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

Bag It Don’t Bin It!


Mini-clogs add colour-co-ordinated charm

We love our new choir bags, which arrived in time for Christmas! They are printed with the front page of our
leaflet, created by one of our members, and fairly traded from India by BIDBI, a lovely young Sheffield company.   Now we will have even more of a choir identity when we go out to perform as well as somewhere to keep our folders. Already individual members are finding creative ways of identifying their bags.


Earrings adorning a bag from the tenor section

BIDBI stands for Bag It Don’t Bin It and the bags are good quality and very reasonably priced too with lots of choice of colour, type etc. We were shown round where the bags are printed and everyone was very friendly. So our bags tick all our boxes!

Video (fun and) games

I’ve been wrestling with the video footage we took at our gig at the museum. It seemed such a simple idea, putting a little film on the site to give an idea of the performance.

It’s great, the video – but not ideal.  It was shot on a tablet and we were too loud for the microphone so I had to enhance the sound to make it sound like the choir. The full set is half an hour – it’s a daunting amount of video to edit and would be a huge file so I had to search for the best bits.

I’ve finally got the best bits of four songs (our favourites, the real belters, did not do themselves justice) and you can see the video here.

I made some interesting discoveries watching the footage – first of all I realised that I don’t stand as straight as I thought.  I bend my knees and wander about a bit so that I look as though I’m herding cats.

My beat is not as clear, as vertical as I would like.  It could be better. We’re about to embark on something rhythmically demanding so I am practising in front of a camera!

The other important thing that emerged was that my highlights included the second or third verse of every song.   None of the actual beginnings were spot on. Words and notes took a while to become clear.  In the worst, it took half a line before it was clear what key the song was in, and even the best were not as good as subsequent verses.

Terry Pratchett once described the difference between European and American people as this:
A European says: I can’t understand this person, what’s wrong with me? An American says: I can’t understand this person, what’s wrong with him?
The choral American is the choir leader who belabours the choir and itemises their failings without helping them to do better. I watch that video and know that it’s my responsibility to give clear, quick, signals that everyone understands and responds confidently.  It’s my job to rehearse in a way that means the start of every song is as good as the ending.

So that’s something to work on this year. Here’s to new beginnings!


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.

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.

Everybody ready?

appleChoir rehearsals start again next week, Monday 7th September. It’s the usual time and place, 6.30pm at Carfield Primary School, Argyle Close, Sheffield.

Why not come along and join us? We are a friendly bunch.

We will be learning a couple of new songs and extending an old favourite. In October we will be singing in Meersbrook Park Walled Garden for Apple Day (Sunday October 11th). After that, the rest of the term will be spent on our Christmas programme.

This weekend I’m off to Morecambe to spend two days with the wonderful Ali Burns learning how to write songs for a community choir.  So maybe I’ll come back with a totally original song for us. We are definitely getting one of Ali’s Forgotten Carols ready for Christmas this year.


Street Choirs 2015

After the summer break I’ve just been looking at my photos from Whitby and they are very dull indeed. There are no pictures of the sea, of chips or seagulls, or of the other choirs (although I’ve got a tiny wobbly bit of video of Wrexham Community Choir singing Calon Lan, which always makes me cry), not a hint of how lovely this event was.

It is such a thrill being in a town with over 40 other choirs, sharing singing with people from all over the country. On Saturday lunchtime everyone sings together in a huge, giant, 1000-voice choir. On Saturday afternoon there are designated spots around the town and each choir does a 15-minute set in three places. In the evening there were THREE concerts, to fit everyone in. I thought it was an honour for us to be in the headline one, which started at 8pm and finished at 11.30.  This was with each choir having a strict 7-minute slot.  That’s how many choirs there were. We didn’t go on till 10.30. “That’s no good”, one member remarked.  “Half the choir will be asleep and the other half will be drunk.”  I can attest that nobody was asleep; and nobody was noticeably drunk.  The performance was brilliant – responsive, engaging. and musically very satisfying. We performed “When My Ship Comes In” – which got a good response considering it will have been new to many people, and “Caravan of Love” which was a smash hit.

It’s fantastic hearing songs your choir sing, songs you’ve never heard, songs you know but never thought they could sound like this. It’s interesting to see what you notice – good and otherwise – in other people’s performances which can inform how we improve our own.


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.