Singing together better

Just before the end of 2021, I led a session with my Thursday group at Under the Stars.  This is a group of adults with learning disabilities and/or autism, and we play instruments, write songs and sing together.

My new colleague, the lovely Maddie Morris, couldn’t come into work as she was waiting for the results of a PCR test, but she had planned this activity and she joined us on Zoom.

We were getting ready to sing Christmas carols together – in more of a choir style than a band style, and we wanted the group to think about improving their own performance. We’d chosen Away in a Manger and Maddie suggested we find a recording of a choir singing the song beautifully.  

We listened, and then asked the group what it was that made the performance so good. 

We ended up with something very simple and very profound. Sorry, is that too poncey?  I mean, the group came up with six aspects that cover an awful lot of what makes a performance great, or unique.  It was so good that I had to share it here.

1:         All in time and nobody was rushing.

Excellent.  This is exactly where I would put this: at the top of the list.  All the singers were in time with each other, and nobody was going faster or slower.  This is the absolute bedrock of singing together.  It’s the main purpose of having a conductor – to have a visual cue that each singer can follow so that the timing stays constant and the singers progress at the same speed.  

2:         Everybody was in lovely tune.

This is such a perfect expression of the pitch being spot on.  In lovely tune.  I will start using this on a regular basis as a goal.

3:         Some people were singing deep and some high.

It’s a very simple observation and it adds to the beauty of the piece – everybody sticks to their own line, be it unison or harmony. Some deep and some high.

4:         Not forcing – singing calmly

This led to a fun conversation about how we use different voices for different songs and at different times – for instance, singing a baby to sleep or at a football match.  In a choir setting, we usually want to have this feeling of not forcing the voice, an easy flowing tone with no “edge” to it. Everybody was singing in the same way, using the same kind of tone.

5:         It sparkled like it was in church

I love this comment!  This description of the acoustic of a cathedral is lovely.  We can’t often choose what room we sing in – but it’s good to be aware that it affects how we sound.  We talked about when we make a recording we can change settings to make something sound as though it was sung in a bigger, more echoey place.

6:         Soft and gentle, then strong and louder

Changes in dynamic (volume control) make a song more interesting.  This is different from 4, the tone, and it’s important to know which one you want to change.

We did not plant any of these ideas in advance, or guide the discussion in a particular direction. The learners simply said what they heard.  We introduced the musical terms – timing, pitch, harmony, tone, acoustic, dynamic, which people may or may not remember – and we also made a little icon for each one.  Now when we sing our songs we can talk about which of these aspects could be improved to make the song the best it can be.