attend after all?
A. It depends on when you have to cancel and also whether it's a weekend (or longer) course or a one-day (or shorter) workshop. I have a cancellation policy which you can find here: booking terms and conditions. This only applies to workshops that I run myself. Other venues and organisations which book me have their own policies.

Q15. Why do your singing weekends cost so much more than your one day ones?
A. The cost of a singing weekend includes full board and accommodation as well as all tuition. The cost very much depends on whether it's a venue that I've hired myself specially, or if I'm employed by a residential centre (such as Farncombe Courses) as well as the standards of accommodation: a shared dormitory room in a youth hostel will always cost less than a well-appointed single room with en suite facilities.

There will also usually be far more singers in a one-day workshop so the costs can be kept down accordingly. Once you've considered the smaller group, great food and lovely accommodation, a singing weekend starts to look like good value!

Q16. What's the structure of a typical singing weekend?
A. Typically singers will check into the venue in the late afternoon on the Friday. Our first session will be before supper at around 5pm for an hour or so to introduce each other and to gently start singing together. Supper won't be too late (6.30pm or 7pm usually), then the Friday evening is free to mingle, visit the bar and get to know each other.

Saturday and Sunday mornings each start around 10am with a warm up and go on until lunch at 1pm, with a half hour mid-morning break for tea and coffee. Saturday after lunch is free to chill out or discover the local area. We reconvene for a session before supper, and then have a relaxed, fun evening singing session on the Saturday evening.

Sunday morning is spent going over all the songs we've learnt and we end up running through them all just before lunch to feel that everyone has really got them under their belt. The weekend ends after lunch at around 2pm.

There are around nine hours of formal singing sessions over the weekend, which equates to the equivalent of two one-day workshops. The structure is quite loose so there is plenty of time for relaxing, walking and generally chilling out with a long 3 1/2 hour break on the Saturday afternoon.

Q17. What if I have a question that isn't covered here?
A. Do feel free to ask me any questions when you are at a workshop, no matter how 'daft' or elementary they may seem. You can also contact me directly and ask.

Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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