Should your choir enter competitions?

“To compete or not to compete” is a question many choir leaders will ask themselves at some stage.  It is certainly a question we have asked ourselves at Total Voice and last year we dipped our toe into the competition arena with our Chamber Choir.  We canvased opinion and the overall majority said yes.  We entered a local talent show that was billed as being aimed at performers of all types and styles. Unfortunately, it turned out to be almost exclusively small girls with big voices (plus some dancing dogs – yes, really). Despite a rousing performance, we were just not cute enough. So there’s our tip number one – take some time to research a competition that will be appropriate for your choir.

We’ve been much more reluctant to take the plunge with our contemporary choir.  We are conscious that this choir is a community group that’s all about bringing local people together to sing and have fun.  We are worried that getting competitive might put some off and not really reflect what we’re about.  So instead we’ve got ourselves involved in a kind of unofficial competition, joining in a project with five other local choirs to perform in a concert together later this year.  Each choir will have a fifteen minute slot and then all the choirs will come together at the end.  There will be no judging or prizes but no doubt each choir who will want to show off their talent to the others.  This is perfect for our contemporary choir as it will stretch us without piling on the pressure.

If you’re thinking about taking the plunge, here are some pros and cons for you to consider:

Pros:

  • Competition creates an exciting event for members to look forward to and encourages them to do their very best.
  • It’s a chance to meet other singers and see what other choirs do.
  • Doing well in competitions, particularly high profile ones, can lead to exciting performance and recording opportunities.

 

Cons:

  • Some of the larger competitions can require a high level of commitment for members which might not be practical.
  • Some competitions may place you against a variety of acts, not necessarily choirs, which may not offer the challenge you want.
  • Morale could be affected by poor competition performance.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on choir competitions, perhaps you can persuade us to pursue them further with our choirs!

Comments on Should your choir enter competitions?

  1. Avatar Joel Navarro says:

    Thank you for posing this question, Christine. You and Victoria do a wonderfully beneficent thing for choral conductors with your website. Jojo, Nikos, and I were born from the same country where choirs and competition are, you might say, almost a form of national pastime. The three of us have done our own share of competing, winning, and adjudicating in choir competitions. At my older age, I have outgrown the need to compete as I see the need to teach, and be a mentor and compass to aspiring conductors.

    As a conductor for the last 41 years, I have come to observe that for many choral conductors out there, the answer to the question you posed is clear. But there are likely more of us who think that the answer is not as clear for reasons that are deeply personal or philosophical to begin with.

    Nevertheless, the reflection your article affords is centering as it is life-changing. Whether your answer is ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘it depends,’ there are certain truths we know to be self-evident:

    1. Many of the world’s finest choirs–appreciated for their repertoire, discography, scholarship, leadership, and legacy–have never competed or prefer not to compete at all for their own sets of reasons.

    2. Many of the world’s choirs which have joined competition attest to the educational value, and life-changing experiences they gained through competition.

    3. Many of the world’s choirs who have won in competition continue to do so for their own sets of reasons.

    However one answers the question, I think it important to know why one answers it so, and to traverse that road of choice with humility, honesty, resolve, and a selfless generosity of spirit. For me, at least, excellence isn’t just about winning trophies. It truly and ultimately is the excellence of the collective soul. It isn’t just the virtuosity of the choir or the conductor that one strives for, but really, the virtue of the human heart that we all aspire for, and the transformational presence choir and conductor bring to humankind as a whole. Music will always be, at least for me, a finger which points us to the moon of our final gazing.

    May music fill our hearts to overflowing.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Joel, really pleased you like the website. Thanks for your insights into choral competitions, some really interesting points you make.

  2. Avatar Nikos M. says:

    Hi everyone. Thank you Christine, for bringing it out there. I have been a veteran of so many choral competitions in Europe, both as a singer and conductor. In my experience, it was a roller coaster ride. So many highs and lows. Having won several competitions myself as a conductor, it actually came to a point when I had to ask the question myself, ‘why’? I made a decision to turn my back on competing and decided to interpret music without anyone officially judging me and giving me certificates. In short, competing was an integral part of my conducting ‘upbringing’, but now I have moved forward.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Nikos, thanks for your feedback about your competition experience. The word ‘competition’ always seems to stir much debate amongst choir leaders. It’s interesting to read that you’ve been through that process but for you no longer competing has allowed you to move forward. I think all experience teaches us something valid and helps us on our journey as choir leaders. Enjoy your new found freedom of not being officially judged!

  3. Avatar Alison says:

    Does anyone have any advice on whether changing elements of a song at competitions is acceptable? We have a song that we are going to sing unaccompanied which works very well. The arrangement has piano accompaniment, but we are choosing not to perform with it. Should we put a note in with the score? I’d welcome any advice from those who have experienced this.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      What a great question, Alison. I’m afraid I’m not the person to answer it; my choir doesn’t compete. Hopefully, someone with some competition experience will offer an opinion.

    2. Avatar Jojo says:

      If your score has a piano part, then the judges will expect that piano part. Singing it a cappella means you’re changing the arrangement, and maybe that requires permission from the arranger. It also depends how strict the competition is. There are some competitions that specifically states you have to sing (and/or play) the notes that are written in the score.

      1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

        Hi Jojo. You raise an interesting point about getting permission from an arranger to drop a piano part. Of course, rules vary in different jurisdictions, but I can’t help thinking that it would be unduly onerous to have to get permission from a composer/arranger to sing something a cappella where the score had a printed piano part which you decided to drop. To take that argument further, if you wanted to perform a piece where there was divisi in one part, and you decided to ignore that divisi because you were short of singers, would that require permission? I doubt it. And what about a situation where a score requires a tenor solo, but you don’t have any tenors who can manage it, so you ask a soprano to do it. Would that require permission? I suppose what I’m asking is to what extent is a printed score prescriptive rather than directive? If I choose to depart from a metronome mark because the acoustic in which I’m performing needs a slightly slower tempo, am I creating a new arrangement? Of course not. But where is the line and how can your average community choir find out where that line is without resorting to expensive legal advice?

        1. Avatar Jojo says:

          Yes, it is onerous. But to answer your questions: If there was divisi but you were short of singers and you ignore the divisi, by all means, go ahead. The same goes for the soprano who substituted for a tenor. You want to sing something faster than the metronome reading recommended by the composer/arranger? Why not? You can do all of those things. BUT NOT IN COMPETITION. (caps only for stress) Are you willing to risk the judges (and the artistic committee) arguing about all that? Some competitions have a criteria called “fidelity to the score”. And some composers/arrangers I know don’t want anyone meddling with their arrangements. There are some who are open to the idea though. Personally, if I find my singers couldn’t do that divisi, I’ll choose another piece. Same with tenor solo piece; I’ll just find a piece with a nice soprano solo. As for metronome readings, those are open to debate as we all know. But if the reading is quarter note equals 72, and your reading is quarter equals 144, there would be some judge or other, who would bring down the score of your choir because of that. Are you willing to risk all of those factors, just because you felt right “musically”? In competition? Something to think about.

          1. Avatar Iain says:

            Not every contest is like that. I know several a cappella contests that judge by what they hear and never require to see a score (though they do ask you to sign a declaration that you are performing it legally).

            On the subject of changing the arrangement; in the UK the arranger generally has no rights in their version except to be identified as the arranger, and all the rights accrue to the publishing company and the copyright holder. If it’s a straight cover, you should have no problem varying parts of the arrangement as long as the melody and lyrics are unchanged.

  4. Avatar Jacqui Paulson says:

    I hate competitions. I think that they completely undermine what singing is all about. Singing is not the domain of the incredibly gifted but a gift to each one of us. We can all sing. Of course some are more talented and some have incredible gifts but ultimately singing enables us to reach inside and find something worthwhile. Having another person judge that belittles who we are.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Jacqui. Thanks for that perspective. I can definitely appreciate your point, but I also know choirs who love to compete in festivals etc. I guess it’s a good thing there are choirs of all sorts out there. Something for everyone.

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