Does a Choral Director Have to be Able to Sing?
The choirmaster must be, first and foremost, a singer… His ideal should be to draw out from the choir the sort of sound he would like to make if only he could sing all the parts at once (Gordon Reynolds, The Choirmaster in Action, 1972).
All that is necessary is an expressive, well-controlled voice, a kind of common denominator of amateur singing raised to the nth power, with which he is enabled to demonstrate to the chorus what he expects from them in return (Archibald Davison, Choral Conducting, 1954).
Opinions differ to the extent to which a choral conductor needs to have a good voice, though there is a general common-ground of consensus in favour of a reasonable competence.
There are some hard-line positions either side of this consensus. Some people might contend that the director’s role is not as a singing teacher, but as a musician, and so long as their imaginative and interpretive skills are top-notch, it doesn’t matter if they croak away at the choir in the same way as orchestral conductors do (these people are probably in the same camp as those who contend that choral and orchestral conducting is a single discipline, not two distinct ones). Others place the voice at the heart of the choral conductor’s craft and would regard the lack of a solo-quality voice as the mark of inadequate musical leadership in a vocal ensemble (these folk would likewise be the ones to see choral conducting as a distinct discipline for which you wouldn’t be properly prepared by a background in orchestral conducting).
But still, the hardliners are relatively rare, and most would agree with reasons like this in favour of vocal competence in a conductor:
- The ability to provide good-quality demonstrations to the choir during rehearsal
- Sufficient understanding of vocal technique to train singers who may not themselves have had singing lessons into good vocal habits
- Diagnostic skills to identify when musical problems arise from vocal difficulties
- A general empathy with the singers’ experience to inform the directing gestures themselves
Of these, the last sounds rather wishy-washy in comparison with the functional rationality of the first three. But I suspect it may be the most powerful – precisely because it operates at a level below our general conversant awareness.
In Part IV of my book on choral conducting, I explore the chameleon effect: the process by which people unconsciously adopt the facial expressions and bodily dispositions of each other. So a conductor who brings good vocal habits to the ensemble is going to help their singers use their voices better just by their way of being. This is much more subtle than the kind of self-aware demonstration of ‘this is how you should stand’, which usually ends up looking like a caricature of how you should rather than embodying any particularly good habits. Rather, it is about what Alexander Technique practitioners refer to as ‘the use of the self’: when choirs unconsciously mirror conductors who have learned to use themselves in a way conducive to good singing they will automatically sing better than those who have counter-productive bodily habits to mimic. This is why, of course, the more holistic writers on choral conducting such as James Jordan recommend singing and gesturing together as you learn a score to conduct: it integrates voice-friendly bodily habits into your imaginative conception of the piece from the get-go.
And Reynolds’s notion of the choir sounding like what the conductor would do could they sing all parts at once is indeed something one hears in real life. You notice it particularly when you hear two conductors direct the same ensemble within a performance – chameleon-like, the singers take on characteristics of the vocal timbre of each in turn.
So, I find myself tending towards the voice-centric position, just from hearing the effect that directors can have. Sure, there are some directors who remain primarily cerebral and imaginative, whose demonstrations are sketchy and sonically peculiar, but who still get great sounds out of their choirs. These folk, though, still go into the enterprise with boat-loads of empathy – they succeed by developing their telepathic* skills rather than their vocal ones. But for most people, if your choir isn’t sounding as good as you’d like, it will probably help for the director to have a few singing lessons and put their own vocal house in order.
* ‘telepathy’ here is a short-hand for the concept of inhabitance, which I write about in Part III of my book, and haven’t got space to divert onto here. The idea comes from David McNeill.