Monday, May 28, 2018

10 golden truths I have learnt from 20 years of choir leading

I started my first choir WorldSong in Coventry back in September 1997. Which means I’ve been in this choir leading lark for just over 20 years.

photo by Alex Ristea

Here are some of the things that I’ve learnt on the way.

1. Rounds aren’t the best way into harmony

I used to think that rounds were a great way into harmony: everyone learns the same part, you can build the harmonies gradually, there aren’t usually many words.

The trouble is, precisely because there often aren’t many words (and everyone has the same ones), it’s so easy for singers to forget which section of the round they’re on. Because they’re focusing so hard on their own part, singers seldom listen out to understand how the sections work against each other.

A much better way into harmony is to start with a simple song in two parts with a harmony a third apart. Or even start with a melody and a drone. In that way the singers can focus on how the parts fit together and how the harmonies work.

See How to help singing groups harmonise even if it seems they can’t

2. Repertoire is easy …

… it’s what you do with it that counts.

When I first started out I used to run around like a headless chicken desperately trying to hoover up new songs from anywhere I could. I felt it was my duty to keep introducing new repertoire to the choir each week in case they got bored.

Now I have a room full of songs that I won’t live long enough to teach!

I soon found out that singers like to go over (and over) old songs and really familiarise themselves with them. Also, no matter how simple a song, you can play with it in such a wide variety of ways that it will keep a choir interested for a whole semester. For example, focus on dynamics and performance, sing it in the dark or as quietly as possible, sing it in a ‘wrong’ style, add a new harmony part, change the structure … the possibilities are endless.

See Stop chasing after songs for your choir – learn to respect, research and relax

3. Any warm up exercises will work with any group

As will vocal training exercises. There aren’t really different exercises for different ‘levels’ of singers, just different focuses of attention. What might be a really easy exercise for an advanced group can be challenging enough to just get through for a beginners’ group.

For example, take a simple scale. The beginners might find it hard to get the intervals perfect and the tuning may well go out as they go up and down.

For the advanced group however, instead of focusing on the simple mechanics of intervals, you could focus on blend, dynamics, vocal timbre, placement of singers, etc. etc.

4. Warm up, technique, singing: it’s all the same thing

I used to start with a simple warm up, then add a bit of vocal training before then moving on to the ‘proper’ singing.

I now realise that they’re all pretty much the same thing.

You can use a song as the basis for your warm up. You can introduce vocal technique whilst singing a well-rehearsed song. Your warm can be specifically tailored to a song you’re working on and use section of it as material. And so on.

5. It pays to take your time – don’t panic!

When you first start out time seems to rush by. You feel all those eyes on you, judging you, waiting for your instruction. You feel the need to entertain, to keep delivering the goods, to bring new songs each time. When a concert comes along, the audience will make you nervous and you’ll be worried about how the singers will respond to your direction.

It’s easy to say, but you need to take your time. The singers and the audience are probably as nervous as you are. Whether it’s taking time to settle down before a song starts, or introducing a song in a concert, or deciding how many verses of a song to sing, or whether to sing a well-known song yet again, or moving onto the next warm up exercise … take your time.

Time may seem to be rushing past to you, but for your singers and audience, they are happy to wait or listen longer or sing a song again.

6. Not everyone will like (or get!) what you’re doing

I worried when people didn’t come back to choir the next term. I worried when people came to one of my singing days then aske to be removed from my mailing list. I worried when singers told me they didn’t like my song choice. I worried when workshop participants didn’t get my jokes.

But I now realise that you can’t please everyone. Not everyone will like the way you teach, the songs you choose, or your workshop themes. That’s fine. It’s not personal. Everybody has a different taste.

You will attract the singers who do like what you do and that’s great.

See Keeping a choir happy – you can’t please everyone

7. There are good days and bad days

We all know this, right? But when it comes to teaching and choir leading it’s very easy to blame ourselves when things don’t quite go right.

It could be you, it could be the singers, it could be the rehearsal space, it could be the weather. It happens.

Sometimes the easy song turns out to be really hard, and the difficult song is a cinch. One week a song goes brilliantly, the next it’s a car crash. A concert is a triumph, but the next one is a disaster.

Don’t be quick to judge. Reflect on the experience and there may be something you can do about it, but sometimes it’s just one of those things.

Try to stay in the moment and treat everything as if it’s for the first time.

See When rehearsals go bad

8. Pop songs are hard!

To help recruitment for my first choir I thought I’d run some one-off singing days. I decided to choose familiar repertoire since most people in the street aren’t familiar with Georgian, Tanzanian, Maori, or Japanese songs!

I chose to run a Beatles day. We all know Beatles songs, we sing along in the car, we know them inside out, they’re easy.

It turns out though that a cappella arrangements of pop songs are very hard to teach (and learn).

Not everyone remembers the lyrics or melody in the same way. And if they do, then they’ll get confused when they try to learn a harmony because the tune is so embedded. And those harmonies are pretty tricky because the Beatles (and ABBA and The Beach Boys and …) were great song writers.

I should put a warning label on my (rare) pop song workshops: for experienced harmony singers only.

See Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs

9. A little humour goes a long way

Most choirs take their music-making seriously. However, you don’t have to be serious as a person to take the work seriously. It’s possible to do really great work whilst keeping it light and fun.

Bringing humour in helps to relax people, disarms them, and encourages them to do their best. The alternative is to be shouty and wave a big stick which never gets the best out of people.

10. It’s only singing

Once upon a time I found myself in a field in Tuscany in the dark rehearsing an outdoor theatre piece. We had spent hours working on it and tempers were frayed. Everyone was getting tense and it seemed like getting the thing right was the most important thing in the world.

Then the stage manager (who was relaxing on the grass watching) said: “Remember, it’s only a piece of theatre.”

When you get swept up in rehearsal, especially if an important concert is looming, it’s so easy to lose perspective. Nobody’s going to die. It’s not brain surgery. It’s just a bit of singing.

Try to keep a healthy distance from the work whilst trying to do your best. Tomorrow is another day, as they say.

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Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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