3 quick tips for better choir discipline

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.

  1. Give your singers some designated chatter time
  2. Use silence as a powerful tool to get silence
  3. 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?

Comments on 3 quick tips for better choir discipline

  1. Avatar Doreen Philip says:

    I am a retired teacher who loves music and taught music in the elementary panel and ran choirs in the primary Junior and intermediate levels. Upon retiring I was asked to help out a seniors organization when they wanted to start a singing group. I used some of my material from the intermediate level repertoire with them and gradually they were able to sing 4 part harmony. I find that as long as I have a concrete plan and a goal for each rehearsal, remain flexible to change my plan as things happen , retain a sense of humour, my group responds very well. We are mostly seniors from mid 60s to over 90 years of age. Over the past 19 years our group grew to over 50 singers and has diminished due to many issues down to 38. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences as I really find them helpful. I am now 83 myself and still working with this group which I love to do. I have always loved music but never thought of doing what I have done throughout my career in teaching and now in retirement. Music is so good for seniors health and for the friendship within the group.

  2. Avatar Claire says:

    I am in the choir at the local Episcopal church. Is it wrong to be quiet if they are singing something I don’t like? For example, at church yesterday I kept my mouth closed when the rest of the choir was singing one of those “happy-clappy” hymns I don’t like (I only like traditional hymns & anthems). After the service, the director told me he didn’t like what I did. like most of the music we sing at church, but not the “happy-clappy” music. I am a musical traditionalist & proud of it.

    Claire

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Claire. We’re don’t run church choirs, and we focus on helping choir leaders rather than choir members, so we’re not the best people to ask. Having said that, my personal view is that when you sing in a choir, you’re part of a team and you should sing whatever the choir sings. Best of luck.

  3. Avatar Isaac Omo-ileri says:

    Thanks we are jst starting using all the 3 tip in our group as a community choir and is working for us. God bless

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Isaac,
      Thanks for your message, glad to hear you’re finding the tips helpful.

  4. Avatar Kateregga Ivan says:

    I have always used silence and its my mode👍.thanks .

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Kateregga,
      It certainly is a great technique.

    2. Avatar olajide Samuel says:

      Thanks so much I will try it, but that of number tip 1 and 2 I don’t understand it well

  5. Avatar Gert says:

    I usually let them Recite a Rhyme i made up to help Straighten posture, after which they are quiet and ready to sing.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Gert, it’s great to find strategies that work well for your choir and which your singers become familiar with.

  6. Avatar Awe Blessing Ayomide says:

    Thanks for tje tips…. I am someone that does not like arguing in rehearsals… & I can see that itz helping me.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      You’re very welcome, you may also find our blog post How to Take Command of a Room helpful.

      Good luck with your rehearsals.

  7. Avatar Jenny says:

    I quite often sing (or play on the piano) the starting note of a piece until the choir settles down and looks at me. They know that means I’m ready to start and we don’t until I have their eye contact and they are singing the note back at me. Works a treat and no shouting!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Jennifer, thanks for sharing your tip. It’s always good to find ways of getting your singers’ attention which avoid shouting!

  8. Avatar Ossirio says:

    Hi!

    That’s marvelous! I think all this tips are important, but about number three, I have a question: (if you may help me answering, that would be perfect!)

    The whole choir singing all parts seems to be extremely fun, but if, for example, the sops start singing the bass part… It won’t be harmful to their own line learning? (BTW, my choir doesn’t read)

    Hoping for your answer! Thank you, again!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Ossirio. I’ve never found that to be the case. I think singing other parts gives people a better sense of the whole piece and actually helps them with learning their own part.

      This in turn helps to relax people when they have someone singing a different part next to them (something that inexperienced singers often struggle with) and can give you the flexibility to think about using different formations where your singers are mixed up.

      There’s no harm in experimenting!

      1. Avatar Ossirio says:

        I will, Victoria; Thank you very much!

        Greetings from Colombia!

  9. Avatar Rangaa says:

    1st tip and the 3rd tip for better choir discipline are okay and we already practised it. But, 2nd one is unbelievable.
    “Use silence as a powerful tool to get silence”
    We should try to implement this ASAP because it steal my heart.
    Thanks a lot for the valuable info.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Rangaa, thanks for your feedback, glad you found the tips useful and hope they work for you and your choir.

  10. Avatar Mike Haynes says:

    Thank you for the tips. I’m by no means a professional choir director, but I do lead a large mens vocal ensemble at the college I attend (not collegiate level). I want to get guys who haven’t been able to sing in a choir that awesome experience. I’ve often wondered how I could increase their musicianship skills.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Mike. I think the answer to that is ‘slowly’. Work on things a bit at a time, in your warm-ups and when you’re rehearsing repertoire. Concentrate on the things that your singers can readily put into practice – good posture, a bright face, an open mouth and throat. Little by little, you’ll see and hear improvements.

  11. Avatar Future says:

    How do I contact you ma on more choir issues

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      We don’t offer one to one coaching, but you’ll find lots of help and advice in the blog and podcast.

  12. Avatar Kamali says:

    Fantastic points!

  13. Avatar Martin Kaefer says:

    Tip 1 and 2 are helpful and working. Tip 3 I can hardly image that it works. My concern is that the result and quality is not that good when other voices are singing i.g. the Bass part as they are struggling enough with their own ones ;-) But perhaps I didn’t get it right?

  14. Avatar Devona Velda says:

    what if my group is practising and soneone outside interrupted us… how can i handle it?

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Devona. I think the answer is to be polite but make it clear that you’re in the middle of rehearsal. If it’s a one-off, I don’t think it’s a problem. If it’s regular (I can’t think of an example, but I suppose it could happen), you might need to have a quiet word to explain that interrupting the rehearsal is distracting for the choir. Always be polite and friendly, but don’t be afraid to make your point clear.

    2. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Devona, thanks for your message. Luckily I haven’t found myself in this situation but I imagine it could be very disruptive. I guess if it’s a persistant disruption you could start by politely asking those making the noise to quiten down. They may not realise they are disrupting a rehearsal and quickly stop the noise. If however, this is not the case and the disruption persists it might be worth talking to the owners or managers of the venue you use to see if they can deal with the problem.

  15. Avatar kevin says:

    Is the chamber choir secular?

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      My chamber choir is, yes, although we often sing sacred music.

  16. Avatar Marion Ross says:

    Victoria,

    Good information! Especially the tip of having everyone sing everything in rehearsal.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks Marion. I hope you find it useful.

  17. Wao……., I never thought of silence as an idea, I think that will help me a great deal in my choir these season, thanks alot.

  18. Avatar Akuo Naphtali Inah says:

    Thanks victoria. I always feel that if the other members sing another part they may jump into it during performance. Considering the type of choristers I have. So I ask them to look at their copies and sing in their minds. I make sure they are doing that or humming.

    On silence I use a great deal of eye contact and they ajust. I teach them that I talk less and use more of sign language.
    Am in cameroon and will want to share a lot with you. I started leading at 19. Struggling with students and other dependent choristers. We hardly can raise funds for robes pianoes an orchestra I mean. You may want to help. Thanks

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Akuo. I’m glad you like the article.

  19. Avatar Gid says:

    thanks, I will be trying this out, the tips are encouraging, I pray I make that silent-strong technique work!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Give it a try Gideon. You’ll be amazed at how powerful it is.

  20. Avatar David says:

    Interesting, perfect tips.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks David

  21. Avatar Akhona mz says:

    I will defnitely try the silence form of displine. I am also won by the point of getting everyone to sing everything. I will put it into practice then observe the outcome. Thank you for the 3 tips provided!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your comments Akhona, we’d love to hear how you get on with getting your singers to sing everything. Victoria and I both find this a useful practice.

    2. Avatar Juliet Snyder says:

      I have tried the silence with my middle school kids. They don’t care. I stood there and smiled and entire class period and it did not work. I was devastated.

      1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

        Sorry to hear that Juliet. We only work with grown-ups and it works a treat with them. We don’t have much experience of running children’s choirs, but it would be great to hear from any children’s choir leaders about how they handle discipline.

        1. Avatar Marilyn says:

          Hi Victoria, I tried this method years ago with a small choir and it worked. As the class gets bigger, it takes a lot more silence. And I think it has a lot to do with the type of choir. I have a church group of children starting at 3rd grade level to confirmation age.

      2. Avatar Tricia Bach says:

        I use a short clapping rhythm with a junior choir which they have to clap back, that tends to get their attention, if necessary add a 2nd short rhythm for them to repeat. If you’re really organised, clap a short rhythm that is in a piece you are currently working on which can then lead into the singing .

  22. Avatar Julie Pope says:

    Great tips – thanks! It’s always useful to read them and either confirm what you’re doing or learn something new. Total Choir Resources is a great site, and has really helped me with leading my singers. Thank you.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Julie, really pleased to hear the site has been so helpful for you.

  23. Avatar Shirley says:

    All great ideas! I use a wand and tap it rather loudly on the music stand. It’s a very nice wand, Frozen blue and a left over from our Let It Go days. Also employed are sleigh bells at Christmas and my best belted rif on mic. That usually stops them talking!

  24. Avatar Ime Edet says:

    Yea, getting everyone to sing everything works for me. highly recommended

  25. Avatar Amy says:

    I love the tip on having one part hum their part while working on the other! UGH! WHY did I not think of that before?!! Thank you!!

    1. Avatar Jill says:

      Yes. this is a fabulous idea. Will try it next rehearsal. Thanks!

  26. Avatar Charles Milongo says:

    Lovely lesson . Will try this tomorrow

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks for the feedback Charles.

  27. Avatar Barbara says:

    So delighted to read these tips, especially the one about getting everyone to sing everything. Makes sense on so many levels but I hadn’t thought of it before. Thank you.

    When I am ready to start the rehearsal, which I insist begins exactly on time, I play a major chord on the piano, and the choir have learned that this is the signal to stop talking. They usually share in nudging each other to be quiet, so I don’t have to do anything else. I then start them singing immediate.

  28. Avatar Kirsty Orr says:

    Hi,

    Really like the idea of getting everyone to sing everything. It makes total sense and I don’t know why I haven’t thought of it before lol. Will try it this season :) Thanks for the tip

  29. Avatar Stellaks says:

    Please I’d like to know tips on incorporating a good code of conduct and how to implement it

    1. Avatar VictoriaHopkins says:

      I think I would be reluctant to introduce a formal code of conduct, but I’m not a youth choir leader, so I recognise that there might be particular challenges to working with children and young people that I don’t encounter in the adult choir world. If we have any youth choir readers on the blog, maybe they could suggest a strategy.

      1. Avatar Josef Offiong says:

        It is necessary to have a code of conduct in order to avoid chaos (so to speak) and emphasise order. However this should not be done with aggression but with persuasion (yet upholding firmly the code).

    2. Avatar Suzanne says:

      With my children’s choir, at the beginning of each new season, I guide them in writing their own code of conduct. We start by brainstorming any and all ideas about “rules” we should have during rehearsal, and let me tell you, I have heard some crazy ones! After the list is done and they can think of no others, we work at paring the list down to just five rules. (Many of the rules can be combined, such as “no soda in the choir room,” “no candy in the choir room,” “only water in the choir room,” and “only non-spillable cups in the choir room,” can be combined down to my rule of “Only water in bottles with caps in the choir room.”) Working this way with children gives them ownership over the code of conduct and they are more likely to obey the rules and pressure their peers into doing the same.

      1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

        Hi Suzanne,

        What a fab idea! The children definitely wouldn’t want to break their own rules.

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