Beyond notes & lyrics: focusing on dynamics with your choir

Some time ago after working on a new piece, I listened to my choir sing through it. Having grasped some tricky timing and rhythms they were pleased as punch with it and sang the whole thing at the top of their voices. While they had delivered the song correctly in terms of lyrics, tune and timing, it made me realise just how important dynamics are for a polished performance. I asked them what they thought of their rendition. They instantly identified that the whole song had been loud because they had felt more confident with it.

I then asked them what the song was about (something I think as singers, we often forget to consider). We needed to make dynamic changes, otherwise we risked losing the meaning and emotion at the heart of the song. Here are my top tips for working on dynamics and involving your choir in the process.

Get the choir thinking

We often talk about involving your choir in the creative process of crafting a performance. It helps them to feel a part of the choir and teaches them to be better choral singers. Make sure you have done your homework and understood the piece yourself, then talk to the choir about what the song is about and how its meaning can be communicated to an audience.

It’s really important that you consider the meaning of your piece, is it light and uplifting? Is it powerful and poignant? Sad and emotional? By thinking about this with your choir, you will find singers naturally start to change the dynamic rather than just going through the motions. Explain that it’s not necessary that the song speaks to them individually. Often, delivering a song requires getting into its character and ‘acting’. By considering the meaning and adding dynamic interest, you will soon find a piece comes to life.

Finding a balance between and within sections

The most important skill when we’re dealing with dynamics is, of course, listening. Our singers can’t know how loud or soft to sing if they’re not listening to what’s going on around them. We often rehearse sections a cappella so that we can adjust the blend between sections and so that individual singers can monitor their voice within their section.

We have a rule of thumb: if you’re singing ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’, you’re probably not the main event. In other words, think about which section of the choir has the melody and keep this at the front of the piece volume wise. SOmetimes I play a game with my choir to get them thinking about the dynamic layers in a song. As we sing through the piece, if they think their part is the most important in the mix, they stand up. If not, they sit down. It’s great fun and really gets everyone thinking about the structure of the song and the dynamic blend.


This goes hand in hand with delivering meaning through dynamics. It’s really important that diction is clear and sympathetic to the piece. Do a run-through thinking purely of diction. People often hold back, so ask them to really ‘ham it up’. Often, we find that by asking them to go over the top, we get a result that is just right.

Let the choir hear the results

When I run a rehearsal and I feel a song is really coming together, I like to choir to experience the sound that I hear when I’m standing at the front. We rehearse in a room with very little extra space, so ten minutes before the end we sometimes pack away the chairs and stand in one large circle with all the sections mixed up. We then have a sing-through and this enables the choir to experience the full effect of the choir’s performance.

All these techniques help the choir to stay aware of the dynamics of a piece and not sing on ‘autopilot’, which in my experience is the key to achieving a subtle, nuanced performance.

Comments on Beyond notes & lyrics: focusing on dynamics with your choir

  1. Avatar Frances says:

    I conduct a Gaelic choir in Scotland. I have conducted for many years but I’m always learning and I am gaining a lot from your posts! Thank you!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      You’re welcome Frances. Glad we can help.

  2. Avatar Marijke Anderson says:

    To have a sing through with all the sections mixed up is a great idea. Thank you

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Marijke, thank for your message. Have fun mixing everyone up, you may get some resistance but the results are always amazing!

  3. Avatar Janet Wood says:

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful article Christine. Printing it out to put in my choir folder.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Ah thanks Janet, it’s always great to hear when our articles are helping fellow choir leaders.

  4. Avatar Shalom Braide says:

    Beautiful piece just read
    Please could you write a piece on Choral Phrasing?


    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Shalon. We don’t have any plans to do so in the near future, but here’s a piece on phrasing I found on the Choral Director site

  5. Avatar Nina says:

    Thanks for this Christine. We spend a lot of time on dynamics and the meaning of lyrics and diction. Before we even learn a song we talk about the meaning of the song and translate the lyrics (we’re an Italian choir singing in English). Then we practise the pronunciation (call and lots of responses) and I try to incorporate diction but that’s sort of down on the list. The choir knows I have a thing about dynamics and that oohs and aahs are automatically pp. But far too many of them think they’re singing quietly when they’re not. I’ve tried getting them to cup their ears with their hands and it works perfectly at rehearsals but of course they can’t perform like that. The tenors and sopranos are the worst and look at me blankly when I tell them. Any suggestions? Thanks again for everything.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Nina, great to hear from you. Sounds like you have some great systems in place for tackling dynamics and emotional response to a song. I understand exactly what you mean as my choir have a tendency to sing louder than is necessary. I think this is when they start to feel confident with a piece and just want to sing it out.

      I suggest some warm-ups and games to tackle this. For example, You can sing a simple song or round in different styles such as shy, angry, happy. The volume will automatically alter as they think about the different emotions and help you to show the choir the effect of dynamic changes. You could also do a round getting softer and softer but working on keeping the same breath support and clarity. Finally a fun exercise I enjoy is all standing and singing a piece but the singers must sit down when they don’t have the main melody. In many pieces the melody changes through the voice sections so people are going up and down a lot! It’s a good giggle and helps people things about what’s happening in the song.

  6. Avatar Valerie says:

    Christine, that was a wonderful article on beyond notes. I really enjoyed reading it and I am sure that my choir will benefit from my new knowledge.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Valerie, it’s amazing how much of a diffrence a few dynamics can make. Following working with my choir on dynamics for one of their new pieces, they performed it to another choir on Saturday who were blown away by it. Let us know how you get on, I hope you’ll see or should I say hear some great benefits.

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