Whatever your experience of leading singers, you’ve undoubtedly encountered times when the atmosphere in the room just isn’t what you’d like; there’s no energy and the singers just don’t seem to gel.
Perhaps you’re working with a new group that doesn’t know you or each other. Perhaps a longstanding group has been rehearsing some particular repertoire for a long time and is getting a bit jaded.
Whatever the reason, you, as their choir leader, need to take steps revive the atmosphere or risk precious rehearsal time being wasted through inattention.
In the longer term, unpleasant atmospheres can really fester and affect performance and retention of singers.
When you start to sense that you’re losing the interest of the group, there’s no point in carrying on regardless. You need a quick injection of fun and energy into the proceedings.
Once you’ve regained your singers’ attention and goodwill, you can get back to work. Here are a few that I have at the ready when I feel that rehearsals are getting away from me.
Shake it out
If the ambience has become a little tense, it’s probable that the tension will manifest itself in physical form, ie the choir (and you) will be holding tension in their bodies. Stop what you’re doing. Ask the choir to shrug their shoulders up and down loosely, really letting the shoulders fall heavily. Introduce some sound – a low, relaxed ‘aah’ – while their shrugging. It sounds daft, and will probably get them laughing.
Finish by shaking out the hands and feet (not too vigorously with the hands – there are tiny bones in the wrists that might not take kindly to it).
Breathe and re-balance
Another way to address a feeling of tension of lack of focus is to ask the choir to stand, close their eyes and take long, deep breaths in and out (it’s common to use a longer out-breath than in-breath). Then hum on the out-breath, or even sound ‘om’.
If you’re not a fan of yoga, you might never have tried it, but chanting ‘om’ is incredibly relaxing and focusing. Finish with some yawning and have everyone stick their tongues out as far as possible. This always gets a giggle.
Ring the changes
If you’ve been working on a piece or song for a while and you feel that the choir’s getting a bit jaded, you can revive your singers’ attention by doing something really daft with the piece itself. Double the speed (perhaps a cappella so your poor accompanist if you have one doesn’t quit!) or get everyone singing the piece in a silly voice.
Reverse the dynamics, have everyone change voice parts or ask them to sing standing on one leg. If you feel a group needs to bond, try mixing them up and asking them to stand in a large circle (space permitting, of course) so they’re singing directly do each other.
Relax the voice
When singers are tense or unengaged, they don’t sing at their best. Choir leaders hear that tension in the form of poor intonation and tone, and hear the lack of attention as poor ensemble.
Help to relax your singers’ voices with some humming slides from their lowest to highest notes and back again. Sing a melody (perhaps the one you’re working on) entirely to ‘ya’ or ‘yoo’. Encourage yawning!
When we’re happy, we smile. Our smile response is so unconsciously linked to feelings of happiness that if we smile, we feel happier. When the atmosphere begins to sag, ask your singers to give you a big cheesy grin. You’ll all get an instant lift!
Above all, the central message is ‘take action’. Don’t just keep bashing away at whatever you’re doing and expect the atmosphere to spontaneously improve. Change something, anything, that will relax your singers, cheer them up and help them focus on the work in hand.