Floorsinging for Beginners
Floorsinging for Beginners: A collection of tips for aspiring floor singers
Release Version 2.2
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Once upon a time, Neil Corbett of the Bracknell Folk Club asked on uk.music.folk:
"What would be your top 3 tips for aspiring folk club floor singers? I'd like to put a top 10 tip list on our Bracknell Folk Website."
However, the response was so enthusiastic that it seemed a shame not to use all the advice that was offered, so David Harley suggested putting together an FAQ. In fact, this is less an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document than a tipsheet, but we hope it'll be of use.
This was later taken up by Folk Roots (now fROOTS) and reprinted in the July 1998 issue (still available as a back-issue as of February 2000). I include their introduction (with their express permission. Thanks):
Floor singing. For those unfamiliar with the term, it's a system unique to British-style folk clubs whereby unpaid local performers get the chance to sing in public for pleasure, to learn their skills in front of an audience has maybe turned out for a famous professional. Those famous professionals probably started out the same way, and how else could you get the chance to hear such a rich variety of undiscovered talent? As a result, many on the British folk scene consider the floor singer system to be absolutely vital and preserved at all costs.
Others disagree. They've paid their money and they don't want to have - as they see it - bungling, amateur performers inflicted on them as a cheapo way of filling the bill and fanning a few egos. How come, they point out, that musicians in any other musical sphere manage to learn their skills without paying customers having to put up with them doing it in public? And if that is their experience, who can blame them or wonder why they retreat, disgruntled, to the bar?
It’s an endless debate, one which has filled those same bars and the columns of the folk press down the ages since the British folk club scene as we know it evolved in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. But one thing’s for sure: anything which can help those floor singers do it better is good for everyone.
Earlier this year, Neil Corbett from Bracknell Folk Club posted the question “What would be your top three tips for aspiring folk club floor singers?” onto the uk.music.folk newsgroup on the internet. The resulting discussion thread evolved into a most interesting body of wisdom, later accumulated by David Harley into a floor singers’ tip sheet. With permission, we reproduce an edited version here for those not yet on line or paying attention.
Arcadiamax (Max), Jacey Bedford, Chris Beeson, Ken Bradburn, Pete Coe, Neil Corbett, Dom Cronin, Diane, Graham Dixon, M.R. Fish, Wendy Grossman, David Harley, Colin Irvine, Jim Lawton, Ken Piper, Irene Shettle, Ian White & Tim Willets
Choice of Material
Practice Makes Perfect?
Food, Drink and Dutch Courage
Instrumentals and Accompaniments
Presentation and Posture
After the Set
Future Areas for Discussion?
Choice of Material
Play/sing folk music - it's strange how many forget to do this. [I remember with particular fondness a singer who said "I'm sorry, I don't know any folk songs" as an introduction to "House of the Rising Sun". - DH]
Sing something entertaining and different - there's too many miserable old b******'s around doing floor spots with the same dreary old 6 songs they have to choose from, and if you're lucky you may be the the only one who's not dreary/boring/miserable/sad/repetitious/whatever - if you are you'll be welcome back, and if you are entertaining you can get away with a few stumbles. Next time you go to that club, do different songs. Though I'm not sure why you'd want to go back to a club full of dreary, boring, miserable, sad, repetitious singers....
Choose something short with a good positive tune for your first song. In fact, short songs are a good policy until you've had plenty of practice in front of an audience and built up your confidence. Don't set yourself unrealistic targets. The shorter it is, the likelier you are to remember the words!
When you choose a chorus song, make sure your version is the one the club usually sings, it's very unnerving to have the audience bugger off into their own version if you're a novice and if you are you won't get them back.
If it's your first time on the floor/stage, whatever, I suspect a tragic ballad is probably not a good idea anyway, unless it's one that you're committed to - a lot of them are long, and it seems a hell of a long time up there with knocking knees, sweaty palms etc.
Have a number of songs you can sing at the drop of a hat just in case the person in front of you sings the song you were going to. And you never know, you might be asked for another one or two later on.
Sing a song with a chorus so the audience can join in and give you a break. But beware 'chorus relaxation' - if you stop concentrating, when it comes to the verse, you'll have forgotten it!
Are you learning the right songs for you? Are they easy to remember, and will the audience remember them and you when you've finished? Audiences like familiar songs, in general, but the more familiar the song is, the more likely it is that there are a plethora of good versions out there already. Don't sing a song which doesn't suit you because it's a great song. Don't sing an unsingable song because it appeals ideologically.
Get to know the club first. See what sort of material seems to go best. Don't panic if it's not the sort of material you can do well: sometimes songs which contrast with the usual fare are appreciated, especially if done well. On the other hand, if you offer an audience which is used to listening rather than singing an obscure and difficult sea-shanty, you're likely to find yourself singing it all by yourself, which is rarely a satisfying experience.
Think about whether a song might be contentious. Some very traditional clubs hate -anything- modern or foreign (I remember clubs where you could see the faces fall when someone carried a guitar in). In some social contexts, it might be -very- unwise to do a hunting song or even a whaling song. There are many fine Irish songs which can't be divorced from their political context, and that can cause considerable offence in some circles.
NOW YOU'VE LEARNED A FEW SONGS..... NOW YOU NEED TO LEARN HOW TO PERFORM THEM.... time you got out a bit more! The most intimidating audiences are family and friends... CAN YOU SING FAR AWAY..... the further you are away from home, the better you are appreciated..
FOLK CLUBS AND SINGAROUND SESSIONS are usually friendly, supportive environments. There's a lot of them about waiting for you to drop in and try out your songs. You'll hear other good ones too and people are very willing to pass them on.
Practice makes Perfect?
If you fluff, and you will sooner or later, it isn't the end of the world - think what you might say when you forget the words, and try to remember how trivial an issue it is when *you*'re in the audience and someone else cocks up.
If you've not done it before, practice the song in a few rooms that are acoustically different. If you've only ever practiced in the bathroom and the folk club room is carpeted and has heavy curtains etc. you may find it difficult to set off at the correct pitch and volume.
Also, practise with some of your attention distracted - because that's exactly what's going to happen when you stand up for the first few times in public.
Singing while driving is a good way. If you can produce a perfect performance while negotiating roundabouts, avoiding wobbly cyclists and braking hard for that bloody idiot in a BMW, a stationary folk club will seem like a haven of peace.Best place to learn songs, bar none: in the car. Worked for me. [Doesn't work for me, but then, I don't drive. Actually, it did when I shared car expenses with another musician. Nowadays, I have to settle for privacy of own flat when daughter is asleep or staying with her mother. On the other hand, it does ensure that I have somewhere to plug in my Ovation. - DH]
Rehearse lots in the privacy of your own home before you start. Rehearse at full volume in a secure environment (on your own) if your partner, kids, neighbours object then someone has to go... find an empty room at work, school etc. If you practice in a small voice, so will you perform.
LEARNING THE GAME... Write down the songs in your own songbook, it helps you to learn them. You might worry about being over-rehearsed. Actually, getting a difficult song to the state where you're confident enough with it to concentrate on the meaning and the quality of the performance rather than on getting through without forgetting the words is a good measure of your commitment to the song.
LEND AN EAR... Learning by ear from tapes etc helps you absorb style and when you sing the song out you still have the source in your mind, like singing a duet. Learn the words whilst driving to work. On the other hand, there comes a time when you have to let go of other people's versions and sing it your own way. When you're starting out, that'll tend to be when you're well past the phase of mechanically learning the song. When you've put in some solo flying time, you'll be better able to hear a new song and think "I could do that -this- way instead of -that- way", but that's going to be different for each performer.
SINGER OR THE SONG?....you've got to sell the song of course, but have faith in your choice of song, stand behind it, it's more important than you are, it'll still be around when you've gone.
ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY...... If it's a traditional song it's been around for a long time and passed on by generations of singers who valued it greatly. You should feel privileged to be part of the chain, treat it with enormous respect. If it's a contemporary song.. do the writer a favour.. it took them a lot longer to write than it did for you to learn... you owe them a debt... pay up, get it right and give them credit. UNTIL YOU HAVE THE SONGS INSIDE YOU, YOU'RE JUST GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS.... you know that, so does your audience.
Practice playing your songs STANDING UP. Most people sing better that way, even though it can be difficult to get used to playing an instrument that way. In a club where there is no PA system, you will be heard (and seen) much better, in general, if you're standing, or, at a pinch, elevated on a stool. [If you're a classical guitarist, veena player, or double-bassoonist, you may regard this as a little rigid. This is a very singer-oriented tipsheet, though.]
As a general rule, when singing a long note, it is the vowel sound that should be lengthened rather than any of the consonants that happen to be at one or other end of the syllable, with the obvious exception of doing so for special effect. This is particularly true when singing as part of a group.
Most consonants are impossible to lengthen, such as "b" or "t", which it means that it is very obvious to an audience when a number of singers finish the same syllable at different times. Conversely, because they are so short, they have to be emphasised or they won't be heard.
Some consonants can be lengthened, such as "l" or "th" but sound weak; they sound as if the singer or singers forgot that they were going to sing a long note, started to finish too early, but decided to carry on as an afterthought or to cover a mistake. Compare singing "ball" as "baaaaaaaaaaaaaall" and "balllllllll".
Other consonants, such as "s" and "z", are very audible to the listener, and doubly so when picked up by a microphone. For this reason, they should generally be kept short, except for effect, regardless of how good the electronic filtering and mike-muffs are.
The rolling of the letter "r" sounds perfectly natural when sung by a Scot but should probably be left well alone by the English.
Food, Drink, and Dutch Courage
Don't have to much to drink prior to singing (Dutch courage doesn't work). At least, too much Dutch courage doesn't..... Some people find it very uncomfortable to perform absolutely dry, but if you're not used to performing, you might be shocked at some of the tricks that the combination of adrenaline and alcohol can play on you. If you're an instrumentalist, be prepared to lose in motor function and memory what you gain in lessened inhibitions. There's a lot to be said for holding back on the alcohol as much as you can. Be selective about what you drink: spirits maximize alcohol intake and are rough on the throat, while at least beer deconstricts the voicebox a little (not to mention the anal sphincter.....).
One problem with Dutch courage is that you need to line the stomach well before you get going, but a full stomach is a bad basis for singing. Don't have a heavy meal immediately beforehand - it will rob you of your wind.
If you're going to sing, avoid eating gluey foods beforehand: bananas, melted cheese, oatmeal. They coat the vocal cords and make even good, experienced singers sing flat. [I'm not sure the physiological details are correct, but I've certainly seen/heard/felt the effect.... -DH]
Be aware that if you eat within the hour or two before you sing you are probably going to burp on stage. Shandy is good for maximizing fluid intake while holding you back from the gallop towards alcohol-induced incoherence, but also has a tendency towards making you burp.
Instrumentals and Accompaniments
Tune up before you come on stage. Of course, if you walk in to be told you're on, you don't have a lot of choice, but if you wait until you're on to take your instrument out of its case and you happen to be put on just before the main act, you'd better be sure it's not going to take you five minutes to get it in tune. In general, stringed instruments like to acclimatize to the room temperature out of their cases for a while, as long as they're safe from being stepped on, spilt on, or walked off with.
Presentation and Posture
Make sure you can start in the right key.
TOO HIGH? TOO LOW?...use pitch pipes, recorder or whistle so that you're consistent in singing each song in the right key for your voice.
If you don't have access to an instrument you can get a note from, you might like to consider chromatic pitchpipes. The key to them is that it's easy to know which note you're blowing - the circular one has separate mini-mouthpieces, and the harmonica ones have a sliding frame to block out adjacent notes. Bear in mind, though, that nerves and unfamiliar acoustics will tend to modify your 'optimum' key. Nerves raise your pitch. A lot of people in a room tend to 'deaden' the acoustic, and you may need to sing higher to project better.
To do it without mechanical aids, hum quickly through the tune, very softly inside your head. You can feel in your throat whether the tune is all within your range, without needing to make any audible noise. If you've practised the song enough beforehand, you already know where the high and low spots are, and you can "fast forward" to them very quickly.
The audience will never notice. They'll think you're composing yourself... well, you are.
Most people find it easier to stand up and sing - better for the voice and tone. Of course, if you play an instrument as well, the issue may not be so simple.
Tell the organiser that it is your first time (so that he/she can place you in a suitable slot, IE not following the local 'superstar'). In fact, while practised club singers tend to hate the 'graveyard spot' as first floor singer, it does come in useful for minimizing the exposure of neophytes to more attention than they can cope with.... Of course, if the organizer opens the evening and -is- the local superstar, this may not apply. ;-)
Smile - if you convey the fact that you are enjoying it, chances are that the audience will enjoy it also. On the other hand, a fixed grin suits some songs better than others.
Please, none of those old jokes about "it's good enough for folk" or "if I ever get it in tune I'm going to weld it", or "this is a little Chinese number called tu-ning" (does this show my age, or just how many times I saw Diz Disley!?). Not to mention "It was in tune when I bought it" and "If you don't know the words, take your shoes off and hum". [Actually, there's plenty of mileage in even the oldest jokes, but unless you're a fully-fledged life-and-soul-of-the-party type, go easy on the humour. A joke that falls flatter than expected won't help your confidence, and a mildly humourous one-liner may be just as effective and a little safer than an obviously rehearsed shaggy dog story.]
Don't choose to open with your most difficult number. Start with something so familiar it's like wearing an old slipper.
Don't apologise for how bad it's going to be before you start.
Even if you are scared, try to look confident. (Yes, a smile helps.) Relax or your breathing will tighten up and your voice will start to wobble.
Keep your eyes open. Look towards the back of the room and your voice will project to the point you are looking at without you having to "shout".
Singing can be enhanced by using some of the same rules as public speaking. If you concentrate better if you close your eyes, fair enough, but it engages the audience better if you look round them one person at a time, straight into the eyes.
It doesn't matter what sort of singing you're into - you need to be able to communicate with the person right at the back, and the person right under your nose.] (It's exactly the same if you're standing on stage with a choir of 199 others.) Chances are that you won't be able to see most of them further back than the first few rows anyway, if it's the sort of location where there are lights etc.
I find it helpful to start with a minimum of introduction and often an unaccompanied song. That way I only have the song to concentrate on, and if it goes OK, I can loosen up on the next and spare some thought for general communication and the accompaniment. It's a good move to let a song speak for itself rather than give an unnecessarily long introduction, though. And don't tell the audience what they probably already know. If you tell them what they -don't- know, make sure it's interesting.
Newbie songwriters have a habit of telling audiences much more than they want to know about the gestation of the song they're eventually going to sing.
If you've written the song yourself it isn't generally a good advert to have the words and music in front of you.
Learn the song, wherever it originates, don't read it from a scrap of paper. However, it's not a bad idea to have a crib sheet handy so that you can recover quickly rather than stand there with sweat trickling down your back wondering which verse you were supposed to be singing. Rather than having a crib sheet, another suggestion is to have a friend in the front row who can prompt you.
No-one will worry about a bit of a false start. But don't -ever- get halfway through a song, panic, and start right from the beginning!
Try to be sensitive to the mood of the evening and what has gone before.
MAKE YOUR FIRST SONG AN EASY ONE. Take a deep breathe and inflate your stomach too.
BREAKING THE ICE. Introduce your song, it doesn't have to be a lecture... eg "Here's a song called Newlyn Town which I learned from recordings of Harry Cox, who was a farm labourer from the village of Catfield in Norfolk". Audiences will be impressed because you know something about the song and the singer and might ask you where they can get hold of more of Harry Cox's songs and recordings. OR..."I pinched this song off a tape, I don't know who the singer was or anything about the song.. if anyone can tell me about it after, I'd be grateful" Best of all... "Here's a song I learned off my grandma "......Ten out of ten for that one!
Try to avoid the temptation to explain the entire story of a ballad before you sing it - especially if the explanation takes as long as singing the thing. If the song has a good "plot" then the audience will appreciate it better if they haven't had it thoroughly explained to them in advance.
LEARN YOUR INTRODUCTIONS, TOO. NEVER SAY.... "Here's a song I wrote this afternoon", "I hope I can remember the words" (so do we!), "I need to look at the words for this one". You won't be the first or last person to forget your words. If you do forget them... go through them again as soon as you sit down.
START BY TEACHING THE AUDIENCE THE CHORUS.... play the first 3 or 4 notes of the tune on the whistle, hum them to make sure you've got them... deep breath.... GO!...sing to the far wall just as you practised.
String your guitar with reasonably new (though not brand new) strings. They not only sound better but are easier to tune and keep in tune.
If you play an instrument, have spares of everything you actually need: picks, capos, strings, etc. If you don't have those, make sure you know an accapella song you can switch to if something's missing or breaks. Often you can borrow replacements, but if you're unsure of yourself these may throw you off.
If the club uses P.A. then try to resist the temptation to tap the microphone/ask "is it on?" before singing. If you've just seen someone using a microphone, the chances are that it is still working. If you want to check, just start talking into the mic to introduce the song and let your ears confirm the P.A. is still working. Do not shout into microphones - or whisper. Sing and speak normally, from about a foot from the mic.
How far from a mic you should be depends on a lot of things. If you've a well developed shanty voice a foot might be about right. The trick is to use your ears. You have to learn to estimate what the audience can hear from what you can hear. This is not usually a problem in FCs but if you're going to do gigs, you really *must* learn microphone technique. If there's somebody else controlling the sound (and you haven't had a chance to liaise with them beforehand), choose your position, stay still and let them get on with it.
Microphones vary enormously. One trick that might work is to get close in but don't sing straight into the mike. This may help with some of the breathiness, sibilance etc. which can nuke an inexperienced PA-user's sound quality. In the end, though, you have to rely on your own ears.
Don't use a mike/P.A. just because it's there. Some performers use a PA in a small venue not for volume, but just for better balance, or because they use electric instruments (an electric instrument and an unamplified voice may sound 'wrong', even though the instrument doesn't necessarily overwhelm the voice (partly depending on the natural echo in the room). You may not need to use it. In fact, there's a psychological element here. An audience may feel that using the PA is a licence to talk over a performance, and may actually listen more attentively if you don't use it. I've seen this work many times at folk and poetry venues. If the PA belongs to the main guest, -please- don't use it without asking.
After the Set
It probably wasn't perfect. It never is, for any of us. If it was a disaster, remember that it was probably much worse for you than anyone else. If you stumbled over the words or pitched it badly, don't give up: learn from the experience. If you got a buzz off the good bits, enjoy it.
But don't get complacent. Just because it may have gone all right the first time you sang it out, don't assume that you've cracked it, because you haven't. It'll take a lot more performances 'til you get it right and really get inside the song. So far you've remembered the words and tune, that's all.... eventually you'll learn it by HEART. One day you might even understand it!
Have the courage to have a go! And don't expect to be perfect. Most of us who've been doing it since the Dark Ages are still making mistakes.
In general, people are pretty kind to beginners: they don't mind a few rough edges, as long as they can see that you're making an effort. And they very rarely attack and kill performers, even the crap ones. ;-)
Remember that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who *can* do what you are doing and those who *can't*. If they can't do it they've got no right to criticise. If they can, then at some point in the past they must have gone through the same thing so they should have some sympathy. Criticism is not going to be a problem anyway because in general people are very supportive.
In addition to everything else people have said:-
Future Areas for Discussion?
How to get gigs. You've done a few floor spots but you want to play more than the two or three in a night. Where do you start in getting to play more often and longer sets. Even, dare I say, for money!!! How and who do you persuade that you need to be unleashed on the wider public for longer? I suppose one's music should speak for itself, but only if its heard often enough. So any ideas about self promotion would be gratefully received. Also some "don'ts" in there would be useful too.
One suggestion is to show up to do floor spots, introduce yourself to the organizer and say that you're looking for work, or else to send tapes. Clubs that have a big name policy may be interested in (cheap or even free) support acts. Fewer festivals nowadays seem to have serious jams and singarounds, but those that do help to get your name known. Some clubs give local singers a chance to do a longer set (a half or whole evening) from time to time. Of course, some clubs don't consider they have a particular incentive to book someone who comes every week anyway. Clubs that are associated with festivals are likely to be looking for local talent to pad the guest list cheaply and do things like MC concerts, run singarounds etc., which all raises your public profile.
Tapes generally need to be pretty good to make much of an impression. If you're going to send them round the country to clubs, festivals, agencies etc., you'll be taken more seriously if they're professionally packaged with a good looking poster or two, a properly formatted and well-printed resume etc. Some people won't even look at a tape that isn't well packaged: it's one of the heuristics for dealing with a flood of unsolicited gig-hunting mail. Best not to make a tape a 3-hour cassette of your life's work. A well-balanced set of three, say, should be quite enough to interest an organizer, if you're his/her cup of tea. For heavens sake do some research before you send stuff off. Don't waste their time and yours by sending a tape of acoustic rock and roll to a hardcore traditional club, or sea shanties to a club which leans towards the cabaret.
Another area which seems to interest people is running clubs, especially MC-ing. Brian Hooper of Southampton published a really good booklet a while ago called "So you want to be a Folk Club MC". It was still available in 1999, published by:
44 Janson Road
Also see Top Tips for running a session and Nervous about your first public performance??
...oh yes, if you sing in a pub, and everything goes quiet as you start singing, then that funny noise - that's you that is!!
If you've enjoyed this, then these pages may also be of interest
Jeremiah McCaw's pages have some good stuff on an Audience Guide (why didn't I think of that?) and his Performer Guide has a different slant, in that it considers an amplified open-mic session.
Lombardy Folk Music stuff
Floorsinging for Beginners