Playing with choir formations

When we rehearse choirs week in, week out, it’s easy to get stuck in a routine. Everyone sits in the same place and gets used to hearing the same voices in their ears. Some will come to depend on having those voices near to them.

Even if you have no intention of performing in any different formation than the one you currently use, moving the choir around a bit can be a refreshing change and can give everyone a new perspective.

At our last chamber choir rehearsal, we had the luxury of not needing to work particularly hard on our repertoire (we’d done one concert the previous week and were repeating it the following day, so the whole set was performance-ready), so I decided to devote the evening to playing around with different formations.

Leave baggage at the door

I mean this literally, not figuratively! One of the things I notice about my (and other) choirs is that when people get used to being in a particular spot, they ‘make camp’. They have coats, bags, briefcases, water bottles (some look like they’ve packed for a week!) and they park all these belongings on and under their chairs. That’s not a problem until I want to mix everyone up, which results in five minutes of faffing about while all these items are transferred to a new chair.

One of the things I’ve adopted at workshops, and which I did at this choir rehearsal, was to arrange a space at the edge of the room where I asked everyone to leave all their stuff so that we could be more flexible about moving around. In fact, on this occasion, I only put chairs around the edge of the room, just in case anyone needed a breather, and we stood for most of the evening.

Warm-ups to get in the mindset

My choir’s been working hard on its current performance repertoire since the new year. Because we were a bit tight on rehearsal time, we were wholly focused on learning and stayed in our usual SATB positions for the most part. To kick off this rehearsal, I wanted to get everyone out of the mindset that they needed to be in a particular position in the room, so I used some easy rounds to warm-up and asked the choir to sing them while they walked around, weaving in and out so that they heard other singers as they passed.

The different formations we tried out

Our usual rehearsal and performance formation is (from the conductor’s perspective) STBA. Like most provincial choirs, we have more Ss and As than Ts and Bs, so it often works best to have the male voices in the centre.

The first variation we tried was to mix up the men and the women, but keep the men central. We had sops and altos on each side and a mixture of tenors and basses in between. This helped to smooth out the tone while keeping the balance between high and low voices.

We then tried a ‘buddy’ formation, where pairs of each vocal part stand together, but the overall formation is mixed. This had the advantage of creating a beautifully blended sound while maintaining a bit of support for each singer, who had someone from their own vocal part next to them.

Finally, we used a ‘quartet’ formation. This is where you form SATB quartets, then arrange the quartets across the ‘stage’, so each singer is near to someone of all the other parts. In our case, because we have more women than men, we ended up with SSATB groups and one SSAATB group. This formation was, in my opinion, the most successful. It seemed to instil confidence in the choir, despite most of the singers not standing next to someone from their own part.

Feedback from the choir

I suppose it shows how my choir has developed in confidence in the last year or so, but the resounding response from the choir was that they favoured the ‘quartet’ formation. When we’ve used mixed formations in the past, many are in favour, but there are always a few grumbles from those who feel like they’re being asked to sing without a safety net. This time, when I asked for feedback, most preferred the third formation and no one hated it.

The most frequent comment was that the singers enjoyed hearing the other vocal parts near to them. They also reported that they felt it was easier to maintain good intonation and ensemble with this formation.

The other comment I heard a few times was that everyone really enjoyed the rehearsal. It was something different that gave them a new perspective and a bit of inspiration.

A lesson learned

Because we had a period of intense learning in my choir, I think I neglected the advantages of moving everyone around. I’m going to tweak my rehearsal plans for the coming weeks so that we have more opportunity to change formations during rehearsals and we can continue to enjoy the benefits.

Comments on Playing with choir formations

  1. Avatar Leanne says:

    Hi Victoria.
    I work with children aged 8-12. We move around a lot and mostly stand during rehearsal.
    Right from the start I get the children used to the idea that I will probably move them around within the choir several times before I get the sound that I like. When I do voice placement, I will have 3 or 4 children sing together and meanwhile have the rest of the children help me judge which formation of singers works best. This way, the children can also take ownership of the sound of the choir.
    I’d love to hear how others working with children manage their voice placement.

  2. Avatar Maureen Francis says:

    Hi, Victoria.. I wanna say a big “THANK YOU” for these exciting tips, I’m encouraged to want to try them out, and, I will.

    Thanks a million!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      You’re welcome Maureen. Glad we could help.

  3. Avatar Polly says:

    I’ve had the exact same thing with my choir, in that they sit next to the ones they always do (usually their friends) and because we’ve never been a big choir until now, we always sit in a semi circle. Now we are bigger, we sit in rows, but I loved being able to see them all and everyone was in view if they were talking and chatting! Having been in other choirs, we’ve never sat in a semi circle. It’s hard to break habits.

    I love the idea of leaving bags by the door becuase as you say, it takes far longer than it should when we need to swap around.

    Being a community choir (no auditions) my choir probably wouldn’t be able to cope with moving around the room while singing. They really heavily rely on the others in their group and often they have to block their ears so they don’t hear the other parts – therefore it could end up in a disaster if we moved around. Do you think I should have the confidence to try it and if it goes wrong then we just move on?! I always worry that new ideas won’t work and I end up looking silly.

    I also have women in the choir who don’t like to stand for long periods of time, therefore for the note bashing, we just sit and then we stand for when we know the song better. Do you think I should make them stand more? They aren’t elderly! Sometimes I worry that if they’re new members and they’ve come with their friends and I break them up then they won’t get the same enjoyment.

    We’ve been going for six years, so we are very set in our ways and having been inspired by your website, I’m totally up for a revamp!

    Thank you!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Polly, thanks for your fantastic comment. Yes, I think you should give the moving around a try. We do it with our community choir. Start with something really easy like Row Row Row Your Boat as a round, or London’s Burning. As you say, it might end in chaos, but if it does, have a good laugh about it and try again another time. Some will love it and get a new perspective. Others won’t. That’s okay.

      As to the standing issue, I suggest you gently encourage a bit more standing. People sing better standing up. You can always say, as we do, that if anyone’s struggling, they’re welcome to have a sit down.

      Good luck shaking things up!

  4. Hi Victoria,

    I understand the various arguments for mixing up voices and do engage in that myself up to a point. However this mixing up is only an occasional departure from the norm. I spend time at the start of each year ‘Voicing’ the choir – you will have read about this in my book. ‘Voicing’ does a wonderful job of creating a warm generous sound with as good a blend as can be achieved for any given collection of voices. To regularly vary the formation which provides this preferred sound is very unsettling and can undermine confidence. Instead I keep things fairly static.

    HOWEVER… What I do enjoy doing is to change the overall shape. What I mean is that I move from the choir sitting in a rectangle in front of me to the choir in a circle (still standing beside their regular buddy) where I am in the middle. As singers are now singing directly towards their colleagues it provides them with a much better sense of the total sound. I will also regularly ask individuals to leave their line and join me in the centre so they get the full effect. I will also get the voice parts to move to different parts of the room so that they can hear themselves easily but have to listen more carefully to the other lines in order to establish a balance.

    The impact of choir voicing is something which most singers can hear even if they do not understand it. As a result when I do a voicing for choirs they tend to retain their positions no just because I have placed them there but because they find it more comfortable singing beside a similarly timbred voice and know that these positions produce the best overall sound.
    Keep up the good work.

    Kevin

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks Kevin. That’s a great perspective. I haven’t really got into voicing yet and it’s something I’d like to learn more about in the future.

      I like the idea of inviting individual choir members up to hear the choir.

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