A few articles ago, I wrote about whether it’s possible to make a living out of running choirs. My business partner, Christine Mulgrew, and I have found a business model that works for us: we run two choirs, provide workshops for our choir members and various team-building and singing programmes for corporate clients. In this article, Christine tells us how she goes about planning and executing a workshop.
At Total Voice, we have run several successful workshops focusing on solo performance skills and always find it to be an area that engages and excites people. Must be the inner diva in us all!
As a rule I plan sessions with a maximum of twenty participants as any more than this can unnerve people, make them less likely to come out of their shell and get the most they can out of the session. It is also much easier to work successfully with smaller groups and for participants to form a supportive bond with each other.
I always like to start with an ice breaker, something really easy and fun that everyone can do. Feeling relaxed in the workshop environment is really important. I might choose a tongue twister or a familiar song with silly actions – anything that relaxes people and prompts a few giggles.
When teaching performance skills, my aims are twofold. I want to give the participants skills and tips that they can put into practise in the session, but also equip them to continue their vocal improvement afterwards.
Getting the right balance of theoretical and practical material is essential. I always begin by talking to my participants about themselves. Why are they there? What is their experience and what do they want to achieve? This not only helps me to understand how I can help, it also enables them to crystallise their own thinking about what they want from the session. I find a short session in small groups writing down key points works very effectively. This will often start a discussion where I can interject information such as warm-ups and technique practice or how to approach a new song. I try never to forget that participants are there to sing, so I always demonstrate any technical points with practical exercises.
Becoming a better performer takes practice and exposure to performance situations that many may find scary. With that in mind I always dedicate a substantial part of the workshop to solo singing at the microphone. I use microphones in my sessions as we always use them in our community choir performances and many participants are hoping to build their confidence to attempt a solo or become a backing singer. If I’ve created the right atmosphere, even the most nervous participants will have a go. I’ve often been told by anxious singers that they plan to sit out any solo opportunities. They’ve always changed their minds during the workshop and been elated by the result.
There is often a great fear associated with microphones as people are not used to hearing their voice amplified. Many will shy away, getting further and further from the mic, others will jiggle around looking uncomfortable although some will find their calling and you’ll struggle to get them to stop.
A good way to introduce using a microphone is to speak into it, something as simple as your name. I like to split the participants into two or three groups, depending on how many microphones you have, and then sing a piece together as this makes people feel supported and less fearful. We then demonstrate effects that can be used, such as reverb, to try and get the idea across that a microphone is a tool to help you, rather than the enemy! We will also set up different types of microphone so that people can see which they prefer.
Once people are comfortable up there, I like to introduce some more performance skills, this might be in a second session. This will involve not only singing into the microphone but also bringing in gestures, looking at the audience, and the fine line between that and not staring at one person. There seems to be a real divide on people’s preferences with regards to microphone stands. Some like the stability and comfort of the hands free option whilst others like to hold them or have the freedom of a radio mic. This really is a personal preference and may vary from song to song.
I always offer feedback but make this as positive as possible. When teaching performance skills you are in a vulnerable situation. For some, the confidence needed just to attend the session has been great and the last thing you are there for is to knock people down. If I have a correction to make (of course this will be the case as that’s what a teacher is there for), I will start with something positive such as ”I love the tone of your voice and the way you are telling the story. If you work on making your diction clearer you will really add to the impact,” rather than “You need to make your diction clearer, I can’t tell what you’re saying.” By giving positive assistance, I find, people will be more open to change. Try and involve the group in this correction so as not to isolate the individual, perhaps do a quick diction exercise with everyone. This practice is not because I’m from the school of “everyone’s a winner”, it’s merely that I think it’s important to help people on their personal journey as a singer. The aim is to help people achieve their own personal goals.
At the end of a session we hand out quick and easy feedback forms so that while it’s fresh in their minds we can gauge what participants thought of the workshop. This has proved so helpful to us in giving our customers what they want. For example after one of our sessions a participant commented it would be handy to have the song material for the session in advance so that the pieces were more familiar. Before the next session we did this and found it worked incredibly well as people were more able to put their lyrics aside and concentrate on their performance.