Pay attention! How to get your choir to listen to you

This article was inspired by a comment in our Facebook Mastermind group about what to do when your choir won't listen to your instructions.

This can be particularly hard if you're trying to demonstrate a part and people are singing along regardless of whether they know it or not. This got me thinking about ways we can ensure that our singers are paying attention in rehearsals so that we can keep things on track and be productive.

Look to yourself

Our first reaction can be to blame the entirety of listening issues on unruly, rowdy singers. However, it's probably a good idea to start by looking at ourselves and the way we act in rehearsals. Firstly, think about how much talking verses demonstrating you do in a rehearsal. If you are prone to long explanations for exercises or songs before your choir are even hearing what they should be singing, then it might be people start to switch off and let their minds wander or worse start 'quiet' conversations with their neighbour.

Far better to do more demonstration than explanation. That way you will engage them earlier on in the process. For example, if you want to teach your choir a round, you could signal to them to listen by putting your hand to your ear. Sing the phrase then gesture to them to repeat it. Repeat this process until they have the tune under their belt and then signal to a section at a time to start singing. This might be a challenge at first but your singers will soon get used to your cues and what they mean.

Insist on what you want

Keeping singer's engaged when teaching different sections with different parts can be challenging. It can also be very frustrating if you the choir leader are trying to demonstrate note patterns and others are singing along anticipating the part rather than really listen to it.

As hard as it can be, never be afraid to repeat your instruction for them to listen to you, or if there is a substantial din, stand and wait for everyone to quieten down. Trying to talk or shout over others will prove ineffective and just wear you out. Be clear about what you want to happen.

I often find that I'll ask my sopranos to sing their part for example and before I know it the tenors and altos are also singing along. This proves ineffective as the sopranos are trying to pick up a part with two other parts being sung at the same time! In this instance I will stop proceedings and issue the instruction again.

Keep everyone involved

Whilst it's important to get your choir listening to you, if you leave any one section for a length of time with nothing to do then they are bound to get fidgety or distracted. Try to take this into account when planning your rehearsals.

Work on small sections of a piece, going over each part then bring all the parts together to sing that section before moving on. You can also engage the whole choir by either asking them to all sing the part you are covering or for them to quietly hum their part or sing it in their head. This way they will remain engaged in the piece and have an understanding of it in its entirety rather just their part.

Distract them!

Finally, if it's all going wrong and you feel the choir really need to re-focus then ask them to stand and do a quick exercise either involving physical activity such as a tongue twister or song where some words are replaced by a clap or stamp or a round - something simple that they are familiar with which will get their attention and help them to re-focus.
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