The awesome benefits of mixing up voices in your choir

Most choirs have sections of voice types to which their members usually belong. Perhaps your choir is SATB, SAA, TTB or any other of the numerous combinations available.

You may have noticed that in any group of people subdivided into smaller groups, interesting patterns can start to occur. On the positive side, new relationships are formed, a sense of solidarity and a desire to represent the section well. If singers are well-placed within the choir, they can sing comfortably in their range, making music achieveable and enjoyable.

However, on the negative side people can become rooted to the same spot, hearing the same voices around them week in, week out and be reluctant to step out of the safety and familiarity of their section.

You may have already discovered that mixing up voice parts and changing what is familiar in rehearsal is no mean feat.  You may have to get past the groans, the shuffling of feat, and the slight chaos as people jostle for position. But I still do it as often as possible. Why? Because the results are amazing.

During warm-ups

Mixing people up should be pre-planned and part of the rehearsal. If I mix singers up around the room during warm-ups, this is usually more of a social or team-building exercise, particularly if we have new members in the choir. I ask people to greet their new neighbours, do an exercise then move on, either mixing up again for another exercise or sending people back to their specific sections. If you've never tried this the results are interesting. It creates a real buzz in the room. Those on their own are integrated a little better into the choir and those in groups get to branch out and meet others.

In the past I've had a couple of quiet complaints about members saving seats for people. While I understand people's desire to sit with their pals, it can also be a bit excluding for newer members or people who don't know many people. As a choir leader, it's not really prudent for me to get involved in these little conflicts unless someone is behaving inappropriately, but I find that mixing everyone up for warm-ups helps to break up the sense of people being 'camped' in particular positions.

While rehearsing repertoire

When I mix up singers during rehearsals of repertoire, it's for different reasons. Singers get used to the voices around them and, in the case of someone who regularly stands next to a singer with a stronger voice, they can start to rely on that voice do to the work, perhaps following and not singing independently. By asking them to move somewhere different, either within or between sections, their perspective is completely altered. They may discover that they need to work a little harder or that they are perfectly capable of holding a part on their own.

I believe that for this very reason, when we mix up singers we raise their game, people try harder and don't rely on others as much as they may be surrounded by singers on different parts. I find time and time again that when mixed up the sound my choir produce is much stronger and more balanced.

To help concentration

Mixing up singers can also create a fresh energy which can be particularly helpful towards the end of the session where there might be a lull or dip in concentration. Even moving people within their sections can help. I love seeing new faces at the front who are usually hiding away at the back. Friends of mine run choirs where everyone gets up and stands in four lines. The singers can stand anywhere within those lines so the different vocal parts are completely mixed up. When they have sung a piece, the front row then moves to the back bringing the sceond row to the front. This rotation then continues so that everyone gets a turn in the limelight.

In addition they also ask a couple of singers to come forward each time and listen. Those singers can then experience the sound of the whole choir and give any feedback which occurs to them. This is a great way of involving singers in the rehearsal and performance aspects of the choir.

There are several ways you can give your singers a sense of the sound of the whole choir. If space and time permit, try this exercise ten minutes before the end of a session. Pick a song, piece or section that the choir can sing confidently from memory. Ask everyone to sing while walking slowly around the rehearsal space, weaving in and out of each other. Alternatively, get the choir mixed up between their vocal parts and standing in a large circle, so they are all facing into the centre. This gives people the chance to hear the full sound of the choir and is a wonderful, uplifting way to finish a rehearsal.
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