This is the second article in a series designed to help you to think about devloping your singer’s voices. In the first part of the series, I asked why we should focus on vocal development and how it benefits the singer, the choir and the choir leader. I said that we have a duty of care to our singers to impart knowledge about simple steps they can take to improve and protect their voices. Not only will this help them develop as musicians, it will keep them engaged in the rehearsal process and, in turn, improve the overall sound of the choir.
In this article I will consider how we can reach and help individuals with a range of singing abilities in a group setting. Following on from this, my next few articles will cover specific areas of technique that you can work on with your choir.
When we lead a choir, we’re always thinking about the whole group. While we might address particular instructions to sections within that group, we don’t (or shouldn’t) single out individuals, particularly in a mixed ability choir. It’s unfair to put people on the spot for criticism; far better to keep comments and instructions general and inclusive. For example, there may be a section in the choir that has really got to grips with their part in a piece after some teething problems. This might be driven by one or two confident voices, but it’s always best to congratulate the section as a team. Choir singing really is a team sport and it’s at its best when everyone is working together.
There’s a sense in which we, as choir leaders, have to aim our instructions to the lowest common demoninator of ability in the choir. That doesn’t, however, mean that we have to be patronising or risk boring the more competent singers. We just have to be conscious of how we phrase our explanations and demonstrations. There may be plenty of singers in your choir who know exactly how to correct a sagging pitch if you simply say ‘we’re a bit flat there’. But there may be many others who have no idea how to make that correction. When you’re addressing the whole group, you’ll get a better result by focusing on the things that are within the control of the less experienced – a bright, smiling face and good posture. The more able singers won’t feel patronised, and the less able won’t feel bamboozled.
A downside of this collective approach is that those who are working hard to improve may feel that their efforts aren’t being recognised and that they’re continuing to be criticised when they’ve already responded to what you asked of them. You can recognise that in your comments without losing your inclusive tone by saying things like ‘some of us are still breathing late there’ instead of ‘we’re still breathing late there’. You highlight the fact that most of the choir is doing something right without naming and shaming those who haven’t quite got there yet.
There will always be a range of abilities in any choir, and those abilities will differ across the choral skill set. Your best sight-reader may struggle with tone and intonation. The singer who takes the longest to learn a piece may be the one who looks the most engaged and animated in the performance. If you focus on collective improvement and couch your instructions in terms that everyone can understand, you’ll help your choir to develop as a team.