How to lead a choir when you can’t sing

Like much of the population of the Northern hemisphere, I have been labouring under a horrid virus over the festive season (hence my tardy return to the blogosphere – I’ve been feeling a bit sorry for myself).  When my chamber choir’s first rehearsal of the new year came around, I was on the mend, but still had a shocking cough and sore throat (my husband refers to me as Mutley during this phase – my laugh sounds exactly like the erstwhile Wacky Races dog).  I could barely speak without launching into a coughing fit – let alone sing.

I was a singer long before I was a conductor, so for me, leading a choir involves a lot of demonstration.  If I want the choir to sing something a particular way, I tend to show them what I mean with my voice.  If you’re a singer too, this probably sounds trite – of course you demonstrate with your voice.  However, a decent singing voice is by no means a pre-requisite to being a good choral conductor.  The late, great Richard Hickox is a marvellous example.  He was one of the finest conductors of his generation, with a gift for getting the best out of choirs, and he had a voice like sandpaper.

So there I was, unable to sing but with a choir to lead.  It got me thinking about how much I rely on my singing voice as a rehearsal tool, and how I could best tackle a rehearsal without breaking into song and without hurting my already raspy throat.  Here’s what I did.


I planned warm-ups and exercises that I could describe in speech rather than demonstrate eg “sing a siren to “mm” from your lowest up to your highest and back down again” or “sing a five-note major scale, ascending then descending, to “ma””.  I also did exercises that I could lead without having to use my voice, like “bicycle tyres” (taking a half-breath, then doing a series of short, sharp “ss” sounds, finishing with a long “ss”) and gentle stretches.

Managing the choir

In general, I’m pretty good at waiting for quiet rather than calling for it (see my article here about choir discipline) but I slip up occasionally and try to make myself heard over the good-natured chatter that always arises when the choir stops singing.  Raising my voice wasn’t an option with a scratchy throat, so I had to be extra-vigilant about waiting for silence, then giving directions sotto voce.  Interestingly, when the choir began singing, they were very quiet.  When I pointed this out, they said it was because I had asked them to do it my little mouse-voice, and they had simply picked up the cue – another indication of how much I use my voice to direct the choir, and perhaps a suggestion that I need to review my conducting style.

Rehearsing a piece

When I had to consciously not sing, and invite our accompanist to play any passages that needed correction, I realised just how much I usually sing during a rehearsal.  I don’t think either approach is necessarily better (and it’s important for singers to be able to reproduce what they hear, whether from a piano or from another voice) but it was useful to have my attention drawn to the habits that I have developed.

Any suggestions?

There will undoubtedly be future rehearsals and workshops where I end up leading singers without much of a singing voice of my own.  If you’ve developed any brilliant exercises, warm-ups or rehearsal techniques that don’t require the leader to sing, I’d love to have them up my sleeve for next time.  Do get in touch.

Comments on How to lead a choir when you can’t sing

  1. Avatar ovie says:

    Please can you help me with how to teach parts effectively in choir. Am just being made a choir leader but i can not teach parts effectively and it reduces my confident.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Ovie. Congratulations on your new role as a choir leader. I know only too well that rehearsing your choir effectively can feel very scary when you’re just starting out. We use lots of different techniques for rehearsing our choirs. When you have some time, have a look around this site at the articles under the category ‘effective rehearsing‘. In particular, have a look at ‘Quick tips for tackling new music with your choir‘ for some easy suggestions. Good luck!

  2. Hi Victoria – I sympathise!

    Still struggling myself. I have a voice, but NO motivation. Just can’t be bothered. Damn virus!

    One of my best-ever choir sessions was when I lost my voice entirely for the first time in my life.

    I don’t have an accompanist and I teach everything by ear, so it was quite a challenge!

    My experience was that everyone in the choir was far more attentive than usual. Everything was done very SLOWLY and carefully. People really listened to each other (and me).

    It’s not a trick you can try EVERY week, but once in a while, a different approach (whether you’ve really lost your voice or not) can work wonders.

    You can read more about it on my blog: No energy? Sing different, sing better! and <a href=""Little Voice.


  3. Of course, there are times when the leader cannot sing. Equally challenging is trying to help the basses find an interval or for men, leading the sopranos.
    These are times when your more talented singers get to lead. The accompanist can play and they can sing. If you have some particularly talented sight readers then this is their time to shine.
    As leaders, we don’t have to be the big “I am” all the time. As I tell our choir, I get to wave my hands and they do all the work and I love them for it.

    1. Avatar VictoriaHopkins says:

      Hi Kitty. Thanks so much for commenting. When I first started conducting, I asked my sister (a vastly more talented musician than I’ll ever be!) about demonstrating to male singers as she leads a male voice choir and does it all the time. She advised me to always sing at my own pitch to demonstrate, which I do, because she’s always right (about music, that is. In every other aspect of life, I’m the big sister and therefore I’m always right!).

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