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A Grand Day Out

Here are some photos from our fabulous day out at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on Sunday 25th June.  It was lovely to enjoy the combination of gentle landscape, uplifting architecture and brilliant, intriguing art with our choir friends.

We had decent weather and a tasty lunch too.   With minimal rehearsal we sang on the promenade above the formal garden – for our own pleasure really, but it was very pleasing that people stopped, listened, and even applauded.

Not averse to Verse

Merely Poets are a duo, one of whom sings in our choir. The Mere is from Meersbrook and the -ly from Heeley, (for foreigners, the former is our little patch of Sheffield and Heeley is the patch next door) so perhaps it’s really Meerley … hey, that rhymes!

Anyway, Linda and Cherry have been writing Poems to Go, on any subject requested, and Linda has produced this lovely tribute to the choir..

Merely Voices

for Liz Nicholas and Carfield Community Choir
A voice can be a whisper in the night
A murmur of intriguing titbits on the bus
An angry joust of hot opinions
Or a demanding question -rise and fall,
But in our neighbourhood, in our school hall
We warm our voices in their fullest ranges
We stretch our voices and our knees,
We form a circle of our highs, our lows
We sing in tongues from many lands, some understood,
We sing in rounds, for we’re not squares.
And then our MD brings our glory out-
With wit of her arrangements
The beauty of our four or even six parts
And we tell stories with our harmonies,
And sing the world, and each of us to rights.
I’m not going to analyse it to death, but I particularly love “We form a circle of our highs, our lows” and “sing the world, and each of us to rights” which capture the healing quality of singing with others.

Old songs, new singers

At Christmas we always revive a couple of songs from previous years as well as learning some new ones. We are always trying to get lots of songs ready at the same time, too, so there is a time pressure. If you have joined the choir during the year, and so far learned songs at the same speed as everyone else, it can be a bit daunting to be surrounded by people launching into a tune they know really well.

hopping a train

I was looking for an image to go with this post and was stumped for a while.  It’s the opposite of teaching old dogs new tricks, and putting new wine in old wineskins.  The best analogy I could think of was hopping onto a moving train.

The momentum of the choir will get you up to speed in a remarkably short space of time, but you do have to commit.

If you have your own small voice and everyone else is singing loudly and confidently, it’s easy to feel that it doesn’t really matter if you don’t quite know it.  You might sing quietly and look a bit worried. You might even mime, particularly if I ask your section to sing on their own.

As a director, though, I need to hear your mistakes. A choir of leaders and followers is not what I want – I want us all to be fellow-travellers who are independent but with a common destination. I can and will help, but every singer has to do their own singing.

There is no substitute – listen, and sing. Listen, and sing. One without the other doesn’t work. If you just listen, and aren’t brave enough to sing, one tentative attempt will convince you that you can’t do it.  If you just sing and don’t listen, you will only ever hear your version which you think is right. You need to do it over and over until you can hear it’s right.  For most of us, this will involve doing it wrong a few times.  This is absolutely fine.

When you finally get there, it’s a free ride  – but you do have to take that leap of faith.

 

Forty red folders falling on the floor

imageThe cardboard box fell apart as I was climbing the stairs. Folders everywhere.

We had an interesting debate at the AGM about our blue folders and whether they are the best way of keeping our music together. Bad points are that they are too small to fit all the music in – though with 20 pockets there is plenty of room for the current things and some old favourites too.  Some people thought they looked less smart than a rigid ring binder but others liked the fact that they are softer, without sharp edges in a confined area.  They are also waterproof, which is a very good thing given our regular outdoor performances.

It ended up with us deciding to have a separate RED Christmas folder each, hence the cascading red folders on my stairs yesterday.  We already wear red and green at Christmas rather than our usual aqua/pale blue, so it works with that. Christmas is a very defined time-period and so keeping that repertoire separate makes sense.

It got me thinking again about paper and whether we should try and wean ourselves off it.  When we learn a song orally, standing up, listening and repeating, I love the quality of sound that is produced. When people read from paper I see the tops of their heads and they start singing to the floor; I have to spend time encouraging eye-contact, and projection, which happen much more spontaneously without written material.  The qualities we develop in the warm-up dissipate, which is a shame.

Maybe just pointing this out will help. Many singers feel more confident with the paper in front of them, knowing they have the words and music. It does mean we can tackle more songs in the limited rehearsal time we have, and that people who can’t come every week can catch up and join in. In that way it’s part of our choir’s accessibility. My feeling is that if I insisted on paper-free performances there would be a significantly smaller version of choir performing, and that would be a shame. Maybe the performance would look and sound more polished but if it didn’t include so many choir members something would be lost. As Frankie Armstrong* puts it, it’s not that we don’t have high standards, but we have deep standards.

* I realise this is ironic because Frankie teaches exclusively by ear and never, ever, gives singers anything on paper.

Our survey said …

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.

Auld claes and porridge

Ah, New Year and the beginning of the spring term. Sunday evening gloom descends and we face being Back to Normal.  You were fed up of watching TV with a third of the screen blocked by twigs and fairy-light reflections, but now the room looks a bit bare.The hoover is full of pine needles and so are all your carpets.

After all the feasting and company, the extravagance of Christmas, it’s a time of sobriety and belt-tightening – the old clothes and porridge of the title.  This week we realise that just getting to work, buying food and eating and washing up and having clean socks takes most of our time and the practicalities of training for a marathon or writing a novel – all our grandiose resolutions – just seem impossible. It’s very easy then to feel we’ve let ourselves down and nothing is going to change. This is the time when I get my diary out and try to carve out spaces for things that are important to me, to make sure they happen.

So I would say my mood is now preparing to go back to the old routine while trying to be just a bit better at things that matter; trying not to spend more time than I have to on things that don’t matter.

What’s this got to do with choir? It’s one of the things that is very important in my life. I think it’s fair to say the choir finished 2014 on a high. At Christmas we do a lot of performances at venues and events we’ve been going to every year more or less since the choir began, so I found myself thinking back over all the St Paul’s carol services, all the Carfield Festive Fairs. (That one may have changed its name a few times but it’s the same throng.)  The first year that I was in charge we struggled to get through three or four songs in very simple arrangements. Now we can do a set of eight, including a couple of tricky ones.  The sound of the choir has improved without question, and although more people are performing now, that isn’t the only reason. The quality of singing at events like the Zest Christmas Fair with only nine of us was great, confident and together. Individual singers are more confident and rely less on others – or to look at it another way, more people feel like leaders rather than followers.

This change has happened little by little over the years, from people turning up and singing, as often as they could, listening to themselves, other people and the choir as a whole, trusting me to ask only what they could achieve. I’m hugely proud of the choir and I’m looking forward to what we can do together in 2015.

My aims this year for choir are:

The usual one of choosing good songs, a good mixture so that there’s a good chance of everyone liking some of them.  I am aiming to do songs that are not too complicated so that we can spend time getting to know them really well and sing them with expression and belief rather than a vague terror that we’re going to forget them.

I would like more people to hear the choir but I haven’t worked out the details. We will be going to Street Choirs in Whitby in July and we are going to put on a good show – but I want to do something in Sheffield, preferably S8, as well.

i also want to make sure that even if we are a bit more performance-orientated than we were in the old days, that every rehearsal is fun and worth coming to, and that everyone feels welcome even if they are brand new or can’t come every week. I do want the choir to be a place where anyone who wants to can come and sing, and get better at singing the more they do it.

 

Hear us sing!

This is just a very quick update with a list of our Christmas gigs.  We are performing in a variety of settings in Sheffield this year, mostly in our home patch of S8.

We will be performing at:

Carfield Primary School Festive Fair – Saturday 29th November 2pm

Weston Park Museum, Western Bank – Sunday 7th December, 2pm

Church of the Nazarene, Fitzroy Road, Heeley – Sunday 7th December, 6pm

St Paul’s Church, Norton Lees – Sunday 21st December, 6pm

Meersbrook Bowling Club, Shirebrook Road – Monday 22nd December 8.30pm (after singing in the streets from 6.30/7)

Cheese and marmite

MarmiteThis is a funny little half-term for choirs. I know some people come back to rehearsals and Boom! it’s straight into the Coventry Carol and Masters in this Hall. Christmas is such a huge singing festival that it can take over your whole post-summer life – but I don’t really like starting too early.  I try to make sure we have something to work towards in October, then we can dive into Wassailing and rest-you-merry wholeheartedly till the end of the year.

We always sing at our local Apple Day, which takes place in the walled garden of Meersbrook Park . So we enjoy finding one or two apple-based songs to put into the mix there, which we combine with other songs we already know. This year it’s on Sunday 12th October, which is quite late, and we started rehearsals on 1st September, so we’ve got plenty of preparation time. In addition to that, we are going to sing at Scarsdale Grange residential home. Singing in residential homes is not uncommon for volunteer choirs, but what excites me about this gig is that we are sharing the stage with a choir of residents. I’m delighted that they have an activity co-ordinator who is bringing music as a creative, active recreation rather than a purely passive one. They have been meeting for a few months now and have learnt some of the songs from “The King and I”, so we are learning some Rodgers and Hammerstein too, from “The Sound of Music”.

I love musicals and I’m not ashamed who knows it. I know a lot about them and it annoys me when people dismiss them as froth which avoids the serious issues of life.  They deal with some big, difficult subjects (in those two alone, you have culture-clash, polygamy, slavery, dysfunctional parenting, religion and Nazis).  The happy endings are hardly ever cloudless (as a young woman I wept with Liesl realising that the dashing telegraph boy of I am Sixteen was a Nazi).

However, I know that this is a very particular genre of music – some choirs sing nothing else but we are proud of being eclectic. Some people just find it – corny, cheesy, syrupy. Doh, a deer and Edelweiss, combined with Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree,  are brightly major and predictable harmonically, and I felt we needed a little piquancy. This week we started learning “Apple, Apple”, a Hungarian tune written by Matyas Seiber, which is as delicious as marmite after a honey sandwich. It’s full of crunchy harmonies and melodic lines that don’t quite go where you expect. The whole thing is really satisfying and I hope adding it to the programme will make it feel completely balanced and complement the other songs so that each will shine in its different way.

 

Why do we need a committee if we just want to sing?

I’ve just added a page to this site with our choir’s constitution on it. We are preparing for our Annual General Meeting and the committee wanted everyone to have a chance to read through the document that sets out how we work.  We will do printed copies too for people who prefer reading paper or don’t have internet access.

At the committee meeting on Wednesday we started thinking about how to make sure our members know who the committee members are, what they do and why we work this way. In January 2012 we changed from a loose voluntary group with an unpaid leader and a fairly lax attitude to collecting subs to a more organised outfit with elected officers and a constitution. This was primarily so that I could become a paid musical director – until summer 2011 I squeezed in being voluntary MD around a full-time job in school management.

The constitution sets out our core values – about who choir is for, what it stands for, how we try to make it accessible and affordable. It is as simple as we could make it while covering the essential points.

The committee is nine choir members, three of them with specific roles, who discuss and make decisions about the running of choir. I am part of the committee but I don’t have voting rights – they do always ask me what I think and listen to the answers, though.

I like the arrangement because the choir has grown very organically and has always been a friendly bunch, even if many of us only have choir in common. We like talking about things but prefer to spend rehearsals singing.  Having  a committee which meets once a term – and any choir member can come along – gives us a time to discuss organisational matters. I like having a regular forum which takes place even if there are no pressing issues. If something does occur which is potentially divisive or needs sorting out, we have a structure within which to deal with it and so we don’t need to invent something in a panic.

I also like having a supportive group managing the choir. Rehearsals are short and busy and although I try and say hello to everyone I don’t always manage that, never mind listening to their suggestions and points of view. With a committee we hope to listen to nine times as many members and have a real sense of what people are feeling.

I think the committee model also keeps any megalomaniac tendencies of mine in check. It reminds us that no single person is more important than the choir. I may be the leader but I don’t make any noise on my own.  A choir is a living organism made up of the combined energy of many people – and it will change and grow with those individuals. So to me it seems right that they are represented in the decisions that shape the organisation.