When we lead a choir, we’re in charge. The choir leader is the final musical arbiter of the group. However, we’re also collaborating in making music with our singers. After all, if they didn’t sing, we’d look pretty silly standing there waving our arms in silence!
It can sometimes be tricky to navigate the right course between autocrat and democrat. Here are few tips to help you create enjoyable, collaborative choir rehearsals.
Give them the ‘why’
You’re the one doing the rehearsal-planning and ultimately directing the repertoire, but your singers are part of the music-making. Their response to your instructions will be much more wholehearted if they know why you’re asking them to do things. So instead of simply saying ‘sopranos – bar 24 onward needs to be quieter’, you could say ‘sopranos – bar 24 onward needs to be quieter because we want to create a feeling of melancholy’.
As well as teaching and shaping your choir’s repertoire, you want your singers to develop as musicians. One way to do this is to avoid over-instructing them. Sometimes, you just need to point something out and there’s no need for specific direction, as in ‘basses, pay particular attention when we get to bar 60’, rather than ‘basses, you sang the wrong the rhythm at bar 60. It’s double-dotted, not single-dotted, so it should sound like this’. If the initial instruction to pay attention doesn’t work, then of course you’ll have to help out, but it might be enough. The learning will take hold much more deeply if the singers have worked it out for themselves.
When a piece or section requires improvement, ask your singers what they think needs to be done. Occasional questions from you to the choir will remind everyone that they need to be listening as well as singing and that they are part of the music-making process, not just a vocal instrument that the leader is ‘playing’. You should, of course, already have a good idea of the answer yourself, but you might be pleasantly surprised at how attentive your singers are, and how committed they are to creating a good performance.
Mind your language
Using collaborative language can go a long way to helping your choir take ownership of their performance. Try to avoid a lot of reference to what you want and think. Instead of ‘I think the melody’s being swamped before letter D; I want the underlying parts to be quieter’, you could say ‘those of us on the harmony parts before letter D, let’s bring the dynamic down a little and allow the melody to really come out’. A simple linguistic change can create a much better atmosphere.
We must always remember that our choirs get together and sing because they enjoy it. Our job, ultimately, is to nurture them so that they can communicate music to an audience. It’s not all about us!