Putting yourself in your choir’s shoes

It’s a statement of the obvious to say that our experience of leading a choir is not the same as our singers’ experience of being in it. But it’s vitally important to empathise with our singers – to put ourselves in their shoes – if we want to create a choir that inspires and nurtures them.

Of course, our singers are individuals and they won’t all have the same experience of being in a choir. I think we can, however, make some general observations that can help us to keep our singers’ experience in mind when we make decisions for our choirs.

1. It’s a hobby, not a job

Professional choirs are rare. The vast majority of choral singers in the world are doing it for fun. If it isn’t fun, they probably won’t continue to do it. That doesn’t mean that every second has to be filled with ‘whoop whoop’ levels of euphoria, but the overall experience of being in the choir must be enjoyable. When you keep that in mind, a few things become rather obvious.

Firstly, don’t programme so many performances that the choir feels that it’s on a conveyor belt. Your singers want to feel well-prepared and give a good performance. Make sure they have the opportunity to do that. Conversely, don’t programme so few performances that everyone gets bored and wonders what they’re there for.

Secondly, plan rehearsals that give your choir the opportunity to have a good sing, particularly at the end. Don’t weigh them down with too much new learning in one hit. Praise them when praise is due and criticise constructively.

2. To them, it’s personal, not general

It can be extremely annoying for a choir leader when there’s a lot of chatter in the rehearsal room (I’ve talked about how to handle this before). Don’t forget, though, that each singer who’s part of that hubbub is only having one conversation. They often don’t understand that their little whispers are disturbing anyone because they’re only contributing a small amount of noise to the overall din. You need to deal with the noise, of course, but remember that there’s no malicious intent involved – they’re just doing what people do.

The same applies when people ask you for advice, help or information, whether in rehearsal or outside. The singer’s perception is that they have a single, small problem that needs a solution and you’re likely to have that solution. Your perspective is that you’re being bombarded with constant requests. How you deal with them is a matter for you, but keep in mind that there’s no conspiracy to rob you of your free time.

3. You can never be ‘one of them’

However democratic your choir, your position in it will always be different to that of your singers. Making music is a shared experience and that’s wonderful, but someone has to be in charge. I’m certainly not advocating tyrrany, and the whole point of this article is to help you to overcome any ‘us and them’ thinking that you might slip into, but it’s important to accept that your role, and your feelings about your choir, are inherently different from those of your singers.

When people are unhappy about something, you may well be the last to know unless you find ways to allow them to communicate honestly. I’ve written before about communicating effectively with your choir.

If you always keep in mind your singers’ experience, which may be very different to yours, you’ll be well on the way to creating a fantastic atmosphere and culture in your choir.

Comments on Putting yourself in your choir’s shoes

  1. Avatar Daniel says:

    It’s really hard and most times frustrating to lead my choir. Choir members barely understand the basics of music. So you need to teach each part how to sing. You do this over and over until they get their various parts. So we spend a lot of time learning just a song. At the end of our rehearsals, we really don not do much!!

    What can one do to help the choir, and come out of this quagmire?

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for your comment and sorry to hear of your frustrations. It’s no fun as a choir leader when things don’t seem to be coming together. Whenever I feel like this it’s usually a case of having to persist and be patient or changing tact completely. I’m not sure the type of choir you lead and how long you’ve been running but it sounds like things are getting a bit frustrating for you and the danger is that this could rub off on your singers or worse make them feel like they’re failing. My first bit of advice would be to stay positive and encouraging always in front of your choir. Some team building exercises may really help everyone to work as a team (see my article to be published tomorrow). Any fun warm-up exercises which benefit the choir technically and are relevant to your repertoire will help. You can then refer back to these when teaching that repertoire. I think one of the hardest things we face leading choirs is convincing singers that they can do something. Many are afraid to dive in and possibly make mistakes so if we can create an atmosphere where they feel this is okay and part of the learning process then I think more progress can be made. Good luck, do let us know how things progress and if we can assist further.

      1. Avatar Holly says:

        Hi All, with one of the choirs I run, they have very little technical musical ability, I try to differentiate as much as possible, for example some of them prefer just words without the music to confuse them, some like the music so they can follow the ups and downs of the notes. I also put together a practice cd for them so they can listen to it in the car etc and learn their parts,I have a couple of members who dont read so this helps them so much with learning their parts… as you say Christine, a lot of them suffer with no or lack of confidence, and often the loudest are the ones with the least confidence. Good luck Daniel! You can do it!!

  2. I’d also recommend that choir leaders attend singing workshops regularly. It’s always good to be on the receiving end of another teacher/ conductor – amazing what you learn!


    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Great point Chris. I love learning from other leaders and conductors.

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