The Art of Coarse Choral Singing

The Art of Coarse Choral Singing

In our latest blog we look at ‘The Art of Coarse Choral Singing’, inspired by Michael Green’s wonderfully insightful 1964 book, The Art of Coarse Acting (or how to wreck an amateur dramatic society). Michael Green describes a coarse actor as:

“…one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down. He will usually be playing three parts – Messenger, 2nd Clown, an Attendant Lord. His aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act II so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production.”

I’m sure you can come up with your own definition of a ‘coarse chorister’ (I think I might know a few) although I have to say (mainly in case of litigation) that no tenors were harmed in the writing of this blog, and that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Coarse Choral Singing – An Idiot’s Guide

Singing in a choir is an unnatural pastime in which individuality is terribly undervalued and sadly, discouraged. Some musical directors even have the misguided idea that a choir should sound like a ‘single instrument’, in which case, what is the point of having so many singers? The aim of the coarse singer should be to upstage everyone else and provide the audience with a memorable performance, and in particular, aim to be the stand-out chorister that made it so. (Compare with The Art of Coarse Acting where the coarse actor’s aim is to upstage everyone else). As a singer, you may have worked very hard to learn the notes and words, and it would be a real pity if the audience did not appreciate your abundant talent. But f you haven’t learnt the notes or words, don’t despair: you can still be the star of the show.  There’s always hope, even if, in the words of the immortal Eric Morecambe, you know “all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”, you can still shine.

Dynamics

It should be remembered that dynamics are purely advisory. (pppfff! Indeed!) Quiet singing is especially dangerous because it bottles up a singer’s natural energy. It is as unhealthy as not going to the toilet. You should only ever sing really quietly if you don’t know the words or tune, and even then, it would probably be better to mime the words or make up your own instead. If you’re uncertain of the lyrics, hold back at the start of phrases until someone else has come in with the words. The pleasing swell of sound as the rest of the choir remembers the words and joins in creates a fabulous effect – a sort of natural crescendo that has a life of its own. If you still can’t remember the words, try singing just vowel sounds. You have roughly a one-in-five chance of getting the right sound (unless of course you’re singing in Welsh).   If you consider yourself an ‘advanced singer’, it is important to ensure that your part is clearly heard, especially when another section has the tune, otherwise the all-important harmonies can go almost unnoticed. Remember, if you can hear your neighbour’s voice, you are almost certainly not singing loud enough, and you risk being put-off by actually having to listen to other choristers. Treat every song like a solo.

Blend

‘Blend’ is another dangerous concept that results in mediocrity: it is an unnatural and unhelpful idea that results in the better singers in the choir (such as yourself) being held back by those less able.   Singing louder than everyone else in your section marks you out as the most talented singer in the section.  If you have a really loud voice, see if you can make nearby choristers wince with pain as their ear-drums rupture. If you are a less able singer however, don’t despair: you can still gain plenty of attention by use of extreme gestures, facial expressions, or clowning around (see also ‘Star Quality’). Often, grinning disconcertingly in very serious passages (or appearing stony-faced during joyful ones) can let the audience know that you have guessed the composer’s true intent and you alone have sensed the deeper meaning of the piece being performed. If you are uncertain about using extreme facial expressions, you can still make your mark on the performance by using a musical technique known as ‘singing into the gaps’, which involves holding notes longer than anyone else at the ends of phrases. This takes a great deal of practice, but is well worth the effort in terms of getting noticed. A variation of this is confidently starting phrases half a beat early, but this is advanced technique that generally requires you to learn the words and so is not recommended.

Algernon

Algernon always wanted to be different….

Star Quality (or ‘The Ego Has Landed’)

You will have noticed that many pop stars wave at their adoring fans.   It would be heartless to ignore loyal supporters (especially if they are your family), so ensure that when entering or leaving the stage, or even between numbers, you wave graciously at them. The epitome of good taste is the ‘Royal Wave’, which also helps to establish your superiority among other choristers. It is surprising how even in some supposedly ‘top notch’ professional choirs, the singers are too stuffy to acknowledge their fans. To make matters worse, some choirs have a uniform which makes it even harder for individuals to stand out.   There are a number of ways to circumvent this stupidity to ensure that your adoring public can easily recognize you.   Wearing additions to your surplice or uniform is a great way of doing this – a different coloured scarf or handkerchief, some ostentatious ‘bling’ (generally only if you’re a soprano or top tenor though). Badges, funny hats, red socks, rotating bow-ties, Dame Edna Everage glasses, visible Union Jack underwear, outrageous make-up, massive ear-rings, fluorescent hair or large wigs are all effective means of identifying yourself as the star act. If you have to wear a tie, wear it differently to everyone else. Remember, people haven’t come to see a choir…they have come to see YOU and you owe it to them to stand out!

Expert Singers

Expert singers are noticeable by their superior singing skills.   Such singers never need to look at the Musical Director (or conductor). In fact most good coarse singers learn early on that watching the buffoon at the front waving their arms around can be terribly distracting. Remember too, that singing is a form of theatre, and you can never over-exaggerate your ‘singing pose’. Even in a choir, the use of extravagant hand gestures should be your aim as it helps convey the full meaning of the piece to the audience. This is especially true for sacred music which often has dreary, archaic, or foreign words and really benefits from some lively gesturing. On the topic of foreign words, you should avoid trying to sound like a foreigner. Be proud of your heritage! If you’re a Yorkshireman, then bloody well sing that silly foreign nonsense in an honest, good, old-fashioned Yorkshire accent. Why should you change the way you sing? It’s your country after all. Sing the song in your local accent and your audience will love you for it. Expert singers should also demonstrate their superior knowledge by frequently interrupting the Musical Director in rehearsals to seek points of clarification. For example “Excuse me maestro, but do you want us to hold that semibreve for the full value? It’s just that you brought us off us off early….” (Incidentally, using the word maestro (or maestra for a female MD), clearly demonstrates to the rest of the plebs in the choir that you are a sophisticated and well-educated person, deserving of respect and admiration.) If you don’t feel confident enough to make musical points, then you can still establish your credentials by exploring pronunciation, especially in foreign language pieces. For example… “Do you want us to pronounce excelsis using the mediaeval or contemporary pronunciation? (Don’t worry, you don’t have to know what the mediaeval or contemporary pronunciation is, but everyone, including the Musical Director, will assume that you are a choral music or linguistic Ninja and will be reluctant to mess with you.) As an expert singer, you also owe it to your less fortunate neighbours to explain to them the finer points of musicianship in a piece, although sometimes, annoyingly, you will have to raise your voice in order to be heard above the musical director’s incessant chatter.   Expert singers may also demonstrate their prowess and sense of humour by loudly humming their own (or someone else’s) part while another section is being rehearsed. It confuses the heck out of the MD who wonders where the stray notes are coming from and causes the MD to rehearse the section again in order to be sure they are singing the right notes! For choral concerts ‘with copies’, budding soloists should demonstrate their superiority by eschewing the use of copies altogether, even if this results in forgetting some passages.   Early superiority in such matters can be quickly established at rehearsal when the musical director insists on referring to bar numbers. The soloist should remind everyone that they are ‘not using a copy’ and demand that the musical director explains in full, what bar number is being referred to. In choirs that perform without music (a dreadful idea which encourages singers to watch the musical director) always stand in the back row if you are uncertain of your words.   This way, you can demonstrate your professionalism by pinning a copy of the words to the back of the chorister in front of you and you need never worry about forgetting your words.   This will always impress your fellow choristers who have stupidly spent hours of their time learning the song.

Marking Up

There are few more impressive sights than a well marked-up vocal score: it shows that you have bothered looking at the music outside of rehearsals and that you really care about what you are singing. Colouring books for adults are all the rage, so don’t hold back when it comes to inventive colour schemes. This is the mark of a true pro. Generally, Day-Glo colours such as lime green or pink work best of all and should be used extensively to highlight your part. Any performance directions should be written boldly in ink so that they are easily read.   Librarians and other petty bureaucrats can get excited about marking copies in this way, saying that the music may not be issued to you next time the piece is used, or that performance directions might be changed.   Whilst they may have a point, they are overlooking your importance as a performer. It is you that has to sing this rubbish, so you have every right to do ‘painting by numbers’ on your copy if you wish.

Choreography and Movement

Choreography (or choralography as it is sometimes called when done intentionally or accidentally in time with the singing), provides boundless opportunities for demonstrating your individuality. Artistic interpretation is always more important than simply ‘looking like everyone else’, so strenuous efforts should be made to develop the choreographer’s ‘intent’ into something altogether more interesting. The most effective moves are often those done when the rest of the choir is standing still (even better if this involves clapping). Don’t be shy about using such opportunities: it is how most real ‘stars’ get their big break. Another sure-fire winner is ‘swaying in the opposite direction’. Never underestimate the skill required in swaying in the opposite direction to everyone else, but rest assured the effect is spectacular and well worth the effort. Be that stand-out performer you’ve always dreamt of being. However, if you are going ‘off-piste’ with movement, I advise steering clear of anything involving bodily functions. You’d be surprised how obvious a bit of surreptitious nose-picking can be. Being the choir’s ‘bogeyman’ is not the sort of accolade you really want.

Singing is a Social Activity

Never forget that the main point of singing in a choir is not the music but the social and self-promotional opportunities it presents.   In mixed choirs (or indeed, in Gay Men’s Choirs etc.) there is plenty of opportunity for flirting. Singing in a choir provides the ideal environment to stand at the back of the choir and look admiringly at other choristers’ bottoms.   This is particularly true of SATB choirs where women generally outnumber men, and men stand at the back.   This is exactly why the choir is traditionally arranged in this way and a good reason for ignoring any attempts to get you to stand in a different, less advantageous position. Although some musical directors discourage it, chatting to your neighbour between songs is part and parcel of belonging to a choir.   When on stage, it conveys to the audience how relaxed you are and how friendly the choir is. It is a real favourite with audiences who appreciate the informal atmosphere it creates. And talking of ‘atmosphere’, in men’s choirs in particular, there are few things that create bonhomie as well as an anonymous, stinky fart. It provides endless minutes of entertaining banter, facial contortions, accusations and denials.   Really good ones have been known to disrupt rehearsals and even halt performances. LePetomaneThis is always a favourite with fellow choristers despite their protestations to the contrary. Like a professional athlete who prepares for a major event, a truly spectacular stink bomb takes careful planning, usually involving curry and beer, the latter of which, has also been scientifically proven to enhance your opinion of your own singing. You can even develop your skill into a new genre, like the famous French flatulist, Joseph Pujol (aka Le Petomane – pictured mid-performance) who could play tunes, imitate canon-fire, and blow out candles from several yards away. The scope is endless.

Breathing

Oh my goodness, what a lot of nonsense is talked about ‘breathing’.   Most of us have made this far in life by breathing so it really can’t be as difficult as some people make out. Don’t let get confused between ‘breathing’, ‘support’ and ‘phrasing’. They are all the same thing. Some musical directors and choirmasters get very upset when you breathe in the middle of a word, but especially at the end of a phrase, it is often essential to breathe in the middle of a word if you are going to be able to give it the big finish it deserves. Breathing in the middle of words is a perfectly acceptable singing technique: watch shows like ‘the X Factor’ and you’ll see most of the singers do it and audiences go wild with appreciation. The audience will also be hugely impressed by long phrases if they can hear you drawing breath like an asthmatic vacuum cleaner just before you start to sing.   It tells them there’s something really special coming and they will stop eating their crisps and pay attention. For really impressive deep breaths, raise and tense the shoulders and try to get the veins on your neck to stand out.   This adds immeasurably to the drama of the performance and will impress your MD.

Coarse Act

Advanced Coarse Singing and How To Avoid Blame

It is entirely possible to progress to an advanced level of coarse singing without ever having to become a competent singer.   Indeed there are many who do. The techniques of advanced coarse singing require a little more practice and include undirected tempo changes (usually slowing down in the quiet bits and speeding up in the loud bits), and blame-shifting.   The latter is only to be used sparingly when you have a made an obvious mistake. A quick ‘filthy look’ in the direction of a neighbouring chorister will usually deflect the blame and leave your reputation intact.  If you are struggling with words and you have attracted the MD’s attention, then a quick coughing-fit will usually suffice to throw him or her off the trail. Undirected tempo changes can be great fun, especially if done competitively between sections (e.g. sopranos vs altos, or tenors vs basses) making it much harder or the MD to regain control. See which section can get to the end first. The audience love this one and can sometimes join in the excitement created by clapping along.

Happy Coarse Singing!


Well that’s all for now. They say that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but it is, nevertheless, still classed as wit. We hope you have enjoyed this tongue-in-check guide to the Art of Coarse Choral Singing – a sort of tribute to Michael Green.   Of course, no-one in the real world behaves like this….or do they?

GE

 

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Male Choirs: A dying breed or an exciting opportunity?

Even in the Welsh heartlands, that bastion of male choral singing, choirs are struggling to recruit new singers and inevitably, some will simply fade away into silence, taking with them a once proud tradition of community spirit and male singing.   Their failure to evolve into something attractive to a new generation of singers seals their fate, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The stereotypical image of old men in blazers singing traditional Welsh hymn tunes is one that many men’s choirs, including the Swindon-based Wessex Male Choir, are working hard to dispel, but like all deeply-embedded stereotypes, it is proving difficult to shake off, and even innovative choirs have to tread a fine line between alienating audiences that love the traditional songs, and attracting new audiences and singers who want something more contemporary.

Informal WMC Hi Res

‘The Men in Black’ – Wessex Male Choir & Music Director Rhiannon Williams

So how do male choirs fight back and ensure that they remain relevant to today’s audiences and singers? There are plenty of articles in the press about the demise of male choirs, but considerably fewer offering suggestions for how the genre could evolve and develop. Science hasn’t yet reached the point where we can clone Gareth Malone, (and maybe that’s a good thing), so there’s no easy answer: if there were, then every male choir would be thriving.   However, it’s fair to say there are some emerging trends among successful choirs that may point the way.   Arguably, it is also true that choirs that are successful in attracting new audiences, are also successful in attracting new choristers: the two go hand-in-hand.

Butlin’s Bluecoats or an Undertakers’ Convention?

The first problem is the look. As smart as it may be, for many people, a choir dressed in blazers seems very old fashioned. But what to replace it with is equally challenging. For many years, Wessex choristers have worn black trousers and open-necked long-sleeved black shirts when performing (although sometimes we wear DJs and red bow ties – or a garish selection of Christmas pullovers). But even the black shirts are now commonplace and maybe rather passé.   Various choirs have experimented with different coloured shirts, different ties, bow ties, waistcoasts, jackets, and altogether more informal styles such as rugby shirts, ‘working clothes’ and even pirate costumes. The jury is out as to which works best because there are still occasions that call for a more formal look. I remember on one occasion when we tried our black shirts with bow ties we looked like an undertakers’ convention! And trying to look ‘cool’ if you have a Zimmer frame or a beer belly is also tricky, but somehow choirs have to find a cost-effective style that works and doesn’t send younger audiences and singers running for the hills.

Wesley’s Greatest Hits

The second problem is repertoire. I don’t think any male choirs want to completely turn their backs on the wealth of wonderful tunes represented by the traditional male voice choir genre, but if we are to attract younger audiences there has to be a desire to innovate and try new stuff including pop and rock arrangements, and choral works by modern composers. Getting the balance right can be difficult, and selecting the right material is also hard with most choirs having to indulge in a costly bit of trial and error to find songs that really work. Whilst there are some good arrangers out there, there is also a shortage of great arrangements of modern pieces for TTBB (tenor/tenor/baritone/bass) choirs, and quite often, the cost of obtaining the rights to arrange a great pop song, rock anthem or music theatre piece can be prohibitive.   I know from personal experience that trying to secure arrangement permissions from companies like Disney, who own the rights to a huge number of very popular songs, can be too costly to contemplate.   The Wessex Male Choir strongly encourages our choristers and our audiences to suggest songs they would like us to sing.   This can be a double-edged sword at times because it can create expectations that are difficult or impossible to deliver.   To ‘manage’ all the suggestions, we have a repertoire advisory team (RAT) that supports the Music Director in finding new pieces. A lot of the suggestions received by the RAT are simply not viable because of copyright or performing rights issues; because there are no suitable arrangements available; or simply because the style of piece relies too much on other voices (e.g. sopranos) or long instrumental riffs for guitar and drums that sound pants when played on a piano! It’s early days for our RAT, but with the encouragement of our Music Director, we are already building a sizeable chunk of enjoyable new repertoire that is quite different to most other choirs: but we still have a long way to go!

A Bunch of Stiffs

The third problem is the challenge of being ‘entertaining’. Serried ranks of choristers standing rigidly to attention on stage is a real turn-off for everyone except retired sergeant-majors (who are strange people anyway). Choirs need movement to help them express the joy and energy of the songs they sing, and just as dynamic contrast can deliver spine-tingling moments, so too can stillness when contrasted with movement. Choralography (the art of putting choreographed moves together with choral music) needs careful handling if it isn’t to look silly or detract from the music. The music has to come first. Choralography needs to be slick, polished, and rehearsed to perfection if it is to work. And if your choir is populated by 70-year olds, the moves might be quite limited (e.g. no splits, pirouhettes, or balletic grand jetés!). Other forms of stagecraft can also help make the performance more interesting: use flags, torches, umbrellas, hats, false beards; stand in a different formation, move about while singing, hang the second tenors upside down from the ceiling (please)…anything but be more imaginative than just standing on parade and your audience will love you for it.

The disappointing news is that when you’ve done all this successfully, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll attract younger audiences or younger choristers. The trouble is, there are just too many other distractions for them. So how do you make singing so ‘cool’ that they will choose singing over other options? I’m not sure, but here are a few recruiting ideas to consider.

Recruiting.

At present, we still get most of our new recruits via existing choristers.   Your members are your best advert and they need to advocate vigorously on behalf of the choir. Get them talking about the choir to men at work, in the pub, in the club and at the game – and anywhere else! Their enthusiasm is the biggest selling point you have, and make sure they are well supported with a plentiful supply of attractive business cards, flyers and other recruiting literature.   Gone are the days when you could just put on an ‘open evening’ and expect men to flock in. As Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”, so be bold, try new things to attract new choristers.

Last year, the Wessex Male Choir ran a very successful recruiting campaign called Project RMS (Real Men Sing), which included singing at Wembley in front of 85,000 people, visiting a local military base (examining the hardware and singing in one of the messes), a flash-mob, getting broadcast on local radio, and singing in a concert – all without any obligation to join the choir!

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Part of the Wessex Male Choir’s ‘Project RMS’ recruiting trifold from last year.

Even better is to give men a reason to sing, rather than expect them to admit they rather fancy the idea! Get them singing to raise money for charity. Just think how many outrageously hideous moustaches you’ve seen in Movember? Perfectly nice, rational men who for the rest of the year look almost respectable suddenly turn into hairy slug-balancers and sprout the most ridiculous 1970’s porn-star moustaches…in the name of charity! Joining a choir (even temporarily) to sing in a charity fundraiser is the excuse that men might need, and it’s nowhere near as bad as having to grow dodgy-looking face furniture.

Use social media as much as possible. Write a blog. Create memes for Facebook and Twitter. Get people talking about your choir! Consider using targeted advertising on Facebook where you pay to ‘boost’ a post to a specific demographic. For example, for recruiting, you might want to target 30-60 year old men with an interest in concerts and singing who live within 20 miles of where you are based. Facebook should then serve up your post into their Facebook ‘feed’ and hopefully, you’ll get your message across.

Untitled

An example of some recent Wessex Male Choir memes for Facebook and Twitter.

Get collaborating – especially with youth choirs. Not only do they generally drag their proud parents along to hear them sing, but as they transition from a youth choir into something more adult, if they have seen you perform and maybe shared the stage with you, there’s a good chance they’ll consider joining you.   But please, don’t be a ‘vampire’!

Old Vampires and Young Blood!

How many times have you heard old choirs talking about needing young blood? I hate the term – it makes us sound like a bunch of desperate old vampires! And that brings me onto a related topic: all too often, the existing members see the need for new members but don’t want them to ‘rock-the-boat’: in other words, some older members can be very resistant to change. The choir has to belong to the new members too – so do what you can to empower them.   Seek their views on everything from stagecraft to repertoire, and dress code. You need them more than they need you.

Recruiting from Colleges and Schools

Recruiting from schools and colleges may seem like an obvious approach for finding younger singers but it can be hard work getting the right access and finding the right event format. The offer of running a singing workshop, or performing at a school assembly may seem good to us, but to a busy school with a jam-packed curriculum, it may not be met with quite such enthusiasm. Getting the lads to sing in front of their mates is also likely to be tricky unless you have got something really interesting to offer them. In my experience, this recruiting path seldom delivers, but when it does, it can build a core of younger singers that will help to attract more.   (Don’t forget to use your younger singers in your publicity photos!) Having a youth choir is perhaps the best way of getting younger men interested in singing, but very few choirs have the resources to be able to offer this unless working in collaboration with a school or the local music hub. Sadly, even when you’ve enjoyed some success in recruiting younger choristers, the investment can often be negated by the pull of university and all manner of other attractions, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

OBA

The success of groups such as Only Boys Aloud shows that boys can be encouraged into singing!

Retaining all your new recruits can be a challenge: even following our very successful Project RMS, we struggled to retain some of the newbies. The Wessex is an auditioned choir with high standards and that requires a lot of time and effort from our choristers, so inevitably, some of our new recruits reluctantly felt that they couldn’t commit.   We try to make it as easy as possible though: we have a buddying system to help new recruits; there is no shortage of support, encouragement and advice from section leaders and other choristers, and we have a first-rate set of online resources for helping people to learn the songs. For example, every rehearsal is recorded, just in case you want to go over something again! Lastly, having a chorister development programme helps to build confidence and attract singers as well as improving the overall standard of the singing. It is something that no good choir should be without.

I hope this article has given you some ideas about how male choirs might tackle some of the common problems we all share. We would love to hear your ideas too. Let’s grasp this exciting opportunity to transform the genre! The alternative is unthinkable.

Guy Edwards


Some articles about the challenges facing male choirs.

Welsh male voice choirs struggle to attract young (BBC 2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-19173496

Can the male voice choir survive in the modern world? (The Daily Telegraph -2016) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/can-the-male-voice-choir-survive-in-the-modern-world/

Welsh male voice choirs: a vocal minority (The Guardian -2011) https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/feb/01/welsh-choir-only-men-aloud

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