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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.

17 Responses to Choir leaders: Look after your voice

  1. Sarah 2 May 2014 at 8:59 am #

    I’ve been using Ann Peckham’s CD for a few years now as a member of a choir, but never got around to reading the book and almost forgot I had it. Now that I’m leading a singing group reading it will be on my to do list – thanks for the nudge. Funnily enough, as our singing group is growing week by week and they are such an enthusiastic and bubbly bunch, I explained to them last night that I would need their co-operation as we are getting bigger, if I am not to lose my voice! We agreed that when I raised my hand in the air, It was a sign to stop talking and get ready to listen/sing. As you say, they tended to shush each other then.

    • Victoria Hopkins 5 May 2014 at 1:28 pm #

      That’s a good tip, Sarah. I like the fact that you got them on-side by explaining why you needed to take action.

  2. Alexander Douglas 6 May 2014 at 10:50 am #

    Wow.

    I remember being convicted of this fact five years ago, but I ended up being distracted by “other creative pursuits” and now as the scope and depth of my choral work continues to proliferate, I really wish I had more to offer my singers in terms of my own personal vocality. This is one of the very best articles of this type that I have read; it has kicked me up the backside very gently and I want to commit to taking the advice herein; I’m in this for the long haul, so let me act like it! :-)

    Thank you so much, I will share this with those who may actually read all of it!!

  3. Janet Wood 8 September 2017 at 10:02 am #

    This is indeed an excellent article Christine, thank you! I have three choirs plus several other community and children’s singing projects in my day job and my voice is really showing signs of strain – plus I’ve been diagnosed with silent reflux which has made matters far worse! I used to have a strong voice and now I daren’t take on any solo work as I just can’t trust what comes out of my mouth. Your tips for reducing talking during a rehearsal and not constantly singing along with parts are really helpful and I’ve just ordered Anne Peckham’s books.

    It’s weird because I was just sitting thinking about how worried I am about my voice and all my upcoming commitments and this turned up in my inbox!

    Thanks again for all your supportive articles both of you.

    • Christine Mulgrew 8 September 2017 at 10:20 am #

      Hi Janet,

      Thank you for your lovely message. I’m so pleased that the article came just at the right time for you. I really hope the tips help you take care of your voice. Have fun with Anne Peckham’s books, I use them constantly and find them such an amazing source for contemporary singing.

  4. Kate 8 September 2017 at 3:44 pm #

    Just the right time to post this! A reminder to all of us before we jump into the hefty workload of a new term. I have found that regularly doing the “straw” exercise/SOV exercises have really helped the strain on my voice, as they stop me putting as much pressure on my vocal folds.

    • Christine Mulgrew 8 September 2017 at 7:02 pm #

      Hi Kate,

      Thanks for your message and helpful tips.

  5. Jeanette 8 September 2017 at 6:21 pm #

    thank you so much for all these reminders. School begins here next week and on the second day two boys choirs joins us for rehearsals as we are raising funds to keep our music academy in Bulawayo open. I will immediately tell the visitors how we run our rehearsals with my arms and my pointing. I thought it wouldn’t be polite but you are right voice protection is vital.

    • Christine Mulgrew 8 September 2017 at 7:03 pm #

      Hi Jeanette,

      Thanks for your message, I’m glad the article was well timed for you. Good luck with your fundraising to keep your music academy open. Let us know how you get on.

  6. Levy Mkandawire 8 September 2017 at 6:56 pm #

    Thanks for the tips

    • Christine Mulgrew 8 September 2017 at 7:04 pm #

      You’re welcome Levy

  7. Jane 9 September 2017 at 7:02 am #

    Hi all, thanks for this article. I direct a large community choir, a children’s choir and a very rowdy community theatre group in Australia. I have always wanted to invest in a hands free microphone to protect my voice and wondered if any directors our there could recommend one because I’m not sure quite what kind of microphone would work best.

  8. Celia Hart 10 September 2017 at 10:58 am #

    Helen Porter has also produced an excellent book and CD called ” How to improve your singing”

  9. Jonathan Holland 13 September 2017 at 1:18 pm #

    To lessen the use of my voice, I have 3 signs on the wall behind where I direct, to which I can point silently: Quietly (with an up arrow, telling them to stand quietly; Quietly with a down arrow (be seated quietly) and in capital letters TALK LATER! All 3 are very helpful and reduce the use of the voice. Thanks for all your helpful materials!

    • Victoria Hopkins 13 September 2017 at 2:14 pm #

      Excellent idea, Jonathan.

  10. Carol Barwick 2 October 2017 at 4:48 pm #

    Hi Christine

    Very helpful tips. I try to do vocal warn ups in the car but I deliver story sessions too so need to be careful!

    • Christine Mulgrew 10 October 2017 at 10:34 am #

      Hi Carol,

      Thanks for your message, glad you found the tips helpful.

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