How to Get a Response from an Unresponsive Choir

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It is something that all choral conductors will have experienced at some point: starting a rehearsal and finding the choir completely lacking in energy. Eyes are down, body language is closed, words are mumbled and the sound projects about 3 inches before falling to the ground. The question is: what does the director do to change this?

The first instinct is usually to inject oomph: with bigger, more emphatic gestures and a bright cheery tone of voice we attempt to chivvy the singers into life. If it is a usually responsive choir that’s just having a randomly dozy day, this will work just fine. But if the unresponsiveness is a common experience with the group, then chivvying becomes counter-productive. You can find yourself with one of two scenarios:

  1. Using the Intimacy Equlibrium Model, the choir balances the director’s added energy by become commensurately more passive.
  2. The choir waits until the director is completely manic, and then responds – effectively training the director to over-direct as a matter of course

Both of these are quite common types of endemic conductor-choir relationship – and whilst in their mild form they don’t prevent a choir from operating reasonably effectively, they are still dysfunctional in that the choir will operate better if they’re sorted out.

There are two types of strategy a director can use to re-establish a responsive bond with the choir.

Strategy A: develop a playful atmosphere with activities that get the choir to provide the energy. For example:

  • Use exercises that require mental or vocal agility, starting at a steady tempo and increasing the speed. (Tongue twisters are useful; especially ones that sound rude when you get them wrong.)
  • Use exercises that hand round leadership, e.g. call-and-response structures

Strategy B: develop a meditative atmosphere with activities that turn the stillness into a productive state. For example:

  • Rehearse a passage using little or no talking, just demonstration and gesture. (The only words you may need are start-points.) This gets the singers’ heads out of the copies and requires them to participate more mentally in interpreting what you are asking of them. It will also help you break out of the habit of counting them in, if you have it.
  • Ask the choir to sing a passage with their eyes closed, using only their ears to keep them together
  • Which strategy is appropriate will depend on a combination of the repertoire, the choir personality and the initial atmosphere you’re working from. But both use the NLP principle of matching, i.e. meeting the choir in the state it starts in as the starting point for change. And both stand their best chance of being successful if the director keeps their focus not on whether the choir is responding to them, but whether the choir is responding to the needs of the music.

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