How to encourage your choir to sing with emotion

With our contemporary and chamber choirs, we spend a lot of time learning our repertoire thoroughly. We also spend a lot of time focusing on the physical aspects of technique – posture, diction, facial expression, breathing. Occasionally, I think that with all the focus on the detail of rehearsal and performance, we can lose the essential, emotional core of the music. We must never forget that the point of performing music is to communicate an emotional message to an audience. Everything else we do should feed into that core purpose.

Identifying the need to focus on the emotion of the music doesn’t get us very far, though. How do we persuade and encourage our singers, be they highly-trained or happy amateurs, to find the emotional centre of the music and impart that to an audience?

Talk about it – but not too much

The unique characteristic of singing over other forms of music-making is that singers perform both music and text. A starting point for rehearsing any piece has to be the text. It’s vital that as choir leaders, we’ve done our preparation and we understand what the songwriter, poet or librettist is trying to say. Then we have to encourage our singers to reach their own understanding. Here’s where the balance can get a bit tricky. We don’t want to lecture our choirs (they’re there to sing, not listen to us droning on), but we need to get them thinking and engaging with the material. I find it helpful to simply ask questions, the central one being “what is this piece about?”. We don’t need to have a huge discussion during rehearsal, although it can be useful to allow choir members to offer opinions. We just need to get the thought processes going.

Give reminders

During the rehearsal process, I like to repeatedly draw the choir’s attention to the text, both in terms of enunciation and meaning. We might be working closely on the detail of a passage, but when we step back to apply that detailed work to a run-through, that’s a great time to remind the choir that the nuts-and-bolts work we’ve been doing feeds into a more important whole – the meaning of the piece. Again, it’s not about giving a lecture, just a “heads-up” to bring the choir’s attention back to the core of the music.

It’s not just about the words

So far I’ve only mentioned the text of a piece and of course that’s not the whole story. Music is essentially an emotional journey whether it has text or not. Part of our score study process should be about how the music and text work together to create that emotional journey. We can then help our singers to discover the meaning of the piece themselves.

Create the right culture

Singers’ natural inhibitions can get in the way of them putting emotion into a performance. Part of our role as choir leader is to create a culture in which choir members feel that they can relax and open up in a way that allows them to give their best performance. Sometimes, when I feel that my choir is being a little too reticent, I ask them to deliberately “ham it up” and go way over the top in how they perform a piece or section. It always gets a laugh and helps everyone to relax, but the surprising thing is that, often, the “over the top” version is exactly what I’m looking for. What my singers feel is too much is actually just right.

Comments on How to encourage your choir to sing with emotion

  1. Thanks for the article have learned alot toward choir and singers motivation thanks once more God bless

  2. Avatar Fay Shackleton says:

    The choir sang
    ” Bring me sunshine” and it was not good. I told them to sing with feeling and in particular to emphasize “Bring”.
    The result was SUCH a lot better.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Fay, thanks for your comment, you’re absolutely right, small things can make such a difference.

  3. Avatar Ron says:

    Excellent article. Thank you.

    I like to remind my choir members that they are not just a group, but a group made up of individual members, each with their own hopes, dreams, passions, etc. Almost all are members of the congregation and I ask them to “have an opinion,” about what they sing, not just make sound. I tell them, “We’ve learned the composer and lyricist’s intentions. Now, what do YOU personally feel about the piece–joyful, sorrowful, humble, inspired? How would you communicate this story to another person?” I first have them sing it to me just to get their eyes (the “windows to the soul”) out of the music. These ‘”opinions” are invariably reflected in the faces of my singers and often brings a more communicative dimension to whatever we are singing.

    I also like your idea of “heads up.” I often take this literally. Our choir is at the front of the church so the music is a visual as well as auditory experience. I continually remind singers to get their head, and especially their eyes, up out of the music and sing to someone (in this case the congregation), and not just the music on the page.

    If your choir is out of sight, such as in a choir loft behind the congregation, there is still very often noticeable improvement in quality when choir members look up and sing to someone, anyone, even if it’s to people facing away from them (plus, they generally follow the conductor better…;-).

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your comments Ron, I couldn’t agree more, it’s so much easier for singers to connect with the music and the rest of the choir when heads are out of the music sheets.

  4. Avatar Mary says:

    Our chorus leadership team uses email to members to communicate many things. Early in the concert prep period I create and send them a document called “Poetry of…” and name the concert theme. In it are all the texts of the pieces in poetry format for them to read aloud, so they can really see, hear and grasp the story they are to be telling. It helps them come to rehearsal better prepared to do the work of putting that story into the notes we’re learning.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Mary, thanks for your message. Wow, that’s super organised, great idea.

  5. Avatar Christine says:

    It’s very true that choir members can be inhibited in showing emotions – I think sometimes they don’t realise that you don’t have to move your whole body to convey an emotion but can do a lot with your facial expression (without pulling grotesque faces of course!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *