Monday, August 15, 2016

If a song’s not working, when do you stop flogging the dead horse?

Sometimes I bring a great song to choir and for some reason the singers really struggle with it.


How do you decide whether to persist with a song until it comes right, or just abandon it and move on? Let’s look at the options.

I’m sure you’ve been there: you start teaching what you thought was a fairly straightforward song only to get bogged down in treacle. For some reason it’s taking much longer to learn than you thought. The singers are really struggling.

There can be several reasons for this:

  • you’ve under-estimated its difficulty – easily done. Sometimes I bring a ‘hard’ song to a group and they learn it easily, whereas the ‘easy’ song I bring gives them real trouble. Until you’ve taught a song many times, it’s a skill to work out in advance how hard the singers will find it.
  • you don’t know the song well-enough – many times I’ve spent hours working on a song at home only for it to all crumble when I’m working with a group of singers. Just because you think you know a song enough to teach it doesn’t mean it’s ready to teach yet. You need to teach a song a few times before you really get it under your belt.
  • it’s not right for the group you’re working with – different groups take to different types of song in different ways, even though all the groups might have been formed under exactly the same circumstances (see How similar choirs can be so different). I had a choir who just didn’t like folk songs, whereas another one lapped them up. The song you’ve chosen might also not suit the group because it’s too advanced for them; is in the wrong key (high notes too high for example); needs a different balance of voices (maybe more men than you’ve got).
  • the arrangement still needs some work – it might not be your teaching or your singers’ abilities, it might be that the arrangement is not right – yet (see Fit the song arrangement to your singers and not the other way round). With a bit of tweaking it might well work later.
  • the genre is too unfamiliar – if a choir has never sung, for example, a Georgian song before, they may well find the harmonies too unfamiliar to get a handle on them. Any new genre of song requires the singers to have some kind of ‘harmonic map’ in their head before they can understand it properly.
  • it’s not the right time – you might have just picked the wrong time to teach the song: it’s late in the session; it’s at the end of a long, hard term; it’s too early in the season when you’ve just taken on a bunch of new singers; it’s after a big series of concerts and the singers are tired.
  • the singers just don’t like it – sometimes a group of singers won’t take to a song as they just don’t like it.

If you can identify the reason that a group is struggling with a song, it can help you to decide whether to continue with it or not.

There are some obvious tactics:

  • if you don’t know the song well-enough: do more homework
  • if it’s not right for you group: drop it and do it with another group
  • if the arrangement needs work: do some tweaking
  • if the genre is unfamiliar: find warm up exercises to support the unfamiliar harmonic landscape or start with an easier song in the same genre
  • if it’s not the right time: put it on hold and come back to it at a later date

The harder situations to deal with are when the singers are finding the song more difficult than you had thought and/ or if the singers just don’t like it.

I’ll be looking at what to do in those circumstances next week: Just because a song is hard or you don't like it doesn't mean you should give up on it.

Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.

Chris Rowbury



Monthly Music Roundup: