Choir leaders: Look after your voice
Being a choir leader can be demanding on your voice, particularly if you are also a singer and like to demonstrate during rehearsals or have other singing based commitments outside of the choir. Just as preparing repertoire and rehearsals is vital to what you do, so also is looking after and maintaining your voice. There is an element of leading by example and if you are always rushing around and your voice sounds tired and croaky this doesn’t set the best example to your singers about looking after their voices.
The great benefit of being a singer and choir leader is that you understand and appreciate the need for good vocal warm-ups. Through your own ideas and experience you can work on the areas of the voice which need to be taken care of with your singers. Key areas are relaxation, range building, flexibility breathing and resonance, all of which will encourage your members to care for their voices and also lead to better technique and performance.
Taking care of your own vocal health will help you to avoid strain and fatigue and make sure that you feel your best and full of energy at rehearsals. Here’s a checklist of helpful hints:
1. Running a rehearsal often entails lots of talking and singing which can get very tiring. Depending on the size of your venue and choir you could consider using a microphone, either hand held or hands free, to help you out.
2. Try to reduce talking where possible, often it’s tempting to go into long explanations of a task when you could just as easily demonstrate with gestures. For example when teaching a round, sing a line and signal to the choir to repeat it. When you want them to listen and not sing, touch your ear. When you want part of the group to sing, gesture to that group rather than explaining which section you’re referring to.
3. Avoid singing along too much in rehearsal, if you do want to relay the lyrics mime the words or sing softly. Ideally, give up singing along altogether. If your singers rely on you too much they might not memorise what they need to and you’ll have made a rod for your own back.
4. If there is lots of chatter in your rehearsal, try not to repeatedly use your voice to quieten people down. Raising your voice might work to start with, but there’s a law of diminishing returns – you’ll have to keep shouting louder and louder to get attention. Instead, stand still and quiet. Smile and make eye contact with the choir. Raise your hands to show that you’re ready to conduct and wait expectantly (keep smiling – don’t glower at them!). You’ll find that the choir members “shush” each other and come to silence. It takes some guts if you’re not used to working this way, but it will protect your voice and preserve a friendly atmosphere.
5. If possible, allow yourself some quiet calm time before a rehearsal and do some vocal warm-ups yourself in preparation. Victoria and I have both made the mistake of working all day then running into choir rehearsals in the evening. This is no fun for you and doesn’t make for the best rehearsal. When you’re tired, you’re more likely to forget your good intentions and start using your voice poorly. Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day and take a break to refresh yourself. If your timetable simply doesn’t allow such a break, do what you can. Even five minutes with your eyes shut, breathing deeply, is surprisingly restorative. Drink plenty of water before and during the rehearsal.
6. Try to get into the habit of doing a short daily vocal warm-up – just a few minutes will suffice. Work on some relaxation and gentle exercises such as humming scales and breathing deeply and steadily. Anne Peckham’s book The Contemporary Singer is excellent. It explains how the voice works and gives a range of gentle exercises. The more informed you are, the better you are able to explain the importance of protecting the voice to your singers.
Striking the right balance is always a challenge but by looking after your own vocal needs, you will feel more relaxed, more in control and happier. In turn, this will make you a much better leader and teacher.