Four Non-Musical Contributions You Can Make That Can Transform Your Choir

We spend a lot of time and energy in choral groups thinking about how to improve the performance of the ensemble. And, not unreasonably, we focus much of this attention on musical and vocal skills. I would be the first to agree that learning how to sing better, and how to make better music are useful outlets for a choir’s energies.

But every so often, it is worth reflecting on habits and ways of being that a choir has developed, as individuals and as a collective, that are nothing to do with music or singing, but which can either facilitate or hinder the overall progress that choir makes.

Here are four things that every choir member can manage, whatever their current skills or levels of experience, that will actively help their choir improve.

The Role of the Director

The director as part of the chorus lineThe director as part of the chorus line

At the directors’ day I led down in Saltash in October, we started our first session with a discussion of the primary purpose of the choral director. There are lots of things on the director’s to-do list, but it is useful to home in on the central end to which they are all means: to help the choir sing the music.

I was thinking about this again after watching the chorus contest at the LABBS Convention in Harrogate, particularly in the context of the barbershop performance tradition that sees the director turn around and become part of the presentation. Does this contribute to or distract from this central purpose, and in what ways?

Maslow and Performance

MaslowWhen I was working through the implications of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for choirs back in the Spring, my focus was on the rehearsal environment, and in particular how the director can diagnose and thus meet singers’ needs within it. As it’s the time of year when choirs find themselves performing a lot, I found myself reflecting on the way that performance environments generate and satisfy the various types of need.

At the basic end of the scale, performance nerves are a symptom of safety needs - the combination of unfamiliar circumstances and personal vulnerability of putting yourself on the line in public can leave people feeling psychologically insecure. Many of the strategies I have discussed over the years for managing this form of environment are essentially about helping people feel safer. These include such things as preparation to anticipate the experience and thus diminish the fear of the unknown, building trust within the group so they keep each other safe, and managing adrenaline levels to attain a state of useful readiness rather than loss of control.

The Holonomic Voice: Part 2

In the confused ramble that was my last post, we explored the concept of the holonomic order, as discussed by Raymond Bradley. The reason I wanted to get to grips with this - apart from its interest in considering the social structure of choirs - is because it resonates with a remark made by a barbershop chorus director I was talking with back in the summer.

One of the questions this director was addressing was over-identification with voice-parts rather than the chorus as a whole. It was manifesting musically as too much contrast in vocal colour between the parts and consequently the harmonies were not always gelling. Socially, there was a degree of us-and-themness going on too.

It’s not just barbershop choruses who run into this problem of course, although some of that genre’s characteristic methods can encourage it. It is likely to emerge in any group, though, with some or all of the following features:

The Holonomic Voice: Part 1

There is an idea I have been wanting to blog about for some time, but I have been getting stuck at the first hurdle. So I have decided to break this down into two parts, and deal first with the bit I’m stuck on, and when that’s out of the way move onto the actual application to ensemble singing in a second post. I’m not pretending it’s going to be an elegant way of presenting the concept, but if you really prefer your writing in formal genres, you probably wouldn’t be here on a blog.

So we will just muddle through as best we can, and I hope in due course to have untangled enough of what I’ve been grappling with to be useful for vocal craft. I was put onto the idea in the first place by a choral director, so it may turn out in the end that I am needlessly complicating things here. Oh well.

Barbershop and its Comedic Registers

StormfrontSo, after reflecting recently on how barbershop has certain emotional registers that feel more central to the genre that others - in particular certain flavours of nostalgia - I started to think about the genre’s relationship with comedy. The vaudeville heritage of the style roots it in light entertainment, and indeed the outsider’s stereotypical view of the genre is that its default setting is to get you laughing.

(As I document in Chapter 4 of my barbershop book, one of the things I discovered when I started writing about the genre was that if you show a room full of musicologists a video clip of men in pink tuxedos singing a ballad, they will snigger, even if the song is a heartfelt paean to love lost. It was fun, mind you, when I started giving papers that opened with this phenomenon and then went on discuss why outsiders felt the need to laugh.)

Workshopping with Magenta


Sunday afternoon saw hordes of barbershoppers thronging into my erstwhile place of work for the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual Quartet Prelims, at which quartets compete to qualify to sing at the annual convention in May. It feels most ungrateful of me, then, to have missed the entire occasion, with so many friends and so much interesting music coming right to my own home patch.

But I spent the day instead just three minutes’ walk away in the city’s glorious new library, leading a workshop with Magenta that involved choir and guests learning a brand new arrangement in a bit less than 3 hours, then performing in the Book Rotunda that lies at the heart of the building. Magenta has offered these workshops every so often over the years, previously as our contribution to Moseley Festival each summer, but this was the first time we’d done one in the city centre with city-wide publicity.

Tags and Tessitura

As you’ll know if you’ve either read my first book or hung out with barbershoppers for more than five minutes, barbershoppers do like tags.* They like to sing them all night as a social activity, and when they have to sit in an audience and keep quiet, they like the people on stage to sing them for them. Hearing a someone nail a good long post and some serious chord worship gives a particular style of vicarious pleasure that is amplified by all the hours spent in stairwells attempting it yourself.

This is, I suspect, the reason why the genre has developed the phenomenon of the ‘out of context tag’. The arrangement charts its way through the journey of the song, and just as it is heading into where it should culminate, it suddenly dives off into a screaming tag from nowhere. An outsider might think: why would you do that? But an insider knows they do it because the other insiders in the audience will respond with delight.

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