A brilliant song, does not necessarily a good choir song make!
I have learned this the hard way (affectionally known as a ‘Ray of Light’ moment when I messed up that particular beauty with Churchfields Community Choir about 5 years ago). For example, I LOVE ‘Born Slippy’ by Underworld but I can’t quite imagine translating it into a song suitable for a choir. I haven’t even tried it at karaoke to be honest.
Starting a new choir is the easy bit! Getting people signed up, motivated and excited to sing together is a breeze! Choosing songs always becomes a problem because so many people have ideas about what their favourite song is. So I created a ‘spell book’ of magical songs which I already know work and how to teach which is especially important with a new choir.
I listen to songs around 100 times. It’s essential that I understand the structure, the melody and everything about it before I start arranging it. I create most of my own vocal arrangements – I hear harmonies which are in the original song, I hear harmonies that aren’t. I know the voices I’m working with and I know where we’ll be likely to perform the songs. So for this reason, I DO NOT teach songs I don’t like! I also don’t take requests – that “oohhh could we just sing…” request is occasionally met with a Paddington ‘hard stare’. (Can you imagine how long I’d need to listen to the song choices of over 100 singers? It’s just not happening).
I’ve got a VERY long list of songs in my phone – some of which I’ve already taught and some which remain on my wish list. I listen to Magic fm, local radio and trawl through some of the songs I adored growing up – I am never short or repertoire. With a new choir, It’s essential to choose songs which I know they’re going to be able to achieve, to get right and to feel that they’ve been successful at – after all, we are all singing to make ourselves feel good so there’s no point choosing something really hard to start with (and if ANYONE suggests Bohemian Rhapsody, I will, possibly, cry).
I then need to decide whether or not I need to create more harmonies, or less. Is this a song sung mostly in unison? Does it need to be made harder? Should it be flexible and work as a 2 part piece with the option to make it harder at a later date? Do I need to look at the sheet music (rare) or can I hear it all myself? Will it be easy to teach? How long will it take me to create and record all of the parts myself? There’s quite a lot goes into choosing the songs.
I like to mix old songs and new songs, fast songs and slow songs, vary the genre and complexity of songs. I know I can’t please everyone, but I do try! I’m very keen to know which songs people have enjoyed singing so I always poll my singers after the rehearsal. When we sing face too face, it’s usually obvious which songs have gone down well (it’s blatantly clear when they haven’t) but online singing brings other challenges. I don’t get that instant feedback – that feeling of joy and wonder when we get things right. I have to improvise.
The polls and surveys are important as I attempt to gauge which songs to work on next and which ones potentially to ditch. I’ve found that my established choirs LOVE new tricky songs where as newer choirs might need a softer approach to start with.
It’s also important to keep the momentum flowing and not to get bogged down with too much detail – which is where the easier songs come in, the ones I know people will already know and enjoy singing. The ‘spell book’ of songs is an ever evolving concept and very occasionally suggestions for songs get made to it…… but it’s rare!