It’s a privilege to welcome Chris to Total Choir Resources. He’s an incredibly busy and well-known choir and workshop leader in the UK, zipping around the country with astounding energy and getting people of all ages and levels of experience singing with joy and confidence. Let’s find out how he does it.
1. Have you always had a passion for music? What sort of music did you listen to/play when you were growing up?
There wasn’t really that much music in my house when I was growing up as neither of my parents are particularly interested in music. We did have a radiogram and I was bought a guitar and had some lessons when I was about 10.
I listened a lot to my portable transistor radio and would make up harmonies and sing along to the pop songs I liked. I remember listening under the bed covers late at night to Radio Caroline when they played The Beatles White Album for the very first time. I also used to borrow classical LPs from the local library and started to build my own record collection as soon as I could afford it (Bowie, Roxy Music, Monkees).
I never used to think I was particularly musical, but I know I have a good ear. I was very shy as a child, but had the courage to audition for the choir at primary school. I didn’t get in, so I made my Mum go up to the school to complain. They let me in in the end! I also used to sing in the local church choir as a kid.
Like most teenagers I wanted to be in a band and used to jam a bit with some mates, but nothing serious. Then singing became dormant when I went to senior school until my early 30s, although I always bought and listened to loads of records and went to live gigs in the intervening years.
I was heavily into punk, indie and alternative music. I loved composers like Arvo Part, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. I also loved ‘world music’, especially traditional unaccompanied harmony singing from Eastern Europe. I was never really into English folk nor classical choral music nor contemporary acappella nor barbershop, opera, musical theatre, etc.
2. You’re part of the Natural Voice Practitioners Network. How do you think your style of teaching differs from a more “traditional” approach to choral singing?
The NVPN arose to cater for all those people who think they can’t or aren’t allowed to sing. Many people have been put off by being told at school to shut up or stand at the back or mime. Many traditional ‘choral societies’ with their formal approach and reliance on written notation and choral ‘literature’ have made singing seem inaccessible and elitist to many ordinary people who haven’t had any formal music education.
The NVPN exists to remind people that singing is everyone’s birthright. Everyone is able to sing and nobody should be excluded from music-making. The majority of the world’s music is traditional, handed down from generation to generation and not written down. Much of it is a spontaneous expression of joy, grief, community, etc. and is often associated with major passages in life (birth, death, marriage, coming of age), physical work and ritual. The NVPN attempts to emphasise the relationship between body, breath and voice in a free, easy way and to demonstrate that every individual has a unique ‘natural’ voice.
Since we believe that everyone should have access to music-making, most NVPN groups are open-access (i.e. no auditions) and the teaching of songs assumes no prior musical knowledge and we avoid unnecessary musical jargon (so songs are usually taught by ear without sheet music). We place a lot of emphasis on breath and body so all sessions will involve a proper warm up. Songs will often incorporate movements and rhythm. The NVPN repertoire is often (but not exclusively) drawn from world music traditions and is sung in harmony without musical accompaniment. That means that we just need a space and any bunch of people!
However, just because many NVPN groups are open-access and don’t use sheet music doesn’t mean to say that the singing and performance is not to a high standard.
One of the biggest differences between the NVPN approach and that of a more “traditional” approach to choral singing is that we use a lot of humour and are focused more on the singers than the music. Some choirs put the music first and their primary aim is to realise it in as perfect a way as possible. Sometimes this means that the singers are not treated very well and rehearsals can become quite tense affairs with singers afraid of getting things ‘wrong’!
3. You’re extremely active on your blog and on social media. How do you think this has contributed to your success as a choir leader?
I don’t know how much it’s contributed to my success as I’ve always used the internet to promote my work.
These days the internet and social media are vital means of disseminating information. My presence on the web enables me to maintain an awareness of my ‘brand’. On a basic level, my website, for example, is an easy way for people to find out where my next workshop is. My presence on Facebook and Twitter allows me to have a dialogue with people. It allows a conversation to continue after the workshop has finished. It also allows for a larger, global community of singers (and choir leaders) to chat regularly.
I started my blog for two main reasons: one, to give me a discipline to write about what I do in order to find out what I think; and two, to enable me to learn from others by creating an opportunity for dialogue. Because of my blog I’ve become a bit of a “go to” guy regarding choir-related issues. I get lots of emails asking me questions and wanting me to solve problems for singers and choir leaders. It can take up quite a bit of time! I have quite a following (I think!), but mostly non-UK people, so they don’t convert into customers. Most of the people who stumble across my blog do so by Googling a particular topic. Many people seem to read it (at least they tell me they do when I meet them), but don’t tend to comment so sometimes it feels like I’m sending stuff out into a black hole and nobody cares. But it does discipline me to write something weekly and helps me in my own practice.
4. What keeps you motivated?
Commitment and responsibility! I was going to say ‘money’, but that’s not quite right. Quite honestly, some days when I’m tired and the evenings are drawing in and I have a long drive to a workshop, I’d much rather stay at home. But I’ve made a professional commitment to turn up and do my job properly. It only usually takes a few minutes of warm up or a simple song and I come alive hearing everyone’s voice. A true tonic for the soul!
5. What’s been the highlight of your musical year so far?
Last summer I did a workshop for London’s Southbank for their Chorus Festival. I worked for a day with 160 singers and taught them a bunch of songs which we then performed in the evening. I had never worked with such a large group before, so I was very nervous, plus there were no lyrics or sheet music and I introduced choreography with some of the songs! It turned out really well though and we had a huge audience who I also taught some songs and dances to!!
To top that, shortly afterwards I was invited to run a one-hour workshop in London for the Pink Singers’ 30th anniversary. This time there were between 500 and 600 singers and I ended up only having 50 minutes. They then had six hours to forget the two songs I’d taught (with accompanying moves) before we performed a slot in the evening. It was a joy to see so many happy shiny faces stumbling through our songs that night!
6. What has been, or is, the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a choir leader?
Apart from teaching almost 600 singers??!! Not sure really. I tend to take each challenge as it comes and keep calm. I suppose the hardest thing was to ask someone to leave an open-access choir which went against all my principles. It’s only ever happened once in my career. The guy in question found it really hard to pitch, but would sing loudly and confidently. Because he was putting everyone else off I had to think of the greater good. I presented the situation to him as well as I could, but I have no idea if he continued to sing. I suggested he needed more practice at unison singing and needed to develop his listening skills.
7. If you could perform any piece of music with any choir, what would it be and why?
I’m in the lucky position where I can do any piece of music I like really since I have plenty of different outlets in terms of group size and skill level. One thing I’ve been toying with, but have yet to arrange, is a purely vocal version of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Watch this space!
You can find Chris online at chrisrowbury.com.