If your choir, like mine, is used to singing with an accompaniment, your singers might find the idea of singing ‘without a safety net’ quite daunting.
The benefits are huge, however, so think about whether it’s time to mix things up in your choir with some a cappella singing, whether it’s just for fun and development, or for a performance.
Accompaniment becomes a security blanket
It’s fantastic to have a good accompanist in rehearsals. As well as accompanying the choir’s singing, they help out with pitching notes and playing sections that need work.
But beware over-reliance on your accompanist. Is it necessary to feed the choir their starting notes every time you stop and re-start?
Think about giving your singers the opportunity to work on hearing the notes in their head before they make a sound.
Some choirs routinely have their accompanists play scales and other exercises to warm the choir up at the beginning of a rehearsal. Again, this can be pleasant for the choir, but is it really helping them in the long run?
Try some unaccompanied vocal exercises to get everyone’s brains working, as well as their voices. One of my favourites is to give one part of the choir a starting pitch, then ask another part to sing a major (or minor) third above, then another part the fifth.
We might then hold the chord and crescendo/decrescendo on it. There are any number of variations on this theme.
The important thing is that the choir is thinking about where to pitch the notes, not being fed the pitch every time.
Singing unaccompanied boosts singers’ skills
Perhaps the most important skill for any singer is the ability to listen. A cappella singing gives your choir the opportunity to listen more intently to their fellow singers than when an accompaniment or backing track is playing.
It’s also much more challenging to stay ‘in tune’ when singing unaccompanied. Reproducing a pitch that we hear from a piano or a recording is not the same skill as reproducing the same pitch over and over again without any external help.
If you find that your choir’s pitch slides (usually flat) when they sing unaccompanied, don’t be tempted to ask them to correct the tuning directly (unless they’re very experienced singers).
Most amateur singers don’t know what to change physically to affect their pitch. Instead, focus on standing tall, brightening the face, breathing with support and enunciating clearly.
All those things will help to maintain good intonation.
A cappella singing as a rehearsal tool
When you’re rehearsing accompanied music, it can be a very effective strategy to sing passages unaccompanied.
Try rehearsing two or more vocal parts together without the backing. It will help your choir to hear how the vocal parts work together to produce the whole musical picture.
If your choir works with backing tracks, try singing a whole song without the track. The choir will have to hear in their heads where the music is going, and count any instrumental passages. It’s a great learning tool.
Don’t be afraid to get it wrong!
One of the best things you can do for your choir is to create a culture in rehearsal where it’s okay to get things wrong.
If your choir has become very reliant on hearing an accompaniment or being given leading notes every time they sing, they will probably feel a bit precarious to start with.
It’s really worth sticking at it, though. A cappella singing is incredibly rewarding, and will really boost your choir’s skills.