What makes a great choir leader?
You could be forgiven for thinking that being a choir leader is mainly about musical ability. While that’s pretty high up on the scale, there are many other skills and attributes required to be a great choir leader. Here are my top five which will get you on the road to success.
Communication is a key quality in building a rapport with your choir. Good communication will gain their attention and get results. Think about the information you need to give to your choir, whether it’s announcements, warm-up exercises or repertoire work. What do you need to tell them and what is the clearest way to get that across? Sometimes, words can get in the way and cause chatter or confusion. For example, if you’re teaching a round, sing each line, then signal for the choir to repeat it until the whole phrase is learned. To divide the choir into groups for rounds, simply gesture to a section rather than explaining at length who should sing what.
Another aspect of good communication is eye contact. Make sure you look at and acknowledge your singers when you address them. Be warm and friendly and create a positive atmosphere. This is particularly important when working with a beginners’ or community choir where singers may have limited musical experience and be quite nervous.
If you are approachable your singers will feel that they can ask questions if they aren’t sure about something. They will come to you if they have concerns or worries and share with you the things they love and enjoy about choir. I always think that your mood is reflected back at you by the choir, so if you are a bit aloof or detached, your choir may respond in the same way to you. Sometimes, you have to ‘fake it ’til you make it’. You won’t always be in a great mood when you rehearse your choir. Sometimes, you just have to pretend.
Nothing helps you feel more calm and in control of your choir than preparation. Never under-estimate the importance of a good rehearsal plan. You will achieve much better results for your choir with well-planned rehearsals that lead singers through the learning process in good time for performances, without last minute panics. Try to get into a routine where you plan the rehearsals at least a couple of days beforehand. If possible, plan your next rehearsal immediately after the last, while all the issues that arose are fresh in your mind. If that’s not feasible for you, at least jot down a few notes. Your rehearsal planning will be all the easier for it.
One of the most important things I learned during my conducting training was this: teach the choir in front of you; not the choir in your head. We all want our choirs to excel and achieve the best they can, but results take time. As a choir leader, you will start to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t for your choir. These techniques will not come in one miracle session, but with work over time. Decide on the key areas you want to work on with your choir, these may be breathing, range-building, performance skills or any number of things. Keep these key areas in mind when planning your rehearsals, focus on them in warm-ups but also relate them to your repertoire.
Fun and inspiring
We all want to be led by someone fun, motivated and inspiring. That doesn’t mean we can’t be firm when we need to be, but we want to create an atmosphere that will have people coming back and enjoying choir week after week. Being sure of yourself and your ability as a choir leader takes time and practice but if you are keep all these attributes in mind as you work, your singers will happily share that journey with you.