community choirs

  • My first ever blog post was about confidence - and although I've only actually written about two other things since then, the confidence issue has already risen it's head again and is begging me to write about it!

    To be honest, that's not too surprising - I firmly believe that confidence is the single biggest barrier to happy, effective, and healthy singing.

    This was brought home to me (again) last night; I was covering for another local choir leader, taking her rehearsal as she couldn't be there. The group was new to me, which is always an interesting challenge as you never quite know what you're going to be facing! What I found was a lovely group of singers, but who were so lacking in confidence in their own voices that I was singing louder than all of them put together, even recovering from laryngitis.

    One of the side effects of their tentative singing was that they tended to lose their melody line at the end of each line of the song - they started off ok, but because they weren't confident they were wobbling slightly off the note, which made them less confident, which made them wobble more... and so on! What I pointed out to them was that ironically, they were almost always singing the right note to start with - but they were moving off it because they weren't confident about it, and were actually making themselves go wrong!

    So what can you do about this? As a choir leader, at least half of my job is to instill confidence in my singers, but how? Last night I decided to start off by making them laugh - I was honest with them about what they were doing, but approached it in a lighthearted way and we all had a bit of a giggle about it. Then I got them to sing each line of the song, one line at a time - when they got to the end they had to pause on the last note of the line, and hold it until I told them to stop. This made them really listen to the chord they were making as a group, and helped them to hear how their part fitted in to become part of the whole. It also gave them time to find the note, as I would sing it to them if they hadn't quite got it straight away. After we'd done one line two or three times, we'd move on to the next, and then pair them up to sing two lines at a time - building up to the whole chorus.

    By the end of that exercise the group were singing that section much better, and much more confidently. Sometimes confidence is just about psyching yourself up and going for it, but as choir leaders we mustn't forget that it's really important that our singers have a chance to get in to their parts, and feel like they know which note they are supposed to be singing. Spending some time really getting inside a harmony can be worth it in the long run; the singers will be happier in their parts and will be able to sing out and really enjoy it. Which is the whole point, really!

  • My new choir did their first performance yesterday - they did brilliantly, and I've been flooded with excited emails saying how much fun they had.

    One comment in particular jumped out at me, from a lady who said:

    "Having been told when I was at school that I couldn’t join the choir because I was rubbish, it has taken me over 50 years to pluck up the courage to try again!"

    I'm full of admiration for this brave lady; her comment reminded me why it's so important to have a nurturing and supportive environment when you are singing - regardless of the age group! I have long believed that the single biggest barrier to effective singing is confidence, and the more I work with people of all ages (but particularly adult community choirs), the more I believe this is true!

    It is a sad fact that many people have been told as a young child that they 'can't sing' - myself included! - and we mustn't underestimate the impact that comments like this can have. I have often thought that learning to sing is a much more difficult and personal process than learning an instrument; at least if your violin or trumpet makes a horrible noise you can put it down and walk away, thereby disassociating yourself from the source of the nasty sound. When it's your own voice that is out of control or squeaking you are stuck with it!

    To add to that, anxiety and stress around learning and performing will make your body tense, and more often than not the focus for this tension will be the throat. Imagine trying to push a really heavy piece of furniture and talking at the same time - it's hard, if not impossible! If you try to sing when you are tense or stressed it's likely very little will come out.

    So, my big tip for my lovely new choir, and anyone else who is starting to explore their singing voice - relax and enjoy it! :)

  • I find the actual process of creating and composing new music a very strange thing. Given the starting material I can easily create new arrangements out of an existing tune at any time of day or night, but actually having to come up with something new (that I don't hate) has historically been a much more frustrating experience. Traditionally, inspiration will lurk somewhere out of sight until about 11pm at night, when it will leap out and demand that a song be written *right now* or be lost forever. Once I was in the shower when a new tune floated through the window and I had to cut short my hair washing so I could go and write it down.

    Now, staying up writing songs in to the early hours is perfectly acceptable for most musicians; in fact it's actively encouraged, and bags under the eyes are something of a badge of honour in some circles. However when you are required to function as a human being before midday (every day!!) and in my case when that also involves dragging yourself out of bed to take a small person to school it's not quite so convenient.

    It's unbelievably frustrating, because everyone knows that you have to take the inspiration where it comes and if you try and force it then it's just not going to happen.

    Or is it?

    I recently composed a piece of music which is going to be sung by around 350 singers, from at least 12 different choirs. The date for the first performance was set for late November, and the singers were going to learn the piece in their own choirs before we all came together for one final dress rehearsal. This meant that I had to get the music to choir leaders by the beginning of September so they'd have time to learn it, and given that the preceeding month was going to be eaten up by summer holidays and hanging out with my daughter I was on a really strict deadline for the end of July to get it all finished. With all the other meetings, workshops, and committments I had, I was essentially left with two weeks to write the basic song, and two weeks to arrange it - but that had to fit inside school hours and around meetings.

    If I couldn't *make* myself be creative between the hours of 9am and 3pm then the song just wasn't going to get written, so I had to find a way to do it, and doing so I became very interested in the process that I was taking myself through in order to get the song out.

    First, I did a lot of brainstorming. I like to write songs as a way of channeling and sorting what's going on inside my head, so first I had to put a load of stuff in there to shape in to a song. I like to think big, so I did this on sheets of A1 paper bluetacked to the wall in my office. I also decided what sort of song I wanted to write - in this case I decided to go for what I would delicately call "Disney-cheese"; the song was going to be sung by adults and children, and I wanted something really catchy and sing a long. 'Let it go' from Frozen was a bit of an inspiration for this one, I will admit - even gave it a nod in the lyrics!

    When it came to actually writing the song I did it with old-fashioned pencil and paper (I use A4 as I like space to scribble). I avoided computers, phones, anything with technology and tried to completely wrap myself up in creative space - for me that's anything relaxing, comforting, or soft, where I can switch off the nagging bits of my brain and just indulge. I moved around the house a lot while I was writing - I have written a lot of songs on my bed (usually the 11pm inspiration ones) so I spent quite a bit of time there, but also did a bit in the living room, in my office, at the dining table, in the garden... just a change of scene, a change of light, seemed to give me a bit of a boost. Much to my surprise it did seem possible to recreate the atmosphere of late-night songwriting in the middle of the day, and although it did take me longer than normal (an inspiration-struck song will take me about 3 hours for the whole thing) the song was there, and it was finding it's way out.

    So anyway, to cut a long story short, the song was done - on time! - and it's currently out with the choirs. I'm really pleased with it; the cheese factor does make me cringe a teeny bit sometimes, but that's the folky in me I expect! Both my choirs seem to love it, and lots of them are saying it's constantly stuck in their heads - I told them I know the feeling as it's been stuck in mine since July!!

© 2019 Cat McGill