The one thing you need to be a great choir leader

You probably did a double take at the title of this article. One thing? Only one? Surely a great choir leader needs a bundle of skill and talents: leadership, diplomacy, musicianship for a start. Well, yes. There are any number of skills that contribute to your choir leadership, but I want to argue in this article that there’s really only one attribute that you absolutely cannot do without.


The ability to put yourself in the place of another and feel how they feel. As choir leaders, we need it in spades. If we want to lead, we have to inspire trust, and people trust us when they feel that we understand them. That’s empathy – an understanding of another’s experience.

Empathy for our singers

What are people looking for when they come to a choir? It’s not just a place to sing. If they simply wanted to sing, they could do it anywhere and they wouldn’t need anyone else present. So let’s look deeper. What need is being fulfilled when people sing in a choir? It’s the need for connection – to work as a team. When we engage in a shared endeavour, we experience a powerful sense of belonging.

We also need to feel that we are learning and achieving; that our lives have meaning. A choir that stretches us and develops our musicianship can help us to satisfy that need.

Empathy for our audience

When we stand in front of an audience, ready to perform with our choirs, what is the audience expecting of us? What do they need? Some, perhaps many of them will be there to watch a family member or friend who is part of the choir. They might not even be that interested in the content of the performance! They are there to connect with someone they love; to show support and devotion. Others will be there because they get real enjoyment from hearing live music. When we witness a live performance, we become part of it. That performance never happens again exactly as we experience it on that occasion. From that perspective, the audience is part of the collective creative event with the choir. They contribute their attention and applause; the choir contributes the music. It’s an essential trade – imagine how unpleasant it would be to perform to a hostile audience.

So when we perform, we must put ourselves in the place of our audience and really think about what they want and need from the occasion.

Empathy for composers

When we perform music, we are giving voice to someone else’s creative endeavour and emotional journey. What were they trying to say? What emotional message is the music giving and how can we bring that to life?

We don’t need to know the circumstances in which the work was written to access its emotional core (although it can add to the experience) but we do need to take the time to prepare our interpretation of the music with empathy. What is it really about? What human experience is it conveying?

When we employ empathy, we begin to create a wonderful virtuous circle in which our empathy for the music feeds our singers, who in turn are able to access the emotional centre of a piece and convey it to an audience, whose appreciation bolsters the choir.

Comments on The one thing you need to be a great choir leader

  1. Avatar ilona says:

    Can I add one more empathy? I can’t coach unless the choir knows exactly what the words are about. We spend time thinking about the meaning of the song, which, coupled with the music adds up to greater understanding of any song. If we sing in Latin or other languages we must know what it means. In most cases, the words came first. ilona

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      I completely agree Ilona. Text is really important.

  2. Avatar Kamali says:

    Many thanks for this very helpful article. Empathy is a vital skill even for effective communication. Is not it?

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Kamali, you’re absolutely right. Glad you found the article helpful.

  3. Avatar Raye says:

    Thanks for this. I’m taking over as interim church choir director this week. This is just what I needed for grounding and a reality check.
    Raye Reed

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the post Raye. Best of luck with in your new role.

  4. Avatar Charlie says:

    Love the article. I lead an ensemble in our local church. Half 3/4 of our time is spent in music, 1/4 is in sharing and caring. Several members have little to no musical talent, but we are touching them in the heart and they keep coming.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your message Charlie, creating that team of singers who support each other is so important.

  5. Avatar Lin Holzheimer says:

    I couldn’t agree more. True empathy for all, indicates a person who is capable of interpreting the music in all its subtle and underlying complexities of emotion. Good music is emotion conveyed in sound. (in my humble opinion)
    Lin H.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Lin, glad you liked the piece. Great point you make, having empathy is so important in interpreting music.

  6. Avatar Ben says:

    Awesome piece! I was really curious to know that one thing amongst the many skills of Choirmasters and your suggestion of “empathy” is spot on. Well done Victoria

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Ben :)

  7. Avatar Sonal says:

    Such a powerful virtue that is essential to give a soul stirring performance. Thank you loved it.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Sonal, glad you liked the article. :)

  8. Avatar Kate Sinclair says:

    Just brilliant! Thank you xx

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Kate, glad you liked the article. :)

  9. Avatar Berry says:

    Great article, sis. I will be using these ideas at my choir’s AGM next week! 🙂

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      This is awesome! My little sister’s commenting on my post!

  10. Avatar Pam Nicholls says:

    Hi, Victoria and Christine,

    Thanks for this article – it has made me think from the other side! I tried answering the question before I read your article, and came up with the word “assurance” – which for me as song leader means being confident and assured (and at least one step ahead of the singers!). I’m now thinking it’s also about assuring the singers – reassuring them, validating them, and yes, helping them develop. Underlying that must be empathy, as you point out, now that I think about it. Sometimes I feel I am so preoccupied with the technical things I’m doing that I may not be connecting as well as I could be with the singers: it’s as if I’m performing in a glass bubble in which I am concentrating and focused, and although I’m looking at the faces looking at me, I’m not actually connecting with them very deeply. Feeling empathy for the singers (and many of them may be feeling nervous or shy about singing) is also a great way to overcome any nervousness in ourselves. It’s up to us to help the group overcome their reservations: we are there to draw them out and awareness of empathy will be such a good tool. It’s also about celebrating the many moments of greatness in both individuals and the group: suddenly a passage comes right, or the song comes together. I’ll be mindful of empathy next practice.

    I am getting an enormous amount from your blogs, articles, and tweets: thank you! You address so many issues I’m grappling with. Yours is the one blog I open immediately when it arrives in my email in-box.

    I am in New Zealand and a relatively new “Song Leader” rather than a classical choral conductor, although obviously there is much overlap (I also sing in traditional repertoire choirs and my own origins were in early polyphony). We have a focus on exploring so-called “world” music in our small community group, at this stage women, but I’m thinking of throwing it wider into the community through judicious marketing – I liked your article about how to seed a choir – and it would be good to be able to derive some income as a lot of time is going into developing skills and programmes. At the moment this is on top of an unrelated full time job, so I am having to take things quite slowly.

    A couple of years ago the Song Leaders’ Network Aotearoa (Maori name for NZ) was set up – probably similar in intent to your UK Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network. We have just held our third symposium. There was a call to look at how to incorporate technology both in the preparation and presentation of sessions. I can’t wait to look at your video (great! this will be such a useful extra teaching dimension – visual) about preparing tracks: will it be dealing with technology and a programme such as Audacity, I wonder? I’m grateful for all your ideas – anything that helps us not to have to reinvent wheels when we’re all so time constrained is so welcome!

    I have been incorporating your warm ups into my choir sessions – great little book. And very stimulating website. Again, many thanks. Pam Nicholls

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Pam. Thanks for your wonderful comment. I love your first paragraph – I think you put it better than I did, “It’s also about celebrating the many moments of greatness in both individuals and the group”. Absolutely!

      I’m so glad you’re getting value from the website and I hope your choir goes from strength to strength. Do keep us posted – we love to hear how our audience members are getting on, and if you’re ever moved to write a few hundred words about you and your choir, we’d love to feature you on the website.

      You mentioned Audacity. In the tutorial series, I recommend Reaper, which is cheap, but not free like Audacity. Audacity’s great, but has some limitations, for example it’s more difficult to mix your recordings so that they sound great (a bit of reverb works wonders!). It’s certainly an option though, and has many of the same functions as other audio editing software.

      All the best. Victoria

  11. Avatar Shreyans says:

    Nice, really brilliant!
    I really appreciate your notes on empathy for an audience, especially when it comes to family members and friends, one often tends to forget their presence in the audience and what a boost it provides to the singers to know that someone believes in them :-)

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks for that comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  12. Avatar Karen D says:

    Excellent piece – absolutely bang-on. Thank you!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thank you Karen. That’s really kind.

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