The challenge of getting your choir to look at you

If you've ever led a choir that sings from scores or lyric sheets, you'll know the frustration of looking at the tops of singers' heads when you want to be looking at bright, attentive faces. They don't neglect you intentionally, of course - they just end up reading when they should be merely glancing. The score or sheet becomes a security blanket. How can we encourage our singers to get their heads out of their copies and on us?

Get all eyes on you before you begin

Whatever type of leader you are, one thing that's vital is that your choir understands you are in charge. Never launch into a piece when people are distracted or chatting. Have the confidence to wait until everyone is ready and all eyes are on you. Maintain relaxed eye contact, moving your gaze around the whole choir until you are satisfied that everyone is ready. Once the choir gets the message that this is what is expected every time they begin to sing, the process will become shorter and shorter. 

Make sure your eyes are on the choir

Do you notice how much time you spend with your head in your score? It may be more than you think, particularly in the early stages of rehearsing a piece. Obviously, it's ideal if we can lead our choirs from memory, but that's not always possible, so it's important that when you do your score preparation for a new piece, you absorb enough of the music to be able to lead the choir confidently without more than glancing at the score here and there. If a singer looks up only to find that you're looking down, they may get the message that there's nothing to see up front and they may as well read their score!

Get everyone involved in the music

A choir that feels invested in their standard of performance is more likely to be focused and attentive. Don't just instruct your choir, ask them what they think didn't work or needs improving. If the ensemble's not tight because some singers are not looking up during a pause, for example, help your singers to understand the cause of the problem.

Catch them out!

A great way to highlight the effect of singers' failure to watch you is to do something totally unexpected now and then. Take a piece or passage at a completely different tempo to the way you've rehearsed it before. Hold a pause for longer than usual. Finish a piece halfway through a final cadence without letting the music resolve (that one always gets a laugh). If your choir sings to backing tracks and you can't vary these elements of the rehearsal, try the same thing with a warm-up round or exercise.

Teach your choir to look up

Those of us who have been choral singers for a long time will probably have got into the habit of holding our score in a position that allows us to glance down and up without losing contact with the conductor. Novice and inexperienced singers don't have that skill and will need to be taught it. Demonstrate score position to your choir and help them to practice staying in touch with you as they sing.

Put scores down regularly

To combat the 'security blanket' effect, ask your singers to put their scores down occasionally, even in the early stages of rehearsing a piece. Tell them that if they forget the lyrics, sing to 'la'; if they forget the notes, make something up. Remind them (many times - they may be very resistant) that you're not testing them. Attempting to sing something from memory, even if the whole thing collapses, is a great way to aid the process of memorising.

Video them!

If you have an ongoing problem with singers not looking at you, why not record part of a rehearsal and show the choir exactly what you mean? Ask them to focus on themselves in the video and notice how much time they're not looking at you, and therefore out at the audience. They may not have realised that they were part of the problem.
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Victoria Hopkins

Hi Kate. I've used a similar approach myself - taking a theme or melody and using it in the warm-ups before I teach a new piece. Great tip.
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Victoria Hopkins

Good point! And lucky you, working with him. I did a recording of Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony with him in the early 2000s. I don't remember much about it except that he was fantastic.
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