Creating better Harmony

Peppa Pig

Like most 2 year olds, my daughter is a little bit fanatical about Peppa Pig.  I say a bit, that’s probably a slight understatement. Looking around me it seems that every room in the house has at least one item in it which bears a picture of Peppa Pig. However, to be fair, there is at least some humour in the show – clearly it’s not just written just for 2 year olds. My wife is always pointing out that I share a lot of traits with Daddy Pig!  She’s not wrong – I will often claim to be ‘something of an expert’ on a given matter only to discover moments later that in fact I haven’t got the first clue what I’m doing. This is particular true of anything involving DIY.

Before Peppa Pig came along, Amelia, thats my daughter, was obsessed with ‘In the night garden’.  As a programme (and over the course of a year I probably saw every episode countless times), I didn’t quite identify with it in the same way that I do with Peppa Pig.  Nevertheless Iggle Piggle, Upsy Daisy and Makka Pakka were clearly doing something to capture most toddler’s attention.   All it took was the opening bars of the theme tune to In the Night Garden and suddenly Amelia was captivated and would stop whatever she was doing.  So much so, that last year we found ourselves in Birmingham to attend the live show. However, I’m not quite sure Amelia was over keen on Iggle Piggle suddenly being about 12 foot tall and it was shortly after this visit that her obsession moved from the Night Garden to Peppa Pig.

The same sort of thing occurred with her dummy. When she was little, like most babies she had a dummy, or pacifier as they are sometimes known, on the basis that most babies are soothed by the action of sucking.  Generally she only used it at night and it would help her get to sleep.  Then one day, when I was doing the bedtime story, I forgot to give her the dummy (well it’s the sort of failing you would expect from Daddy Pig), but she was fine and slept all night. From that point forward the dummy was discarded and Amelia didn’t seem too bothered.

All of which brings me neatly to the topic of Choirs who are obsessed with  using their music in performance.  I’m sure for the majority of choirs this is a bit like having a comforter.  They don’t actually need it, but are too scared to perform without it and seem to be under the mistaken belief that it helps their performance.  In reality the opposite is true and let me try and explain why.

1. Listen to each other

Listening is a recurring theme when talking about being a good choir member and I have discussed it several times before. However, if you are singing in a close harmony group, it’s even more important because you only have each other!  If you sing in a larger or accompanied choir, it’s natural to assume that whilst singing you will also have one ear listening to the accompaniment, be that a backing track or a piano.   By listening to this, you will be able to more accurately pitch your notes and blend your voice with the music.   However, in an A Cappella (unaccompanied) choir, there is no backing track or accompaniment, other than your fellow singers.

It therefore almost goes without saying that you need to listen to each other.  Something to be aware of is that the tuning may well shift a bit during a performance. Singers are only human after all!    I have sometimes come across those singers who, usually mistakenly, believe they have perfect pitch and will therefore sing resolutely ‘in tune’ and seem to think it is their responsibility to drag everyone else in the choir to the ‘correct’ pitch.  Ultimately this is wrong at almost every level.  The key to a good choir is one where the singers listen to each other and make adjustments so they are in tune together.  Yes of course it’s ideal to finish in the correct key at the end of a piece.  But it’s far better to finish on the correct sounding chord a semitone flat, than it is to produce a slightly dissonant sound because some members are deciding to ‘retune’ their note without respect for what the other singers are doing.

2. Watching

A lot of A Cappella Choirs don’t have a conductor as such. Most will have a Musical Director but more often or not they won’t be conducting every last note in a performance.  Therefore, the only way a small choir can keep together is by watching each other.  It doesn’t necessarily matter if you can’t see your ‘opposite number’ – assuming theres more than 1 singer per part. In fact it’s often better to be watching the other parts.  After all it’s usually one or more of these people who will be giving you your lead and your note!

But, as with listening, the question is what should you actually be watching for? You need to ideally watch the other singers’ mouths. Watch for when they breathe and when they start and end the phrase.  A good choir is one which breathes together. If you breathe together, you will sing together.  And once you sing together you will find this helps to keep you all in tune.

3. Give a performance

Listening and watching each other is all very well, but ultimately your choir is there to perform to an audience.  It’s therefore very important to make sure that your audience feels involved.   The only way of really doing this is actually to look at them too and sing to them.  Every single person in the audience needs to feel as if you are singing the song just to them.  I’m often heard trying to get my choirs to ‘tell the story’ of the song they are singing.   This is far more important than most choir members realise.  For the audience, the story telling is paramount.  They want to feel involved not only with your performance but with the song and it’s message.

So in summary, this is why I don’t believe any choir can give a decent performance when they use the music.  It’s hard enough trying to divide your attention between listening to yourselves, watching each other and performing to the audience. The added distraction of holding the music not only looks untidy, but usually means that most singers end up singing into a book. The result of which is a flat, dull sound that is not together and will probably mean most of your audience will want to stay in the bar at the half time interval or go home!

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Jules Addison is Musical Director for The BlueBellesThe Pewsey BellesCirencester Male Voice Choir, The GWH Trust Choir and Transeamus Chamber Choir