PhD: Composing Music for Community Choirs (2014)
In October 2014 I plan to commence my PhD with Canterbury Christ Church University and the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health, in Folkestone.
In 2006, I started leading my first community choir. The Oyster Singers were a choir of senior citizens, the majority of whom could read music, having learned the skill on the national curriculum of the 40s and 50s. They enjoyed singing Musical Theatre Medley’s and Beatles songs. As the choir developed and as choral singing became more popular, helped along by programmes such as Rock Choir and Military Wives, younger singers started to join. In contrast to existing members, our younger members could not read music. Therein lay a challenge: what repertoire could I use to engage this diverse group of singers?
At the time, most purchasable choral arrangements were unsuitable for the choir as they did not support the very mixed range of vocal abilities present, or the unusual blend of voice types, for example: fifteen altos, twenty sopranos, two tenors and one solitary bass.
I scoured music libraries, catalogues, music shops, online resources and struggled to find things which fully suited the choir. By ‘suited’ I mean songs which complimented their mixed abilities, songs which provided a learning challenge for all and songs which enabled the choir to have fun and to really ‘sing’. I wanted the choir to be the best they could be and felt that what was ‘out there’ really didn’t cut the mustard. So in response I started to arrange music for the choir myself, and started to develop my own repertoire which contained the musical elements I felt supported successful and enjoyable choral singing within the community choir context. For example: I felt that music which was memory retainable was essential to suit both readers and non-readers of sheet music. The harmonic elements I employed were simple yet beautiful. Each song included challenging harmonies to engage more advanced singers and simpler parts for those with less experience. All lyrics were either ‘feel-good’ or relatable.
Over the following seven years I continued to develop choral repertoire and the size of my choirs grew. I stopped leading The Oyster Singers in 2012 but did start a new choir, titled en Choir, filling the membership capacity of 60 singers within the first two weeks. In 2012 I was also approached to lead Turner Contemporary’s resident choir, Thanet ‘Big Sing’ Community Choir, which has 80 singers in its membership. And in 2013 I formed Fellowship of the Sing to explore the teaching of advanced choral repertoire, such as Bartok, Bruckner and Tavener, by ear.
Over the last five years I have seen a surge in the popularity of choral singing. The singers in my choirs span a broader age range, with members starting as young as 16. Since the ever-increasing TV documentation of choral singing by choral animateur’s like Gareth Malone, singing in a choir has never seemed more accessible. The barriers that once may have prevented a person joining a choir, such as the ability to read sheet music, are no longer prevalent. On average, 30% of my singers read music and 70% do not.
I believe that choral repertoire and the way it is taught is imperative to leading community choirs successfully. And I feel that composers and arrangers need to start writing and arranging music for the modern community choir. Which brings me to my PhD: my passion for choral leading, and for arranging and composing music for community choirs, has led to the desire to research what repertoire is currently being utilised by community choir leaders, why it is being utilised, why choral leaders choose the repertoire they choose and how this information can be utilised to create guiding criteria towards the creation of repertoire and arrangements for the community choir setting.
We have a lot of evidence about singing and its effects on wellbeing, health and on the social benefits but there is a real gap in research regarding what people are singing. Despite the rapid growth in community choirs, and more recently in singing for wellbeing and health choirs, no systematic study of repertoire, or guidelines to aid choral leaders in repertoire selection or composers and arrangers in creating new repertoire, has been undertaken.
I am very excited to be undertaking this research, so watch this space!