I’ve spent a very enjoyable couple of days collating all the responses to a survey about the songs we have sung in choir. We got 21 responses, which is also the average attendance at choir rehearsals, so that is very encouraging. It’s brilliant when people care enough to share their opinions with you.
The first question was very open – name your three favourite songs we have sung, and your three least favourite.
There were very clear first and last place songs – “The Sloop John B” and “The Lyke Wake Dirge” respectively. Interestingly, when I announced this result at choir on Monday there groans of dismay from people who had loved “The Lyke Wake Dirge” although none of them had put it in their top three. “Derbyshire Christmas” came second, and “Blow the Wind Southerly” third. The second and third on the least-favourite list were “A Place in the Choir” which I’d almost forgotten about, and “Doh, a deer”.
Musically, this is very interesting. The Lyke Wake Dirge has mediaeval harmonies and dissonances but the other two are relentlessly major and straightforward. Some of the comments about LWD mentioned the gloomy lyric and the fact that we sang it with inconsistent accents; and the 11 verses. The other two songs were described as cheesy and childish. Several people gave as their reason for not liking a song, “We never got very good at it,” which chimes with another comment, “Some songs I didn’t like at first but once we could sing them well I really enjoyed them”.
Many choir members said that they liked or loved most of what we sang, and that is what I aim for. I have always said that when it comes to song choice, our choir is a benign dictatorship. I’ve known choirs with repertoire committees and I think it gets a bit joyless. I have to spend a lot of time with the songs we sing, especially since I arrange many of them, and I need to have the final decision – but I’m always open to ideas.
The second question asked for suggestions for songs for the choir to tackle, which provided a wonderfully eclectic list. People also volunteered the sort of thing they don’t like, which led to requests for:
More pop songs – or Not pop songs, they don’t work
Bluegrass gospel – or Nothing with God or Jesus if it’s not Christmas
Don’t like songs from musicals – up against America!, Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat, and Bugsy Malone (I know this could never happen) plaintively added in brackets.
On the back of the sheet (yes, of course some people forgot to turn it over) was a list of seven songs from last year and this, with a grid – Loved it, OK, Not keen, and Hated It, were the options. The runaway winner here, with 17 Loved Its and 2 OKs, was Hail Smiling Morn. This is a Sheffield carol from Grenoside, which is somehow a Christmas carol which mentions neither God, Jesus nor Christmas. It just celebrates the morning, whose rosy fingers ope the gates of day. It is one of the most complicated songs we’ve learnt, and it took several weeks just to get through all the notes. It’s one that nobody except me knew before we started, and I was nervous about choosing it. Nobody wants to hear your Christmas carol on January 20th, so you have to get it right in time for your Christmas performances. I think that a bit of complexity does make a song more fun – in the same way that children who dawdle moodily through a nice flat walk beside a river will hurtle over rocks and through muddy puddles.
I also found it telling that a lot of our Christmas repertoire came up as favourites, and I think that’s because we have revisited them. It is a very effective way of learning, to get to a point where you think you know something, go away for a bit, and then come back and learn it again. Christmas gives us a chance to do this. The songs get better the second year, and so we like singing them more because we know they sound great.
The survey results have given me much food for thought, and I’m sure I will return to one or two of these topics. I don’t want to lose choir members over my repertoire choices, so more than anything I have to promise a variety of songs, moods and music and hope that the singers enjoy themselves enough most of the time to put up with one or two songs they don’t love.