Monday, June 20, 2016

What you can learn from singing workshops to become a better singer or workshop leader

None of us is perfect. There are always things we can do to improve our singing or teaching abilities.

Felden 2016 (1)

We can learn how to do that at every single rehearsal or singing workshop we attend. Here’s what I learnt from a recent singing workshop – and how you can too.

self-reflection and self-awareness

I’ve written before about how you need self-reflection to become a better choir or workshop leader. The same applies to singers (see also The secret to great singing that teachers don’t tell you).

The best time to reflect on your experience is immediately after a choir session or singing workshop. How did it go? What could I have done differently? What did I learn? Did something new or unexpected happen?

I attended Tai Chi classes years ago. Our teacher had been practising the form for over 20 years. Most weeks he would come in really excited to share something new that he’d discovered whilst practising that morning. He did the same sequence of moves time after time, day after day, year after year, yet each time he could find something new.

This is the alert, self-aware mind. It stops you from sleeping on the job, helps you to grow and stops you from just going through the motions. That’s the mind you use in order to learn from rehearsals and singing workshops.

what I learnt at my last singing workshop

I ran a singing weekend recently and whilst editing the recordings afterwards, I began to reflect on the experience and realised how much I had learnt, both as a singer and a workshop leader. Here are the specific things I learnt that day:

  • less is more – when singers finally ‘get’ a new song, our enthusiasm often means that we tend to sing out too loud and even end up shouting. We’re having a great time! But then we lose the beautiful harmonies and the pitch can easily go off. You will be more accurate if you sing softer and also get the pleasure of hearing all the harmonies and how they fit together.

    The same applies to conducting: mouthing the words, making large gestures, sending loads of manic energy towards your singers can mean that they let you do all the work. They stop listening and don’t take responsibility for themselves as singers.
  • it’s all in the vowels – vowel sounds are the key to sounding like you’re from the country of origin. Not only is it the vowels that carry the sound, and blending them helps to make for a cohesive sound, but the quality and shape of the vowels can make a song sound more authentic. It’s obvious if you speak, say, a Croatian song in a hammy posh English accent, then try it in a stereotypical Eastern European accent. See also Want to sing with more energy? Pretend to be someone else.
  • there are two types of people ... those who like to bracket people together and those who don’t: those who need sheet music; those who need to know what a song is about before they can sing it; those who need to see the words first; etc. Don’t assume everyone is like you.
  • get outside your comfort zone – a one-off singing workshop is a great opportunity to try something new and be on a ‘holiday’ from what you usually do in choir: learn by ear, sing a different part, teach an unusual song, try a new warm up out, etc. A singing workshop is a safe place to take risks and to ‘fail’ (and thus learn).
  • people are creatures of habit – singers often stand in the same place, sing the same part or sit in the same chair. If they have been before to one of my workshops or a choir rehearsal they even remember where they stood the last time they came! Unthinking habit like this is death to learning and new experiences. I need to watch it myself too: I often put my bag in the same corner and face the same way in the room. See also Breaking the habit of a lunchtime. If you’re on autopilot you will stop noticing (and maybe be the only one singing when the conductor has signalled a pause!).

So when you go to your next singing workshop or choir rehearsal, don’t just go through the motions and think “same old, same old” but start to notice things. You might be surprised at what you learn!

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Chris Rowbury



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