Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

Category: General


Sing What You Love…

Music_Children-Parenting-Singing-Talent-ShowI have been lucky enough to  be asked to take part in a mentoring scheme for new singing leaders in my area.  This involves going out, meeting the leaders, watching them teach and chatting with their singers to find out how they are doing and whether there are any areas that can be improved or worked upon.

That all sounds very posh and important and as though I am standing there with a clipboard, marking them all out of ten.  In reality, what I got to do on Tuesday night was to go and meet a lot of delightful young singers, learn some new songs and chat about leading singing – one of my favourite things to do ever.

The young people in question were lucky to be presented with a wide variety of  different material to learn – they had rounds, campfire songs, action songs and modern material.  As with the vast majority of younger people, it is pretty difficult for them to hide what they thought about the various songs that they sang, and I found that really interesting.

They responded really well to very simple call and response songs – usually in thirds (if you sing the notes of a scale – do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do – singing a third would be like singing “mi-so”).  The 20th century music educator, Zoltan Kodaly, had a LOT to say about the importance of singing in simple thirds with young people.  He was of the opinion that the third is the first musical interval we hear, because it is how our mothers call us in that sing song way tht all mothers seem to default to – “Geo-orge!” (usually with the voice falling to the “mi” note on the second half of the name).  We are hardwired to sing it to our children (most nursery rhymes use it – “Seesaw, Margery Daw…” and to respond to it as children ourselves.

I watched a roomful of 7-10 year olds loving working with that most comforting of note ranges and making a glorious sound whilst they did it.  Kodaly hit that one right on the head, I think.

But even more than the simplest of intervals, they responded to modern pop songs.

I know that a lot of choir leaders bristle at modern pop songs – the bubblegum of music (no nutritional value, gets stuck to everything and mostly appeals to children who don’t know better…), but I kind of like them.  Depending on the songs that you choose, they can be just as challenging and enjoyable as older, more classical repertoire, and for some people, vastly more so.  The key is singing what they want to, a choir – any choir at all – should be a democracy, not a tyranny.  When people enjoy what they sing, their voices blend better, their oxytocinon levels rise, leading to feelings of happiness, wellbeing and friendship.  Of course, singing something that you are not immediately sure about can be a challenge and the ability to divorce your immediate feeling of dislike from the material and look at it dispassionately is most definitely a skill worth developing.

But don’t be afraid to sing the old favourites.  Don’t be snobbish about music – if people enjoy singing something, then it is a good song, regardless of everything else.


So, Why Do I Do It?

singing-on-the-brainI spend a lot of my working week singing for a living. Mind you, if I’m honest, I also spend an awful lot of my week singing for no reason other than “I love to sing”.

I recently bought a new CD by one of my favourite artists (Kate Rusby, if you are really interested) and have had it on continual play whilst I work. Because I’m not paying much attention to the words whilst I concentrate on other things, I couldn’t really tell you what many of the words are, but I sing along nonetheless. It’s a good thing that I have an office door I can shut because the one day a week that I work in an open plan office, I have to be *very* careful not to let my bad habits spill over. I hum, sing and vocalise made-up sounds *all* the time whilst I am typing. They go a bit like this:

“Come all you lovely lahyeeehah, ladadah warning. Oooooooo, sterry bield of hay…..” etc. Occasionally, I get the right word sound in the right place, but more often than not, I’m just singing a lot of rubbish, but still vocalising and enjoying it. The vibrations from my voice get faintly meditative after a while, and I find it very restful. I’m not singing to be heard, or for anyone to think that I’m wonderful, I’m just singing because I love to sing. And that is precisely the sort of singing that I wish more people did. Not to sound clever, not to get rich, but just because it is so much more fun than simply staying quiet.

Because I am lucky enough to lead a number of choirs, I get the feedback from lots of other people as to why they enjoy singing, and that is a very motivational thing. I’ve people in all of my choirs who have depressive issues, and find singing incredibly helpful in lifting the spirits without medication, or to help smooth out the transition into a new medication. I have met several people in my life who claim that singing has saved their lives by providing them with an outlet for emotions that simply couldn’t be channelled any other way. That’s pretty major.

But it doesn’t have to be the big stuff. Maybe you just feel tired, and need a little bit of a lift? Suffer from social anxiety, and find talking to new people difficult? Choirs and singing are perfect for both of those – one of my favourite sounds in the whole world is the sound of people leaving choir, still singing together as they walk away. I know that they feel so good singing that they don’t want to stop – best sound and best feeling in the world, that! And the social anxiety thing is difficult – but in a choir you don’t have to make small talk. And there is a ready built subject to talk to the person next to you – the music that you are singing!

You probably already know that it sounds great to sing in the shower. I’m here to tell you that it also sounds great to sing in the kitchen, the garden, the living room, the bedroom and the office. The pub is perfect – other people generally join in, as well…

Go on – have a bit of a warble!


Starting a Community Choir…

We are lucky to be surfing a bit of a zeitgeist as far as community singing goes at the moment.  Whilst I am sad about the direction that Gareth Malone has taken singing on TV (competitions?  Why is it always competitions?), I do believe that his Military Wives series in particular, helped to show people that singing was an empowering thing that *anyone* can do.  Lots of people feel able to look for a group to sing with.

The problem comes at the next stage, however.  You’ve summoned up the courage to join a singing group, but you can’t find one near you, or the ones that you can find are not the sort of thing you are looking for.  What should you do?

First of all – don’t give up.  The chances are very good that if you want to join a particular kind of singing group then you probably won’t be the only one.  Experience tells me that there are generally lots of other people willing to have a go if they find the right sort of group.  So why not set one up?

It isn’t as hard as you might think.  Formal choirs generally have piano accompanists and trained conductors familiar with classic and choral music.  They may encourage only music readers to join.


I have been running choirs for several years now, and singing solo, in bands and in choirs for longer than I care to remember.  And…  I don’t care at all for the classical model with a piano accompanist, beautifully organised SATB parts and lots of showy, complicated music that you need to be able to read to follow.  And that’s OK – it really is.  Plenty of people *do* like that (I actually like to listen to it, but have no desire to participate in it), but plenty of people also like what I do – orchestrated backing tracks, modern and upbeat songs, choose your own part and sing what you love.

It is really easy to do as well.  To get something started, I recommend this setup kit:


  • A battery-powered portable amplifier (something like this  Block Rocker that works off Bluetooth).
  • An iPod/MP3 player.
  • A copy of any of Mark DeLisser’s “Sing Out” books.
  • A printer with a photocopy facility.

With this setup, you can take a choir rehearsal *anywhere*.  You can work acapella, or if you are uncertain and need a little bit of confidence building, you can sing along with the tracks, following the alternative parts (Mark’s books utilise CDs/downloads of tracks so that everyone can learn their own parts before blending them altogether. )

Pop the tracks from the books onto the iPod, and then connect the iPod to the Bluetooth speaker and just… sing… along.

You can do this in your living room.  Or a church hall.  Or a friend’s garage.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it really *should* be joyous.

Don’t wait for someone else to set up your dream choir – do it yourself!!!


Why Warm Up?

4224808_f260How long does your choir session last for?  A couple of hours or so, once a week?  That is certainly how most of mine seem to run.   Depending on the group we can run on a little longer so as to have time for a cup of tea and a biscuit or cake during the session as well (never underestimate the social power of a good quality biscuit!).  But the limitation of singing for an hour or two means that it is very tempting to not warm up properly.

Spending half an hour or more on warm up exercises which are generally less than thrilling seems like a huge chunk of time out of the general singing which is, after all, why people come to the choir in the first place.  However, don’t underestimate the importance of warming up your voice.

The good news is that you don’t have to give up a huge chunk of your choir time to warm up your voice.  It is something that you can easily do at home, or on your way to choir.

  1. Do you drive to your choir?  A car is the best place for making the odd noises that are so beneficial to vocal warmups.  Nobody except you can hear yourself, and if you give a lift to another choir member, you can warm up together.  Beware of doing lip trills in the car in summer when your windows are down, though.  People look oddly at you whilst you are stationary at traffic lights.  And yes, I know this from experience…
  2. Is your choir after you’ve come home from work?  Do you have an hour or so whilst you are making dinner or whatever else you do between the finish of your daytime activities and start of your evening activities?  Warm up in the kitchen whilst you are cooking or hum whilst you check Facebook.  Anything that gets your voice working is great!
  3. Do you walk your dog before choir?  Are you generally on your own?  Have a bit of a sing whilst you are doing it, maybe put on a gentle song on a music player, and step out whilst you hum along.  There are lots of great warmup exercises on the web which can be easily downloaded to an iPod or MP3 player.
  4. Do you have a shower before going out?  The shower is the absolute best place to warm up – the air is warm and moist (excellent for your vocal muscles), the sound bounces around on the hard tiled surfaces, making you sound excellent, and there is a lock on the door, so no-one can interrupt you!  Perfect!
  5. Does your choir leader give you CDs and/or downloadable tracks to practice along with?  Use them before choir to warm up with – gently – and arrive at choir with your head full of harmonies and melodies and a voice ready to sing.

The difference between your cold voice and your warmed up voice can be really stark.  Try recording yourself with your phone singing a simple song or nursery rhyme before you warm up, then warm up *properly* for half an hour – sing scales, lip trills, vowel enunciations, consonant practice, vocal placement and all the other stuff that we’ll talk about here in time – and then try recording yourself again.  Listen to how many notes you got right the second time.  Feel how much easier it is to move between notes and sing quick passages.  Listen to the liquid quality of your voice in the second example as opposed to the tighter and more stressed sound of the first.

Now – isn’t that worth singing in the shower before you go out?


Why Sing?

The voice is the very first instrument that any of us use, and we use it within seconds of breathing for the first time.  We use our voice to signal pain, unhappiness, joy and mirth.  Everyone has a voice that they can learn to enjoy using.

But so many people expect to be able to use their voice beautifully and instinctively with no training whatsoever – would we expect to pick up a French Horn and play it instinctively?  Almost certainly not.  So why not go easy on yourself and allow yourself a little latitude in learning to play and use this wonderful instrument that you were born with?

Follow along with this blog as we learn about our voices, experiment with different techniques and songs, and get to know some other singers, just like you!