You have limited rehearsal time and a lot of ground to cover. You’re making progress and the sound is good, but every time the music stops, the chatter begins. Sound familiar? It’s a problem for choirs large and small, in every genre of music. So what can you do? In this post, I’ll share my 3 top tips for maintaining good choral discipline.
First of all, let’s just hop off the podium and change our mindset from choir leader to choir singer for a moment. Maybe its a long time since you sang in a choir, maybe not, but when we’re in front of our choirs, it’s sometimes tricky to remember that the singer’s experience is very different from the conductor’s. Of course choral singers want to be part of making wonderful music, but they’re also engaged in a social activity. Interaction between choir members is vital for them to bond as a group and develop a sense of cohesion that they carry into their singing. So, bearing that in mind, how can we take the fullest advantage of our rehearsal time without making our singers feel that they might prefer to stay at home?
Take a break
Your singers need time to catch up with each other, share news, and talk about their experience in the choir. Have a half-time break that’s sufficiently long to accomplish this. If at all possible, make sure that space is available for people to hang around and chat before and after rehearsals as well. In my chamber choir, we often retire to the pub after rehearsal for a refreshing libation and a de-brief. That might not be feasible if your choir is a hundred strong, but you get the idea. It’s much easier to insist on no chatter during rehearsal if your choir has plenty of time for chatter outside rehearsal.
Be the strong, silent type
When I was at school, the teachers who were least effective at maintaining discipline were those who shouted the loudest and most often. Shouting was their default, so we just edited it out, ghastly kids that we were. The teachers we obeyed were those who rarely or never raised their voices, and who only had to look at us with a steely gaze to get our full attention.
I’m not suggesting that you treat your adult singers like schoolkids, but you can very effectively employ the power of silence. I warn you though, it takes some guts if you’re not used to it. When your choir finishes singing for a moment, and the inevitable chatter begins, you just stand there, ready to conduct (possibly with a conspiratorial glance to your accompanist) and wait. When you employ this technique for the first time, it will feel like an eternity, but stay strong. Make eye contact with the choir and let them know that you’re ready to conduct. And then wait some more if necessary. The ones who cotton on to your readiness will “sshh” the chatterers until there is silence. This technique is very powerful because you don’t undermine your authority by shouting or, worse, pleading with the choir to be quiet. After a while, the time needed to bring the choir to silence in this way will shorten and your singers will know that there isn’t time to chat until they have a break.
Don’t forget, while you’re employing this technique, to smile. It’s not you versus them. They’re just having fun, and anyway they’re probably talking about the piece.
Get everyone to sing everything
Choir discipline can be at its very worst when you’re “note-bashing”. Whichever part you’re working on, there’s another two or three parts that are doing nothing and getting bored. I get round this by getting everyone to sing everything, so if we’re learning the tenor part, we all sing the tenor part. If, for example, the sopranos have the tune I might get them to hum their part while the rest of us learn the bass part. Or maybe everyone will hum their parts except the part that we’re focusing on. If we’re working on a section where just the men are singing, I might have the sops sing with the tenors and the altos sing with the basses. You get the idea – it’s mix ‘n’ match.
The upshot is, it’s great sight-reading practice, it keeps everyone engaged, and it gives your singers a much better feeling for how the arrangement fits together.
So there we have it. 3 quick tips for better choir discipline.
- Give your singers some designated chatter time
- Use silence as a powerful tool to get silence
- Get everyone to sing everything in rehearsals
What do you think? Do you find choir discipline a nightmare? Have you found some great techniques that work for you?