I love it when a performance teaches me something, especially when it’s something really positive that can improve my choir’s performance. On Saturday evening our choirs took part in a concert that Victoria and I organised in aid of a local charity. We decided to try out a new formation for our contemporary choir.
My choir has around sixty members and at the rehearsal prior to the concert I divided them into small groups consisting of two sopranos, two tenors and three altos (we have more altos in the choir at the moment). I then brought all these groups together in choir formation which created a mix of voices while ensuring everyone had at least one other singer in their part around them, possibly more. The change in the sound was staggering. The music really came to life and the blend of voices sounded lovely. This was also picked up in the peformance (one of our best yet) by audience members, many of whom have seen us perform in the past. But just why did this change make such a difference and what did I learn on the way?
The first thing I learned is that I need to introduce these new formations a little earlier, perhaps after the initial learning stage when people are relatively comfortable with their parts. Many members commented that they loved the change in the sound and being mixed up but they wished they’d had more time to get used to it. Why did they need time? Mainly because this change in set-up shows the singers quickly and clearly what they do know but also what they don’t. Discovering you’re not that sure of the lyrics or parts that close to a performance would definitely have caused some apprehension. It may also have shown you that you’d been relying on stronger singers in your section to carry the parts. Suddenly surrounded by other voices you could feel at sea.
Striking a balance here is essential, a singer should know their part and take their own responsibility for learning their part, but at the same time, my choir is a community choir that people come along to and take part in for fun. I have to strike a balance because above all else, one thing people say about us is that we look like we’re enjoying ourselves. So the lesson I learned from this experience is to choose a formation (this may vary for different types of performances) and introduce it early so singers can get used to it.
With the formation I created, the groups were random, I didn’t choose names and decide who would sing together. This process means that you can vary the groups as often as you like. The important thing is that singers get used to the mixed up formation As long as there’s the right number of each part in each little sub-group then that’s fine.
As conductor, if you’re used to conducting your choir in sections and bringing in sections by turning to look at them, you will have to alter this slightly as your group will now all be mixed up. Ensure you make eye contact with your singers who will probably be relying on you a little more eagerly!
Finally why does this formation sound so good? My view is that it’s a number of things combined. Most people rise to the challenge when they need to take responsibility and not follow others. I think each member is proud to be part of their section and wants to show the other parts their contribution within the ensemble. Above all when sections are mixed up the sound is more of a united force, the audience feel it and the singers feel it. For many choir members, instead of closing themselves off from the other parts to get theirs right, they learn to listen to and enjoy the whole blend, which in turn adds to their enjoyment of making music.