The 3 essentials that make a great choir leader

I’ve seen choir leaders of all stripes in action over the years, both in rehearsal and performance. They vary in style and approach, but I think they have some things in common that you’ll always find in an excellent choir leader.

Empathy

A choir is a group of people, each experiencing the music and the process of rehearsing and performing in their own unique way. A choir leader who can put themselves in the shoes of their singers will always be at an advantage.

Only when we understand the experience of choral singing can we hope to impart the instruction and advice that will guide our singers to perform at their best and get the most enjoyment out of the endeavour.

How to get it

When you’re preparing your rehearsal plans and practising repertoire, try to put yourself in the position of your singers. Will they understand your gestures and instructions?

Is there a better way that you can teach and develop your repertoire so that they get the maximum understanding and pleasure from the music?

Skill

All the empathy in the world won’t get the results we want if we can’t communicate effectively with our choirs.

Whether that’s giving a clear downbeat, showing dynamics or navigating a tricky change of tempo, your skill as a choir leader is what helps your singers to transform notes on a page (or notes taught by ear) into beautiful music.

How to get it

Even if you’ve had some training as a choir leader, don’t rest on your laurels. It’s really easy to accumulate dodgy habits as you use your skills week in, week out (eg, I have to work very hard not to sing along with the choir!).

If you get the chance, and your choir doesn’t object, try videoing a rehearsal. You might find it a bit excruciating to watch it back, but I guarantee you’ll see something you didn’t realise you were doing.

When I started out on my conducting training course, the tutor pointed out, very kindly, that I was conducting the beat with my hand, and the off-beat with my elbow!

Confidence

It’s no surprise that one of the most common phobias is performing in public. It takes some guts to stand up in front of a roomful of people and tell them what to do.

To me, confidence is not just about the ability to command a room, it’s about being brave enough to risk things going wrong. When we lack confidence, we’re full of fear: fear of being exposed as a fraud, fear of making a fool of ourselves, fear that we won’t be any good at what we’re trying to do.

As we gain confidence, those fears diminish and, with any luck, vanish altogether. We begin to realise that we can cope when things inevitably don’t go to plan. And then we can really enjoy our position as leader of the choir.

How to get it

Confidence can be elusive. Even the most confident choir leader can struggle from time to time. In my experience, the best way to gain confidence is to play out in my mind what exactly it is that I fear. I usually discover that my fears are unfounded, or that if they actually happened, the consequences would be much less terrifying that I think.

What if we started a piece so badly that we had to stop and start again? That has happened to me and my choir. You know what? I made a little joke to the audience that that was our test run, the choir visibly relaxed, we started again and the result was that we performed the piece better than ever.

Never forget that these essential elements of a great choir leader – empathy, skill and confidence, can be learned. If you’re struggling, stick at it and you will improve, as will your choir’s enjoyment.

Comments on The 3 essentials that make a great choir leader

  1. Avatar Stephen says:

    Hi Victoria and Christine,

    Thank you for this and other really useful and insightful blogs.

    I would respectfully propose a ‘4th essential’ to making a great choir leader.

    ‘Strategy’ or ‘Planning’ – selecting appropriate repertoire. Always your choice of music should satisfy, stimulate and delight. And your repertoire will develop, becoming more challenging as the singers improve in ability and confidence.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Stephen. That’s a great comment. I think I’d include planning in ‘skills’. You’re right that choosing repertoire is a very important skill.

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