Controlling the chaos! Rehearsing a big choir in a small space

When I first began my contemporary choir five years ago, I had no idea what I had started. I thought to myself that I'd be happy if I could entice 20 singers to join me to see what we could achieve. I live in a coastal village with a good strong community spirit and before I knew it, word got out and the choir went from humble beginnings of seven to twenty-plus, then pretty quickly to around sixty members.  What had seemed like a cavernous space when I first viewed the venue soon became a logistical nightmare!

I stuck with the venue because I like the vibe, the price is right and I have a good relationship with the owners. I am also able to hire the hall for any additional workshops or sessions I carry out so it really has become home from home. I've thought about a bigger venue but this would mean significantly extra cost for me, plus I feel it may change the feel of the rehearsals were we in a much larger space. So here's how I've made the space work for me and my choir.

Plan your layout

A small team of us always like to arrive nice and early for choir before anyone else to set up. This includes myself, Victoria and our wonderful sound man Richard. Over time we have learnt to maximise the space with a layout that gets people seated comfortably and with enough room to move also leaving all the fire exits clear. When the chairs, admin desk and sound system are set up in this particular way, the start of choir is much more organised than if we were to leave people to grab a chair randomly. Sometimes we may get a few more attending than usual so we always leave a stack of chairs at one end of the room ready and waiting and assist people with finding a place.

Get up high

It sounds obvious but elevating yourself on some kind of podium or stand can make a big difference. I used to conduct on the floor but then found that because we were in a fairly small space those at or near the back weren't able to see me properly and similarly I couldn't see them. This meant I had little to no interaction with these singers and they weren't able to follow my conducting. Eye contact is so important when working with your choir to engage people and give them confidence so by elevating myself a little on a podium this problem was quickly solved.

Think of the little things

Over time we've encountered all sorts of disruptions relating to the lack of space. Knocking over cups of water was a regular one. People would help themselves to water from the venue's kitchen and, of course, always think that they would be very careful not to knock it over. Multiply that by twenty and you have a surefire recipe for spillages. Now we ask people to bring bottles of water instead. If they forget, we have some bottled water available to buy.

Similarly, with large numbers of people in a small space, tea breaks can be an interesting affair. We have learnt to get ahead of the game by setting things up rather like a production line.

Keep up the pace

In any rehearsal it's important that you plan thoroughly what you want to achieve and get a balance of activities including warm-ups, technique practice and repertoire rehearsal. Never has a well-planned rehearsal been more vital than when rehearsing large choirs in a small place. You will need your wits about you to keep everything moving otherwise noise levels can soon escalate. Keep some exercises up your sleeve for times when you might feel the focus shift, for example after a break when everyone has had a good chat. Ask people to stand, do some stretches and maybe a tongue twister before launching back into repertoire practice. Don't be tempted to shout over your choir if things get noisy, calmly wait, arms poised ready to conduct and they will soon get the message. Shouting over them will prove ineffective and tire you out.

Don't get stuck in a rut

It's inevitable that we get into some sort of routine with our choirs, but it's important not to let things get too predictable. Keep your singers alert by asking them questions about the music, get them thinking about how the piece will come together. Try not to spoon-feed everything as people can sometimes switch off. If you have all been concentrating hard learning some new music, try mixing people up and repeating what you've just learned in a new position. This is also a great way to get members integrated when they don't get a chance to meet anyone but those next to them.
Choir performance - how to talk to your audience
Playing with choir formations

1 comment

Victoria Hopkins

Hi Mary. Thanks for commenting. Our contemporary choir performs rock and pop songs using recorded backing tracks, hence we have a sound desk and speakers set up during rehearsals. Christine uses a headset mic to talk to the choir, which helps her to save her voice. You're absolutely right that there's no reason why a choir leader shouldn't be heard by a choir of 60, but as the equipment's there, we make the most of it.
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