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The experience of living in the inclusive and respectful culture of rural Zimbabwe, and in urban and rural Malawi, has enabled me to work the way I do with choirs and harmony groups. The African understanding that everyone has a right to stand up and express themselves in front of the company, without it being a big deal, and without fear of criticism, heckling, muttering or being thought a show-off, has also encouraged me to just get on with teaching harmony parts to groups of people who want to sing.
My mother was a Primary School music teacher, and a good one - though it was embarrassing, having your Mum come into school twice a week. I believe her experience in West Africa, in the early 1950s, also influenced her classroom practice, as she believed 'everyone can sing', and encouraged everyone to do it - or at least, to hit a woodblock or ding a bell.
We have such terrible inferiority complexes in Western culture about 'experts', or about who 'can sing', or 'can harmonize'. And the practice of putting ourselves down, around singing especially, almost seems required!
In Zimbabwe I saw that everyone enjoys singing in harmony, and everyone can learn to do it, just as I did as a child - by doing it, by being allowed and expected to be able to do it. (It's not 'in the blood', of course, or 'instinctive', except in the sense that it's in our own blood too - people work out harmonies, and practise them round the fire, or on long walks to school or town and back.)
We can gain so much in life, by learning to listen, and to relate what we are doing to what others are doing - to give and receive, in groups, for the good of the group as a whole.
Understanding this has been another gift of African culture to me. Learning to listen, to ourselves and to the others - tuning in to the group - is the most important element in learning to sing in tune, and in harmony.
It follows that everything about how the group operates is important - for listening is not just about the actual singing. It includes being aware of the circle, of how we are together, allowing everyone space to be themselves, nobody invading or trampling on anybody else's sensitivities, no power or ego games.
Singing is not about egos, or showing off how well we can perform - it's about creating a safe space for our true selves - our shy, retiring, authentic, creative selves - to come out and play together, safely. Which we won't do - and quite rightly - if we sense any risk of ridicule, deflation, embarrassment. So the main rule I try to adhere to is: no put-downs, which includes no self-put-downs.
Singing is as much about social skills as musical ones. Becoming sensitive to what is happening in the group helps us quickly learn to hear what we're singing in relation to the rest of the group, and correct ourselves if necessary.
I'm also wary of letting performance become too much of a goal. For me, singing together is an end in itself - not a means to an end. Becoming less and less self-conscious about singing and harmonising (tuning and pitching, rhythmic accuracy) releases us from the ego-bubble we can be trapped in a lot of the time and enables our natural musicality to come back into play. Clearly, focussing on a concert or a recording increases self-consciousness and as such is counter-productive to musicality (ego just loves a performance!).
We do, however, sing in public and have even gone into the studio on occasion. I think what makes it work, when it works, is finding and maintaining a balance between accuracy and enjoyment - the balance between the joy and freedom of singing, and getting it right.
contact Yvonne: 0131 653 2146
site updated September 23rd 2016