As choir leaders, we are always striving to produce the best possible sound with our choirs. Whatever type of choir you lead, there’s always something more to learn and something that can be improved. The trick is to inspire your singers into achieving greatness rather than to nag or chastise them, which will only end up with negative results. Empower them with a bit of knowledge and know-how and you will soon reap the rewards with an amazing sound.
Improve vocal skills
It goes without saying that the better your singers’ ability, the better the sound of the choir. You don’t need to be a trained singer yourself, all it takes is a few little techniques and pointers to help your singers to produce a better sound, which in turn help them to take better care of their voices. I find this is best done at the beginning of a session as part of the choir’s warm-ups. Think about the techniques important for your current repertoire and work them into a structured warm-up session. Key areas to focus on are relaxation to avoid tension in the voice, breathing techniques to teach support and control, and pitch and harmony exercises to get singers thinking about the notes they are producing. These are all areas of singing which over time will help to achieve a better sound.
Develop the choir’s relationship with you
As a conductor you are the one holding everything together, so it’s vital that your choir pays attention to you. Building a relationship with them over time will help this, but don’t be afraid to let them know if they are not looking at you. A humourous remark in my experience is the best way; perhaps tell them about your dented ego when they are not fully engaged! Whatever works for you, its really important they follow your signals to keep the piece together, co-ordinated and on track. It is therefore vital that you give your choir clear signals so that your singers can interpret you easily. For example, if you’re bringing a section in make sure you acknowledge them in advance ready for their entrance, rather than a quick signal when their line actually begins. Also bear in mind your choir will mirror you and any tension or bad habits will be reflected right back at you and beyond to your audience. Stay relaxed, keeping your shoulders level. Keep your facial expression lifted and bright, give clear signals and breathe when your choir needs to breathe.
When you start a new piece, ask your choir what they think it’s about. What emotion does it require? What tempo suits it best? How can we build up the dynamics? By doing this you are getting your choir to think more about the pieces they sing and you are involving them in the development of their performance more than if you just dictate everything to them. Of course, you need to have the answers to your questions clear in your mind, but giving your choir a chance to figure some things out themselves will really help them to invest in a new piece.
Be specific with your instructions
Prior to rehearsals go through your music in detail and make decisions about how you want it to sound. If you want certain emphasis on words or parts of words make that clear to your choir in the learning process to get a feeling of togetherness. Talk to the choir about this and explain why it’s so important to the overall quality of their peformance. Focusing in on and polishing a specific part of a piece is very motivational for a choir. Once they experience something really coming together they are also keen to hold on to this and repeat it in future performances of the piece.
Get them to listen to each other
You may occasionally notice singers rehearsing with one hand over their ear, trying desperately to get to grips their own part. Whilst we can understand why they may try to block out other parts – they think they will be distracted, try to discourage that kind of approach because it’s so important that choral singers listen to what’s going on throughout the choir. Try mixing people up so that they are not always sitting within their separate sections. This is a fantastic way of giving the music a new lease of life as singers hear it from a different perspective and really up their game away from the safety of their individual sections.
Raising musical standards in our choirs is a long and ongoing process, but I hope agree that there are simple actions we can always take to help that process along.