One of the most common problems that I’ve heard over years of listening to amateur choirs perform is poor balance between the vocal parts. It happens for various reasons, but the good news is that it’s easy to address in rehearsals. Here are some ideas to help your choir understand the importance of bringing out the melody in a piece, and to give them the skills they need to do it.
What’s the problem?
1. Singers who lack confidence often sing louder
It’s counter-intuitive, but while some singers are timid through lack of confidence, others end up singing more loudly. They’re worrying that they’re going to go wrong, and they think that if they can’t hear anything but their own part, they’ll stay on track. The problem is that by focusing only on what they themselves are singing, they’re not only more likely to go wrong, they’re likely to do it loudly!
2. Singers don’t realise that they’re not the ‘main event’
This can happen to any vocal part, but it’s a particular problem with sopranos, because in many traditional arrangements, they take the melody most of the time. They get so used to it that even if they’re singing ‘oo’ when another part has a melody with lyrics, they’ll still think they’re the ‘main event’ and totally drown out the tune.
3. Many choirs don’t have an even distribution between vocal parts
In mixed choirs, it’s often quite difficult to recruit enough men. In some ‘all-comers’ choirs, you can see dozens of women and only a handful of men. There are ways to cope with that by choosing suitable repertoire, but it’s a challenge to achieve a good vocal balance in those situations. That’s certainly not helped if, in addition to out-numbering the men 10 to 1, the sops and altos are singing away at full blast!
4. Untrained singers often struggle to sing quietly
In my experience, the less vocal training a singer has, the more likely it is that they’ll sing too loud. They simple lack the skill to sing quietly. When they try, they can hear that their voice wavers and sounds breathy, so they bring up the volume again.
What’s the solution?
1. Build confidence and listening skills
Singing rounds in your warm-ups is a great way to encourage your choir to listen to each other. When they have something super-easy to sing, they can stop concentrating on getting their part right and begin to extend their listening outwards to the rest of the choir. Let your singers know that you don’t care if they go wrong, or don’t sing the words – it’s all about listening.
2. Identify the melody
Help your singers to know where the melody lies throughout a piece, particularly if it moves around a lot. We ask our choirs to sing a song or section and to stand up if they think they’re the ‘main event’. It’s incredible how often whole sections of the choir stand up when someone else has the melody. If your choir, or anyone in it, struggles with a lot of standing up and sitting down, you can just ask them to raise their hands.
3. Pass the melody around
When you have an uneven distribution among vocal parts, it’s helpful for your singers to focus on balance if you have a melody that moves around the choir. Take a well-known song, like a nursery rhyme, and ask one part to start singing. When you point to another section, the first section stops and the new one takes over. They challenge is to match the volume of the previous section.
This exercise works particularly well if you mix the choir up and have two or more ‘teams’, who stand facing each other. The melody is passed back and forth and the singers have to listen carefully to try to match the volume each time. You can ramp up the challenge by transferring between the teams at tricky moments, like halfway through a word or during a long note.
4. Work on vocal skills
Singing quietly is all about using good vocal support, so incorporate plenty of breathing, long notes, and crescendo/diminuendo into your warm-ups to help your choir build the skills they need for quiet singing.