Christmas comes but once a year, which, if your choir is as busy as ours, is probably a good thing. The choral calendar can be a bit full-on at this time of year. In between frantically rehearsing and performing carols and other festive music, I thought I’d jot down a couple of ideas about surviving the season as a choir leader, and as a choral singer. Let’s look at two areas – repertoire and voice.
A busy festive choral programme can mean a lot of repetition. How can we approach the Christmas season in a way that gives us, as well as our audiences, pleasure and keeps our repertoire sounding fresh?
Vary the songs
If you’re leading a choir that reads music well and learns quickly, you may be able to avoid repeating too many pieces. Most Christmas audiences will expect to hear (and probably sing along to) the most famous carols: Hark the Herald, O Come All Ye Faithful, Once in Royal David’s City etc, but you could switch around some of the ‘second team’ songs (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Good King Wenceslas, The First Noel et al) so that you’ve got something fresh for each session.
Vary the style
If an extensive, interchangeable repertoire isn’t an option for your choir, you’ll want to give your singers a decent range of styles to get their teeth into. Our chamber choir has been learning Christmas songs such as Gaudete and O Holy Night, the former foot-stompingly medieval, the latter soaringly romantic. It’s been great fun.
Focus on meaning
As well as looking at song choices, we can also consider how we approach the singing of those choices in rehearsal and performance. When we rehearse pieces that are very familiar, we can switch off mentally both to the music and to the meaning. As choir leaders, we can encourage our singers to get back in touch with the emotion of Christmas carols (whether we and they are Christians or not) and the beauty of the music. In rehearsal, it can be fun to switch parts or mix up the singers to refresh everyone’s perception of melodies and harmonies that they’ve known for years or decades. In performance, I try to approach even very familiar pieces as though everyone in the audience were hearing it for the first time. What do I want the music to communicate to them?
If we approach Christmas music mindfully, instead of churning out the same old sings in the same old way, I think we can get a great deal of pleasure from this busy choral season.
It’s important to look after our voices all year, but Christmas can raise particular issues: the amount of singing we do, the places we sing and the types of performances we give. The sheer amount of singing that we do at this time of year can be a problem. We have to remind ourselves and our singers of good vocal technique at all times or we might not have a voice left by Christmas day!
Christmas can also mean singing in some challenging places. Perhaps you’re performing outdoors (which we do each year), which poses particular problems. If you’re in a cold climate, it’s even more important than usual to warm-up the voice before singing (if an audible warm-up isn’t an option, a bit of deep breathing and quietly-hummed slides will help). If you are in charge of the programme, you can help your singers by ensuring that the first pieces are quite gentle on the voice (no massive descants for the sops!).
Focus on technique
Singing outdoors, with the complete absence of acoustic help, can encourage singers to over-blow and ‘shout’ from their throats (fearing that they can’t be heard), rather than getting the necessary volume from good technique. Singing indoors in the winter can also be challenging because of the drying effect of central heating. Plenty of fluids, of the non-festive variety, will help.
If you’re performing carols in spaces not designed for performance (for example, a hospital or rest home), your singers may find themselves singing while squashed together awkwardly. Taking a moment to get everyone relaxed and smiling, regardless of the surroundings, will help to encourage the good technique that will protect everyone’s voices, and of course result in a better performance.
The central message is, of course, that remembering good vocal technique at all times, regardless of whether we are singing indoors, outdoors, a lot or a little, will help to get our singers’ voices through this very busy season and into a new year of music-making.