The harmony of a circle
I like to work in a circle in a workshop, rather than the traditional choir formation. This is so that people can all see each other and so that they can hear the harmonies really well. I also like to move the group around a lot and use the space to experience the song in different ways.
Singing by ear
It makes for a much better instant sound to sing without sheet music so I tend to work (at least when starting a song) with big word sheets of paper on the floor and then I sing each part using a call and response, building harmonies in short memorable chunks and always trying to keep the whole room involved. Constant repetition helps everyone to learn their part and before you know it everyone is immersed in glorious harmony. People who’ve never learnt like this before can’t believe how quickly and beautifully a song can come together when learning like this. Sometimes I use written music but I don’t expect people to be good readers – just to be able to follow ‘the hills and the valleys’ of it.
Words that sing
The songs I teach in my workshops reflect a variety of sources: many are my own songs either with text I’ve written myself or settings of other writer’s words; some are from the research work I do in traditional song archives around Britain; some are from the many vibrant singing cultures around the world and some are written by other contemporary songwriters and composers. I’m always looking for songs that are instantly catchy or that are powerful and have meaning that resonates with the group I’m working with. Songs that have really lush harmonies or a great groove or chord sequence. And text. Words are so important to me. I just can’t sing or teach a song unless the words are well crafted and meaningful to me.
Voice: nature and craft
Lots of people who lead singing workshops have stunning, inspiring voices and are great performers own their own right. I was born with a very average voice and when I began writing songs and doing workshops it was small and weak with a limited range and no support or stamina. I didn’t want to ‘train’ it (in the classical way) as I love the quality of natural voices but I did want to learn how to make it work better so I purposefully searched out teachers who are sympathetic to that way of thinking.
My first voice training was in 1993 with Frankie Armstrong, Britain’s pioneer of voice workshops. Frankie Armstrong’s approach to voice work is largely through body and breath work coupled with use of the imagination to colour and inform the voice.
Ten years later I decided to go to the opposite extreme and take a very technical training in voice craft. I went to Vocal Process, a company then based in London and at the cutting edge of current thinking and knowledge of voice work. Since then I have really enjoyed incorporating that technical knowledge into the imaginative, creative and very safe approach inspired by Frankie.
Along the way I’ve also worked and learned a lot from: the hugely inspirational Kate Howard who works on the voice in a very holistic manner drawing on body and breath work from a huge variety of global traditions, and from the very helpful and knowledgeable Per Bristow who runs The Singing Zone on-line.
These days my voice is much stronger and has a bigger range and in my workshops I try and share the excercises and techniques I’ve used to move it to that place. I know I’m a better teacher for having taken that long slow journey of gradual understanding and I really enjoy sharing the knowledge I’ve gained.