Category Archives: Rehearsing

The Art of Choosing Songs

It’s time to think about songs for summer.  (I’ve pinched this image, these are not my songs – but I really must check out “My Friend, the Dictionary!)

What do I think about when choosing what we are going to sing?  When we were first setting up the choir’s current structure, the idea of a song choice committee was mooted, and I confess I vetoed it.  I know there are choirs where this works, but not for me. I’m very happy for people to suggest a song, but as Musical Director I need to have the last word.  I may have used the phrase “benign dictatorship”.

Musically, a song needs to be appealing.  I like interesting harmonies, and each part should be fun to sing – no arrangements where the altos sing the same three notes.  A good choir song will be complex enough to be interesting, but simple enough to learn by ear, by heart. (Actually, those boring alto lines that only ever use three notes are really difficult to learn: the brain likes a melody.)

When it comes to lyrics, we need to be able to sing the words happily standing next to people we don’t know well – no Afternoon Delight or Nobody Does it Better. We’re not going to sing Delilah. I don’t choose many love songs and when I do, I like a refrain like “We’ll always be together, together in electric dreams.”  Overall, I like a song that makes sense when it is sung as a group, as “we” as well as “I”. 

We state in our constitution: 

The choir is not aligned to any political party or religious denomination. The committee and the choir performances reflect the commitment of the choir to issues … concerned with equality, humanity and respect and which celebrate the rich diversity of our local and national community. 

(A side note: I’d forgotten we used the phrase “national community” and I feel unsure whether there is such a thing – but I can see we thought “local community” was too limiting. I hope we have the capability to reach beyond national boundaries as well.)

I do seek out songs which chime with our values. Every time we say the lyrics together we express something about our identity, and it strengthens the group spirit. I like to sing songs in other languages to find kinship with people across the world.  They have to have musical worth, too. Worthy sentiments without musical interest won’t make the cut.

Not every song we choose is deep and meaningful.  There is always room for songs that are just fun to sing – The Sloop John B, Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree, Time after Time.

Over the past year, the over-riding theme of our songs has been togetherness and resilience.  We are all experiencing our lives separately and everyone has their own difficulties. It seemed important to get by with a little help from our friends, to keep our hearts good in the bad times, to put a little love in our hearts, accentuate the positive and to know that better times will come.   Most of these songs were in our repertoire already, because these values are exactly the sort of thing we like to sing about.

As we sing in Unison in Harmony, “What we sing is what we are.”

Musing About Music (the printed kind)

Musing About Music (the printed kind)

We had an interesting debate at our last meeting because one of our singers had asked for more help finding their way around the printed music.Modern_Musical_Notation

I need a printed score for the songs I teach to make sure I sing them the same way every time.  I know for a fact that if I just taught them from memory the rhythms would slip, maybe one note would go down instead of up – and before long we would have a new version of a song. Some songs, in folk and jazz particularly, do evolve with different singers over time – but for a choir there has to be one version that everybody sings.  If I taught “Gaudete” slightly differently every Christmas because I didn’t have it written down the singers would soon feel insecure about what they were supposed to be singing.

I don’t subscribe to the ethos of not sharing the printed music with my singers. Even if you don’t read music I think the score shows you how your part fits together with the whole, better than words alone.   I don’t like the implication, when you don’t share it,  that the written music is a special secret that only extraordinary people can read.  One of my missions is to persuade musicians* that reading and writing musical notation is a) helpful and b) not rocket science.

So, for most songs, I give the singers the score.  Not if they are very short (the songs, not the singers!) and can be learnt and remembered in a few minutes.

We decided to take two practical steps – one, to have a stock of highlighters so that each singer can mark the line they sing on the music; and two, that I will do a very very short mini-teacher-feature every week on a feature of printed music.

Rather than starting with the note names and the way different rhythms are shown, I am going to concentrate on the signs and symbols that tell you how to navigate around a song.

I’ll be publishing these little segments on a separate page here – let me know if they are at all helpful.

*Musicians – people who make music

Loving the sound of your own voice

singing-1… is quite an unusual condition, I think.  Most people give a start when they hear their voice recorded back.  The answerphone message you left on your home phone, the recorded meeting, the video on holiday.  It sounds different – higher, lower, posher, weedier, growlier, than we thought because we naturally hear ourselves not through the air but through our flesh and bones, which transmit sound in a different, denser, way.

I have been sharing the voice parts for our songs as MIDI files for several years. I like MIDI because it’s small, and simple, and impersonal.  It is a scientifically accurate representation of the pitch and rhythm of a part, so singers have to join in to give it meaning musically as well as adding the words.  That has merit as a teaching tool.

However, Safari stopped supporting MIDI files about two upgrades ago, so anyone with an Apple device could not hear the files without some jiggery-pokery that, let’s face it, was too fiddly to bother with. For months I have known that I will have to record actual recordings – of my own voice – if they are going to be accessible to all the choir members.

I am not a performer. Some musicians are driven by a need to perform, and some are not.  I have never wanted to be on TV or at the Albert Hall.  I love getting lost in Chopin piano pieces all on my own. I love singing with other people but an audience makes it worse, not better. What gives me more of a buzz than anything is  helping other people discover their own musicality and produce amazing sounds.

I privately record all the parts for every song I teach to choir, to feel how they go together and find out the danger points.  But now I have to share them with other people! Teaching tracks for other people to learn from should be spot on for pitch and rhythm, but I should also be breathing in the right places and phrasing it exactly as I want it sung, as well as it having a decent tone and the right vowel sounds.  It takes a lot longer than exporting a MIDI file from my score-writing software and is much more nerve-wracking. I have to share soon for them to be any use, so I cannot keep on listening and correcting.

There are now multiple instances of my voice on this website, which I offer up to you as good enough.  Good enough to help you learn the parts and sing them with conviction – but not perfect, and not the real thing, which won’t exist until the choir sings together in live harmony.