How to develop your singers’ voices in mixed ability choir rehearsals

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.

Comments on How to develop your singers’ voices in mixed ability choir rehearsals

  1. Avatar Elaine says:

    Hi Christine

    I can relate to your observations. My choir started a year ago, and the members who have been attending for the whole year have learned the ‘process’ really well.
    The problem I am having, is that our new recruits come along and only stay for a few weeks, saying that it’s too difficult for them.
    I cover a wide range of material, nothing too difficult for your average singer and my current very mixed ability members are very happy. We make sure that we include new people fully, and look after them, take an interest etc. Any tips?

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Elaine,

      Thanks for your email, I’ve always been aware when running my choir that it can be difficult to create the right balance for new and existing members, particularly if someone joins close to a performance where singers are already quite confident with the repertoire. It sounds from your email that you are doing all the right things in terms of level of ability, including everyone and making an effort to welcome new members. However, if you are finding that a large percentage of new members are leaving then something in the balance may not be quite right. It’s difficult for me to know exactly what the issue may be but from experience I have become aware of a few things. For example, new members can feel daunted by an overwhelming amount of repertoire that they feel everyone else knows already. In sessions try to mix repertoire rehearsal up with some warm-ups and exercises which are new to all to help reduce this feeling. Also speak with those members, if you have rehearsal tracks guide them towards these, perhaps if a performance is not far away say to them that they can just join in with as many new songs as they can manage before that time. This way they should feel less overwhelmed.

      Another issue may be that the existing members gravitate towards each other without realising leaving newer members feeling left out. A great way to solve this is to sing repertoire or do some teambuilding exercises where everyone gets mixed up several times and introduces themselves to the person either side of them before carrying out the exercise.

      Finally another option is to offer a newcomers workshop session where you do some warm-ups and exercises typical of the syle you use in rehearsal and then look at a couple of pieces of repertoire.

      I do wish you the very best of luck, keep in touch and let us know how you get on.

      1. Avatar Elaine says:

        Hi Christine
        Thank you for your help. I am doing most of the things you suggested, and think that the problem might be new members integrating fully. I always nominate a ‘buddy’ for new people- someone who can answer questions and make sure that they feel included.
        I will try your tip about mixing everyone up to encourage communication outside of their friendship circles.
        I use new starters and rounds when I know a new person is coming, and if we have reached a certain level with a song, I am happy for them to sing the melody,unless they really want to sing a particular part, in which case I provide them with a practice cd so they can catch up.
        We are a relatively small group,and less confident singers may feel ‘exposed’
        I will stay positive, and let you know how I get on.

        1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

          Hi Elaine,

          Thanks for your reply, it sounds like you’re definitely on the right track with everything. I hope you find that mixing singers up helps them to interact with new people.

          I think the only other thing I’d say is stay confident and positive yourself even if you’re worried about this issue during rehearsal. In my experience it’s very easy for singers, particularly adults to convince themselves that they can’t do something before they’ve really given it a chance. If they get a sniff that the leader feels the same or will change the parts accordingly, they are less likely to excel than if you perservere with a smile and bags of confidence. I’ve seen this time and time again in my choir particularly after a performance where everyone has known the songs and then we go back to learning new ones. I always need that extra amount of energy to ‘sell’ them the new song!

          I bet you’ll soon find those newer members a great and settled part of your choir. Good luck with everything.

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