I firmly believe that a successful contemporary choir is one which works together. This is particularly important when striving for a big rock sound or upbeat pop feel. As a choir leader, it’s important that you lead and guide your choir. However, simply dictating every aspect of the performance may not achieve the results you want. Here are five ways you can involve your singers whilst still remaining at the helm.
Use ‘We’ instead of ‘I’
This sounds so simple, but how many times as choir leaders do we use ‘I’? The simple act of changing ‘I’ to ‘we’ can make all the difference. Think about how you might address the choir after a rendition of a piece which went too slowly; ‘I think you need to go more quickly’ or ‘we need to quicken the pace’. The second sounds much less accusatory. It also sounds more inclusive of both conductor and choir. Afterall, the choir may not be following your signals or you may not be signalling the pace clearly enough or a combination of both. It may be both conductor and choir who need to make changes.
Involve your singers
In the course of your score and rehearsal preparation, you will have selected repertoire and decided on what’s needed to bring the music alive. Obviously you’re the one who needs to do the leg work, but why not have a suggestion box or a place on your website where members can suggest repertoire? This can be a real breath of fresh air, especially if you work alone and have to make all the decisions. You’ll probably get some great ideas and then you can announce to the choir who the songs were chosen by.
When you’re rehearsing repertoire, you might ask questions such as ‘what is this song about?’, ‘where might we build the sound to create impact?’, ‘where should we breathe in this verse?’. By asking these questions you are engaging your singers and making them part of the decision process, which in turn shows them that you value them.
Include teambuilding activities
As part of your warm-up, it’s always great to include some teambuilding activities where members work together. One of my favourites is an improvised rhythm game where I split the choir into four or five sections and each comes up with a repeated line which we layer up to create our own little tune. We then play around with dynamics, making it softer or louder and also adding some group solos. This is always a giggle and gets everyone interacting. As well as exercises like this, I also enjoy bringing volunteers to the front to lead the choir in a number of activities such as clapping rhythms or a simple three-part song. For those willing to give it a go it’s a great challenge and having members lead for a minute always gets everyone’s attention.
Focus on performance
I’m a big believer in prepping my choir for a performance. We don’t just deal with our repertoire in the rehearsals leading up to the performance; we also look at a number of performance skills. We focus on stage etiquette, looking out to the audience, what to do if something goes wrong and receiving applause. In these discussions I ask questions that encourage the choir to look at a performance from an audience’s point of view. For example, I might say ‘what do you look for in a great performance as an audience member?’, ‘how would the audience feel if you ignored them or chatted through their applause?’, ‘how does it look to an audience member if you go wrong but carry on with a smile as opposed to holding your head in your hands?’. Asking these questions really makes people think about their stage prescence and often the answers are so obvious that the choir knows exactly what to do. By the time we get on stage for the performance we feel prepared and we’re pulling together as a team.
Reacting to questions
Finally, lets consider questions during a rehearsal. When you’re at the helm these can sometimes seem like an interference to your tightly worked-out plan. However, always remember that questions show that your singers are engaging with what your teaching them and thinking about what they’re doing. Always acknowledge questions and deal with them if you can, but return to your rehearsal plan as quickly as possible. If you don’t know the answer to a question in an instant take a minute to think about it, or say you don’t know but will look at the issue and come back to them. If questions are unrelated to the job in hand don’t be lead astray. Just say that you’re working on this particular section at the moment but will return to their issue shortly. Never just ignore questions due to time pressures as your members will feel ignored and unimportant.
There are many ways in which we can engage and collaborate with our singers. If you have other strategies, we’d love to hear them.