Do Choir Robes Make You Sing Better?

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There was a fascinating thread over on the Choralnet forums last month about the benefits or otherwise of wearing choir robes. It elicited a wide range of thoughtful and insightful responses – one of those discussions in which people had wildly contrasting views, all of which were perfectly reasonable and well-argued.

What emerged from the discussion was that the practice of wearing choir robes has very different meanings for different groups.

For some, they represent a way for the choir to put aside their differences as people – of social status, of prosperity, of levels of musical experience – and become one as a choir. The cohesive meaning here is both symbolic (the choir robes stand for the choir’s identity) and pragmatic (it avoids the difficulties arising when someone just can’t afford the clothes that might otherwise be expected for choral performance/worship-leading).

For other people, the robes had divisive or authoritarian meanings. They separated the choir off from the congregation, for instance, giving the singers a status of ‘heavenly host’ as opposed to participants in the faith community. Or the authority was over the singers, erasing their individual identities and requiring them to conform to an authorised, and anonymised way of being. Of course, abandoning robes in favour of a dress code has its own problems of authority – who gets to define both the code and it’s interpretation? One church choir leader related somewhat fraught situations arising from different definitions of ‘modest’.

But what I really loved about the discussion was its premise. It wasn’t, ‘Should we wear robes?’ (which would have elicited the same range of views and arguments, though possibly expressed in a more imperative way), but ‘Will the choir sing better with robes?’ There was an implicit value there of: never mind all the ideology, my priority is to help my choir be the best choir possible. This seemed entirely appropriate to a choral forum – I’m sure there are plenty of religious forums in which to have the arguments of principle.

But what was also implicit throughout the debate was the awareness that the quality of the choir’s singing is intimately linked with their morale. If the choir feel empowered and validated and unified by robes, they will sing better because they feel good about their place in the world and the contribution they can make to it. If robes have a negative meaning for them, then the discomfort will be expressed in weakened breath support and damped-down resonance. There was no sense that you have to choose between excellence and community; rather an acknowledgement that when the voices sound true, the hearts are too.

So the answer to the opening question is of course: only if choir robes have a positive meaning for the singers.

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