Choirs come in all shapes and sizes. They could include a handful of voices or a hundred, comprise men, women, children. Pretty much any choir you can imagine exists and they all have one thing in common. They make music and they want that music to be heard. And that leads us to the subject of choir formation – in what order should the singers in a choir stand to make the best sound?
Any decision on choir formation, whether for rehearsal or performance, is going to be based on several criteria: the size and position of the platform or room, the size of the audience, the acoustics in the venue, the number of singers, the position of the conductor. The formation of the choir in performance is going to affect not only what the audience hears, but what the singers and conductor see and here – in other words, the experience of everyone involved. No pressure then!
I’ve been experimenting lately with different formations for my chamber choir and I’ve discovered a few things. There seems to be no right or wrong way to arrange your choir. There are so many different variables involved that it’s impossible to create reliable guidelines. However, there is some research on the subject, which we’ll have a look at later.
What choir formations are available to us and how should we select the best formation for a particular space? Let’s break the decision down into two sections: position and spacing.
In a traditional “classical” SATB choir (for want of a better term) the singers usually stand in sections according to voice part. The most common arrangement of voice parts is, in my experience, STBA, which looks like this:
One advantage of an STBA arrangement is that the higher (soprano & tenor) and lower (alto and bass) voices are next to each other. The men are in the centre which can be helpful for choirs with a greater number of women than men. It’s also useful to have the tenors and basses together if the choir is singing any SAB arrangements.
Another common arrangement is SATB. Personally, I like this formation less than STBA. In most choirs I see, there are many more SAs than TBs and having the men over on one side looks unbalanced, even if it doesn’t sound unbalanced.
Less favoured, but still quite common is SA at the front, TB at the back. I’ve seen this formation when choirs are singing in spaces that are deeper than they are wide. It makes sense in terms of the sight lines of the choir as the men tend to be taller than the women, on average, but it’s pretty terrible sound-wise as the lower parts have to travel over the top of the upper. I also know from experience (being tall, I always get sent to the back!) that being at the back of several rows of bodies can be pretty unsatisfying for the singers.
With antiphonal music (effectively two choirs in one, an example is Belshazzer’s Feast by William Walton), you might arrange the choir so as to maximise the effect – STBAABTS.
You could also opt, for example, for SSTTAABB if you were singing a two-choir piece in a programme of other stuff. You just won’t get the “call and response” effect that antiphonal music often exploits.
All of these formations are variations on a theme – each voice part huddles together and creates a block of sound. The blocks are arranged in whatever way the conductor sees fit. The advantage of these formations for the conductor is that he can direct specific sections of the choir easily. If he turns to the sopranos to give a lead, it’s clear to the rest of the choir that the lead is not for them. The singers have the comfort of having others around them singing the same thing. The downside is that singers become reliant on each other and mistakes can have a “ripple effect”.
A completely different approach is to mix the voices up so that each singer is surrounded by singers of other voice parts. A variation on this idea is having singers in pairs, so they’re mixed up, but have a ‘buddy’ of the same voice part.
I’ve experimented with these formations and have had fantastic feedback from the choir. They report that they feel more involved in the music as a whole and get a much deeper understanding of a piece. They also tell me that being mixed up forces them to take more responsibility for their own performance and to rely less on the their neighbour. A mixed formation certainly affects the sound the choir makes. This is purely anecdotal, but my perception from the front of the choir is that the sound is fuller and richer and that the choir is more responsive.
A mixed formation is more challenging for the conductor because you’re directing a mass of singers and giving leads and gestures to the whole group all the time. This takes some planning. If one part has a crescendo and everyone else is piano, how are you going to give that direction?
Some interesting research has been done on the spacing between singers in a choir. A study found that both singers and listeners significantly preferred a formation where the choir was spread out (so their upper arms were about 18 inches apart) to a formation where they were close together. The authors of the study speculate that this may be the result of the different ways in which sound moves around when the singers are spaced out. Interestingly, the research also identified that listeners to the choir significantly preferred female singers to be more spaced out (pardon the pun) than male singers.
The overall message is, I think, that choir formation is something that’s well worth experimenting with. Apart from anything else, switching things around every now and then will keep your singers on their toes and prevent them from getting too reliant on being in a particular position in the choir.