Coastal Sounds: A Case Study In The Power Of Encouragement

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While studying my Masters, I started teaching for The Music Corner, a newly opened music school in Manuels, which is a township of Conception Bay South. In 2006, I discussed with the owners about starting some kind of group singing opportunity through the school. The idea from the beginning was to offer a classroom setting that would be more of a “group voice lesson”, using the choral context as the medium for delivery. Concerts and recitals would happen, but they would be less important than just getting people singing and teaching them to sing well.

Along with The Music Corner, my wife and I started Coastal Sounds (originally called the CBS Community Choir) in January 2007. On the very first night, we had eight people. I really had no idea how many would show up or what the backgrounds of the singers would be. I had prepared Locus Iste from a choral conducting book and an SATB arrangement of The Water Is Wide. Locus Iste was a bit of a disaster (do NOT throw Latin at untrained singers as the first lesson, TRUST me) but the other arrangement ended up being a great first success for the group.

The choir started in unison and slowly built it out into three parts. Because we had so few men in the beginning (in fact, I only had around six guys in the group until a couple of years ago) it was hard to find choral music that included them but didn’t overtax them. Thus began my life long love of the SAB context. I’ve come to realize that SAB repertoire is often underrated and a powerful tool to make group singing happen without too much effort.

We slowly built out The Water Is Wide in three of the four parts. This also taught me a lot about how to plan for three parts in the future. Even in most Level 1 and 2 SATB arrangements, you can sing SAT and the piano will cover the bass notes. I highly recommend using SAB for your community choirs and a lot of SATB arrangements will also have three part, two part or unison alternatives. I continue to use SAB arrangements on a regular basis because they ease the amount of rehearsal time necessary for part singing, and give the men a realistic goal to achieve.

Coastal Sounds amicably broke off into its own non-profit organization three years ago and has continued to grow every year. We now have almost 50 regular members, sing at least two concerts a year, with many more exciting ideas on the horizon for expansion. I teach almost everything by singing and modelling, and I’ll get into more detail about this method in a later post.

The choir has always been available to anyone who has an interest in singing. We have members from many different musical backgrounds. Not everyone reads but the blend of experience with non-experience amongst singers has provided more teaching support that I could have ever anticipated. Those who know more help the ones who don’t. We still bill it as a group voice lesson with no harsh expectation on performance but the choir continues to get better and more capable with each passing season.

As we grew, a very disturbing trend started to emerge amongst almost every person who has ever sang with the group. Year after year, I heard story after horrible story about how a music teacher in the individual’s past told them:

A) They could not sing;

B) They would never be able to sing; and

C) They should only “mouth the words” and not make any sound whatsoever.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that among the vast majority of the people I have taught in Coastal Sounds, someone in their past, directly or indirectly, robbed them of something incredibly important; a lifelong love of making music.

A little tangent. I first met Dr. Doug Dunsmore, now retired professor of choral activities at MUN,  in the summer of 2004 at the Sing Summer Adult Choir Camp sponsored by the Nova Scotia Choral Federation. Of all the wonderful things I came to learn from Doug over the next 10 years, perhaps the most ‘infamous’ one was that he is a lover of sayings; short musical parables that continuously resound over and over, sometimes to the point of polite ribbing from his singers. He has a bunch of them, some of them are even a bit comical, but there’s one, the ‘golden rule’, that came to impact me in a very profound way.

“Singing is 90% brains and 10% talent.”

This echoed because it spoke directly to me and my experience. I had not been a choral singer for very long. Thanks to many great opportunities from 2003 to 2005 in Nova Scotia, I quickly developed enough skills to participate in more challenging music by just doing it as much as I could. Repetition, repetition, repetition. My world quickly became consumed by choir. Meeting Doug was really the turning point for my career. Watching how much fun he had with the singers, along with the positive experiences that I had while conducting, gave me the motivation to make choir and choral conducting my passion.

Now, back to Coastal Sounds. If we hold “Doug’s Rule” to be correct (which I’m living proof that it is), the only missing piece is the amount of time and effort on the part of the singer, and the amount of encouragement and patience on the part of the teacher. After the first few times of being told the same horrible story from a member’s past, I vowed early that I would do whatever I could to encourage anyone to sing who were willing to make a commitment to learn.

Of all these ‘misfits’ who have come to our island to sing over the past 7 years, less than 5% of them have had what society would call ‘tonedeafness’, which is a term I personally hate, because I’ve come to learn it’s actually false. I have come to discover with my private teaching that these individuals actually possess remarkable ability in audiation, but in most cases, there are so many physical barriers (nervousness, upper body tension, poor breath support) that the singer is just completely incapable of phonating the pitch they’re audiating. I have worked with two singers for the past number of months who have come to Coastal Sounds but were having pitch matching problems, and with enough training and muscle development, they are finding way more success than they ever had before. I tell all my private students that from the beginner all the way up to the professional, going to a private music lesson is like going to the gym. Sometimes, no matter how much you ‘know’ something, you need to work it out for it to grow. Corrective repetition.

There are a few other simple factors that create success in Coastal Sounds. Because I do have singers who can read and follow their lines, they end up singing a bit more confidently than the others. While singing in three parts, the right answer in any given part is always present in some capacity. I regularly encourage my singers to become better listeners as well. Take a person who comes in convinced that they would never sing, sit them next to a person who can sing the part, and once the tension of having to sing alone wears off, they succeed brilliantly. Most of the time it’s ‘chickenissimo’ (another Dougism) at first because they lack confidence, but the fact remains that they can do it.

Here’s one of my own musical parables:

“If you have done something correctly once, there’s no logical reason why you can’t do it correctly every single time.”

All I do as the director of Coastal Sounds is to show people how easy singing can be (once you know a few simple rules on how to do it well), give them the experience that they can indeed sing, and encourage them when they do it correctly. With this simple methodology, I have seen the blossoming of incredible amateur musicians who genuinely have a love for what they’re doing. To think that so many of these people lived DECADES carrying around the curse of belief that they could not sing only motivates me to help as many more people as I can.

I have never put too much impetus or pressure on the performances we do. No matter how well I can get something to sound in rehearsal, the spectre of self doubt is still alive and strong in many people. Although I continue to give them positive experience after positive experience in concert, there are those who will always be plagued with stage fright. But even with the occasional ‘improvisation’ from the choir, the looks on everyone’s faces are the true truthtellers. Coastal Sounds members have fun making music. And in the end, isn’t that the most important thing of all?

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