Articles featuring Chris Rowbury | - short courses & residential study breaks in great locations

  • Sacred songs to soothe the soul

    Sacred songs to soothe the soul

    Listed on October 6, 2017 by Chris Rowbury in Featured Courses

    A weekend of glorious harmony singing in the midst of autumn splendour. Enliven your spirit with a feast of harmonies and learn songs from a range of cultures and traditions spanning the globe, all in a wonderful Derbyshire setting.

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  • Stars, stripes and maple leaves — songs from across the pond

    Stars, stripes and maple leaves — songs from across the pond

    Listed on May 26, 2017 by Chris Rowbury in Featured Courses

    A weekend of luxury learning songs from across North America. Come and celebrate amazing singer-songwriters from both Canada and the USA.

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  • Sing Africa!

    Sing Africa!

    Listed on March 24, 2017 by Chris Rowbury in Featured Courses, Singing

    Learn harmony songs from across the African continent. No experience needed – just a love of singing!

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  • Sing Africa!

    Sing Africa!

    Listed on January 12, 2017 by in Blogs!, Singing

    Spend the weekend with Chris Rowbury learning harmony songs from across the African continent! No experience needed – just a love of singing. An opportunity to sing and move to infectious African rhythms.

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  • How to plan a singing workshop when you don’t know who’s coming

    Listed on June 27, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    Most weeks when I lead my choir I know which singers are going to turn up.

    ABBA, Brussells May 09 (1)

    But when I run a one-off workshop, I often don’t know who will be coming. How can you be prepared for the unknown?

    I have a singing day coming up where all I know is that there are currently 43 singers booked. I don’t know how many men there will be nor if the women like to sing high or low.

    I run a monthly drop-in singing morning locally. Because people don’t need to book in advance I never know exactly how many singers there will be until I arrive on the day.

    Sometimes I know exactly how many singers will be coming to my workshop and how many of those will be men. But until I get there I won’t know how experienced they are, how many of the men are tenors, how quick they are at picking songs up, how many – if any – sopranos there will be and so on.
    How can you be prepared for all possibilities?

    The simple answer is: you can’t.

    You can, however, make sure that you have plenty of flexibility.

    Here are some things you can do to prepare:

    • don’t make assumptions – if you assume you’ll have an equal distribution of voice types or plenty of singers to tackle that complex five-part arrangement, then you risk ending up being disappointed and probably struggling.
    • have a few simple songs – whatever the number of singers or how experienced they are, it’s always a good idea to have a few simple songs up your sleeve: rounds, two-part harmony, chants. Even with an experienced group there is plenty of work you can do around simple material.
    • allow for alternative arrangements – when you’re planning your workshop, have an alternative in mind for each song. Can you drop a part if necessary? If you have no male tenors, can you change the key so women can sing the tenor part? If you end up with all women (or all men), can you adapt your arrangement easily?
    • lower your expectations – since you’re heading into the unknown, it’s best to keep things simple and flexible. Don’t take all complex material or hard songs or songs with lots of parts. Maybe take one, but be prepared to let it go. Mixit up.
    • don’t pander to the worst case – on the other hand, don’t assume the worst. If you just take simple stuff and you end up with an amazing group of singers who pick stuff up very quickly, you might be left with not enough material.
    • try not to rely on handouts – if you’re going to use sheet music or printed lyrics, you might be in trouble if you don’t know how many singers will be coming. Try to avoid handouts entirely (I put A1 size sheets of paper on the wall with lyrics written on them) or make sure there is somewhere to copy more at the workshop venue.
    • what’s the worst that can happen? – having no expectations is really, really hard. It’s very difficult to hide your disappointment if only a handful of people turn up. Imagine the worst possible case and then it’s bound to be better than that! I ran a workshop once with just three other people. In retrospect I used material that was too hard. With the experience I have now, I could make it work much better. The absolute worse case is that you might have to cancel or reschedule.

    You might also find these other posts useful:

    Planning ahead: leave space for the unexpected

    Best laid plans – dealing with the unexpected in singing sessions

    How do you deal with planning for the unknown? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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    Chris Rowbury



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  • Choir committees and how to handle them 3: the advantages of a good committee

    Listed on June 13, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    I’ve written about the things that can go wrong with choir committees, now it’s time to celebrate the good bits.

    show of hands

    A good committee can be a huge benefit to any choir.

    In previous posts I’ve looked at what a choir committee is for and what can happen when a committee goes bad.

    Now it’s time to look at how a good committee can really benefit a choir.

    If you’ve made sure you know what your committee is for, laid down clear guidelines about the committee’s remit, carefully chosen the committee members and put safeguards in place to prevent things going bad, you can sit back and reap the benefits.

    Here are a few of the many things that a good committee can bring to your choir:

    • chance give back to your choir – being on the committee gives choir members a chance to give back to the choir rather than simply being a passive member with no sense of control or destiny
    • sense of ownership – the option of being on the committee and of having  a group of choir members to represent you can give a real sense of ownership of your choir and bring it together as a true team.
    • frees up your choir leader – there are lots of niggling, but important, practical tasks that many choir leaders end up doing by themselves. With an effective committee, this workload is taken away giving your MD time to focus on what they’re good at: leading your choir.
    • puts members’ skills to good use  – there is a huge reservoir of skill in any choir. Each choir member brings specific practical skills with them, often connected with their day job. Utilising this rich seam of talent can be really powerful.
    • enables growth and development – it’s easy to have great ideas for your choir — foreign tour, commission a composer, get funding, buy new risers, put on a big concert — so it’s wonderful to have a small team of people who can actually get on the case and make it happen. Your committee doesn’t have to do all the work themselves but can set up different teams of choir members to be responsible for particular developments.
    • gives choir members a voice – individual choir members can feel that they disappear in a large choir and are not being heard. If you have a committee you can have an informal chat with a committee member, write a formal letter, propose an agenda item at the AGM, suggest a project to be discussed at the next committee meeting and so on. In this way you can feel that your voice is being heard.

    I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface here and there must be many more advantages in having a choir committee. Do feel free to leave a comment and share your own experiences.

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    Chris Rowbury



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  • Choir committees and how to handle them 2: when committees go bad

    Listed on June 6, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    Having a good committee can be a huge benefit to a choir.

    Цифровая репродукция находится в интернет-музее

    But having a bad committee can be horrid and even destructive. Here are some common problems and how to deal with them.

    A democratically elected choir committee can be a wonderful thing, but it depends on who gets elected, how effective the committee member are and if they share the same vision as the choir as a whole.

    things that can go wrong

    Here are four things that can go wrong with committees.

    1. the bad apple – sometimes an apparently benign choir member turns ‘difficult’ when they get elected to the committee. They may be dictatorial or disruptive or make meetings long and complicated or simply be out of step with all the other committee members. You can seldom see this coming until the person gets elected!
    2. committee as dictator – things may be going smoothly but then a new committee is elected and tries to take over the choir. They start making unpopular decisions, try to take control of creative decisions and tell the choir leader how to lead the choir.
    3. lazy members – some people are desperate to get elected, but once there they don’t pull their weight. They may turn up to meetings but aren’t proactive and never volunteer for anything. Resentment gradually builds amongst those members who feel they’re doing all the work.
    4. too many cooks – it is said that if you want to stand for office, then you’re probably the wrong person for the job! Sometimes those people who stand for election are precisely the wrong people to be on the committee. They are ego-driven and power-hungry. Get enough of those type of people together and there will never be any cohesion or consensus.

    ideas to help thing go right

    • get your constitution right – if you draft your constitution carefully you can often avoid many of the problems outlined above. For example, you can add a clause to say that a committee member can be voted off if a majority of other committee members vote against them or will lose their position if they don’t attend enough meetings. To keep relations good between choir leaders and committees, some constitutions allow choir leaders to attend meetings (but not to vote), but have the option of having part of the meeting without them.
    • have clear boundaries – make sure that the committee’s roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. This doesn’t have to be in your constitution (although it’s helpful if they are written down somewhere). Then if any disputes arise about the committee straying into areas that aren’t theirs (e.g. repertoire choice), you can point to the relevant clause. It helps committee members do their job better if they have clear guidelines.
    • head hunt – often there are choir members who you know would make excellent committee members. Maybe even a specific office, e.g. chair or treasurer. However, they may not think of coming forward or be a little reluctant at first. It’s a good idea to sound these people out before your AGM and persuade them to stand for election.
    • get the size right – if your constitution requires too few committee members (e.g. the minimum of chair, secretary and treasurer), then it’s possible that it might become dictatorial. Conversely, if you don’t limit numbers you can end up with huge, unwieldy committees that can never get anything done.
    • civic responsibility – it’s very easy for choir members to let the ‘usual suspects’ step forward when volunteers or committee members are needed. This means that the choir is only ever run by a small elite. The danger of this is that only one set of views are heard and that most members won’t feel any ownership of their choir. Try to instil a spirit of “don’t ask what your choir can do for you, but ask what you can do for your choir.” You can have a formal system whereby every choir member gets to be on the committee at some point, or just encourage every member to feel that they ought to contribute. It’s amazing how well this brings a group together.
    Do let me know if you’ve had problems with committees and how you’ve overcome them. I’d love to hear from you!

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    Chris Rowbury



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  • Choir committees and how to handle them 1: what is a committee for?

    Listed on May 30, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    Many choirs have committees. These are usually made up of choir members and exist to help the choir run smoothly.


    At least that’s the idea, but sometimes things can go wrong and your committee can become a hindrance. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your committee.

    I thought this was going to be a short post when I started, but I’ve realised that there is quite a lot to say so I’m splitting the subject into three separate posts.

    you don’t have to have a committee

    Unless you particularly enjoy having a formal structure or you’re going after funding which requires a constitution, etc. there is no need to have a committee. Many choirs are run entirely by their musical directors (that’s what I do) or have informal teams to help with the running of the choir. See Does your choir need a constitution?

    committees can take different forms

    There’s the ‘usual’ kind of committee that a formal constitution requires: it has to have a certain minimum number of members and include ‘officers’ such as chair, treasurer and secretary. The committee members usually have a set term and new member are voted in at choir AGMs. The exact formal requirement depends on your particular constitution. Some constitutions are very loose and easy whilst others can be much more complex and formal. Go for the simplest that suits your circumstances.

    You can also have a ‘committee’ which is not formal at all, but created to help support the running of the choir. I had one I called a ‘steering group’ (actually I decided to call it ERIC: “everyone’s really informal committee”) which helped when I handed over the choir to a new musical director. But it could be a loose gathering of choir members to help with something specific like the Christmas party or concert refreshments or researching new concert venues or helping with publicity.

    how to form your committee?

    If you are required to have a committee by your constitution, then that will dictate how you go about forming it. There will be elections from time to time and committee members will need to step down after a specified number of years. There will also usually be a gap before they can stand for re-election.

    If you have an informal ‘committee’ then you need to think hard how it is formed.

    If you ask for volunteers you might get the ‘usual suspects’, i.e. those people who are always first to step up and volunteer for things. They might not be the best candidates and also they might prevent other choir members who are a bit slower at coming forward but who might be really good in the role. See Ask not what your choir can do for you – ask what you can do for your choir

    Another solution is for all choir members to take turns at being on the committee as part of their responsibility as a choir member. Maybe for just one year (although that can create problems of continuity).

    Alternatively, your musical director (or a trusted small group of choir members) can select people to be on the committee. The danger in that is it is not democratic and can lead to power distortions within the choir.

    make sure the committee knows its responsibilities

    Whether it’s an informal group or a committee formally created through your constitution, there have to be clear guidelines about what responsibilities it has. It’s no good having a vague or unsaid understanding as that’s when things can go wrong!

    One possible tricky area is the dividing line between artistic decisions made by your musical director and practical decisions made by your committee. Who decides repertoire? Choir costume? Concert venue? See Whose choir is it any way?

    The other danger is when the committee is just not doing its job properly and leaving too much of the practical work to the creative team.

    next week

    Next week I’ll be writing part 2: when committees go wrong. Then the following week I’ll finish with all the advantages of having a good committee. Stay tuned!

    Do let me know if you have any particular questions regarding committees and I’ll see if I can answer them in this series of posts.

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  • Front, back or side? The best place to stand in your choir

    Listed on May 23, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    When you first join a choir it’s very tempting to stand on the back row and hide until you feel more confident.

    odd one out
    photo by Pam Fray

    But did you know that’s the worst place for a beginner to be? Here’s why.

    When we’re not sure about something it’s natural to hang back and to want to stay on the margins rather than be in the thick of things.

    In a choir or singing workshop, most novice singers or those unsure of their part will gravitate to the back row and hide until they feel more confident. But that’s a really bad place to be:
    • you can’t see (or hear) the choir leader clearly;
    • you can feel isolated and forgotten;
    • you have to rely totally on yourself since you’ll be on the margins of your section;
    • you won’t be able to hear the rest of the singers in your section clearly to know if you’re on track;
    • it’s hard to get a sense of how it all fits together as everyone’s voice will be projected away from you.
    As counter-intuitive as it seems, any singer who is unsure (lacking confidence, new to a choir or singing, slow to pick up a tune, worried about getting things wrong) should stand in the front.

    More than that, you should be in the centre of your section on the very front row.

    Here are the advantages:
    • the other singers will be reinforcing your part by singing in your ear;
    • you will feel supported and part of the team;
    • you will be able to see (and hear) your musical director clearly;
    • your musical director will be able to see (and hear) you so can help and support when needed;
    • you will get a better sense of how all the harmony parts fit together;
    • the closer you are to the other singers, the more accurate the harmonies will be.
    Yes, it’s scary and counter-intuitive, but the front row is the best place to be. Leave the back row for the more confident singers.

    And if you initially find harmonies hard (i.e. the other parts put you off easily rather than making things easier), then don’t stand on the join between two different harmony parts either.

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  • Why learning songs with foreign lyrics need not be scary

    Listed on May 16, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    I teach songs from all over the world, often in foreign languages. But people are always asking me for more songs in English.


    Why is this? Especially since singers usually find the songs with English lyrics harder!

    why do singers want songs in English?

    I’m guessing a bit here, but I reckon these are the most obvious reasons why singers might prefer to sing in English. See also Why can’t we sing more songs in English?
    • familiarity – if English is your first language, then there’s an assumption that it’s going to be easier to sing English lyrics.
    • fear – of the unknown, of not getting it ‘right’, of foreign words being unfamiliar and hard
    • understanding– some people need to understand every word that they’re singing. If the lyrics are in a language they don’t understand, that can be an obstacle. See Song meanings lost in translation.
    • language – many singers feel that they need to be able to speak the foreign language in order to be able to sing in it. Maybe a French song is OK, but Serbo-Croat is a non-starter.
    It turns out that none of these needs to be an obstacle.

    It’s not necessarily easier to sing in English (see below); the ‘lyric police’ won’t be coming to arrest you if you get anything ‘wrong’; foreign lyrics aren’t intrinsically hard, just maybe unfamiliar; you don’t need to understand every individual word in order to sing a song – the overall meaning will suffice (see Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing); there is no need to be able to speak the language you’re singing in: just learn it by rote (see How to sing a song in a foreign language).

    the problems with English lyrics

    Singers may think that singing in English is easier, but it actually throws up quite a few problems.
    • storytelling – songs with English lyrics, especially those from the English folk tradition, are usually ballads so there are lots of verses to learn (and remember). They also tell a story so are usually sung solo with often tricky and unpredictable rhythms. That’s hard when a group of singers are trying to sing such songs. See also Why choirs shouldn’t sing pop songs.
    • paraphrasing – because we understand English lyrics, we tend to remember the overall meaning rather than the individual words. So we end up paraphrasing, using similar words to get the gist. But those words won’t fit the music and also we need everyone in the choir to be singing the same lyrics.
    • mis-remembering – not only do people want to sing songs in English, they often want to sing something they already know, believing that this will make learning easier. Actually it usually makes it harder! There’s a very good chance that we’ve mis-remembered the lyrics over the years and we will have as many different version as there are singers. See It’s hard to teach songs that people already know.

    the advantages of learning songs with foreign lyrics

    Believe it or not, there are many advantages of singing songs in a foreign language, even if you think it’s going to be harder.
    • enjoy different sounds – you can really enjoy getting your mouth and tongue around the unfamiliar sounds of foreign lyrics. You can focus on individual syllables (rather than the meaning) which results in a tighter sound for the group.
    • not many lyrics – many songs from countries with a strong harmony singing tradition focus on the sounds rather than the meaning, so the words are not as important. In many cases songs might have only one, two or three words.
    • open vowels – English is a rather flat language which can almost be spoken without moving your mouth. Not very good for singing! Whereas many foreign languages have ‘open vowels’ (like Italian which is used a lot in opera and bel canto voice training). These vowels are a fantastic vehicle for singers and can help with blend and tone in a choir.
    • level playing field – there’s a good chance that nobody in your choir will know any of these foreign songs in advance. In which case everybody is starting from the same place, unlike songs in English which many choir members might already know.
    • sing in character – singing in a foreign language enables us to feel like we’re someone else. We can sing in character which can be enormously liberating. See Want to sing with more energy? – pretend to be someone else.
    • learn about other cultures – singing songs from different countries allows us to find out more about unfamiliar cultures. It opens the world up to us and helps us to understand that human beings are all the same regardless of where they come from. We all fall in love, have children, get sad and die.
    • focus on the music – since we usually won’t understand the language we’re singing in we won’t get sucked into the story but can focus on the music and harmonies – which is what a choir is about after all. See What do words add to music?
    • rote learning stays longer – unless it’s a foreign language that we speak, the only way of learning is by rote, one syllable at a time. Since we have to drill this more than English lyrics and there’s no scope for paraphrasing, the lyrics tend to go into our long-term memory better. See How to sing a song in a foreign language.
    • be a better singer – by having to focus on the sound of the words and being exposed to an unfamiliar language, you will develop your listening skills and become a better singer. See Singing is all about listening.

    what puts you off singing foreign songs?

    Are you one of those singers who panics at the thought of learning a song with foreign lyrics and prefers to sing in English? I’d love to know why! Do drop by and leave a comment.

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    Chris Rowbury



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  • How male singers can successfully pitch from a woman (and how women can pitch from a man)

    Listed on May 9, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    As we saw last week, many singers struggle with finding (and keeping) their starting notes.

    photo by Albin Olsson

    What can make it even harder is if a man is trying to pitch from a woman, or vice versa. Here’s what happens and how you can overcome any difficulties.

    [When I started to write this post I thought it was going to be quite short, but it turns out to be very hard to explain in words. It’s much easier if you pop along to one of my workshops and I can demonstrate!]

    men’s voices are (usually) lower than women’s voices

    Growing up we unconsciously make a built-in assumption: women have higher voices than men. Most women speak with a higher voice than most men.

    This is a generalisation of course, but it serves us well in most situations.

    When it comes to singing it’s a bit more complicated as a person’s singing voice doesn’t necessarily have a clear relationship to their speaking voice.

    Many women have low speaking voices but sing very high. The same with men. Prince is a good example of this. Similarly, a man or woman may have a high speaking voice, but be able to sing very low.

    Even though it’s more complex, the general rule still seems to be that the majority of women have higher singing voices than the majority of men.

    we make automatic adjustments

    Because we’ve internalised this generalisation from an early age, when a woman sings a note to a man and asks them to reproduce it, the man will automatically sing the note an octave lower.

    [I’m not going to get into the technicalities of what an ‘octave’ is here, so you’ll just have to bear with me if it’s a term you’re unfamiliar with!]

    When a bloke is being silly and trying to imitate a woman (like on Monty Python) he will speak or sing in his light, high falsetto voice in an attempt to be at the same pitch. He is singing very high (too high usually!) in his range and it usually sounds daft.

    When a woman sings a note to a man and asks him to reproduce it, he won’t go into that silly falsetto imitation, but will automatically adjust to find a note that is comfortable within his own range.

    If the woman sings low in her range, then the man will sing back low in his range. If the woman sings high in her range, then the man will respond by singing high in his range.

    Similarly when a man pitches to a woman she won’t try to get down as low as him (for most woman that won’t be possible), but she’ll make an automatic adjustment.

    When he sings low in his range, she’ll respond by singing low in her range. When he sings high in his range, she will then sing high in her range.

    All well and good. This usually happens automatically and everything works out fine.

    three problems when pitching from the opposite gender

    There are three problems that may occur:
    1. a woman thinks she’s singing down with the bass men, but is actually singing an octave higher
    2. the man or woman giving out the note can actually sing it at pitch which can confuse the singers
    3. when there are men and women in the same part singing at the same pitches it can feel weird to the singers
    Here’s what’s going.

    1. singing different notes that sound the same

    Sometimes a woman in a workshop will believe she has a low voice that can get down with the basses. Sometimes (quite rarely) that is true, but most of the time it’s just that the woman is singing very low in her range and the men are singing very low in their range and the notes appear to be the same. They are, however, an octave apart.

    One way of understanding an octave is that it’s the ‘same’ note sung higher or lower than another. If you can sing a major scale (like “Doe, a deer” from The Sound of Music), then it’s the top note compared with the bottom note. In some sense they are the ‘same’ (they sound alike in some way), yet one is higher than the other. See also Singing the same note: differently!

    2. giving out a note “at pitch” to the opposite gender

    Sometimes the note that is needed can be sung “at pitch” (i.e. exactly the same as it would sound if played on the piano for instance, not an octave apart) by the person giving out the note.

    A woman can often sing a male tenor staring note at the exact pitch. It will be very low in her range. But the men get confused because they’re used to making an automatic adjustment and singing an octave lower than a woman. They’ll end up in their boots!

    Or a man might be able to pitch a low alto note absolutely, singing very high in his range. Again, it might confuse some women in that part who are used to automatically singing an octave higher than a man. They will try to sing really, really high!

    This can be a real problem if the person giving out the note can’t get low enough in their range (woman giving out a tenor note, men giving out a low alto note) to sing it in the right part of their own range.

    3. men and women singing the same part

    Often in community choirs there will be men and women singing together in the tenor part. This can be very confusing when a starting note is given.

    If a woman is giving the starting note, then she will be singing low in her range and the women will copy her exactly. But the men might then try to sing low in their range and end up with the wrong note. But if the women giving out the note gives it high in her range so the men will sing high in their range, the women in the part will get confused and sing too high!

    If it’s a group that meets regularly (i.e. not a one-off workshop), the singers will gradually learn what’s going on. For example, in my own community choir I can give the tenor starting note at pitch (high in my range) and the women in the part know to sing low in their range.

    If singers aren’t used to this it can feel really weird standing next to someone of the opposite gender whilst singing the same note. The woman will perceive the man is singing much higher than her and the man will perceive the woman as singing much lower than her, even though they’re singing exactly the same note. It takes a while to get used to this.

    In one-off workshops I often find myself having to give out two staring notes to the tenors: one at pitch for the men, and one an octave lower for the women (because I want them to sing low in their range). If a woman is giving out the tenor note then this is reversed: she’ll sing at pitch for the women and high in her range for the men.

    do you have problems pitching from a man (or woman)?

    I’d love to get feedback to know if any of this has helped! I’d also love to hear from you about specific pitching issues you have or if you have problems finding your starting note. Do drop by and leave a comment. Thanks.

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  • Finding (and keeping) your starting note

    Listed on May 2, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    Many singers struggle with finding their starting note. Once they’ve nailed that, they’re off and it’s no problem.

    piano keyboard

    How can you make sure you’ve got the right starting note and, more importantly, how can you keep hold of it before the song sets off?

    Just to make it clear, I’m talking about choirs or vocal ensembles that sing in harmony. The problem is harder if your group sings acappella.

    why some singers find it hard to get started

    Some singers can pitch easily from a piano, but not a voice. Others find it easier from voice rather than instrument. And within those who pitch easily from voice, some voices are easier to pitch from than others. It’s a minefield!

    Then there’s anxiety: if you get anxious about singing or finding your starting note, then you won’t be in the moment and paying full attention so won’t be fully aware when your note is given out.

    Finally, it can be hard for a woman to pitch from a male choir leader (and vice versa). This is something I’m going to be writing about next week (in the meantime you can look at Singing the same note – differently!).

    keeping the note you’ve been given

    OK, so you’ve managed to get the right pitch for your starting note, but by the time all the other parts have been given their notes and the song is about to start, you’ve forgotten yours. What can you do?

    • don’t panic – if you start to worry about keeping your note, you will get anxious and more likely to forget. Same thing if you try to block the other parts out.
    • relax and open up – trust that you will remember your note. As  you listen to the other parts being given their notes, think of it as a starting chord and be aware of where your own note fits into the whole.
    • keep it to yourself – some beginner singers are tempted to quietly hum or sing their starting note so they can hold on to it. Not only can this put the other singers off, but the opposite can easily happen. By singing out loud you’re focusing on yourself and not the starting chord plus you’re being anxious (see don’t panic above). The longer you sing the note, the more likely you are to drift off as you’re not paying attention to the whole. Then when you do start, you’ll probably be flat. If you hold the note silently within you and listen to how it fits in with all the others, you’re good to go when the song starts.
    • sound the opening chord – some choir leaders do this all the time. Or maybe it’s something to do only in rehearsal whilst you’re learning. The idea is that once everyone has been given their note (and is singing it silently within), then the whole group sings the opening chord out loud to make sure it’s tuned perfectly. There’s a short pause, then the song sets off. If your musical director doesn’t do this, ask them if you can try it at one rehearsal to see if it helps.

    your part might not come in at the start

    The advice above works well when all harmony parts start at the same time. But what if your part doesn’t come in at the start of the song?

    There will usually be some kind of reference point. Often the last note sung by another part just before you come in will be the same as yours. Either work that out on your own, or ask your choir leader to point it out to you.

    Sometimes that note may be an octave away from where you start, but that’s still helpful.

    What is more difficult is when nobody sings your exact note, but you have to figure out a particular interval between another part’s note and your starting note. It may well be easy to do that in isolation, but in the middle of a song it can be quite a problem.

    This can be the sign of it not being a good song arrangement (a good song arrangement is one that makes things easier for the singers, not the arranger, audience or choir leader). Your options are to just practice, practice, practice, or make sure you use a better arrangement next time.

    men pitching from women, and women pitching from men

    This can be a real problem, especially if there are men and women in the same part (e.g. the tenor section of many community choirs). I’ll be writing about it next week. Stay tuned!

    other useful stuff

    I do hope these ideas have helped. Do let me know if you have a starting note problem that I’ve not covered here, or if you have another solution that works well for you.

    You might also find these other posts useful:

    Learn how to sing in tune – matching pitch

    How do I know if I’m singing in tune?

    Start as you mean to carry on (giving out starting notes)

    Singing the same note – differently! (men and women pitching and ‘octaves’)

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    click to subscribe by email.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • I know over 600 songs so how come I can’t think of one when somone asks?

    Listed on April 25, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    I added it up the other day and I’ve taught over 600 songs in 3- and 4-part harmony over the last 15 years or so.

    scratching head
    photo by Eric Kilby

    But when someone unexpectedly asks me to teach or sing a song, I can’t think of one! What’s that about?

    memory aids

    I’m a very visual person, so although I don’t use sheet music to teach, I do write all the songs down because 600 songs is a lot to keep in your head (and every part too!) and I remember things better when prompted visually.

    Same with lyrics: I only have to see them written down once, but it does help me to remember them.
    When I plan a singing workshop, I spend a lot of time organising the warm up and order of songs in the workshop so it has a journey and  sense of development. But I have to write it down and refer to it as I teach.

    I used to give myself a hard time because I couldn’t create a warm up off the top of my head or teach a song at the drop of a hat. But I’m comfortable now with the fact that that’s how I work best.

    If you need props or memory aids or written notes or a pitch pipe, then so be it. Don’t give yourself a hard time because some other people can do it from memory.

    the tyranny of complete freedom

    Most people think that being able to choose anything at all from an endless list of possibilities is freedom. However, it turns out that complete and unfettered choice is a hard thing to deal with.

    If I give you a blank sheet of paper and ask you to draw something or write a poem, you’ll probably be stuck. If I ask you to improvise a song or dance routine, you’ll probably feel stumped.

    But if I ask you to draw a cat or write a poem about winter or improvise a song around three notes or create a dance in a small square only using your arms, you’ll be off like a shot.

    It doesn’t matter about the quality of the end product, the point is that by restricting your choices it gets the creative juices flowing.

    Now back to those 600 songs.

    If you ask me to teach or sing any song that I want from my extensive catalogue, there are simply too many to choose from. I have nothing to guide me, my selecting mechanism becomes overwhelmed and I draw a blank.

    But if you ask for a song from Zimbabwe, or one in two-part harmony, or a song about harvest time or a song in French, then I’ll happily oblige.

    we’re not performing monkeys

    One last element of this issue. Have you ever been at a party and someone asks what your profession is and then tries to get you to demonstrate that profession?

    “Oh, you’re a therapist! I have real problems with my mother right now.”

    “A dancer? Great! Let’s see some moves.”

    “I didn’t know you were a poet! Can you recite something for me?”

    “So you’re a choir leader. How about teaching us all a song?”

    We’re none of us performing monkeys. Whether we’re an accountant, social worker or musician, we all want to have some time off now and again. We’re also not defined by what we do as a profession, so please don’t ask us to demonstrate.

    other reasons?

    So there are three possible reasons why I might not be able to remember a song from the 600 or so I’ve taught. I’m sure there are plenty of others.

    Can you relate to any of these experiences? Do you have difficulty coming up with stuff on the spot? Any ideas why?

    Do drop by and leave a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

    Until next time …

    Chris Rowbury



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  • Neither fish nor fowl – why most singers don’t fit neatly into SATB boxes

    Listed on April 18, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    You know the situation: one harmony part goes too high for you, but the other option goes way too low.


    The fact is that most of us don’t fit neatly into SATB boxes. What are we to do?

    Once upon a time we used to sing together and somehow find a place for our voice. We’d even sing harmony parts, happily mixing male and female voices in each part.

    Then composed ‘art’ music came along and the Italians divided us into different voice types: soprano (the really high women), alto (women who could sing low), tenor (males with high voices) and bass (men with deep voices) – hence the acronym SATB.

    In this way we could sing amazing four-part harmony with the notes spreading over a usefully wide range.

    All well and good until us mere mortals try to join in!

    We talk about the ‘untrained’ voice or the ‘non-professional’ singer. We refer to the “classically trained” voice or the “professional tenor”. The implication is that if we only studied and trained hard enough, we too could be professional and reach those high tenor and soprano notes, or even the lowest bass and alto notes.

    But in many ways these trained voices are ‘unnatural’ or ‘artificial’. ‘Unnatural’ in the same way that ballerinas stand en pointe or body builders have extraordinary musculature or ballroom dancers have extended backs and fixed smiles.

    In principle many of us could attain these ‘artificial’ states with a lot of practice, but it’s not what the everyday body or voice is automatically capable of (even though there may be a few individuals who are born able to do these things without effort).

    The majority of singers in choirs, especially community and amateur choirs, don’t want to modify their voices in that way, but are happy with the way they are. They may want to improve their technique somewhat (to enable them to have enough breath to sing a whole phrase for instance) or be able to sing using their whole range (we can’t ‘extend’ the range we’re born with, but we can learn to use the whole of what we’ve been given).

    This is more like the ‘folk’ voice (see Sing how you speak – the ‘folk’ voice or how to sing like a Bulgarian). The voice that is used in traditional song, the voice of regular people, not highly trained art singers. In which case, it almost certainly won’t fit neatly into the SATB boxes.

    Most men have voices at the low end of the baritone range: they can’t reach the really low bass notes or the really high tenor notes. And most women are low mezzo sopranos: they can’t reach the really low alto notes nor the really high soprano notes.

    But hey, who cares what these voice types are called (we’ve also got contralto, second bass, countertenor and so on)? We just want to know where to stand and which part to sing. Where do we belong in our choir so we can reach all the notes comfortably?

    That brings me to the two big points I want to make.

    1. If you can’t reach the notes, it doesn’t mean you can’t sing

    This applies especially to beginners, but it can hit us all at some point. We’ve been happily singing our part in the choir when a song comes along where what we’re asked to sing is simply too high or too low. It’s very easy to start to believe that we can’t ‘sing’ because everyone else can reach those notes. Not true! It might mean you’re in the wrong part or that the arrangement doesn’t suit your choir. Either way, it’s not your fault.

    If you are a beginner and you find this happens a lot, it may also mean that you just have to be patient as you will be able to reach higher and lower notes the longer you sing with the choir. With all the warm ups, regular singing, and vocal development, you’ll soon be able to master the whole range of your voice.

    2. Fit the arrangement to the voices – not the other way round

    Too often choir leaders choose off-the-shelf arrangements without considering that the ranges might not fit the particular voices in their choir. Or a composer might arrange something whilst sitting at the piano which – on paper – sounds wonderful, but they’ve forgotten that it will be human beings who will end up singing it. You can read more about this in my post Fit the song arrangement to your singers and not the other way round.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • When nobody comes to your concert or workshop – how to avoid or recover from a marketing fail

    Listed on April 11, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    You’ve put all the time and hard work into publicising your next concert or workshop, but then hardly anybody turns up.

    empty room

    How do you figure out what went wrong? It’s all about the what, the when and the where.

    I was going to call this post “When marketing fails: is it the what, the when or the where?”

    They are the three basic elements that can help you work out why so few people have come to your event.

    WHAT: Is what you’re offering of little interest (e.g. the theme and content of your concert)?

    WHEN: Have you chosen a date that clashes with other exciting things in your area?

    WHERE: Is the concert venue you’ve chosen hard to get to, or does the catchment area for your workshop have little interest in singing?

    There are things you can do before the event to avoid these potential problems. There are also things you can do after the event to avoid making the same mistake next time.

    do your homework

    Before you start to publicise your event, make sure you’ve done everything possible to avoid any potential pitfalls.


    • what’s worked before? – if you’ve held events in this area before, what has worked best or has been most popular? You might choose to do the same or a similar thing, or something that contrasts.
    • other events in the area – look at the ‘competition’. What other events have worked really well? Rather than copying them (then you’ll be going after the same punters), think of doing something similar or contrasting.
    • do market research – ask local people; get some editorial in the local press; use your Rotary Club (or similar); put a questionnaire through people’s doors (or in the local library); ask people who attend other concerts and workshops. You can’t please all the people all the time, but you might get an idea of the kind of thing that a lot of people want.
    • look for a market gap – there might be loads of classical concerts in your area, or lots of pop song workshops. In which case choose something very different as there’s clearly a market gap and you can fill that niche.


    • Google future local events – this can be hard because you might be organising a concert a year ahead and other events might not have fixed their dates yet, but it can throw up events that tend to occur every year at around the same time.
    • is there a clash diary? – some areas have clash diaries to help choirs avoid programming concerts on the same days. Also consider whether it’s a good idea having an event a couple of weeks before or after a similar event, not just on the same day.
    • avoid (or choose) public holidays – people often have more leisure time on public holidays and want to do a workshops. However, that’s also the time that kids are off school and people want to spend more time with their families. Depends on who you’re aiming your event at.
    • what’s on websites for your area – most towns have a “what’s on” website for local events. Check out a selection to see what else is on.
    • regular classes – choir rehearsals, etc. The worst time to programme a workshop is on the rehearsal night of the local choir! Use your library to look up regular classes and rehearsal nights in your area.


    • accessibility of venue – there are many different kinds of accessibility and you need to consider them all: disabled access; parking; public transport (when’s the last bus/ train home?); ease of finding the venue (is the SatNav postcode accurate? is it down some dark country lane? can it be confused with a similar venue?).
    • catchment area – work out how far people will travel: audiences for concerts tend to be more local than those for one-day workshops. Make sure there is a sufficient density of population in your catchment area: a workshop on the Yorkshire Moors is very different from one in central London. Does your catchment area overlap too much with one from a previous event of yours?
    • where do your audience live? – there’s not much point in running a residential singing weekend slap bang in the middle of an area where most of your fans live. People want to travel (not too far) to somewhere different and attractive if they’re going to fork out for a whole weekend. Similarly, if most of you concert audience live in your own town, think twice about doing a concert in a different town as you won’t be known there.

    learning after the event

    You did your homework, but still people didn’t come! Was it the what, the when or the where?

    Sometimes, with a bit of analysis, it’s really easy to find out what’s gone wrong. You clashed with an annual event that you’d not noticed; you hadn’t realised that the singing day you’d planned was in half term; the venue you chose was really inappropriate in hindsight.

    In those cases, simply don’t make the same mistake again.

    But sometimes it’s not as obvious.

    If it’s important for you to run a similar event again (e.g. if it’s your choir’s annual concert or a big annual singing festival), then you’ll need to do some work.

    • do your homework again – and make sure you’ve not missed anything out.
    • get feedback – from the few people who DID attend your event. Reach out to their friends who maybe wanted to come, but didn’t. Ask around the usual suspects who you expected to attend, but didn’t. Ask people on your mailing list.
    • change one thing – but not too drastically. Change one of the what, the when and the where, e.g. the theme of the workshop, the concert venue, the date. Then if it doesn’t work out the next time, change one of the other elements.

    apply the same rules to publicity material

    Your publicity material might have been amazing, but didn’t reach the right people.

    Consider the what (posters? Twitter? emails? design?), the when (a week before or a month before the event? time of day?) and the where (local or national press? local or national what’s on website? through people’s doors or in the local library?).

    If you don’t feel your publicity worked, then follow the same suggestions as in “learning after the event.”

    I’m sure I’ve missed loads of things out. I’m certainly no expert: many of my events sell out, but also some are very poorly attended. It’s hard to figure out why!

    Do let me know about your own fails and how you’ve learnt from them. I’d love to hear from you.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • Stuck in a rut? 10 ways to revitalise your choir

    Listed on April 4, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    It happens to the best of us: choir used to be fun, but now it seems to have lost its sparkle.

    stuck in rut

    What can we do to get out of a rut? Here are 10 ways to revitalise your choir.

    Whether you’re a singer or choir leader, there will be times when choir doesn’t seem as exciting and interesting as it used to be.

    The repertoire seems stale, warm ups become over-familiar, what was once challenging and interesting now seems old hat.

    Here are 10 ideas that might help you get out of the doldrums. They are just suggested starting points, but should help to get the idea juices flowing.

    1. do the same thing differently – sing well-known songs from your repertoire in an ‘inappropriate’ style (e.g. opera, country and western, lullaby); use different points of focus in warm ups (e.g. eye contact with others, focus on your feet, listen more loudly, focus on your breathing); warm up after your first song; have the break at the start of the session.
    2. take a break – do something completely other, not necessarily singing. Maybe an away day or an evening out at ten pin bowling.
    3. change something – sing a different part; move the sections around; mix the parts up (i.e. not in blocks but small groups of SATB); if you use chairs, stand up – if you don’t use chairs, try sitting down.
    4. find a new context – use a completely different rehearsal space; perform somewhere unusual (i.e. not your usual concert venue); rehearse in the street; get a slot in a concert that you wouldn’t normally consider singing at.
    5. swap choirs – find a local choir who rehearse at the same time and day and swap choir leaders. They are bound to do things in a different way. You might discover new ways of doing things, or at the very least appreciate your own choir leader more when they return! If there is no suitable local choir, then hire a choir leader in for one session.
    6. do something new – something you’ve never done before, something that’s a challenge, e.g. very different kind of repertoire, a flash mob, work with musicians, record a CD.
    7. introduce the unexpected – gets people out of their habits. This is mostly for choir leaders because it involves a bit of planning. Set something up so when the choir members arrive at rehearsal they will be somewhat discombobulated. Just by setting yourself this challenge can get you out of your own rut!
    8. go deeper – really explore something in depth, whether it’s the dynamics of a song or a vocal technique. People often get bored because they feel over-familiar with something and have lost the ability to really be in the moment with it. This is a way of re-connecting with the material.
    9. collaborate – find another choir to collaborate with. Could be to do a joint concert, or to perform a song together, or swap repertoire, or set up a choir festival. Working with others always introduces a different energy and reminds us that there is more than one way of doing things.
    10. create a goal – it’s always good to have something to work towards. If you don’t usually perform, then maybe work towards a song sharing. If you perform regularly, then set something up with much higher stakes (choral competition? the Royal Albert Hall?). Make a CD. Plan a choir exchange.

    There are plenty of other ways of revitalising your choir and I’d love to hear some of your ideas. Do drop by and leave a comment.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • Why returning to your choir after a long absence need not be difficult

    Listed on March 28, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    Sometimes life intervenes and singers need to take a whole term off or even longer. It could be illness, bereavement, job demands or just that it’s good to have a break from time to time.


    But when it’s time to return to choir there can be all sorts of psychological obstacles, and some singers never make it back. How can you avoid this?

    I used to go jogging almost every day. I loved it. The hardest thing though was to go upstairs and get changed. Once I was out running it was fabulous. But getting up those stairs seemed impossible.

    A similar thing can happen if you’ve not been to choir for a while. The hardest thing can actually be getting out the front door. But when you arrive it’s fabulous.

    See also What motivates you to turn up to choir week after week?

    Why might it be hard to go back?

    have they forgotten me?

    There are all sorts of reasons. Some of them are:

    1. I will be too far behind and won’t know the new songs
    2. people will have forgotten me
    3. there will be no place for me any more
    4. there will be lots of new people who won’t know me
    5. I might have forgotten how to sing
    6. I won’t remember any of the songs we’ve learnt
    7. my choir friends will have found new friends

    Some of these worries are very similar to those encountered by people who are new to a choir (see Handy hints for hesitant singers – 10 tips for singers new to choirs and Joining an established choir: a guide for new singers).

    They’re also the kind of things that might bother us when we’re going to a party or function where we won’t know many people.

    But like my mother always says: “You’ll enjoy it once you get there.”

    don’t worry, just sing!

    It might not seem it now, but all these fears are pretty groundless.

    1. Yes, you might not know some of the newer songs, but you can always catch up.
    2. You’ll be surprised how many people will have missed you and will flock to you when you turn up to find out how you are.
    3. There will always be a place for you in choir. Somebody else might have taken that solo you used to sing, but the rest of the singers in your part will welcome you back with open arms because you know the old repertoire.
    4. Getting to know new singers always takes time. If you’re a regular choir member with lots of choir friends, you might be tempted not to bother getting to know the new singers. But if you’ve been absent for a while it’s a great opportunity to make a connection with them.
    5. As someone who loves singing, I bet you’ve sung around the house at the very least. You’ll probably have watched all those choir and voice programmes on TV. You’ll still be a big fan of singing and even if your voice is a bit rusty, it will soon come back to you.
    6. It’s funny how memory for songs works. You may not have sung a song for years and think you don’t know it, but as soon as the song starts you will find yourself in amazement as you watch your mouth form the words and you sing your part with ease.
    7. Choir friends are for life! Yes, some of your choir friends might have formed new friendships, but they will also be really happy to welcome you back into the fold.

    just do it

    There will be no perfect time to rejoin your choir. It will probably feel difficult whenever you decide to rejoin, especially if your absence has been a long one.

    There isn’t really any shortcut other than just doing it: get ready and leave the house.

    Here are a few things that might help you ease in:

    • contact your choir leader – share your worries and they will reassure you.
    • make a commitment – tell as many people as you can who are connected with the choir that you are re-joining. Once you’ve made your decision public, it’s harder to wiggle out.
    • phone a friend – contact a choir buddy and make arrangements to travel to choir together.
    • go to a choir concert – ease your way back in by watching a performance by your choir and chatting with the singers.

    If you’ve been absent from choir for a while and are thinking of going back, do let us know how it went. If you’ve been in this situation in the past, let us know what helped you get over any hurdles when you returned to choir.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • Singing in a group is a learnt skill – if you find it hard, it doesn’t mean you can’t sing

    Listed on March 21, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    Many people won’t consider joining a choir or going to a singing workshop because they believe they can’t ‘sing’.


    Yet ask them to sing something familiar like Happy Birthday and they have no problem. What’s going on here?

    Some people seem to have difficulty learning new songs in a singing workshop or get put off by the other harmonies. Yet when you hear those people singing on their own they can reproduce a melody accurately.

    Some people think they can’t ‘sing’ but when asked to sing something familiar like a nursery rhyme or Happy Birthday they don’t have any problems.

    Some people never seem to raise their voice in choir (there are some people I still haven’t heard properly after many years!), but when they sing a song they know well their beautiful voice soars.

    The fact is, singing as part of a group – especially in harmony – is a learnt skill and doesn’t necessarily come easily. Also, in a group, some people will learn songs more quickly than others. For some singers it may take several months before a song has really bedded in and they feel confident to sing out.

    When leading a group – particularly open groups where there is no selection – we’re constantly trying to unite a set of people with different needs and different levels of experience.

    We usually manage to strike a reasonable balance, but sometimes it might seem to a particular singer that they’re getting left behind, and that can put them off and even lead them to believe they can’t ‘sing’.

    What can we do about this?

    1. When leading a group, remind yourself that singing in harmony is a skill and not everyone is as accomplished as others. Lead singers in with lots of unison singing (an under-rated technique, and one that can act as a useful training tool. See Sing something simple (and see if your singing is as good as you think it is) ) Then maybe move on to rounds or songs where each part has a distinct and separate melody (like a quodlibet).
    2. Without putting singers on the spot, make sure you get to hear each individual and give them an equal chance to shine and share their voice with others. This may mean using very familiar tunes and slowly dividing the singers into smaller and smaller groups. Help inidividuals realise their voice is fine and they have an equal ability to sing as everyone else in the group.
    3. Emphasise to everyone that really learning a song takes many many repetitions. Just because that alto has picked it up quickly and you still haven’t got it doesn’t mean that they are a better singer. Most professional singers take several months before they really feel that a song is under their belt. Yes, you might pick up the melody or harmony quickly, but it’s easily forgotten and you’ve not begun to explore all the subtleties.
    4. As a singer, be patient. Give yourself time to learn a new song or to pick up a harmony in a group. Don’t give up too soon or think you can’t ‘sing’. Be kind to yourself! You might find these two posts useful: How to sing – 10 habits of successful professional singers and Handy hints for hesitant singers – 10 tips for singers new to choirs.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • Does you choir need a conductor?

    Listed on March 14, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    The OK Chorale had their annual concert this weekend. There were over 40 singers squeezed into quite a tight space and I stood out front and conducted them. We were supported by the 13 women of Heartbeat who had no conductor.

    Children in Need Community Choir  - Chris Rowbury

    How big does your choir need to be to warrant someone being out front? Can a large choir do without a conductor?

    the ideal size for a choir

    There has been an interesting discussion recently about the ideal size for a choir. Ideal in what sense?

    If it’s a beginner choir and it’s too small then singers can feel exposed when singing 3- or 4-part harmony. But if it’s an experienced group, then with 12 singers or so you can really work off each other, nail the harmonies, get a real sense of the whole song, breathe together and not need a conductor.

    If a choir is very large, it’s possible that the weaker singers end up relying on a core of confident singers and the choir stops working as a unit. Also, it’s hard to get an overall sense of all the harmonies if there are 15 or 20 people in each part. It’s easy for singers to stop listening to each other and to defer all their responsibility to the conductor.

    However, I believe it is possible for a large choir to sing without a conductor.

    downsides of having a conductor

    Conductors and choir leaders are great when you’re rehearsing and learning new songs. They can point out mistakes, they have a clear impression of the overall sound, they can help balance parts and bring sections in at the appropriate times, they can keep a rein on the pace of a song and remind singers of the song’s structure.

    But when a song has been rehearsed many times and the choir know it really well, what does the conductor do?

    The danger is that the singers assume that they need the conductor. They relinquish some of their responsibility and let the conductor do all the work (even sometimes mouthing the words). Because they’ve never had to do it entirely by themselves, it’s easy for singers to believe that they can’t do it on their own. With a conductor out front singers can end up giving them their whole focus and forget to listen to the other singers and connect with the audience.

    upsides of getting rid of the conductor

    Get rid of the conductor and suddenly the singers have to rely on themselves and each other. They begin to listen more closely, they become more aware of the audience, they work as a unit and become a single organism, breathing as one. The sound becomes more balanced as each part listens to the other, dynamics become more sensitive. The audience can also see the singers rather than the conductor’s back-side!

    why don’t more choirs do without conductors?

    Sad to say, but some choirs leaders have big egos. It’s important for them to be out in front of the singers at concerts to be seen to be doing the work. It also strokes their ego to believe that the singers can’t do it without them.

    Of course, many choir leaders don’t have big egos. They try to encourage their singers to develop their voices and harmony singing skills. They tease out the best in people, help them to become more confident performers, and show them how capable they are. In a sense – like the best teachers – the best choir leaders are the ones who make themselves redundant. Job done! And the brilliant teachers and choir leaders are so good that their singers don’t even realise that they’ve taught them anything. The singers think they’ve done it all by themselves.

    letting go of your conductor

    Why not give it a go? Even if it’s just a rehearsal technique, getting the choir leader to stand aside will reveal so many aspects of how your singers work together.

    If you’re a choir leader, you can try just wandering off during a song rehearsal. Sit at the back and just listen. There will be a moment of panic amongst the singers, but they’ll soon settle down.

    If you’re a singer in a choir, have a gentle word with your choir leader to see if you can try a song on your own without a conductor.

    I’m not saying that all choirs of every size can always do without a conductor, but you’ll be surprised how much the singers can manage on their own if they’ve been rehearsed and trained well. Why not give it a go?

    Chris Rowbury



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  • The costs of cancelling a concert or singing workshop (and ways to avoid it in the first place)

    Listed on March 7, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    I wrote recently about how to decide whether to cancel a concert or singing workshop.

    It’s a difficult decision to make, but even when you’ve made it there are plenty of repercussions to take into account.

    Before you rush in and cancel, there are several things you need to consider. There might even be a way to avoid cancelling at all.

    things to think about when considering cancellation

    • how expensive will it be? – what are the cost implications if you cancel? You may end up losing less money if you go ahead. If you do decide to cancel, make sure you’re aware of all the payments you’ll still be committed to plus costs already incurred (that you won’t recoup): ticket reimbursement, venue hire, accompanist, any equipment hire, lyric sheets already printed, publicity costs, etc.
    • disappointed punters – unless there is a very clear reason for cancelling (e.g. ill health, venue fire, instrument theft), you may end up losing some goodwill amongst your audience. They may think twice about booking your next event.
    • cancel or re-schedule? – instead of cancelling outright, you may decided to hold your event on an alternative date. One reason for this might be that a clash has occurred with another event that you hadn’t known about in advance. You’ll need to make clear to people who have already booked that they have the option of a refund or they can transfer their ticket to the rescheduled event.
    • silver lining – there’s always a silver lining! You can find ways to spin the cancellation and use it to extend your publicity campaign for when you do end up performing. You can also work up the story behind the cancellation in order to get some press coverage.

    ways to avoid cancelling

    • substitute key personnel – if you’re cancelling because a key member is not available (e.g. choir leader, section leader, soloist, accompanist), you could always find a substitute. Rather than rushing around at the last minute it’s a good idea to have potential alternatives in place. You might be training up an associate choir director or have an alternate soloist for example. I was once phoned up the day before a singing workshop when one of my colleagues had to pull out due to illness. I was available and able to run the workshop in her stead. You may need to give refunds to some individuals who complain it wasn’t what they’d booked for.
    • back-up venue – quite hard to pull off, but if you’ve been let down by your venue (double booking, caretaker doesn’t turn up, venue closed down for health and safety reasons) and you have a few days notice, then you can try to find an alternative. The hardest part will be to make sure you inform everyone who’s booked to come.
    • replacement act – if your choir can’t perform for any reason, there might be a slim chance that you can get another local group to take your place. This is a bit easier if you’re not asking them to fill an entire evening. It’s a long shot, but given a day’s notice quite possible.
    • roll with it and improvise – if the lights fail or the piano doesn’t turn up, then improvise. Have a candle-lit performance or sing acappella. Use it to your advantage to do things differently.
    • low numbers can still work – if you get a really small number of people turn up to a singing workshop, you can easily adapt and turn it into a masterclass or an opportunity to do some one-to-one training. If your concert has a very small audience, you can rejig the performance space to make it more intimate and use it as an opportunity to perfect your choir’s performance skills – an unexpected dress rehearsal!
    • use the unexpected to your advantage – if there’s an act of god like your coach breaking down or the town flooding, then just create a new, spontaneous event with whomever is there. Sing on the coach, entertain the service station, teach the regulars stranded in the local pub.
     The only thing that can limit you is your own imagination! Good luck.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • How to be a bad choir director (it’s easier than you think)

    Listed on February 29, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    Ann read my post The six qualities need to be a good choral director and it sparked off a quite a rant.

    photo by bagogames

    She has obviously had a bad experience. I thought I would share it with you.

    leading by fear (and not encouragement)

    There are lots of bad choir directors out there (and lots of good ones of course).

    There are those who shout and get angry at the slightest thing – a wrong note, bad timing, a hot rehearsal room.

    There are those who are full of ego and think the singers are just there to help them show off.
    There are those who think the music is far more important than the people who make it and treat them like shit in order to create the ‘perfect’ performance (as if that’s ever possible).

    Have you seen the movie Whiplash? You should. It’s a classic example of a director/ teacher who thinks that the end justifies the means. He abuses and screams at the person he’s coaching in order to “help bring out the best in him.”

    Some people like being shouted at (not me). I took over a choir once and several people left because I wasn’t as strict as their previous leader. They were used to being shouted at so had come to believe that was the only way to learn. I guess they’d picked it up at school.

    People often ask me how I can be so patient. I respond by asking “What’s the alternative?” Shouting, getting angry and frustrated? I don’t want my singers to perform or learn out of fear, but out of gentle encouragement and belief in their abilities.

    why people stay with bad directors

    If I was Ann, or any of the many other choir members who have told me similar stories, I would be off like a shot. Why would anyone want to stay with someone who abuses them and gives them a hard time?

    Sometimes people stay because it’s the only thing they know (remember those people who left when I took over the choir?). They assume that ALL choir directors (and teachers) are rude, brutal and abusive. They think they can only learn whilst being stressed and in fear.

    Well, let me tell you, this not right. There are plenty of good choir directors out there who are decent human beings and will treat you well. More than that, you will actually have fun singing!

    Don’t stay in a bad situation, check out the other choirs in town.

    Some people think that ‘geniuses’ are always a bit difficult. We all know the stereotype of the awkward actress or the prima donna opera singer or the angry orchestral conductor. The end justifies the means, right? Just put up with their difficult nature because they always deliver the goods.

    And besides, really creative and talented people are always a bit ‘difficult’ aren’t they?


    There are plenty of excellent leaders and teachers out there who are creative and talented, but who encourage and help. They create safe spaces where people are encouraged to explore and develop. Don’t put up with a ‘genius’ throwing a tantrum, there are always alternatives.

    Some people stick with an abusive choir leader because it’s the only game in town. Perhaps there are no other local choirs or the repertoire is particularly appealing. Please don’t stick around and let them get away with it.

    If there aren’t any similar choirs around then start your own (see How to start your own community choir). You don’t even have to be a choir leader yourself (see How to set up a choir if you’re not a choir leader).

    Ann’s story (or how to be a bad choir director)

    When the choir leader loses his temper and yells “AREN'T YOU LISTENING!” then angrily repeats the information ... it’s time to consider quitting.

    After this terse and embarrassing moment, I learned that others had the same question as I did. He had not been clear.

    The director assumed that all questions were from people who were not  listening!

    Therefore, I think the most important quality in a choir director is RESPECT for members, regardless of what seems rude, stupid, etc.

    I do hours of computer work for this director, but this one session of being yelled at prompted me to leave him a message afterwards saying that I was very angry and had no intention of staying on in the future if it happened again.

    This director uses many of us as ‘heads’ of sections, but has a white knuckle grip on it all and we  have no power to help him without his often SLOW input.

    I am to lead the Alto sectionals but he enters every time to take over.

    Other choir members have told me that there was a good session once ... when he did not turn up!

    So ... Mr/Ms Directors, take a breath, roll you eyes, if you are angry ... but be respectful.

    Another no-no:  If you hear someone is off don’t stand the whole section up and point out who the culprit is. Walk past each singer  and LISTEN before you decide who is off.

    Also own up to YOUR OWN GOOFS ... if you just counted the piece in 4/4 and it was 2/4, don't announce that “All You guys had your entries off.”

    ;-) well I feel better now. Thanks for listening!

    Ann, Florida, USA

    I do hope you’ve not had a bad experience like Ann, but if you have, do drop me a line as I’m always happy to share!

    further reading

    You might find these other posts of interest.

    Avoid toxic choir leaders – the end does NOT justify the means
    How to tell if your choir leader is rubbish

    Chris Rowbury



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  • How to decide whether to cancel a concert or singing workshop

    Listed on February 22, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    It’s your worst fear: despite all your hard work publicising the event, only a handful of people turn up. Or the musical director is taken ill. Or perhaps the venue burns down.

    empty seats
    photo by B Rosen

    The difficult question is: can you continue or should you cancel? And if you do decide to cancel what’s the best way to do it, and what are the implications? There are no easy answers, but here are some things to consider.

    perhaps you should have cancelled

    When I first started out I used to run a weekly adult education class called Songs from around the world. One week just two singers turned up. We tried three part harmony. They never came back! Perhaps I should have cancelled.

    My first choir did a concert at a folk festival. We managed to muster around 20 singers and we sat in the audience enjoying the other acts until it was our turn to go on. When we stood up, there were only about two people left in the audience. Perhaps we should have cancelled.

    I used to run singing summer schools during the long break to keep the singers in my choir engaged. One year I managed to muster loads of new eager singers who turned up to the venue I’d booked only to find it was locked. We went up the road to the local pub and asked to use their function room, but it was booked. So we ended up singing in the pub garden. It put lots of people off and many singers never came back. Perhaps I should have cancelled.

    A friend and I were travelling in southern India and booked to see a Kathak show. We bought our tickets in the morning for an evening performance. The performers were already starting to prepare and put their elaborate make-up on when we bought our tickets at 10am. When we arrived at 7pm we were the only two audience members! The performers insisted on doing the show which we enjoyed enormously, but it took some time to get over our embarrassment. Perhaps they should have cancelled.

    possible reasons for cancelling

    It’s really hard to decide whether to cancel or not, especially since a lot of hard work has gone into the event, whether it’s a singing workshop or a concert.

    Here are some reasons why you might think about cancelling.

    • low numbers – despite all your hard work in publicising the event, just a few people turn up. It doesn’t seem worth carrying on. There used to be an Equity (UK actors’ union) rule that if the number of actors in the cast outnumbered the number of audience members, then it was OK to cancel the performance. But choirs sometimes have over 100 singers, which might mean lots of cancelled concerts.
    • venue/ equipment problems – nobody turns up to unlock the venue or the PA system breaks down or the piano doesn’t arrive in time. Circumstances beyond your control, but pretty hard to continue.
    • people problems – illness is one of the biggest reasons that people can’t turn up, but it can also be injury or family bereavement, traffic jams or transport breakdown. It’s OK if it’s a couple of singers in the chorus, but if it’s the musical director or a soloist or the accompanist then that’s a big problem.
    • under prepared – the concert has arrived, but you may feel that you’re just not ready. There may have been a lot of absences or cancelled rehearsals or the complexity of the repertoire was underestimated. The big question is: do you go on knowing that it’s not up to your usual standards, or do you cancel?
    • acts of god – these are easier to deal with because they affect everyone and not just the singers or workshop leader. Things like flooding, transport disruption, strikes, etc. There’s usually no alternative but to cancel.

    There are ways around most of these situations though. For example, if the piano doesn’t turn up, you could just perform acappella. If your MD or soloist is ill, there might be a substitute. If the audience is very small, it still might be worth continuing.

    how to cancel

    If you do decide to cancel, how do you go about it?

    • let everyone know – it’s important to let people know so they won’t have a wasted journey. For a workshop you may well have a list of names and contacts so send emails and make calls. Depending on your concert ticketing system, you may also have contacts for some of your audience members.
    • arrange for refunds – you will also need to contact people to arrange refunds. Make it clear how and when they will receive their refund and if it includes reimbursement of any booking fee. If the event has been re-scheduled, give people the option of carrying their payment forward.
    • let the venue know – and anybody else who might be involved, e.g. equipment hirers, caterers, etc. The sooner you let them know, the more likely it is that you can reduce your overheads. Let them know why you’re cancelling. If it’s due to ill health they might consider a reduction. If you have event insurance, contact your insurers as soon as possible.
    • put a note on the door – you’ll also need to make it very clear to people who might turn up on the door that the event has been cancelled. Not only a sign on the door, but a person to there to explain what has happened and to let people know when your next event will be.
    • get the word out as widely as possible – use social media to get the word out too. Maybe even local radio. Use as many outlets as possible.
    • use it to your advantage – try to be as positive as possible. Offer alternative events that people can come to. Try to spin it to your advantage.

    In my next post in this series I’ll be looking at the implications of cancelling, but also some things you can do to avoid cancelling in the first place (or ways of turning it to your advantage).

    Chris Rowbury



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  • Your job as a singer is to get out of your own way and be in the moment

    Listed on February 15, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    I’ve just run a workshop for members of my choir to help improve their singing technique.

    in the moment

    I realised whilst teaching that all the singers had the necessary knowledge already, it was simply a matter of reminding them to put it into practice. I’ll explain what I mean.

    Most singers feel that they could benefit from singing lessons. They feel that they need help to find the right vocal technique in order to sound better or to be able to sustain their breath longer or to sing without ending up with a sore throat.

    In my experience, most singers already know how to sing well and in an effortless manner, but just forget to put it into practice.

    Of course, if you find that your throat hurts during or after singing, or you find yourself getting very tired and muscles start to ache, then you need some outside assistance to get you back on track (see Your singing voice: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!).

    I began my workshop with a series of gentle exercises to stretch and relax the body, to help people find a stable, relaxed and balanced posture for singing, and to ease the voice into action. Pretty soon people were making a beautiful, rich, unforced sound.

    But then we started to work on repertoire and things didn’t sound quite so nice: chins were pointing up in the air, shoulders were stiffening and heading towards ears, frowns were appearing and voices sounded forced and tight.

    So I stopped the song and said “Close your eyes and check in with yourself”. Then we began the song again and it sounded effortless.

    I hadn’t done anything, it was the singers. I just reminded them to take a moment and check their posture, breathing, balance, etc. which they did quickly and easily.

    Several times during the workshop I had to remind people to check in with themselves.

    Why did I have to do that?

    Because people had started thinking (see The curse of confusion: why thinking is bad for singing).

    Instead of just singing the song in the easiest way possible, people had stopped being in the moment and were thinking about something else:

    • What are the words to the next verse?
    • Did I get that last note right?
    • Will I have enough breath to get through the next phrase?
    • Is the person next to me singing something different to me?
    • Is it hot in here or is it just me?
    • Are my shoulders relaxed?
    • I wonder what’s for tea?

    There’s a fine balance between being in the moment of the song and being aware of your body. You need to check in with yourself regularly and be aware when you’re tightening up or your posture is bad, but you don’t want that to interfere with your singing.

    It needn’t take long: a quick check in with yourself, a slight alteration of posture and back to the song. Soon it will become automatic and the need to adjust posture, etc. will be needed less.

    So think as much as you like in rehearsals and warm ups. Try to understand what your teacher or musical director is telling you. Think hard about the structure of the song and where you come in. But as soon as you are performing or singing the song in its entirety, forget all of that and just sing! (see also When you sing, forget everything you’ve ever learnt)

    Chris Rowbury



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  • Money matters 2 – online payments and ticketing systems

    Listed on February 8, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    The other week I wrote about practical solutions for dealing with choir finances.


    This week I want to look at the many options for using online services to collect payments and set up box office systems for concerts.

    printing your own tickets

    When I started out I used to print my own tickets at home and hand them out to choir members to sell on a “sale or return” basis. It was simple and worked reasonably well.

    It was a lot of work though and hard to keep track of sales. People would say that their friends were “definitely coming” but “hadn’t paid yet” then at the last minute “decided not to come”. Which meant that I couldn’t keep track of how many were going to be in the audience.

    Whether you print your own tickets or not, you still have to find an easy way for people to buy them.

    go straight to the bank, do not pass Go

    One of the cheapest and easiest ways for people to pay you is by direct bank transfer. The big drawback is that I don’t like to put my bank details in the public domain so people have to email me first. Which is one more barrier to people buying stuff.

    It’s even possible to do it on your mobile phone these days. My bank in the UK is part of the Paym system which means I only have to give my mobile phone number for people to pay. Not many people have adopted this though.

    on-line box offices

    In recent years there has been an explosion of on-line box office and ticketing systems. One of the best-known is Eventbrite, but there are plenty of others out there (I used TicketSource for a while, but am going to try WeGotTickets as it’s much cheaper for low cost tickets).

    All these systems allow people to book and pay on-line using a debit/ credit card or PayPal account (or similar) and then either download an e-ticket to their smartphone or print one off at home.

    They allow you to keep track of audience numbers, allocate seats, input your own sales and all the other things you’d expect from a box office service.

    Most of these services publicise themselves as “free on-line ticketing systems”. What they mean is that it’s free to sign up, but if you charge for tickets, they will charge you a fee for selling them.

    hidden payment “processing fees”

    What is not immediately apparent is that they will usually charge you an additional “processing fee” when people use credit/ debit cards or PayPal to pay for their tickets.

    As an example, at the time of writing (February 2016), TicketSource charge 45p + 2.5% (per ticket) + 3.5% (card payment processing fee). There is an additional charge of 20p per ticket for payments via PayPal.

    So if you charge £10 for a concert ticket, TicketSource will take 45p + 25p + 35p = £1.05 for someone paying by credit card (£1.25 if they pay by PayPal). You will usually have the option of absorbing this cost yourself (so it’s invisible to the customer), or passing it on entirely to the customer, or splitting it between you.

    If you charge less than £10 per ticket, you’re probably better off with a service like WeGotTickets of Oxboffice who charge a flat rate of 10% all in.

    But if you charge much more than £10 (for example, if you’re running a workshop at £25 per person), then TicketSource becomes cheaper (£1.96 compared with £2.50). So choose your ticketing service accordingly.

    pay monthly services

    There is another option: pay a monthly all-in fee for those months that your tickets are on sale. For example, if your tickets are on sale for two months leading up to your concert, a service like Ticket Tailor will charge you £15 per month + VAT (£25 per month + VAT if you are running 2-3 different events). So if you’re expecting a large number of ticket sales, this can work out cheaper than paying a fee per ticket.

    For instance, if you’re selling £10 tickets and hope to get an audience of, say, 100, then TicketSource will cost you £105, WeGotTickets will cost £100, but Ticket Tailor will only cost £36 (including VAT at 20%).

    do it yourself

    Another on-line option is to sell tickets on your own website. You can set up a shopping cart service on your site (worth it if you sell lots of other stuff like CDs or sheet music). These are known as e-commerce solutions.

    Some free or cheap (usually open source) examples are AgoraCart, Zen Cart, OpenCart and TomatoCart. These packages involve various degrees of technical know-how and usually mean putting software on your website’s host. They can be integrated easily with PayPal.

    I’ve recently started to use a service which just involves copying and pasting a bit of code to my website: Shop Integrator. It integrates very easily with PayPal so people can use debit/ credit cards to pay. Although it keeps records of payments, I need to ask customers to print off their receipt to use as a ticket. My only overheads are the standard PayPal charges (3.4% + 20p per transaction).

    do we even need to sell tickets?

    Somebody recently pointed out that they don’t charge for their concerts but have a “retiring collection” (i.e. people donate as they leave). This has resulted in greater income than from previous ticket sales! Something to consider as it makes the whole thing much easier (although you do have to count the cash at the end of the evening). One drawback is that you won’t know in advance how many people will turn up.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • Sing the intention, not the meaning

    Listed on February 1, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    We’re always told to focus on the meaning of the lyrics when singing a song in order to communicate it properly and to give some emotion to our delivery.


    But what if the lyrics are “lully lullay” or “fa la la” or what if the context seems to contradict the meaning or what if any ‘meaning’ is ambiguous? Then you need to sing your intention. I’ll explain more below.

    lyrics don’t tell the whole story

    First of all I need to confess: I’m not a lyric person. For me it’s the total experience of a song that counts: words, melody, harmonies, context, number of singers, venue, etc. So when people bang on about “focus on the meaning” I must admit I can’t really relate.

    There are many songs which have meaningless words (like lullabies: “lully lully”), ambiguous words (many folk ballads), words whose meaning has been lost (“Lile” from Georgia), and so on.

    We also sing songs in foreign languages (including Latin) which can never be translated precisely or whose meaning is culturally specific and doesn’t mean much to us.

    Songs can also be presented in the ‘wrong’ context (e.g. ironically) or sung in the ‘wrong’ way (e.g. a heavy metal version of a lullaby).

    What about the ‘meaning’ then?

    songs come as complete packages, not just words

    My own view is that a well-written song (or a traditional song that has stood the test of time) encodes any meaning in its melody, words, rhythms, harmonies, etc. The song will have a ‘feel’. You know what it ‘means’ without necessarily being able to articulate it. That’s why songs are different to poems or stories.

    You can choose to present the song with that feel or ‘interpret’ it in your own way to create a different meaning (see How to make a song your own). It all comes down to your intention.

    Most songs are intended to communicate something (not all songs though: some are for personal experience or to create a sense of community amongst the singers). You need to know what you intend to communicate before you begin to sing.

    get your intention right

    It doesn’t matter what the ‘meaning’ of the song is -- if your intention is right then it will come across to your audience. The intention might be to make the audience feel sad, or to scare them, or to draw them in, or to get them to listen carefully, or to tell them a story.

    Your intention might contradict or reinforce any meaning that the song might contain. Either way it’s not enough to just know what the song means.

    We all know those creepy versions of nursery rhymes that are used in horror movies. That’s a classic example of a song being taken out of context and having an intention that contradicts its meaning. But it works.

    further reading

    Here are some other posts which might interest you.

    Singing what you mean and meaning what you sing

    What do words add to music?

    Song meanings lost in translation

    Chris Rowbury



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  • Money matters 1 – practical solutions for dealing with choir finances

    Listed on January 25, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    Whatever kind of choir you run, at some point you’ll have to deal with money. Whether it’s hiring a rehearsal space or paying an accompanist or collecting members’ subs.

    cash register
    photo by nikoretro

    Money and finances can be scary though. Here are some practical steps you can take to ease the pain.

    It doesn’t matter if you run your choir as a volunteer or if it’s your sole source of income, money will inevitably raise its ugly head at some point.

    Even if you’re good with finances, there are plenty of other practical issues to consider: how much to charge, what happens if you cancel a workshop, what’s the best way to collect subs, is it worth using an on-line ticketing system for concerts?

    You can read more about some of the financial issues of running a choir in my series How to start your own community choir.

    In this post I’m going to look at a few specific areas and give some ideas on how to tackle any issues. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but this should get you started.

    how much to charge

    How much to charge for concert tickets, choir subs or workshop entry depends on a wide range of factors: your underlying costs (venue hire, your fee, publicity, etc.), the local demographic (how much can people afford and what do other events charge?), the length/ number of concerts/ workshops, etc.

    I’ve written before about how to decide how much to charge choir members: How much should you charge singers to be in your choir?. Many of the ideas in that post can be applied to concerts and workshops too.

    collecting money in advance

    If you charge people to attend your choir or workshop, then you will need to collect money from the participants. You need to decide if you collect money in advance or on the door.

    For a regular event such as weekly choir rehearsal or Saturday workshop, it’s much easier to collect money in advance. You can give people a range of ways to pay (bank transfer, PayPal, cheque, etc.).

    The advantages are:

    • the messy business of collecting money and keeping records is done in advance and separated from the singing;
    • people can choose a payment method which suits them;
    • you have a clearer idea of numbers in advance rather than waiting (and hoping!) on the day.

    You can offer incentives to encourage people to pay up front (e.g. a simple discount: £20 in advance or £25 on the door; £60 for 10 sessions or £7 per session).

    For concerts and workshops it is definitely a good idea to get people to pay in advance so you can make sure you have enough capacity. I’ll look at ways to do this using on-line ticketing services in the next post in this series — keep an eye out for it in a couple of weeks.

    paying on the day

    Some people will end up paying on the day. They may prefer to use cash, they may not be able to afford to pay for a block in advance, or maybe they’ve just heard about your workshop and have come at the last minute.

    You will need to have a clear and simple system to collect money and keep records. If 20 people arrive suddenly and all want to pay, it will take some time to process and it can get confusing.

    The best solution is:

    • have an assistant (volunteer) to collect money on the door (leaving you free to focus on the singing);
    • have plenty of change at hand (get it in advance from your local bank);
    • get people to write their own names on a register;
    • offer the choice to pay by cheque (or even have a hand-held credit card machine).

    If you feel that you can trust the people who turn up, then you could also just have a box/ basket at the door for people to drop their cash/ cheque into with a sign-up form next to it.

    bank accounts

    Once you’ve collected all this lovely money, what do you do with it? Put it in the bank of course!

    Unless you want to make your tax return even more of a nightmare, it makes sense to have a separate bank account for your choir. Since most choirs are not-for-profit (i.e. there are no shareholders to pay dividends to, they just cover their costs — including your fee), the best solution is to open a “clubs and societies” account (some banks use different names).

    These are accounts that use the name of your choir (rather than that of an individual) and don’t charge for processing cheques, etc. (unlike business accounts). It will make things more professional when people write out cheques to your choir rather then you as an individual.

    who the money goes to

    Once you’ve covered all your costs like venue hire and accompanist, what happens to the balance of the money you’ve brought in? I earn my living by running choirs and singing workshops, so I always take a fee. If I’ve set up a workshop myself, I take all the the box office after costs. For a choir concert, I take a relatively small fee and we donate the rest to charity. If we do a joint gig I split the proceeds with the other performers.

    If your choir is run by a committee and/or your choir director has a day job and doesn’t ask for a fee, then the income can go to the choir as a whole to be used at a later date for things like choir swaps, end of term parties, purchase of sheet music, commissioning song arrangements, etc.

    when things go wrong — be professional

    At some point in your career you will have to cancel a concert or workshop. Last year I had ’flu (proper ’flu, not “man ’flu”!) for the first time in years and had to cancel my first ever concert. I refunded tickets that had already been bought and was lucky that the venue didn’t charge us for the cancellation.

    But you may well incur costs. You might have booked and paid for the venue in advance and they won’t refund all the cost. You may have to let down all those people who have booked on your singing day. You may have to cancel a rehearsal if you can’t find a substitute and choir members might ask for that week’s subs back.

    Whatever you decide to do in each situation, you need to think about it beforehand. Make your policy clear to everyone concerned in advance (I have a terms and conditions section on my website for people who book to come on my day or weekend workshops).

    What I haven’t done yet — and must do very soon — is to take out insurance in case I am ill and have to cancel a singing weekend. Most of the venues that I book insist on at least a percentage of the weekend charge if I cancel which can run into thousands of pounds.

    ticketing and on-line payments

    In a couple of weeks I’ll be looking at on-line payments and ticketing systems in the next post in this series of money matters.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • What to expect at my singing workshops (and those run by other Natural Voice Practitioners)

    Listed on January 18, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    I started a brand new project last weekend called Sing Out Saturdays. It’s a monthly drop-in singing session for anyone who loves to sing.

    SingWiv January 2016 (2)

    It was quite clear that many people came with little idea of what was going to happen! I thought I’d answer some frequently asked questions about what to expect at one of my workshops.

    Even if someone has been to lots of singing workshops, they might never have been to one which uses the Natural Voice approach.

    As Natural Voice Practitioners we take our work very seriously, but the singing sessions we run are always fun and relaxed. It often requires people to be a bit silly (to help shed inhibitions) and always involve using the body (in ways which might be unfamiliar to those used to a more formal choral approach).

    However, even though there is a lot of laughter, messing about and general silliness (and maybe even some weird dancing), the musical results are usually really, really good.

    frequently asked questions

    So put your prejudices to one side, let all your expectations go and let me introduce you to a typical singing workshop.

    Q1. Is there an audition and will I have to sing solo?
    A. There are no auditions. My workshops are open to anybody who loves to sing. No experience is necessary and you will not be asked to sing solo because all songs are sung in harmony with others. My work is all about the joys of singing together.

    Q2. You say "no experience necessary". Do you really mean that? I have absolutely no experience of singing except to myself!
    A. Yes, I really mean it! Some people come with some singing experience, but many don't. I've you've ever hummed along to a song on the radio or sung in the shower and think it might be fun to sing with others, you've got all the experience you need.

    Q3. Do I need to have a 'good' voice? What happens if I sound really awful? I don't want to ruin it for others.
    A. All voices are welcome. The great thing about singing together as a group is that we can have a real mix of different voices and no individual ever need stand out. As long as you are prepared to have a go, listen well and remember you're part of a group, not on your own, it will be fine.

    Q4. My friends and family tell me that I'm tone deaf. I don't think I can hold a tune. Will that be a problem?
    A. Almost nobody is tone deaf unless there is some brain damage. Like any physical activity (e.g. tennis, football), it takes a while to be able to control the necessary muscles to become accurate. It's the same with singing. It might take a while to be able to hold a tune accurately, but remember you are never alone in group singing!

    You might also find this article interesting: Are you tone deaf? Very unlikely!

    Q5. Do I need to be able to read music or understand music theory?
    A. I never use sheet music in my workshops so you don't need to be able to read music to join in fully. I also don't use any unnecessary musical jargon or assume people have prior musical training of any sort.

    Q6. What does "learning by ear" mean?
    A. Songs will either have just one or two simple words or I will put large lyric sheets on the wall. You then learn the song bit by bit by me singing, you listening and then singing back. Slowly the parts and the song will build up, all by using your ears rather than your eyes.

    You might also find this article interesting: Learning songs by ear

    Q7. What exactly is "unaccompanied harmony singing"?
    A. The "unaccompanied" bit means that there will be no piano or other instruments playing and I don't use recorded backing tracks. It's just voices only. "Harmony singing" is when two or more notes are sung at the same time. That means the group is divided into different parts or sections of singers, each of which learns a different melody. When all the parts sing together, then it is singing in harmony.

    Q8. What kind of songs will we be singing?
    A. I usually give some idea of the songs in the workshop title. For example, Good time gospel or Sing Africa! I tend to draw on traditional songs from all around the world. Some countries don't have harmony singing traditions, so we won't usually be singing songs from Asia or the Middle East for instance. My particular love is for songs from Eastern Europe (Russia, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Georgia, etc.) and Southern Africa. I have been known to run the occasional pop song workshop too!

    You might also find these articles interesting: I may not know much about music, but I know what I like! and Why don't you sing songs from India?

    Q9. How will I manage with foreign words? I don't speak any languages.
    A. Most of my repertoire comes from countries where they don't speak English. Don't worry though, I don't expect you to be fluent in a whole bunch of foreign languages! I carefully choose songs which don't have too many words and I will break the foreign words down into separate syllables. It's sometimes easier to learn in a foreign language because it takes you outside yourself (you become less self-conscious) and you learn syllable by syllable (instead of paraphrasing the English).

    You might also find this article interesting: How to sing a song in a foreign language

    Q10. What does "natural voice" mean?
    A. I am a member of the Natural Voice Practitioners' Network (bit of a mouthful!) or NVPN. We all approach our work in a similar way and adhere to several basic principles:

    • everyone can sing (hence no auditions, no experience needed)
    • singing should be accessible to everybody (hence no sheet music or unnecessary jargon)
    • singing starts with the breath and the body (so we spend quite a while preparing to sing using physical, vocal and breathing exercises)

    The NVPN ethos states that "We believe that singing is everyone's birthright and we are committed to teaching styles that are accepting and inclusive of all, regardless of musical experience and ability".

    Your 'natural voice' is the unique voice that you were born with through which you express yourself. It can be trained to be more free and expressive, but you shouldn't become a slave to a particular technique or try to be someone else.

    You might also find this article interesting: The Natural Voice approach to singing

    Q11. What happens in a typical workshop?
    A. I always begin with some physical and vocal exercises to prepare for singing. I believe that the voice is rooted in the body, so there will be a mix of gentle shaking and stretching of both voice and body to prepare us for singing. There will also be some elements of vocal development which will help you to sing without effort and extend your singing abilities.

    You might find this article interesting: Preparing to sing: why bother?
    We'll then begin with a simple round or chant and then move onto songs which have three or more separate harmony parts. In a one day workshop I'll often reprise what we've learnt at the end of the day and record it so you can hear how good you sound!

    Q12. What do you mean by "bring lunch to share"?
    A. Singing together is a great community and social experience. It's great to extend this to eating together. All the food you bring will be put together on a table and we will have a buffet. People sometimes bring something that they've made at home (it's helpful if you label these!), or you can pick something up at your local supermarket. I will provide plates, cutlery, etc. I'll also provide various teas, coffee, milk and biscuits for other breaks!

    Q13. I can't stand up for very long at a time without needing to sit down, is this a problem?
    A. I always encourage people to stand as much as possible as it's much easier than trying to sing sitting down (and it keeps the energy up!). However, there will always be chairs available and people can sit down if and when they need to, as much as they need to. You can take part fully in my workshops even if you need to sit down the whole time.

    Q14. What if I've paid in advance for a workshop, but find that I can't attend after all?
    A. It depends on when you have to cancel and also whether it's a weekend (or longer) course or a one-day (or shorter) workshop. I have a cancellation policy which you can find here: booking terms and conditions. This only applies to workshops that I run myself. Other venues and organisations which book me have their own policies.

    Q15. Why do your singing weekends cost so much more than your one day ones?
    A. The cost of a singing weekend includes full board and accommodation as well as all tuition. The cost very much depends on whether it's a venue that I've hired myself specially, or if I'm employed by a residential centre (such as Farncombe Courses) as well as the standards of accommodation: a shared dormitory room in a youth hostel will always cost less than a well-appointed single room with en suite facilities.

    There will also usually be far more singers in a one-day workshop so the costs can be kept down accordingly. Once you've considered the smaller group, great food and lovely accommodation, a singing weekend starts to look like good value!

    Q16. What's the structure of a typical singing weekend?
    A. Typically singers will check into the venue in the late afternoon on the Friday. Our first session will be before supper at around 5pm for an hour or so to introduce each other and to gently start singing together. Supper won't be too late (6.30pm or 7pm usually), then the Friday evening is free to mingle, visit the bar and get to know each other.

    Saturday and Sunday mornings each start around 10am with a warm up and go on until lunch at 1pm, with a half hour mid-morning break for tea and coffee. Saturday after lunch is free to chill out or discover the local area. We reconvene for a session before supper, and then have a relaxed, fun evening singing session on the Saturday evening.

    Sunday morning is spent going over all the songs we've learnt and we end up running through them all just before lunch to feel that everyone has really got them under their belt. The weekend ends after lunch at around 2pm.

    There are around nine hours of formal singing sessions over the weekend, which equates to the equivalent of two one-day workshops. The structure is quite loose so there is plenty of time for relaxing, walking and generally chilling out with a long 3 1/2 hour break on the Saturday afternoon.

    Q17. What if I have a question that isn't covered here?
    A. Do feel free to ask me any questions when you are at a workshop, no matter how 'daft' or elementary they may seem. You can also contact me directly and ask.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • What would you do differently if you were starting your choir today?

    Listed on January 11, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    I have learnt a great deal since I started my first choir in 1997.

    WorldSong at CUPA June 2000
    WorldSong in Coventry, June 2000

    If I were starting a choir again today I may well do things differently.

    my experience

    When I set up my first choir it was rather accidental. I had been asked to teach an evening class called “Songs from around the world”. Over time it became very successful so I decided to go independent and create a choir made up of those attending the class. That choir was called WorldSong and it continues today.

    I made lots of mistakes when I first started and stumbled through more by luck than judgment. Later on I took over two other community choirs which had been set up by other people (Woven Chords and Global Harmony). This gave me the opportunity to do things a bit better the second time around. But I wasn’t given a clean slate and there were only so many changes I could make at first.

    In 2010 I moved to a different part of the country and in January 2011 I set up a brand new community choir where I live: The OK Chorale. This gave me the chance to learn from my stumbles and mistakes with WorldSong and to set something up from scratch exactly the way I wanted with all those extra years of experience.

    what if you can’t start anew?

    Some of you won’t have this chance though, but may be getting bored or frustrated with the way your own choir is going. So why not try this thought experiment:

    What would you do differently if you were starting your choir from scratch today?

    Imagine your perfect choir, don’t let reality get in the way. Now see how that differs from how your current choir is. What changes would you need to make?

    Choirs get into habits and follow the culture set in motion by the choir leader. It’s not too late to change, but you’ll need to introduce things gradually.

    Make a list of the major changes you’d like to make, then under each item create a programme of smaller steps that will lead to that change. Tackle one at a time and be patient!

    I’d love to know how what changes you’d like to make and how you get on when introducing them. Do drop by and let us know how it goes.

    Chris Rowbury



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  • What single thing will make you a better singer this year?

    Listed on January 4, 2016 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    It’s that time of year when lots of us make New Year resolutions, then a week later usually abandon them!

    Duet singing

    The secret is to be realistic. So how about choosing just one thing to change this year?

    With the best intentions in the world, there are so many things that we promise we will do differently or better when we sing.

    It might be to get to choir on time each week or to check your posture each time you sing or to make time to really learn the lyrics for your next concert or to stop chatting in rehearsal whilst others are learning.

    There can seem to be so many things we need to work on that it can feel overwhelming. It’s so easy to make a long list of New Year resolutions with the full intention of fulfilling them all. But inevitably we bite off more than we can chew, end up feeling a bit of a failure, and maybe not achieving even one of our goals.

    Just choose one. Make it clear and simple: something you want to change, i.e. start doing, improve, or stop doing. Write it down in big letters and pin it up somewhere prominent (or put it in your choir folder).

    Who knows, you may make the single change you want, then find there’s room for another!
    You might find it useful to read an earlier post of mine called What small change will make you a better singer or choir leader?

    And do let us know how it goes. Sharing your one goal in public can be great incentive to making the change!

    Chris Rowbury



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  • How men sing (Part 3) – amazing examples from across the globe #getmensinging

    Listed on December 28, 2015 by Chris Rowbury in Blogs!

    I’ve written two posts now showing amazing examples of men singing: Part 1 and Part 2 – now it’s time for Part 3. Given that it’s December I thought I’d throw a few seasonal songs in!

    men singing

    My hope is that if men see a huge variety of different kinds of men singing together, they might be inspired to get off the sofa and go and try it themselves.

    Like the word ‘choir’, the concept of ‘men singing’ can bring up specific stereotypes – not all of them pleasing.

    If there is not a relevant role model out there, it can easily put men off singing because they feel that they don’t fit the mould.

    Rather than going into the whys and wherefores of why men don’t sing, I thought I’d just share some great examples of men singing together. Who knows, you may find an example that fits the bill. I hope they inspire you!

    First up, something for this festive season: Port Isaac Fisherman’s Friends singing While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.

    fishermans friends

    Next, from a very different tradition, Jewish men singing at a Bar Mitzvah.

    bar mitzvah

    I absolutely adore singing from Eastern Europe. Here is a fine example from the coastal region of Croatia. It’s a tradition called Klapa which is from the Dalmatian coast. The word klapa translates as “a group of friends”. Here is Garifule bili by Klapa Ošlak.


    Maybe a bit more familiar to our ears, a version of Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is you by Out of the Blue (OOTB), Oxford’s all-male a cappella group.


    Next up is some Albanian polyphony which has been proclaimed by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible heritage of Humanity.”


    Here is a Russian Orthodox choir from Moscow singing Chesnokov's Gabriel Appeared whilst on a European tour.

    Russian orthodox

    And now (as they say) for something completely different: Tuvan throat singing! One of the world’s oldest forms of music, throat singing is a type of overtone singing when more than one note is sounded at a time. Throat-singing is most identified with parts of Central Asia (such as Tuva, a predominantly rural region of Russia located northwest of Mongolia), but it is also practiced in northern Canada and South Africa where the technique takes on different styles and meanings.


    Time for a couple of seasonal songs. First up is a barbershop version of Jingle Bells, arranged by Michael McGlynn of Anúna.

    Jingle bells

    Next is one of my favourite Christmas carols, Veni, veni Emmanuel here sung by The Gesualdo Six and arranged by Philip Lawson.

    Veni veni emmanuel

    And finally, here’s Milton singing The Man Song by Sean Morey. Enjoy!

    Milton man song

    I hope all your wishes and dreams come to fruition in 2016. Happy New Year to all my readers!

    Chris Rowbury



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