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

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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.

  1. Turn up. Erratic attendance slows everyone down. Things need to be repeated for people who have missed them first time, leaving those singers scrambling to catch up while those who have done it before get a bit bored. Even if you are confident you can catch up quickly, the other singers have still missed out on their rehearsal time learning to integrate your voice into the overall sound.

    (And, I would add that the breezy arrogance of the strong sight-reader is predicated on a concept of ‘the music’ that is all notes and words and little artistry. Ahem.)

    But, seriously, this is the most important thing. I know there’s real life and all that stuff that gets in the way, but if you’re not there for the choir in this very literal sense, you are holding the rest back.

  2. Be ready to start at the start. It makes such a difference to the whole feel of a session if everyone can start together. It’s not just that if you bumble in three minutes late, you distract everyone who made the effort to get there on time. It’s that they started the rehearsal thinking you weren’t going to be there and worried about why not. It’s that the director will have planned the opening moments of the rehearsal to act as a foundation for all that comes after, and if you miss that you are building your vocal and musical house on sand.
  3. Be ready to start again after the break without having to be chased back. So, you can have a bit of sympathy for someone who struggles across town in traffic to get there at the start of rehearsal. But once you’re there, and you’ve done some singing, what is it with these people who can’t read a clock to get back in position to restart?

    You see discussions of this in directors’ forums online, asking for strategies to get people to finish their break, stop chatting and get back to singing. When I’m out and about working with different groups there is often some poor sod (sometimes the director, sometimes someone with the task delegated to them) who is chasing around trying to get people moving, while the diligent types are back in position, looking frustrated and bored while they wait for the others. Some groups start some singing to catch the attention of the gossipers, who mosey along to join in by the end of the song.

    This is all so unnecessary and time-wasting. Adults can manage their time better than this (actually, so can children). If everyone takes responsibility for being ready at the right time to restart, you lose all that drag and fuss, and gain focus and purpose, as well as several extra minutes of rehearsal every week.

  4. Be organised. Have you been given instructions for an event’s logistics? Put them somewhere where you know you can find them. Learn to use a calendar. If you find you have lost or mislaid this information, contact someone for it who doesn’t have fourteen other things to do to make the event happen. Get your stuff ready far enough in advance to discover if you are missing information or equipment and to rectify the lacks without giving everyone else a last-minute panic.

    I know, this is all boring administrative stuff and you joined a choir to be artistic and express yourself. But if everyone carries the burden of their own admin efficiently and without fuss, it obtrudes the minimum into the joy of the music.

Gosh, this has all got a bit soap-boxy, hasn’t it? But, the thing is, with amateur choirs, there is always this tension between the dedication and effort so many people are putting in and the pull of real life competing for everyone’s attention. These are changes that take up no extra time from anyone’s busy lives, use skills that everyone already has, and gives everyone more singing and less distraction every week. What’s not to like?

Addendum for Directors: Remember that your moral authority to ask people to start on time is dependent on your finishing on time.

Liz, points well taken; permit me to add a few more:

1. Directors, if you expect to start precisely on time, then end on time. Just as annoying as it is for a director when singers straggle in 5-10 minutes late (and full disclosure: I have been just as guilty as the next person), it is equally annoying to the singers when the director drags a 2.5 or 3 hour rehearsal 5, 10 or even 15 minutes past the scheduled end time.

2. Directors, respect your volunteer singers' time. A 1-hour call time prior to a performance should be perfectly reasonable, and should be just for warm-ups, and to touch on a few spots for minor details. A two-hour (or more) call time should not be necessary. If the director feels that it is, or more to the point, if the choir (or certain sections) still doesn't doesn't have certain sections down by call time, then it's too late. That piece should not have been selected for performance. See point #3 below.

3. Directors, select concert repertoire suitable to the skill level of the choir that you HAVE, not on the choir that you WISH you had. And don't be afraid to make hard adjustments (i.e.--cut some pieces) if you discover that you don't have the voices, or if a piece is too difficult. Even if it's a commissioned piece: you may have to tell the composer, "I'm sorry, but the piece you composed is beyond the skill level of my current singers; perhaps next season, if I get some stronger 2nd basses, or if I have a soprano section that can handle the 3-part divisi."

4. Watch your temper during rehearsal. (Sarcasm is just as bad, if not worse.) Nothing steals the joy of singing on a weeknight faster than a director who can't control his/her temper. I recall a director who was hired for contract for a single project, who lashed out at the choir on the second or third week of rehearsal, when he saw that we were still using photocopies - of a piece that he himself had arranged! (He thought it was a copyright violation, when in fact the permanent copies had not yet arrived from the publisher. Even if his complaint was justified, he should certainly not have taken issue with the entire choir, much less during rehearsal time. He should have taken it up with the Leadership Team who hired him!)

There, now that I have had MY rant, here's to happy, healthy singing in 2015! :D


Mark C (a lifetime choral singer)

Music Directors are oftentimes oblivious of their ranting.
What doth propel their attitudes toward such temper is frustration of choir's incompetency to deliver what they believe they ought to have been able to do.
The reason for this, I think, is singers' inability to find time to look at the music; knowing full well the type of music we sing is not what a total confidence can tackle in rehearsals without studying our files off rehearsal times.

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