How a new choir leader tackled her first rehearsal

The greatest reward from running Total Choir Resources is being able to help, inspire and motivate choir leaders all over the world to get the most out of their role. We absolutely love it. We get lots of emails and messages asking about everything from rehearsal planning to microphone technique and we always take the time to reply. Some time ago, Joanna Edwards got in touch with us. She'd agreed to lead a brand new choir and she'd never conducted before in her life. She has very kindly allowed us to publish the correspondence we had with her about her first rehearsal. We think it will be really interesting and useful to budding choir leaders everywhere.

Hi, could you please help me in any way, big or small? I have willingly and voluntarily taken on starting a choir from scratch - literally. Our first rehearsal is this Sunday for 2 hours.

I have NEVER led a choir before in my life. I have however been singing since I was 4 years old. I have sung in choirs with an orchestra at grand theatres, sang in a world folk group, a church choir many times and I sing with a guitarist as a duo. I have had solo parts in every choir and sing alto, bass and soprano, wherever I’m needed. I have 40 years’ experience on and off and I love singing with all my heart. My mother says it runs through my blood.

So that’s me, now would you have any tips for my first ever rehearsal? We are a choir for The Sunday Assembly and will be singing non-religious songs and mostly pop songs.

Any help would be great, honestly.

Many thanks. Jojo

Hi Jojo

Okay. First, let's take a DEEP BREATH! It's all going to be fine. You already have all the skills you need to be a great choir leader.

You are basically in the same position I was when I started leading a choir. You're a good singer and a good musician, but you've never conducted. That's great, because it's your musicianship that makes you a good choir leader, not your experience at waving your arms around - which you can learn.

I'm assuming that you already know what you're going to sing on Sunday, so here are my thoughts on how to tackle your first rehearsal:-

1. Take some time to learn the music you're going to teach to the choir in advance. Even though you'll feel very daft to start with, practise in front of a mirror just giving a nice steady beat. If you can't manage "formal" beat patterns to start with, a relaxed "up and down" beat, circles or figures of eight can be just as effective. Find out what you're comfortable with.

2. Get the choir singing straight away. Don't do a lot of talking at the outset. Your choir wants to sing. Get them on their feet doing some fun warm-ups (check out the website for some ideas) and easy rounds to break the ice. This will also give you the opportunity to listen to the voices that you have to work with.

3. Mirror what you want from the choir. Try to keep your posture good but relaxed. Smile! Breathe with the choir and don't worry too much about gestures to start with. Personally, when I started out, I conducted just with my "beating" arm because my left arm had no independence and it was easier to just keep it out of the game!

4. Don't worry about your lack of conducting experience. This is a new choir and you're all going to learn together. Both Christine and I had, and still have, terrible Impostor Syndrome, so we can certainly sympathise with your fears. Remember that the group of people in front of you want to like you and want to enjoy taking direction from you. They are pre-disposed to be pleased. Never forget that it's you, as a person and as a musician, that is going to shape this experience for them.

I hope all that helps a bit. Will you email me after the rehearsal and let me know how it went?

Very best of luck Victoria

Wow, thank you so much. I feel lots better.

I will do exactly what you have said and my plans were almost the same. I just have to work on the songs over the next few days.

I have never called myself a musician, but I studied violin reluctantly as a teenager and have played the recorder and keyboard with one hand and am currently learning the guitar. I am planning to do everything by ear but will take my keyboard to demonstrate the occasional note if necessary.

I can’t thank you enough for your support and yes I will let you know how it goes.

Best wishes. Jojo

Hi, some feedback on my first ever session as choir leader:

It was awesome, although all the way through I honestly couldn’t tell if they were enjoying it or not. I left a feedback sheet out for them though, from which I was expecting lots of dos and don’ts, but all I got was fantastic motivational compliments! I was on a high all day. They absolutely loved it.

Now I am wondering how I keep the excitement alive for the next session and also how to incorporate teaching newcomers for the next session and re-capping for the returning members at the same time? Can you suggest anything for this please?

In my first session I did the "Oh When the Saints/I Wanna Sing/Swing Low" round and everyone really enjoyed it. I also started a three-part harmony for "Lean On Me", did lots of fun warm-ups and ended with some body percussion. I have a varied age group and wanted something for everyone. I think I managed it this time.

Since the session I have 4 new members on word of mouth that makes a grand total of 14…gulp!

I had a sheet available for anyone to request technical information for the next session too and on it I was asked for exercises for breathing techniques and scales. Also one gentleman said he struggles with producing the correct sound straight off. He says he has to sing in his speaking voice first and then find the note which takes a few seconds. Any quick fixes for this?

If you have any tips on the above, I would really appreciate the mentoring and you are welcome to join us anytime.

Thanks in advance x

Hi Jojo

Congratulations on your huge success. It takes guts to get up in front of a group of people and lead them (in any walk of life). You can be incredibly proud.

I had to smile at your admission that you had no idea if your singers were enjoying themselves. We've had the same experience so many times. The ironic thing is that the people who look completely nonplussed by a rehearsal often turn out to be the ones who loved it the most! I guess some people just look a bit miserable when they're engrossed.

I really don't think you need to worry about keeping the "excitement alive" for your subsequent rehearsals. Your enthusiasm will naturally communicate itself to your singers. Your question about how to balance the needs of new and existing members is a good one. In our contemporary choir, we don't tend to spend a lot of time re-capping for new members. They get carried along by the confident singing of those around them. However, I appreciate that your situation is a little different in that you're hoping for a substantial influx of people over the next weeks and months. However much time you spend re-learning something, just bear in mind that everyone's there to sing. Don't expect any one part to sit out for too long. One way that we avoid that is to invite everyone to sing all the parts when we're note-bashing. For example, if we're learning soprano and alto parts, we might have the tenors singing with the sops and the altos singing with the basses. This is great for everyone's learning skills and avoids boredom (and consequent chatting!).

Another way to help your singers learn the repertoire is to provide rehearsal tracks so that they can practise at home. We post them on a members only section of our website, but if you don't want to go down that road, you could simply sing the parts into a recording device (probably your phone), stick the mp3s into a public dropbox and email the link to all your singers.

The gentleman you describe sounds like he's having a bit of trouble reproducing the sound that he hears. You could try a few warm-ups where you sing easy phrases (just a few note to "la") and the choir sings them back to you. He probably just needs a bit of practice. It's amazing how many people I meet who tell me categorically that they "can't sing", as though it were something that you can either do or not. Rome wasn't built in a day!

Do keep in touch and let us know how your choir develops.

All the best. Victoria
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Victoria Hopkins

Hi Rachel. Thanks so much for taking the time to tell us about your choir. It sounds like you're doing a brilliant job.
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Hi Florence. I’m afraid we don’t use solfa, so we’re not able to help you.
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Hi Erin. Congratulations on leading your choir. It sounds like you're doing a great job. One of the big challenges of running community choirs is dealing with individual voices as part of a group. You probably don't have the time or inclination to meet with each singer to hear their voice and work out where they should be in the choir, so you have to rely on them to work it out for themselves. That can be tricky because these are untrained singers who might not realise when they are straining. One way that we deal with this issue is to have sectional workshops occasionally where we invite a single voice part along on a weekend afternoon to do some fun warm-ups and games followed by some work on repertoire. That way, we get to hear individual voices a little more clearly and if we can hear that someone is struggling, we can address that with them. Another strategy is to give people the opportunity, whether in warm-ups or repertoire, to experiment with singing different voice parts to work out where they feel most comfortable. Also, make sure you help your singers to know what comfortable singing feels like - relaxed, open throat, tongue forward, chin down, bright face, relaxed shoulders etc. You can often see when singers are straining because their chin and shoulders rise. Best of luck with your choir.
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Congratulations Jean. It sounds as though you've made an amazing start as a choir leader.
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