Course Talk: Meet singing tutor Chris Rowbury

Course Talk: Meet singing tutor Chris Rowbury

Listed on August 31, 2013 in Singing, Spotlight

Chris-RowburyWe asked LeisureCourses member and singing workshop leader Chris Rowbury for his views on “lifelong learning”, adult education, the highs or lows of running workshops and his plans for future courses.

Chris, how long have you been tutoring singing weekends and courses for adults ?

My first residential course was a week-long course in France in 2005. My first singing weekends were in 2007.

What prompted you to start teaching adults ?

I have always loved teaching. I began as a university lecturer in 1978. From 1986 onwards I’ve taught adults in evening classes, drama schools, one-day workshops, and so on in a range of creative subjects including voice, dance, mask, mime, theatre and singing. I’ve spent years honing my adult group skills trying to get grown-ups to tap into their inner child. I’ve tried working with kids, but it ends up in chaos!

What are the most common misconceptions you feel people have about attending “adult learning courses” ?

People assume that it will be dry and academic and classroom based, and that it can’t possibly be fun and a ‘course’ needs to lead to some kind of qualification or you will be tested in some way. The word ‘learning’ conjures up all those bad times we had at school!

For someone that has never attended a residential course before, the prospect may be daunting. What do you suggest someone looks for when selecting a place to attend a course for the first time ?

Don’t jump in with a week-long course, try a day or weekend first. Take a friend with you. Start off with developing a skill you already have rather than trying something brand new and unfamiliar. Find somewhere not too far from where you live so you don’t arrive tired and stressed (and you feel you can run away home if necessary!). Start off with a course where the emphasis is on fun.

When people sign up for one of your courses what previous singing experience should they have ?

For my courses no singing experience is necessary at all. My philosophy is that everyone can sing and that music-making should be accessible to all (so I don’t use sheet music or unnecessary musical jargon). I tend to label the more accessible courses with titles like “Singing for everyone”. For some pop weekends (which can be hard!) I might suggest that someone has a little harmony singing experience to be able to get the most out of it.

How many people usually attend one of your courses and are they generally singles, couples or groups ?

I get anything from 20 to 38 on a typical weekend course. I guess the average is about 24. It’s mainly women, some of whom come with a friend, but there is always a large number of people who come as singles. Men are not well represented and either come alone or with their partner. Those men who do come end up having a great time!

If someone is nervous about singing, how do you help them overcome their lack of confidence ?

I start off with simple and silly warm up exercises to break down inhibitions and demonstrate that everyone is able to sing. We then do some simple harmony exercises, again to demonstrate that everyone makes a fantastic sound together. I can get a simple harmony song up on its feet in minutes after which everyone realises that it’s easier than they think! I use a lot of humour, never single anyone out and don’t focus on mistakes. I behave as if it’s easy and simple and people just buy into that. Nobody is singled out or made to sing solo. I try to mix people up so that everyone gets to meet (and sing with) everyone else.

You belong to the National Voice Practioners Network – what does that mean to someone joining one of your workshops ?

It means I share their basic philosophy that everyone can sing and that there should be no barriers to people who want to come to singing workshops (i.e. no jargon or need to read music). It also means that everyone has their own unique ‘natural’ way of singing that they should be allowed to express. There is no ‘right’ way of singing and you don’t have to be trained in order to sing. And finally we believe that the voice is rooted in the body we encourage people to use their bodies while singing and encourage gentle physical warm ups as well as vocal warm ups.

On a percentage basis, how much time on a weekend course is typically spent singing / socialising / ‘doing your own thing’ … ?

A typical weekend might have around 9 hours actual singing time: 1 hour on the Friday, 5 hours on the Saturday, and 3 hours on the Sunday. I give everyone a free afternoon of at least 3 1/2 hours on the Saturday to rest or explore the local area. The evenings are often spent in the bar! So about 40% singing, 60% meals, breaks and socialising. Not including sleep time!

What do you feel students gain most from attending a weekend course ?

A sense of achievement at learning a bunch of new songs. Meeting new people. Realising that they can sing and are capable of singing more complex songs than they had realised. Finding out that a group of people can make a beautiful sound (I always make a free recording available to each participant).

What is your favourite memory from teaching a residential weekend workshop ?

When about 15 people from another course at Farncombe came to hear our Sunday morning run-through of all the songs we’d learnt on the weekend. A very enthusiastic and appreciative audience who made us raise our game!

What’s the most surprising feedback you have ever received from a student ?

Can’t answer this one! I’ve had so many wonderful comments over the years, that nothing surprises me any more.

Please tell us a little more about your promotion to “get men singing” …

For many reasons men don’t tend to join in leisure creative activities. Many choirs in the country find it hard to attract male singers. I reckon about 10% of the people in any of my workshops are men. There are so many reasons why men SHOULD sing: good for health and stress; men’s voices together sound amazing; there are plenty of single women in my workshops; it cures baldness and increases attractiveness.

When men DO come to my workshops they love it. An African song without the bass section is not an African song. Male tenors singing a gospel lead is to die for. I try to run a men-only workshop once a year to get more guys interested in singing, but it’s just a drop in the ocean.

I think more blokes should come with a mate to a residential weekend. They will enjoy it far more than they can possibly imagine!!

When not teaching what are your favourite pastimes ?

Walking, countryside, cinema, eating out.

What plans do you have for your music and events in 2014 ?

I have three fixed weekends that I run myself each year: Better harmony singing in Buckden, Cambridgeshire each April; Singing for everyone in Ambleside, Lake District at the end of July; and a singing weekend in Derbyshire each November (this year it’s gospel). I also teach three weekends at Farncombe [February: Sing English folk songs in harmony; June: Around the world in song; October: Sing the best of the Bee Gees].

For other information about courses with Chris read more here, contact him by email or visit his website