Choir Discipline, Conductor Discipline

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I was working with a relatively novice conductor recently who was grappling with the challenge of how to command the attention of the choir. Anyone who has spent time either teaching or running rehearsals will sympathise, indeed will probably have had recurring anxiety dreams about failing to do so. (Please tell me I’m not the only one who has these!)

So we started out looking at various specific techniques you can use to command a room (more of which below), but very soon stumbled over a fundamental point that underpins their success or failure. It relates to the truism that you can’t control anyone else’s behaviour; all you can do is create an environment in which they will choose to control their own in the ways you desire.

In the same way, these techniques will only work if the conductor can discipline herself to maintain them consistently. If you do them a bit, but give up in the face of initially slow or intermittent success, you will train your choir to believe you don’t really mean them and that if they continue in their old ways you will give into them. The techniques will require patience in the first instance, and it may feel that you are wasting more time waiting for them to work than you are gaining through a eventual better hold on your singers’ attention.

But once they do gain traction, you will feel the benefit surprisingly quickly.

  • Stillness. When your choir is all hubbub and chatter and not being ready to sing, whether at the start of a session or in between activities within rehearsal, the temptation is to try and do something to corral them: clap your hands, shout over them, rush around asking people to get onto the risers. If you do this, they will never present themselves readily without your wearing yourself out first.

    What you need to do is stand quietly, ready to start. If anybody tries to engage you in conversation, you say, ‘Not now, it’s time to start.’ Otherwise, you say nothing, and simply wait. Eventually (and it can take a long time the first time you do this) they will organise themselves and get into position, also ready to start.

    Then, and only then, do you smile, say ‘Thank you,’ and immediately start the rehearsal or the next activity.

  • Stance. As you stand in stillness, and thereafter as you address the choir, use an open stance. Not only is this helpful modelling for the singers, but it also communicates confidence. And even if you don’t initially feel confident, adopting the demeanour of Wonder Woman will reduce your anxiety and boost your self-esteem.
  • Speak into Silence. Always wait until everyone else has stopped speaking before you start. If you compromise on this, your singers will feel they have permission to continue their conversations after rehearsal is in session. If you hold firm, then the majority who are ready will soon squish the minority who are holding up proceedings.

    A useful technique to articulate this principle is Lemov’s tactic of the self-interrupt. This is where you start to speak, but stop after a couple of words if anyone continues to talk over you. Then, when they have stopped, you start your sentence again and continue. This makes the point that you won’t compete for attention far more effectively than calling, ‘I’m not going to compete with you,’ over a noisy room - which is effectively saying, ‘Don’t believe me; I’m already doing what I claim I’m not going to do.’

  • Tangentially, the principle of Speak into Silence is also important for the actual process of rehearsal - you should not be talking over the choir as they sing. I’ll blog about this another day, though, as there are more reasons for this than will fit in an aside here.

  • Topic focus. I am sure that singers want to be helpful when they blurt out all kinds of things that they consider need attention during rehearsal. Though, as I have written about before, often these interjections are the group equivalent of the way your brain suddenly remembers miscellaneous domestic tasks that need doing when you should really be sitting down to something that will take concentration. But if you accept these contributions from the floor as a matter of course, your rehearsal will be blown hither and thither like a leaf on the wind, rather than making structured progress towards goals defined in advance.

    So for anything that is not an immediate obstacle to the task in hand, you need to park the interruptions. If it sounds like something relevant, but not what you’re doing this very moment, then you ask them to ‘hold that thought’ and come back to them in a few minutes when you have completed what you were doing. If it sounds more off-topic, or too big an issue to deal with in the time allotted for that particular item that rehearsal, then ask them to come and talk to you about it in the break or after the rehearsal.

    This way, you keep control of the flow of the rehearsal, which means that you all get more done, and the consequent reward of feeling good about your joint progress. It also signals to the singers’ subconsciouses that they can’t derail the rehearsal with interruptions that are valid but off-topic. But you do still get to harvest the thoughts of your singers, which is useful for both practical purposes and to maintain a healthy relationship with them

  • Readiness. Always be ready to go on before your singers are. Plan thoroughly, and know what is coming next, so that the choir never has to wait for your attention. If you have hit a problem that will need a few moments’ thought or discussion, put your singers off duty while you sort it out. At all other times, give them the continuity of concentration that you desire from them.
  • Respect the clock. Your moral right to start on time is predicated on your always ending the rehearsal on time. Over-running implies a lack of care for what your singers might have planned for after the rehearsal, just as late arrival betokens a lack of care for what you have planned for its opening activities. Respecting the clock is a proxy for respecting each other

All of these behaviours are within the control of the conductor. It takes a certain amount of determination, practice and reflection to embed them as habits, but that is all it takes. But you will find that if you discipline yourself, you will have done the lion’s share of the work of instilling discipline in your choir.

Hi Liz, I don't think I agree with the 'waiting for silence' approach. I think people come to use their voices so we need to channel that rather than waiting for them to stop. I find delivering my instruction very quietly works better. Only those watching and paying attention hear it. One bad start and everyone is immediately on point.

I think as well it is a directors' duty to be suitably compelling so as to have people want to follow them.

I write this with the greatest respect!


The thing about waiting for silence is that when you first do it, it may take a while, but if you are rigorous, it starts to get silence very fast, eliminating your need for bad starts. The self-interrupt technique takes over the 'bad start' function.

Obviously a quiet instruction is better than trying to compete on volume...but you've made me realise that the point isn't so much 'speak into silence' as 'speak into attention'. Silence doesn't guarantee attention, but noise tells you that there are people who aren't yet ready for what you're about to do next.

And agree about the compellingness. The points about having a sense of purpose and giving the same continuity of attention you desire from your singers are part of how you achieve this. (As in, how one achieves this, and actually a comment on your rehearsal technique too; you are good at purposeful rehearsal if you don't mind my saying.)

Thanks for making me think about this a bit deeper :-)


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