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.
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.