Jackie Roxborourgh on Types of Choir

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Another session from August’s ABCD Convention that deserves individual comment is Jackie Roxborourgh’s session on community choirs. Jackie works in the world of natural voice practitioners, and so probably spends a lot time helping the people ABCD delegates were referring to as the ‘generation lost to singing’.

One of the (many) things I liked about her approach is that her focus is in helping people over the obstacles they have had with singing, whether that be childhood discouragement or exclusion in adulthood due to a lack of music literacy. So she sees it as a badge of success when people move on into other choirs – such a refreshing difference in attitude from the hoarding of members and jealousy if they ‘defect’ that you so often see.

Anyway, part of her discussion involved a compare/contrast exercise of the ‘traditional’ choir versus the ‘community’ choir.

For readers outside of the UK, these categories may need a little explanation, since I think the labels get applied a bit differently elsewhere. ‘Traditional’ here implies largely classical repertoire, working from sheet music, preparing for periodic formal concerts – choirs working more or less in the choral society model.

Now, in America, you may get choirs working on this model that get called ‘community choirs’ – ‘community’ implying that membership is available to the general populace of a town as opposed to choirs attached to particular churches, schools or colleges. But in the UK, ‘community choir’ has come to designate more specifically open-access choirs intended to give singing opportunities to people who think of themselves as ‘not musical’ or ‘not singers’ – i.e. those without prior experience and/or training (and probably also some unhelpful beliefs instilled by authority figures in childhood).

Jackie outlined a variety of differences between these two categories, most of which were simply descriptive, outlining what people do (rather than more abstract matters of aesthetics or cultural politics). And she characterised these as a formal model, versus an informal one.

So, formal choirs have people seated in rows/sections, often have piano accompaniment, have few opportunities for improvisation, and focus more on preparing repertoire than developing skills. Informal choirs are more likely to sing in a circle, and to switch around the parts, spend more time a cappella than accompanied, do more improvisational work (building up material from small elements rather than working from pre-composed complete pieces) and to focus more on skills development and social interaction than performance.

Now, the labels make you think of formal choirs being much more buttoned-up and rule-bound and the informal choirs being more relaxed and laid-back. And I’m sure there are ways in which this impression is accurate. But the informal choirs have their own set of conventions and expectations too – they may be different from those of formal choirs, and the enforcement methods may be different too, but they are nonetheless implicitly understood and mutually policed. Breaches of a community choir’s ethic of non-judgemental support can cause as much consternation as breaches of a choral society’s concert dress code.

So, whilst the formal/informal labels have some descriptive power about the relative styles of experience, I started to wonder if they could also be usefully thought about as descriptions of styles of learning. As I have written about before, formal learning only succeeds where it has a fund of informal experiential learning to draw upon.

And this describes the ‘traditional’ choir very well. Any choir that expects new members already to know how to read music, let alone all the other conventions of choral society singing, is assuming a considerable depth of prior learning, both structured and experiential. And the kind of experience it relies on is hard to acquire in group that assumes you already have it. Trying to learn to read music just on the page is soul-destroying. You need music in your ears already, and to have played enough musical games so that the sounds in your head and the sounds that come out of your mouth are hooked up reliably.

So, the ‘informal’ nature of community choirs is not just a comment on the social flavour of their sessions, but a comment on the educational function they serve. The shedding of physical tension, the promotion of interpersonal interaction through layout and improvisational games, and the safety to make mistakes are all essential elements in building the more active, playful relationship with musical material that underpins good musicianship.

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