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?

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12 comments

Victoria Hopkins Staff

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.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Thanks for the feedback Charles.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Give it a try Gideon. You'll be amazed at how powerful it is.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Akuo. I'm glad you like the article.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

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.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Thanks Marion. I hope you find it useful.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

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

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.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

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

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.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

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!
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

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.
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