Choral Techniques and Literature for the Real World
This is the future home of the collaborative book written by students in the "Choral Literature and Techniques" class at Austin College.
- Dr. Danny Graham
- Jean-Paul Marshall
- Amanda Mayfield
- Emily Record
- Melanie St. John
- Dr. Wayne Crannell, instructor
Requirements of a Good Conductor
There are many tasks that can aid one to becoming a good conductor. From a logistical and philosophical stand point there are things that should be kept in the forefront of one’s mind in order to be the most effective when conducting. Many of these things are elaborated further in this publication. A few key things from the logistical perspective are preparation, organization, and efficacy. Accomplishing these before rehearsal will translate into clarity in your conducting, which is essential. Although your choir could probably find their way from the beginning to the end of the piece without you standing in front waving your arms, your clarity and confidence will provide them with the means to reach levels of musicianship otherwise impossible. Furthermore, not only understanding and hearing what the finish product of the work needs to be, but using many examples of techniques below to be able to communicate to your choir and provide them with the tools to reach the desired outcome. Getting the logistical tasks out of the way before diving in to the selected works for your ensembles allows for the singers growth and creates opportunities for learning that otherwise may be missed if time is spent on logistical tasks during valuable rehearsal time. There are many odds and ends jobs that accompany being a conductor. Understanding and accepting that these are part of the job, rather than dreading things like planning fundraisers for upcoming tours or making sure there are enough candles for the choir at the candlelight service, will only make the outcome of your choir's accomplishments and growth as musicians more meaningful. Finally, on the path to becoming a good conductor is the ability to provide the environment and rehearsals where your singers leave the room becoming better at something. Whether it is something as simple as cutoffs and phrasing, or as complex as acceptance and devotion.
Criteria for Choosing Music
There are many things that you generally need to keep in mind as you begin to search for music for your choir’s next performance. Aside from the things listed below it is always useful to understand your singers and their abilities outside of the realm of choosing music.
Things to take in to account:
- The number of singers
- How many males and females/ how many in each section
- Singers' musical abilities and background
- Type of choir
- How much time you have before the next performance
- Performance type; i.e. community function, school concert, specific liturgical service
- Previous pieces your choir has performed
- How much money in your budget in order to purchase copies, if necessary
All of these things should be considered to some extent before deciding upon a particular piece for your choir. If not, it is possible to accidentally end up doing a secular piece during church service or picking a piece that has an extremely high range in the sopranos or low in the basses for a high school choir of twenty. Therefore, choosing music goes far beyond sifting through the stack of publisher’s choices mailed to you and selecting the one with the prettiest cover. Chances are you will likely not end up with music that is challenging enough to provide your choir with a sufficient musical and learning experience.
Elements of the Music and How They Relate to "Singability"
Copyright Law and Music
Copyright Law is a tricky thing to consider as a choir director. Will you hand out originals of your sheet music to singers (and trust them to not lose or destroy them) or make copies of your originals? Do you want to record your concert? Rearrange a piece for your choir? Even perform your pieces for an audience? All of these have considerations under the Copyright Law. Thankfully, if you are teaching choirs, you fall under the "Fair Use" in the 1976 Copyright Act.
There are six different types of copyright uses that directors need to be aware of: reproducing, recording, preparing derivative works (such as a new arrangement), distribution, performance, and display.
ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC This category is one of the bigger ones for directors to consider. The fair use provision in the Copyright Act has four different subcategories to consider when reproducing without a license: why and how you are using the work, the nature of the work, how much of the work you are using, and the effect of the value of the work if you reproduce it. There is an exception; directors are allowed to make one copy per student of 10% of the original work as long as that 10% is not performable as a whole. Many musicians and directors have already violated this!
This is also an important category as a director when dealing with finding concert venues for tours, submitting contest entries, and the educational purpose of improving your choirs with recordings of past performances. According to the voluntary guidelines single recordings are allowed to be made for the use of archival and educational purposes only. Anything beyond educational purposes requires a license which involves further fees and paperwork through the copyright holder.
Although this may seem like a pointless category to consider as a choir director, you may be surprised. For educational purposes, you can rearrange, edit or simplify a copyrighted work, as long as you don't change the "fundamental character" of the composition or change the lyrics in any way.
This category allows for distribution of copyrighted fragmented works and single copy recordings for educational purposes according to the guidelines. You can also distribute new recordings made under the compulsory license.
Generally performances of copyrighted songs will require a license from ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.(This does not include performances that are not for profit.) However, in classroom educational purposes are exempt, as per Section 110 (the "face-to-face" teaching exemption). Longer works, such as operas, musicals, etc. generally require license from a publisher or licensing agencies, such as Tams-Witmark Music Library or Rogers & Hammerstein Library.
Section 110 also lets teachers display in the classroom any material that they have legally acquired, like in a Powerpoint.
A general rule to follow if you are unsure if your educational purpose falls within the boundaries of these guidelines would be to ask for permission. Performance license? You will have to check with the relevant performing rights organization. Recording rights? You will get the license from Harry Fox Agency. Print material? That will all be dealt with the individual print publishers.
To find the publisher, look at the music. Once you reach the publisher, permission is usually granted. The price isn't standardized, but the publisher will usually not extort you for money. Out of print music can be obtained directly from the print publisher if unavailable from the retailer. Works in the public domain mean that their copyright protection has expired. The duration varies but generally music before 1910 are public domain. But be warned; sometimes publishers can get a new copyright on an edited or rearranged version of the public domain.
Understanding the Score
Correct breathing is of utmost importance for choral singers, not only to produce a good sound, but also, and more importantly, to protect the vocal mechanism (primarily the larynx, pharynx, and vocal folds) from harm. Practicing good breathing during rehearsals and performances will not only allow singers to have better tone quality and intonation, but they will also be able to sing longer. From a physiological standpoint, correct breathing technique will help eliminate unwanted tension that will hinder, if not harm, the vocal mechanism.
One of the foundations to proper breathing technique is proper posture. Without good posture, the ability to correctly support the breath disappears. When standing, feet should be approximately hip width apart, with one foot slightly ahead of the other. The rib cage should be lifted, but not extended, and the shoulders should be back, not lifted, and relaxed. While it would be ideal to have choirs stand for an entire rehearsal, most directors will not ask their choirs to do so, unless for the purpose of a rehearsal technique. This is also exhausting on the students when your rehearsal is an hour or more. Correct posture while sitting is essentially the same in the upper body as it is while standing - rib cage should be lifted and shoulders should be back, down, and relaxed. The position of the feet should also be the same as when standing. Maintaining this posture throughout rehearsals and performances will allow the singers to maintain proper breath support without harming their voices.
A factor that accounts for poor posture in many choirs is the choice of chairs used in the rehearsal space. Many directors can help alleviate the problem of bad posture merely by choosing the correct seating choice. More often than not, the choice of a traditional folding chair is a bad option. Some directors may not have the option of other seating options and must make do with what is already present. However, it should be noted that if this is the case a gentle reminder during rehearsal for proper posture would be useful. Other seating options include chairs with fairly straight backs and seats that make close to a ninety degree angle and stools that enable the singer to not sit, but lean against for resting their legs while their upper body maintains good posture.
With proper posture in place, breathing should be able to provide enough air to sustain a phrase as well as enough flexibility to sing the phrase with the director's desired musical style. Good breathing should allow the lungs to expand as much as possible, which will be simultaneous with the expansion of the ribs and the contraction of the diaphragm. There are four types of breathing: clavicular, diaphragmatic, costal, and diacostal. Each of these will allow singers to take oxygen into their body; however, not all are useful for providing the support required for good singing.
In this type of breathing, the clavicles (the collarbones) are raised and collapsed during inspiration and exhalation, respectively. It is characterized by exaggerated movements of the shoulders, which limits the expanding of the lungs. This type of breathing is not desirable for singers for multiple reasons. Firstly, the limited expansion of the lungs will severely limit the amount of air entering the body. Additionally, the pure physical motion of raising the shoulders and upper chest will create tension in the muscles of the neck. This tension will be a strain on the voice and will often result in physical exhaustion of the singers as well as limiting their singing abilities; they will have less control over their voices, tessituras will be limited, and tone quality will be compromised. This type of breathing makes the choral singers basically useless.
On the note of tension, the word tension often causes issues in the world of singing. The initial reaction is that tension is bad; however, a distinction must be made between tension and rigidity. Singing requires the use of muscles which, by nature, must tense in order to work properly. Similarly, proper support and vocal technique requires a degree of tension in order for good, mature sounds to be produced. Although this is true, there is a fine line between tension and rigidity. Rigidity will lead to problems in vocal production, but more importantly, it will lead to the harming of the voice. As a choral director, the health of the choir's voices should be a priority far above any level of performance or perfection. Even though there is a degree of tension required to sing and to have good posture (and therefore good breathing), the use of the word tension should be avoided in rehearsals; just mentioning the word tension will cause it in the singers. The director's goal should be to come up with methods that will allow the singers to engage their muscles in a healthy way without actually telling them what they are doing.
This type of breathing is what we use as everyday, life-sustaining breathing. While this method of breathing is definitely sufficient for every day living, it is not enough for good singing. It does, however, provide a good basis for a good breathing technique. The problem with this type of breathing for singers is that the tension required to sustain longer musical lines or melodies with high tessituras will not be present with diaphragmatic breathing alone.
This type of breathing is achieved by lifting and widening the lower portion of the rib cage by using the intercostal muscles (the muscles in and around the rib cage). This can be seen by the pulling in or flattening of the upper abdomen. The back will also be extended. While this method of breathing on its own is not enough for proper singing, when combined with diaphragmatic breathing, the ideal method of breathing can be achieved.
For singers, this is the most efficient way of breathing. In this type of breathing, the thoracic cavity will expand in multiple directions (length, width, and depth), causing an expansion around the entire middle portion of the body. This type of breathing relieves pressure on the muscles of the neck as well as allowing the vocal mechanisms to work without constraint. Through muscular control, the sternum and rib cage will remain high and there will be less pressure on the muscles of the neck. When this type of breathing is being done properly, the front of the waist, the sides of the abdomen and lower rib cage, and the upper chest will all expand. All three of the points are necessary for a singer to get a quality breath capacity.
Dynamics are often defined by the context of the piece and the time period in which the piece was composed. In earlier music, dynamics were often not marked in the music, and it is up to the director of the piece to properly interpret how dynamics should be done. There are cases in which the director can change what is written in the piece, but they must have a valid reason for doing so. It is not acceptable for a director to choose a dynamic because they simply feel like it; they need to ground their decision in the musical context. Another thing to consider when choosing dynamics, and another valid reason to potentially change dynamics, is the ability of the choir and the notes which they are singing. It is unfair to ask sopranos to sing pianissimo on notes that are above the staff; it is also unfair to ask male singers to sing fortissimo while they are in falsetto. Above all, the health and protection of singers' voices are more important than getting the correct dynamics. A choir director must balance what is expected by the composer with what their choir can do. They must never ask their choir to do something that is impossible or is harmful to their voices; simultaneously, they must not completely ignore or change dynamics within a piece without a valid reason.
Choral diction is the clear articulation of a text in a musical work so as to communicate the meaning to the audience. Prior to polyphony, this was quite simple; the text was known to the audience (the liturgy) and it was very simple. When polyphony was introduced, the sounding of different consonants at the same time made the text become unclear. With the addition of instruments, it was even more difficult to decipher text! There are three important aspects of diction: vowels, diphthongs, and consonants.
The vowels are perhaps the most important part of diction. Vowels sustain the singing process and also build the voice in vocal exercises. Vowels affect the choral tone and, if sung incorrectly, can create tension in the singer.
A diphthong is the sounding of two vowels, one sustained and the other like a vanishing vowel within the same syllable. This vanishing vowel is treated like a consonant in terms of the time given to it. Sometimes, the vanishing vowel is the initiating vowel so it is at the beginning. Special care must be taken to explain both of these to choral singers so they can properly place the vowels.
Consonants are basically produced by vibrations of the vocal cords or the breath in the mouth and the stoppage of the lips, teeth, tongue or palate. The stoppage may be complete or only partial. There are five categories: vocal consonants with pitch, voiced explosives, pure (voiceless) explosives), sibilants and aspirate.
Time period and Style
The style in which a piece of music is performed should depend on the time period in which it was composed. There are many aspects of a piece which will be interpreted differently based on their context. These include, but definitely are not limited to: voicing and instrumentation, tempo, phrasing, dynamics, and tone quality. Although there may occasionally be reasons to perform a piece differently from its original intention, most of the time, a piece should be performed based on its context. Reasons for changing the intent of the piece are most likely logistic; a director may not have access to a full orchestra and will instead use a piano score to accompany the choir, for example. Most directors and musicians as a whole will agree that there is a compromise between refusing to do pieces that cannot be done in their original context and never meeting expectations of a piece. Whenever possible, a piece should be performed as authentically as possible; there are, however, always minor expectations that may not always be able to be met. This is when discretion should be used in order to balance the fine line between being authentic and missing an educational opportunity for the choir.
The intentions of the composer can be found through notes or writings of the composer themselves. With earlier pieces, these notes and writings may not be as attainable as more modern works; there are, however, possible writings from other contemporaries (critics, other musicians, nobility, etc.) who would provide insight to the piece. Looking at other works from the same composer can also provide insight into the performance practice of a given piece. If none of this is attainable for a certain piece, there are modern writings by scholars and musicians that are readily available.
Renaissance (c. 1450 – 1600)
Music from this time period was influenced by cultures of both Northern and Southern Europe - including the Netherlands, Belgium, Holland, and Italy. The new styles of harmonies and polyphony joined together to create the compositional style that came to define the choral music of the Renaissance. During this time period, voices and instruments were treated the same from a compositional standpoint. Therefore, there is often a relatively wide degree of interpretation allowed in most Renaissance music. This, however, does not apply to sacred music, as the style of the Papal choir is pure and unaccompanied in almost every instance. While the Papal choir was not the only church choir at the time, it was definitely one of the most respected and most well-known. Any piece performed by the Papal choir in the Sistine Chapel would have been unaccompanied as instruments were forbidden in the Sistine Chapel; this is not the case, however, with all sacred music. This would be something to bring into consideration when deciding how to perform a sacred Renaissance piece.
Another aspect of Renaissance music that must be interpreted is the recreation of sounds that would have been heard during this time period. While not all of these will be possible today, some of them are attainable and should be done whenever possible. Certain voice types, like the male castrati, that were commonplace in the Renaissance are no longer in existence. The castrati were used for parts that would be sung by women today. While this particular sound of the Renaissance is not replicable amongst today's choirs, the general tone quality of the time period is replicable. The closest today would be a countertenor and they are rare. The sound of the Renaissance was nasal, strident, and with very little or no vibrato. This type of singing often caused tension and rigidity, both things that ought to be avoided when singing. Although singing a piece completely straight tone is possible, a director must, above all else, be sure that his/her singers are not doing anything that will harm them or their voices. If the singers are not capable of singing in this manner without causing harm, the director must sacrifice that aspect of the performance in order to keep their singers as healthy and safe as possible. Depending on the point during the Renaissance which the piece is from, different tone qualities should be apparent. If the piece is early Renaissance you will look for a brighter and straighter tone in comparison to middle or later Renaissance. Middle to late Renaissance pieces will employ a bit more dynamics as well as more emotion. The tone will be altered by the vowel shapes and its quality will be dependent on the text, although generally it will still be fairly straight tone.
The director should also be aware that many of the modern day notations that musicians have become accustomed to were not present in Renaissance music. Anything like dynamic or tempo markings will probably not be present in any music from this era; if it is, it has been added in newer copies and the director should decide whether or not these interpretations are correct. In some cases, the original composition will have markings, but, as there was no universal theory at this time, these markings will often not translate into modern notation and will also vary from composer to composer. All of these factors should be considered when choosing how to perform a piece of Renaissance music.
Baroque (c. 1600 – 1750)
One of the defining aspects of the Baroque period is the idea of variety or contrast. There was a strong distinction between national styles during this time period, as well as a distinction between individual movements of a particular piece. For example, Italian music during this time period has been described as impetuous, affecting, and eccentric; French music, on the other hand, has been described as smooth, flowing, and coherent. Even though these two musical ideas are contrasting, they both can be linked to the idea of being expressive.
This idea requires voices to be flexible and modern instruments to be able to be substituted for instruments that no longer exist. Many of the writings on correct singing concern solo voices, but these styles are still applicable to and expected within choral singing. Voices needed to be flexible, with clear and effective ornaments, and a degree of vibrato - not too much but also not completely straight tone. Most pieces of this time period are more homophonic with a deeper layer of sounds. As a director you can begin to have an opinion on tone quality towards the later Baroque era. Additionally, many of the choral pieces would be accompanied; since many of the instruments are no longer available today, the specific instruments are left up to the discretion of the performer and also depends on the composer. For example, many of Bach's pieces would probably have been accompanied, while Handel's pieces were often unaccompanied.
During this time period, choirs were growing in importance and were being modeled on the registration of the organ. This often meant at least two, if not more, choirs that were separated from one another around the performance space. While this limits the number of choirs that could perform these pieces today, the positive aspect to an otherwise relatively difficult choral piece is that many of these pieces would have been accompanied. Additionally, there were typically more instruments during these performances than voices.
Many of the things that choirs would be concerned with today (phrasing, tempo, etc.) were not necessarily marked in the music. While there is more notation in the music than in the Renaissance period, the notations still are slightly off from modern notation. Although this is the case, many of these notations are understood and can be easily interpreted by choral directors today. In cases where they are not, it is important to keep in mind that much of the music of the Baroque period was left up to interpretation by the performer. Things like improvisation and ornamentation occurred often; while this should not be used as an easy out for directors to do the music however they choose, it does provide a wider variety of ways in which a piece from this time period can be performed. Dynamics are often thought to be completely terraced. This, however, is not necessarily the case. While there should not be dramatic crescendos and decrescendos in the music, there should be some dynamic contrast. Some of this will occur naturally with the way that voices are arranged within the music, but there should still be some awareness of how phrases should be formed through the words as well as the dynamics.
Specific things to note are the differences in key signatures as well as the use of accidentals. The key signatures used are not the same as modern key signatures; they instead were modeled after modes. Concerning accidentals, any time they are marked, they do not carry through the rest of the measure as they do in modern notation. It is also assumed that leading tones will be raise, despite that they are not marked in the music. Towards the end of the Baroque era, modern conventions can be applied to the music, although not every single aspect. Most of these things should be correctly interpreted in modern copies and translations of music; however, it is good for a director to be aware of these things in order to ensure correctness of more modern versions of the music.
With all Baroque music, much of the expressions are left to the interpretation of the performer. In any circumstance, any interpretation is not necessarily right or wrong, as many of the musical aspects are not specified by the composer, as long as they are done in good taste.
Classical (c. 1750 – 1820)
The overlying theme of the Classical period was the ideas of Enlightenment and philosophy. People were collectively focusing more on their own ideas and discovering the world for themselves instead of relying on the church. This caused an increase in instrumental and secular choral music and a decrease in the importance of sacred choral music. This is not to say that sacred choral music was not still being composed. The church was still an important aspect of many people's lives and choral music in this setting was still incredibly prevalent.
Musically, there was an emphasis on expressing different yet balanced and symmetrical emotions and moods through series of motives and musical ideas that would continually arise throughout a piece. During the Baroque period, the contrast of moods and emotions was found between movements; during the Classical period, however, the contrast was found within movements. Another difference from the Baroque era is the ratio of voices to instruments during accompanied performances. Previously, there had been more instruments than voices, but during this period the number of voices outweighed the number of instruments on stage.
By this point in time, musical notation is essentially similar to modern notation. The few discrepancies that can be found can easily be interpreted within the context of the music. For example, there may be a basso continuo part written in a treble clef that is intended to be played at least an octave lower. Any ornamenting that the singer would need to do would be clearly written in the music. Unlike the Baroque period where improvisations were allowed by the performer, this would be a rarely occurring event in Classical music. With the focus on balance and symmetry, every aspect of the music would be accounted for by the composer. The job of a choral director for this music would be to follow written instructions exactly instead of letting certain aspects go. Any musical interpretation, especially where tempo is concerned, should be interpreted within the context of the music itself as well as by the composer. Rhythmic devices, specifically the use of rubato, were generally accepted after Beethoven's time, but not so before him. Things like phrasing and dynamics would have also been indicated in choral music; phrasing is also much more dramatic than that of either surrounding era. This would help portray emotions that can be contrasting in every phrase, not just between movements. Singers and directors alike must be hyper aware of these phrases in order to be true to the music and to bring out the emotional content desired by the composer. When considering the tone quality to expect as a director it will depend on the scope of the work. The tone should be more natural towards the beginning of the era and more dramatic towards the late classical portion of the time period.
Romantic (c. 1820 – 1900)
The idea of expressing emotion through music was still a theme moving into the Romantic period; however, the focus of the Romantic period was more on the individual emotion and longing than that of the collective. Because of this, the interpretation was up to the subjectivity of the individual performer. These specific, individualistic emotional states, along with literary or philosophical concepts, were portrayed by composers through program music.
The size of ensembles during this time were much larger than those in the past. Public concerts were becoming more prevalent, and, therefore, larger groups of musicians were needed to fill this space, especially in comparison to those needed to fill a chapel or drawing room. While smaller ensembles were still occasionally called for, many public performances were incredibly large ensembles. Works such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Berlioz's Requiem, and Mahler's Eighth Symphony are some of the most famous, although definitely not the only, examples of these larger pieces that required the use of larger orchestras and choirs. Because of the full sounds of the orchestras, there needed to be more singers than orchestra members. The exact voicing and instrumentation was often clearly indicated by the composer; the number of each of these, however, was often not indicated. Therefore, a choral director taking the works on must consider just how big they want these performances to be. A larger choir will allow the singers to individually work on technique and not be required to sing as loudly and risk pushing their voices; however, with a larger group, the level of perfection and correctness of notes, cutoffs, rhythm, etc. will be lower. With fewer singers, the level of correctness will be higher, but then the risk of not hearing the singers over the orchestra, especially without the singers harming their voices, becomes an issue. A choral director must be aware of how their decisions will affect not only the performance, but also the singers as well.
The style of choral singing began to change during this time due to technology and the ability to understand and see how the voice works. There was an understanding of chest, middle, and head voices that allowed singers and composers to better understand the voice. When choosing to perform these pieces with a choir the director must consider the scope of the work and composer in order to make judgements and interpretations of style and tone quality. The dominance of opera during this time period also led to a choral singing that was similar to solo singing. This meant that singers were singing with more resonance, use of rubato and improvisations, and contrasting and expressive dynamics. With the idea of keeping true to the time period, modern choral directors must be able to balance the desired sound of this period while allowing their singers to sing in a healthy manner.
This time period is still in flux and is still not completely understood. Looking back, it is relatively simple to analyze the style and type of music being produced; however, analyzing the music that is currently being produced is slightly more difficult, especially when trying to understand overarching themes. For example, Baroque composers most likely did not understand their overarching themes of emotional contrast between movements because they were right int the midst of it. Although we are technically in the twenty-first century, a few centuries from now, modern music as well as music from the early 1900s will most likely be lumped together in a period that will receive a name for the generations to come. That being said, there are still some trends that have been observed in music since the Romantic period came to an end.
There are three prevalent trends that have been observed thus far in the current musical period: a trend towards tradition, a trend towards control, and a trend towards freedom. These trends sometimes stand alone, while they are found in combination in other pieces of music. The trend towards tradition focuses on ideas of the past: neo-Baroque, neo-Classical, etc. Jazz and Broadway tunes are even looking back for harmonic, melodic and form inspiration. This will be key knowledge if choosing to perform a twentieth century piece with a choir and making the decision as a director on tone quality. Generally the tone quality will be based upon the individual piece. The trend towards control is thought to be a reaction to excessive use of various musical aspects (ornaments, vocal techniques, number of musicians) in the past. Composers are in control over the tonality of their pieces. There is also an inclination to use mathematics in understanding and composing their music. The last trend, the trend towards freedom, seems somewhat contrasting to the trend towards control, but it is more about the style of music rather than the specific aspects. Composers have completely abandoned traditional forms and ideas of harmonies and harmonic progressions. There is also the idea of chance or aleatory music; specifically, composers will specify pitches, but no rhythm or vice versa. There are early examples of this with a composition of Mozart: apparently, he determined aspects (like the key or motive) of his composition by throwing a pair of dice.
An idea that has come about in twentieth century music is works that are composed in twelve tones. This idea is one that uses all tones of the chromatic scale, but not in the same order. It is not, in any way, identical to the chromatic scale, even though this composition technique does involve the chromatic scale. For a choral director, there are two extremes in approaching pieces that employ the idea of twelve tones: on one hand, there is the approach in which the director goes into an in depth explanation of twelve tones in an attempt to help their choir see how the twelve tones work into a specific piece; on the other hand, there is the approach of completely ignoring it. Neither one of these approaches is effective. There needs to be an acknowledgment of what is happening in the piece, but the average choir member will not understand (or frankly care) about the details and origins of twelve tones.
As far as instrumentation and voicing for twentieth century music is concerned, there is rarely a problem with finding the required instruments or voice types like there has been in the past. The issue with performing modern works is the willingness of choirs and directors to take on pieces that seem strange or avant-garde. There will be pieces that require animal noises or have no resemblance to tonality; while these pieces can be fun and are definitely educational for choirs, the director must be encouraging as most singers would rather sing pretty, consonant music. This is not to say that all twentieth century music is different and unapproachable; in fact, some of the trends are allowing and embracing previous eras' styles and influences.
No matter which time period a piece comes from, the job of the choral director is to be as true to the piece, its era, and its composer as possible. A director must be educated in each of these styles and must be able to convey the requirements of each piece to their choir.
Rhythm for Choirs
Part of teaching a choir rhythm will occasionally come in actually having to explain the values and durations of notes and rests and some of it will come in removing false notions of rhythm that some members of the choir may have. Whether or not the members of the choir can read the music, many of them will have an idea of what each of the notes represent. As the director, it must be decided how much should be taught to the members of a choir. Will they each be able to identify each type of note and its duration based on the time signature? Or will being able to 'feel' the rhythms without knowing them intellectually be enough? In most choral settings, there will not be time to teach a theory course on top of getting ready for periodic performances. That being said, there are things that can be taught within the teaching of the music without taking ample amounts of time to teach things such as the difference between simple and compound meter.
While rhythm make be tricky, there are few ways to help choirs with rhythm. Clapping the rhythm before singing can be especially beneficial. They can feel the rhythm in their bodies before even singing. If there is a hard section of rhythm but they have the notes, have the singers "bop" the notes. By doing this, the singers can see where each note starts.
Choirs will have a tendency to drag on softer, more melodic pieces and will rush on faster, more spiritual-like pieces. In order to prevent this, making the choir aware of the inner pulse is incredibly helpful. Even though the entire piece may be in half notes, there is a pulse inside that of quarter notes. Being aware of the inner pulse of the piece will not only help the choir maintain the correct tempo, but it will also help them be more rhythmically accurate. For example, when holding a note, the choir will occasionally need to cut off early in order to breathe before the next measure. Without an inner pulse, the chances of the choir cutting off in the same spot would be slim; however, if everyone is aware of the inner pulse, they will all be able to agree to cut off on the last subdivided note of the measure, whatever form that note may come in (quarter, eighth, etc). Also helpful for cutting of is the placement of diction.
Blend and Intonation for Choirs
The blend for your particular choir will vary depending on its size, vocal makeup, and how your singers are arranged. There are many factors that can cause a badly blended ensemble, and several solutions and techniques to mend these problems. As a director you must always remember how easy it is to grow accustomed to the sound of your ensemble in the normal rehearsal space. A good solution to help you and your singers hear things differently, is to change the way you stand in the normal space or, if possible, change the rehearsal space. One simple way to break up the monotony is to literally mix the voice parts. It is as simple as directing your choir to go and stand in a place they normally do not stand and next to other singers that are not of their part. This not only helps singers with the blend by listening to others they do not normally hear, but indirectly helps singers become more independent with their part. As a director it helps to hear particular sections that still need work, as well as things that would normally be masked by other sections. Another blending issue deals with mix-matched vowels and usually occurs in the extreme realms of range and dynamics. One technique is to work with individual vowel sounds such as “aah” or “oo” by having certain sections sing while others listen or circling sections, having them face one another, and listen to match the members of their respective sections.
The intonation of any ensemble can immediately begin to suffer in a rehearsal. What better place to begin fixing the pitch than to expect in tune singing during warm ups! There are many factors that can contribute to bad intonation including weather, the temperature of the room, the time of the year, and the physical shape your singers are in on that particular day. Warm up exercises should explore all tonal worlds and, as a director, you should not limit yourself to singing in just major mode. Also, encouraging your singers to use proper breath control, correct vowels, and resonance will help with correct intonation. Another warm-up technique to help with intonation is the use of quarter tones. While singing typical warm up scales with correct technique, if your singers become comfortable on particular scales begin to employ the use of quarter tones from one pitch to another using phrasing. A separate technique that will help not only intonation but general musicianship is by phrasing the individual notes of the warm up scale without changing pitch.
Intonation can also be affected by the conducting. The style you conduct or what attitude you portray can negatively affect the tuning of the choir. Also, singers will be prone to "tenoritis" (reaching their chin up high to get notes) or "bassosis" (bringing their chin down far to reach low notes). Both of these afflictions affect the intonation of a choir. Females can also catch these maladies.
General Rehearsal Philosophies
What is Your Purpose?
As a choir director, your purpose varies from job to job. In order to understand your purpose as the director of your group, you need to first fully know and understand the dynamics of the group you are working with. The job of a choir director is not always to get perfect pitches, unmatchable blend, perfected performances, and bragging rights higher than any other group; however, it also is not always about creating a community in which every singer, no matter how talented, feels like a super star. The job and purpose you must accomplish will change depending on the group, the musical abilities, the size, and the day. If you are becoming a choir director, you must be prepared to take on a different purpose every day.
If you are working with a grade school choir (middle or high school) your purpose as a director is far different than if you are working with a church choir. As a grade school level director, your purpose is always to increase the musical abilities of your students, teach proper singing techniques so they can advance in choirs later in life, and strengthen their ability to read and sing music properly so they can do well in solo and ensemble competitions. However, you face another vital purpose as well - one that isn't quite so cut and dry as teaching music theory to a bunch of kids going through puberty. This purpose reaches across the boundaries of simply directing and teaching and into the area of forming relationships. If you are directing a grade school aged group, you must form a relationship with your students that lets them feel comfortable and safe in your choir room. Your purpose is to build their confidence and be a friend when they are being teased for being in choir, or when they are struggling with more outside stressors than any adolescent should. The choir room in grade school is often viewed as a safe haven for adolescent aged individuals and you are their guardian. At this stage in life, your purpose for them is never to tear them down and make them feel awful; middle and high school does enough of that on its own. Your purpose, rather, is to show them that you are a friend and are there to lend listening ears.
As a church choir director, your purpose is similar but not the same. You still must form a relationship with your members, as they are volunteers and can leave you without a choir any day of the week, but you are not looking to create perfect singers who will win at contests. As a church choir director, your purpose is to create a fun environment that members of the church enjoy coming to and feel like they are contributing to the service. As you rehearse your pieces with your church choir, you must pick and choose which mistakes you want to focus on because the pieces will rarely be perfect. Your goal in rehearsals is to make them feel like rock stars, even if they are not. You have to understand that your purpose is to create an environment of fellowship and worship for your members, and to let them know every day how much you appreciate the fact that they are in those seats doing all that they can do.
Working with college and professional choirs is different still, with a bit more attention to detail. When you are working with a college choir or a professional choir, the musical abilities are more prevalent, and you are more able to focus on perfecting the pieces of music rather than always blowing up the ego of your singers. This is not to say that you can always criticize and tear down your members, but you are able to point out smaller mistakes and work more towards a great performance. As a director of a more advanced choir, your purpose is to grow the musical knowledge of your members, teaching them higher vocal techniques, rhythm, and performance techniques (phrasing, breathing, adjusting tempos, etc.). You are still going to create a relationship with your members because it is difficult to have a choir follow you if they do not trust or like you, but that is not always your highest purpose. With these choirs, the purpose is more musically centered with relationships adding to the chemistry of your choir.
With any choir, your purpose will change daily. You may walk into a rehearsal and see that everyone's eyes are glazed over from exhaustion and have to readjust your rhythm centered purpose to a more "let's just get through a few songs and boost their confidence a bit" purpose. No choir director's purpose is set in stone every day. Just as educators must have flexibility in their lesson plans; choir directors must be flexible in their goals for the group. The director's purpose is at the mercy of the group, not the other way around.
What Level of Preparation to Accept?
When going into a choral rehearsal, the director must be prepared for anything; yes, anything. While it is wise to have two or three songs already chosen to be worked on during that rehearsal, the director should know that things do not always go as planned, and the rehearsal could utilize completely different songs. A director should also realize that their preparation varies depending on the time the rehearsal falls in their performance calendar, the time it falls in the year, and the difficulty of the piece for their members.
Unlike an orchestra conductor, a choral director does not often have ten or more parts to cue and direct, so extensive prior studying of the piece is not always required. However, if the piece is particularly difficult (for example, a polyphonic piece or larger choral work), the director should be familiar enough with it to help guide and direct the members in ways that help them make sense of their part. The director should come to rehearsals with an understanding of the piece, what he/she wants the choir to get out of it, and what he/she wants the audience to get out of it. These products can be emotional or educational. There are some pieces that are strictly educational pieces; they teach your members to perfect their rhythm, their intonation, or their blend. These pieces build on musicianship and increase the skills and knowledge of your choir. It can also provide knowledge of music history by explaining the context of the piece and its composer. Then there are pieces that draw on the emotions of your members and the audience that will hear the concert. As the director you must distinguish which pieces fall in which categories before stepping in front of your choir. If you are unsure about the outcome you want to see from a particular piece of music, then your choir members will be left dazed and confused and simply trying to find right notes. However, if you enter the rehearsal with clear knowledge of what you want your members to get out of working with this piece of music, the rehearsals will be far more productive, and the piece will stick with the members far longer.
With that said, a director's preparation level is different on the first day of rehearsal than it is half way through the year when a relationship has already been built between the choir and the director. For first rehearsals, the director needs to have a clear seating chart planned and given to each member. This will not only aide in learning names, but it will establish the type of blend and sound you want your choir to have. If you have more sopranos and tenors than you do altos and basses, you may not want to have the higher voices seated side by side. You may organize your seating chart to alternate bass, soprano, alto, tenor in order to alleviate the higher notes and blend the choir more. It is also important on the first day of rehearsal to really listen to your choir and come with an open mind. It is on this first day that you will begin to see the personality your choir has and how you should conduct rehearsals from that day on. Logistics are important during this time; you will want your members to understand the rules and regulations of practices as well as feel comfortable knowing all that they will accomplish that year (including performances). If there is any uncertainty among the members of the choir, then future rehearsals will not be as productive as they have the potential to be.
When entering a rehearsal close to a performance, you preparation needs to be at its peak. There should be no more guessing at what the composer wanted to do with a phrase or how loud a section needs to be on a particular note. When you are close to a performance, the director should know the choir and the piece they are singing like the back of their hand. In many cases, you will have worked with this piece and this group for weeks and weeks, so knowing the piece well won't be any sort of problem; however, there are always exceptions in which pieces sneak into concerts at the last minute. In the weeks leading up to a performance, the director should be prepared to cut down on the slack and increase the productivity of the rehearsal. It is important that the director shows the choir the seriousness of the upcoming event and be well prepared themselves so that the choir understands that they need to be prepared. In rehearsals that close to a performance, if the director is not prepared or not taking the rehearsal seriously, the choir will mimic those actions.
Directing choirs is often the same as teaching in a classroom; the teacher should model the behavior they want their students to use just as a director should model the focus and preparation they want their choir to show. The level of preparation you have going into a rehearsal will spark the level of productivity the choir will have. There will always be days in which you are "learning" the piece with your choir and forming the phrases and musical aspects as a team effort, but you must always show preparation in your focus and attitude; otherwise, your choir won't take the rehearsal seriously. In short, the more preparation you show and display to your members, whether it be in knowledge of the music or in focus of the importance of rehearsal, the more your choir will progress and the better music will be made.
Effort vs. Results
Often times, choir directors struggle with the idea of effort versus results. Do they want a perfect sounding choir that doesn't care as much, or one that is trying their hardest but is a little bit flat? This battle is faced on a daily basis by directors, even if they know what the answer is. In many cases, effort is more important than results, but it depends highly on the type of choir you are directing. Choirs that are volunteer, educational, or extracurricular should almost always be focused on effort. The members of these choirs are not always forced to be in the group, so drilling rhythm and yelling criticisms at them in hopes of achieving perfect results will leave you with a choir that hates you and in all likeliness with members that will quit. With these types of choirs it is vital that they know how much you appreciate their work and how hard you know they are working. As a director, you want to keep them motivated to continue singing and pursuing more knowledge in music, and acknowledging their efforts and praising them for doing the best they can is very important. This is not to say that you don't want to push for good results, but the balance is very delicate. As the director of a volunteer or educational choir, you need to subtly push for results, occasionally challenging your members, but keep their morale high and their drive going as well. The balance between challenging and praising these choirs needs to be a little heavier on the praise side, but still clear that you know they can push themselves. If you show that you believe in their abilities, they will be more likely to believe in their abilities, too.
With that said, a more professional choir should have a heavier focus on results. Choirs that are paid to sing or perform have a standard level of performance that is already set for them. For this reason, results play an important role in rehearsals. With expectations already set, these members need to understand that they must deliver a substantial performance or the reputation of the choir changes. With more focus on results, the directors need to be sure that they are giving positive feedback to their members as well. Just because they are expected to perform at high standards does not mean they are not human and do not need to know that they are working hard and are appreciated.
In the battle of effort against results, effort wins out in far more cases than results. A director needs to keep a watchful eye on the morale of his/her members and ensure that their efforts are being recognized and appreciated. With choirs that require more results, it is still highly important to let your members know that you can see how hard they are working and applaud any effort they give. Challenging and growing your choir does not mean you have to tear them down and criticize every small detail, but rather build off of their already positive attributes and slowly work on their weaker ones. No choir likes to think that they are horrible singers, so praising their efforts will always be key in any rehearsal and performance.
How Far Can You Push?
Generally when decided how much more you can ask from your choirs you should consider two things, their physical health and their mental health. As a director many outside forces that you cannot control will inhibit your singers ability to rehearse. These things, and what exactly to do about them, are discussed in more detail further on in this section. Understanding the type of choir you are directing and the limits that places on your ability to ask for later rehearsals or make ups is key to estimating your rehearsal time. If there comes a point within your rehearsal that you observe mental exhaustion from your singers, try switching the level of rehearsing you are asking for, which may mean changing your technique. If the exhaustion continues and eventually leads to physical exhaustion the best thing for your singers may be to end rehearsal early with a prescription of rest and hydration. Another thing to consider when asking yourself what more can you ask of your choir is, are they given one hundred percent of their effort? If no, then depending on the severity, of their lack of care, it is most often appropriate to request and insist more from them. How and when you decide to do that depends on the specific situation. Having the ability to discern what is appropriate for each specific situation will aid your ability to get the most from your choir.
Your choir rehearsal will not always go exactly as you planned; in fact, it rarely will. A choir director can never predict the outside variables that are affecting his/her members, but there are a few that are known and can be watched for (to an extent).
SCHEDULING The daily schedules of your choir members is one of the biggest variables to watch out for as a director of a choir. If you are working with students, you must ALWAYS be ready for high testing periods, ends of semesters, vacations, and holidays to affect your choir. These times can often create high anxiety, excitement, or exhaustion for your members which will, without fail, affect how productive your rehearsals are and which direction you should choose to focus your rehearsals. Student-filled choirs are not the only choirs that are affected by schedules; professional choir members face deadlines at outside jobs, holidays, vacations, and peak working periods as well. Sporting schedules affect choirs of all types as well. You will be guaranteed to either have an athlete or a sports fanatic in your choir whose outside time is controlled by their coaches or their team's schedule. These types of things need to be watched out for and either planned around or considered when working with your groups.
WEATHER Believe it or not, the weather plays a significant role in your rehearsals. Hot, muggy days will bring you choir members who are far different than those that show up to rehearsal on cool, brisk days. If it is raining outside, there is sure to be more excitement and jitters among your members than if it is the sixty-seventh sunny day in a row. The changing of seasons will do the same type of thing to your choir members as a change from sun to rain. When the weather begins to cool off after a long, hot summer, your choir members will come to rehearsal with a completely different attitude than they would have if it were still hot and sunny. This attitude change may be one of excitement (for those who love fall and winter) or one of dread (for those who hate colder weather). The weather's effect on individuals has been studied for a long time, and members of choirs are definitely not immune to the power that mother nature has on attitudes and focus.
UPCOMING PERFORMANCES Seemingly obvious, but highly important, is how your next scheduled performance will affect your rehearsals. The focus and attitude of your choir will be much stricter and centered if you have a performance in two weeks than it would be if your next performance were two months away. The pressure of performing in public will increase the productivity and focus of your members far more than many other variables will. This fear of making a mistake in a public performance drives choirs to work to their highest potential and fix even the smallest problems. If you do not have a performance coming up in a short amount of time, you will have a harder time as a director focusing your choir and having them see the significance of the critiques you are trying to point out and correct in their rehearsals.
PEAK SICKNESS SEASONS No one is immune to everything, and when you are dealing with a group whose progress depends solely on the functioning of their body and vocal system, you must always be aware of "what's going around". Whether it be a stomach bug, strep throat, the flu, or mad cow disease, as a director you need to gauge the health of your choir and keep their safety in mind as you schedule rehearsals. If you notice that a fourth of your choir has emailed or called in ill, you may consider cancelling rehearsal that day so that everyone can rest and resume the next day with stronger, healthier singers. Likewise, you may keep track of typical times in which sicknesses appear and warn your group ahead of time to take care of themselves while remembering their commitment to the group.
TIME OF DAY Even something as small as the time of day can affect your rehearsals. If you schedule a rehearsal early in the morning, chances are you will have to spend a significant chunk of your rehearsal simply warming up your choir's voices. However, if you schedule a rehearsal at night, you are faced with the potential of exhausted choir members just finishing a long work day. Furthermore, if you schedule a rehearsal just before a meal time, you may experience hunger-distraction in some members, or if it is directly after a meal time you may find that some members are overly full and consequently tired. In order to find a good time to rehearse, you as the director must look at the schedules of the majority of your members and find a time of day that works best and minimizes distractions.
From a fundamental standpoint, a choir is a variety of individual singers with their own styles and personalities being drawn together to form a choral community. No matter what has drawn them together, be it the love for music or the credit the school gives them, it is important for the director to make sure there is emphasis on the communal aspect of the choir. Once it is made clear that the choir is a community, the singers will realize that it is not all about the individual but the group as a whole. Therefore, ideally, they will put their differences aside and begin to function as a single unit, understanding and listening to each other in order to become a well-blended choir.
As stated before, the choir is a community made up of individual singers. These individuals live their own lives outside of the choir, with their own ups and downs. Ideally, the outside issues and moods of the individual will remain outside of the choir. However, that is not always true, and the director must be aware of this fact. The choir works off each other, both in their mood and motivation. Therefore, if one or a few singers come in and are not feeling that motivated that day, the director should expect that this mood could possibly spread to the rest of the choir. There are the times where some of the singers will be overwhelmed with excitement for some certain reason. This excitement could also spread to the rest of the choir, making the rehearsal not as productive as it could be. When these moods take over the choir, however, the director should not throw in the towel and decide not to have a productive rehearsal. At the same time, the director should not become an authoritative figure and put a damper on the excitement or ignore the lack of motivation. It is the director’s job to work off these moods the best he/she can. The director should think of some rehearsal methods that are both interesting and productive at the same time to catch the members’ attentions again. Interesting methods will lighten the mood for those days that the choir seems to be “down in the dumps” or not motivated. These methods show that you understand how they feel that day but that you need them to understand the need for a productive rehearsal. These same methods are good for the days of overwhelming excitement and happiness because they do not put a damper on their mood but channels it instead to a more productive direction.
Having the singers understand each other within their choral community is just as important as the director understanding his/her choir. No matter what the level of the choir is, whether it is an elementary school choir or a paid professional choir, it is important to keep the emphasis on the sense of community among the choir. In order to build this sense of community, the director should consider some of the following:
Section emphasis. Try not to refer to individual singers. Instead, refer to a section as a whole for issues or extra points in the music. This causes the individual singers to pay attention more to those around them in order to act as a section rather than individuals. Therefore, as a result, the section becomes better blended, moving closer to a blended choir as a whole. The director could arrange the rehearsal sitting in order to add emphasis on the sections. The sections could be situated in circles so that they are no longer just sitting next to the same voice part but also facing them. For junior and senior high school choirs, it can be helpful to hold competitions between the sections, either with sight reading or learning certain sections of music. This gives the choir some more motivation to learn the music in a more productive way.
Section leaders and choir council. The director, as the teacher and conductor, is seen as the head of the choir. This is good because there is some authoritative position within the choir. However, this can make the singers feel like they do not have much say within the choir. Therefore, the director should think about assigning singers in each section to the position of section leader. Since the director is focused on the choir as a whole, the section leaders help out by identifying problems within their own section that the director may not be aware of during rehearsals. Choir councils are more ideal for senior high and college choirs. The director should let the choir nominate students to hold positions within the council, then hold elections based on the nominations. This takes away any room for rumors on favoritism from the director towards certain students. The choir council would then work alongside the director about planning activities for the choir and with other organizational tasks.
Open to suggestions. It is important for the director to be open to suggestions and comments provided by the members of the choir. The suggestions and comments help the director learn how to approach the choir. Make it known that if a singer notices an issue that the director is not aware of, he/she is able to bring it up to the director and the rest of the choir. As stated before, the director cannot, unfortunately, pay attention to every aspect of the music during every run through. If comments are allowed, sections and individuals can state issues that they have noticed, ideally leading to a more productive rehearsal. Suggestions can help because the director could be approaching the rehearsal in a certain way with good intentions but the singers do not feel any result coming from his/her decision. Even though the ideal state of mind is that the director is always right, the director could use some improvement every now and then along with the singers. Openness to suggestions and comments show also that the members have a voice in the choir.
Bonding activities. The director should hold choir events outside of rehearsal and performances that allow the choir to bond even more. These events could be some casual choir parties, either for certain holidays or just a random occasion. Choir parties can be planned for any type of choir, even professional choirs. For church and school choirs, a director could consider planning a retreat that either lasts a whole day or a weekend that allows the choir to spend some quality time with each other and possibly do some group building activities. Some school choirs hold banquets in order to honor students and their efforts within the choir during a semi-formal setting that sometimes includes a meal and dancing to keep it entertaining for the members. These bonding activities show the choir that it is not all about work within the choir and relationships with other members are not limited to professional bonds. These activities help members feel like their efforts are recognized and they are part of something bigger. It is these activities that put the most emphasis on the communal aspect of choir.
Specific Rehearsal Techniques
The goal of using a specific rehearsal technique is to understand prior to using it what you want the outcome from your choir to be. Knowing what you are doing and how it will affect the energy of the choir will make using these techniques successful. Most techniques are decided prior to the rehearsal time. This goes back to preparation. In order to be a good director you must have a philosophy in your head before your rehearsal begins that will in turn produce a productive rehearsal. If you just choose to just play it by ear (as musically appropriate that may be), your choir will know you’ve not prepared and you will slowly lose control and respect from your singers, as they begin to be see you as an unprepared and irresponsible director. Usually when reviewing what to rehearse on particular pieces, you can decide upon a theme for each rehearsal. Most all of these techniques are situational. It is up to you as the director to discern when the right time to employ each specific technique is. The proof of an effective technique is revealed in the response from your choir when each technique is applied. However, if a response is not what you had anticipated, and the choir is still providing energy and reaction, don't begin to think that you have failed. If you have manipulated the energy in any way, your techniques are at least having some effect.
- Where you choose to rehearse
Yes, believe it, the location you pick for your rehearsal, although having very little to do with the preparation of the music will have an effect on your choir's energy. If you pick a rehearsal location that is acoustically the complete opposite from your normal rehearsal space, you should receive fresh ears in reaction to the different sound and more attention. Now your singers will be paying attention to things they have adapted to in the usual rehearsal space.
- What you choose to rehearse
Which pieces you pick to rehearse will have an effect on your choir. This specific technique comes with having the ability to be a flexible director. Having more than a few things decided upon prior to your choir's arrival for rehearsal is never a bad thing. It also goes alongside the many outside factors that affect your rehearsals. For instance, if it is the week of midterms and most of your choir has not slept more than three hours each night, chances are that rehearsing a Gesualdo madrigal will not yield much productivity. However, this is where you must decide the amount of productivity you will accept. Also, if you decided to let the choir decide what they will be rehearsing that particular rehearsal, you have just manipulated their mindset in to thinking they are the ones with the authority for that rehearsal. The key to which technique you choose is the ability to read the energy of your choir as they walk in to the rehearsal space and decided which technique will be the most beneficial on that particular day.
- Content of rehearsals
As a director there are many decisions to be made about what you actually choose to rehearse before the rehearse will begin. And many decisions present themselves after you have decided what you will be rehearsing. Again, understand that every decision you make needs to have a definitive purpose and an expected outcome in order to be an effective rehearsal technique. In your rehearsal content is where you, as a director, are able to have full artistic interpretation and authority. You may choose to add personal experiences with pieces, trouble spots, and musical interpretations or use anecdotes as a tool to provide your singers with the imagery needed to produce the sound or effect that you are asking for. Another technique regarding content of rehearsals deals with the music. You may decide to work on an entire rehearsal of music they are not familiar with or you predict there are outside factors that are going to cause your singers to come to rehearsal already mentally taxed and have little to give to you. That is when you would need to be flexible and accommodate your singers by rehearsing things they already know.
There are pros and cons to choosing whether or not you will have your choirs memorize. Understanding that which choice you make will have an impact on the energy your choir provides will make this a successful rehearsal technique. Once a piece is learned, it never hurts to have your singers put their music down for a gentle reminder that they know the music more than they think they do, as well as for a boost of confidence and a hope as a director to see more eyes than tops of heads.
- Words vs. syllables
Many techniques that involve words and syllables aim at improving your choir's rhythm and pitch. Choosing to sing certain difficult sections on "da" will enable you to hear whether or not they are singing in the center of the pitch. Having sections sung only on vowels and/or consonants will have an effect on the pitch and precision of the piece. Singing on numbers or singing the inner beat will work rhythm and precision of cutoffs and entrances. Finally, singing every other note is a tricky technique that will gain more mental attention from your singers.
- Talking or no talking
This technique will effect the pace of the rehearsal as well as the tone. The more talking that encompasses a rehearsal, the more relaxed and off-topic it tends to become. However, there is another extreme of a rehearsal with absolutely none or little talking, which tends to have a negative effect on your choir. Remember that a choir is a social being, so instead of suppressing all of those Chatty Cathys, use their energy to help navigate your rehearsals.
- Choosing how to rehearse/ learn a piece.
There are many decisions you can make when you begin to learn or rehearse a piece. Whether to start from the front of the piece and work your way through, or from the back and work backwards are just a few. Each choice will have a significant effect on the energy of the choir's attention and effort. Be aware that which choice you make should be engaging and the best fit for the particular piece being rehearsed.
Being aware that you have many techniques as a director at your disposal will help the productivity of your rehearsals. If you find yourself stuck on a particular aspect of a rehearsal do not hesitate to try something new.
FAQs for Directors
What does a choir director do?
Choir directors do more than just conduct the group in front of them. In short, they are there to provide leadership and guidance through the music provided to the choir. They are there to lead the rehearsals, ensure that the group is well prepared for their performances, and make sure that the members enjoy the time in the group enough to come back to each rehearsal. The choir director provides insight into the music, teaching to strengthen musical abilities, and comforting words to make the experience enjoyable. The director is the group's leader and counselor at the same time.
How do choir directors determine sections in their choirs?
Choir directors know that the choral voice and the solo voice are two different beasts and should be treated as such. When individuals audition for their choir, the director is not listening for only the qualities of their solo voice, but how well they can blend and which section they would blend best with. The director also listens to the vocal range and tessitura of the singer as to place their voice in the correct section. The director will determine the various sections of the choir based on the membership. If the choir is made of all females and is of a small size, then the director may focus only on soprano and alto sections, where as a larger female choir may have two soprano sections and two alto sections. The same follows suit for mixed choirs; the larger the group, the more opportunity the director will have to implement more sections in the group and still be able to cover mistakes that might be made by less advanced members.
What are some qualities of good directors?
Good choir directors will know their choir and each member in such a way that they can adjust the rehearsals to fit the mood of the choir. Much like a teacher, the director needs to know what makes each member tick, their struggles, their strengths, and their attention span so that the rehearsals can run smoothly and be as productive as possible. A good choir director also knows the various obstacles that may take a rehearsal off track, such as finals week, weather changes, and time of day, and account for those before the rehearsal begins to increase productivity.
Should a choir director use a baton like instrumental conductors?
The use of a baton is solely up to the director and what he/she is comfortable with. A baton adds a level of professionalism and business to the group, so the director needs to determine ahead of time what the goal of the group is. If the group is meant to be more laid back and fun, then a baton may not be the best way to conduct the choir; if you are in charge of a professional group, then using a baton in your conducting will give the rehearsal and performance a higher feeling of professionalism and work.
How long and when should a director schedule rehearsals?
When determining rehearsal schedules, the director needs to know the maximum attention span of the group as a whole and their general daily schedules. The director needs to examine how certain times of the day will affect their choir (for example, will rehearsing in the morning bring more focus or more fatigue to the group than rehearsing in the afternoon?). They also need to look at the general schedule of the members, what other activities the majority of members are involved in, when other groups' practices are held, etc., and try to plan around these activities so attendance will be as high as possible to each rehearsal. Most rehearsals will also not last more than an hour and a half because the attention span of humanity today has decreased from previous decades. When scheduling rehearsals, attention span and outside schedules/occurrences need to be accounted for.
Conducting for Choral Directors
A choral director has a large task to accomplish when conducting their choir. Many directors will get caught up in the technicalities of conducting they learned in their master level conducting class. Things like patterns, keeping time with one hand and showing the language and motion of the piece with the other, cuing, tiny dynamic details, and strange rhythmic entrances will often creep into the mind of a beginning choral director and slow the rehearsal process down. It is important for all choral directors to remember that their biggest job with their choir is to direct not to conduct.
Preparing the score
When you prepare your score for rehearsal it is most important that your markings make sense to you and that you always remember what those markings mean. It will be worthless for you to scribble in a dash where you want your choir to breath, but then in rehearsal forget that that's what you intended by that dash. It is often helpful to keep your markings consistent throughout each piece in your ensemble. A good trick used by many conductors is to color code markings. Often, conductors will assign specific colors to different techniques or goals they want to accomplish; for example red could be for breathing, green marks could be about phrasing and dynamics, blue marks could be for cues, and orange for trouble areas. By using a color coded system, you can easily see the markings against your black and white score and not have to keep your eyes fixated on the music in order to know what you intended to occur.
A key factor in preparing your music, as well, is to not mark it up too much. If your score is covered in colorful scribbles, you will not be able to tell at all what the music says. In this case, your markings have become a distraction to you and if the director is distracted then the choir will fall off the train tracks. Your score needs to have just enough markings to create a sense of musicianship when performed, but not so much that you cannot see the music itself. If phrases repeat throughout the piece, there is no need to mark how you want those phrases to be shaped each time they occur; marking the first couple would suffice and you would be able to remember through the rest of the song. The same falls suit for cues; mark the big cues that you absolutely cannot miss, but there is no need to mark every entrance and every cue in the entire work because you simply cannot conduct them all. The markings you make in your score create a framework for how you want to shape the piece; they do not create the final masterpiece.
Finally, when preparing your piece of music for rehearsal, actually prepare it. This means you need to look at your piece more than five minutes before rehearsal. You are giving it to your choir to sing and if you do not know the piece yourself then it will be extremely difficult to guide your choir through the rehearsal. The members of the choir look to the director for guidance and understanding of the music they are singing, so ensuring that you know just how the piece should sound, how you want to rehearse it, and what your final outcome is going to be is extremely important in preparing your work. The first time the choir sees the piece of music should not be the first time you see it as well. A new piece for the choir should feel like an old piece to the director because they are so prepared to direct their members through the music.
"Choral" vs. "Instrumental" Conducting
A choral conductor functions similarly but not exactly the same as an instrumental conductor. As previously stated, you are the director of the choir before you are the conductor. A choir director should be less concerned with perfect time signature patterns and technicalities and more concerned with communicating the emotions and phrases of the piece. Instrumental works are not accompanied with words, and so the director must show the phrases with more precise motions in order for the players to all be together in creating the exact same phrase. Choirs sometimes luck out in this sense because they can often discover the emotional feel of a piece as they read through the text. When a choir director conducts, they don't always have to use the precise movements learned in conducting class to get a certain phrasing out of their members; the relationship between the choir and the director is more communal than in an instrumental ensemble. Instrumentalists look to the conductor for exact time keeping, entrances, and dynamics; choirs look to their director in a conversational sense, the director shows the phrase with their hands while the choir mimics it with their voice. There is a back and forth communication going on with a choir and its director more than there is with an instrumental ensemble. Its all about communication.
Cues are sometimes an iffy subject for conductors and directors alike. It is simply impossible to cue every single part every time they need it, but how do you know which cues are the most important to make? There are a few times in which cues are important and all conductors should be familiar with them. One is when a part is entering for the first time or after a long period of rest. Cuing then ensures that everyone is on the same page and in the same measure because counting can easily get off if you haven't entered yet or you've been silent, since you weren't an active part of the music making process. Another important time to cue a section is when that section has the melody or the theme. These things are the framework of the piece of music, and it is important that every person entering on that melody or theme is together and aware of what is happening. A director should also cue tricky or rhythmically difficult entrances. If a section seems to struggle with entering on an off beat or the end of a beat, it is beneficial to cue the section on their entrance to keep the piece clean and together. Drastic dynamic changes are another important time to cue; your cue enables the choir to see how they are supposed to enter (loud, soft, fortissimo, etc.) and to do this as a cohesive group. When the tempo changes, it is important to cue various sections. Not everyone in your choir may be the best musician and may be stuck in the last measure's tempo; it is important for you as the director to show the new tempo and make sure that everyone makes their next entrance on time. These are just a few of the important times in which cues are necessary and should be marked in your score. Just remember that not every cue in the music needs to be marked in your score; the ones that are necessary to make should be.
Engaging the audience: "theater"
When it comes time to perform the piece, it is sometimes said that the director is not even needed. Directors will often joke with their choirs that they are just there for the show, but this is partly true. After rehearsing a piece as many times as they have, the choir knows the work and how it should be performed. When the night of the performance arrives, the director is there as a safety net for the choir, but more so as a show for the audience. The large motions the director will make are simply to keep the audience visually engaged. Unless your choir is a show choir and is dancing around the stage, watching a group of people stand on risers and sing is not the most visually exciting thing to sit through. The huge Christmas tree formations and circles in the air that the director makes during a performance are not to make sure that the members of their choir can see them behind them music stand - they are done to visually engage the audience in the concert.
Types of Choirs
- Barbershop — A barbershop group employs a style of vocal harmony that was started in the early 1900s. The style typically consists of unaccompanied voices moving in consonant four-part harmonies; these parts consist of the lead, who sings melody, tenor, who sings above the lead, baritone, who sings both above and below the lead, and bass, who sings below the baritone. Although these parts coincide with choral male voice parts by name, a barbershop group may be comprised of either male or female voices. The harmonies created by barbershop groups are typically consonant, although there is a chord known as the 'barbershop seventh' that is not consonant by classical standards, but is quite predominant in barbershop music.
- Madrigal / Chamber — Madrigal music is typically secular and polyphonic from the Renaissance/early Baroque eras. There are typically anywhere from three to six unaccompanied voices, although there could be as many as eight or as few as two voices. In line with the musical style of the time, these part-songs used musical techniques to bring out the emotional content of each line of a secular poem.
- Vocal Jazz — Vocal jazz groups approach singing from an instrumental vantage point; the voice is used in a way that will best mimic instruments. This is usually done through scat singing - using nonsensical syllables and words to recreate the sounds of instruments. There will typically be only one or two voices for each part, creating a total of anywhere from 8-16 singers. This number does not include a rhythm section, which will typically consist of singers who provide percussion sounds instead of tonal lines.
- A Cappella / Pop
- A church choir is often formed with at least the four basic voice parts included (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). Often, however, not all of the voice parts are available, especially in smaller churches, and so members are asked to cover voice parts they typically would not fall under. A church choir can range from extremely inexperienced to a highly sophisticated choir, depending upon the setting and the politics of the church itself. For example, the regular choir at a cathedral such as Notre Dame Paris is a paid and auditioned group; their membership fills all voice parts comfortably and the musical ability of the members is of high quality. These individuals treat this experience as a job, and so the expectations of their production is far higher than others. In contrast, a volunteer church choir in a small town will likely struggle to fill all voice parts completely and will have less musically experienced members. These choirs include members who love to sing and love music but do not want, or do not have the ability, to make it a career.
- In both of these settings, the music a church choir performs is sacred, but can vary depending again on the church setting. More traditional churches, especially Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, will have their choirs sing full liturgies in addition to the hymns and anthems they lead the whole congregation in. In less formal church settings, the choir will often just sing anthems and motets at dictated points in the service as ornamentation to the service rather than a formal inclusion in the service. In nondenominational and even less formal settings, a church choir may also appear as the "praise band" or "worship team", creating a more contemporary feel to the worship service. these are often used in services more geared toward youth and young adult congregations.
- The instruments that accompany church choirs can vary just as much as the type of music sung and experience level of the members. More traditional and Anglican based churches will accompany their choirs with organ, where less traditional churches will use more piano, guitar, or other various instruments. More "praise band" based church choirs will have instruments such as guitar, piano, drums, and bass; whereas a Presbyterian church choir may simply use piano accompaniment. It is also not uncommon for more experienced and mature church choirs to perform pieces A Cappella, but this takes a greater musical ability of all members as to keep on pitch.
- Show choirs are known for the combination of choral singing with dance movements. Originally known as swing choirs, show choirs trace their origins back to the mid-1960s in the United States. Show choirs will typically be found in a high school setting, although it is expanding to younger grade schools and even collegiate levels. In certain areas, there are also community show choirs in which there is no particular association with a school or a school district. These groups typically have more freedom in which songs they can perform as they do not have to adhere to the same regulations that a middle or high school would.
- There will be anywhere from 30-60 performers in a show choir as well as a backup band to provide accompaniment. While this may vary depending on the song, a typical choir band will consist of guitar, bass, drums, trumpets, trombone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano and synthesizer. The vocal performers are typically chosen after an audition process in which students can show their singing and dancing abilities. Because of technical aspects (eg., costumes, competitions, etc.), there will be a fee as well.
- A large part of show choirs is the costumes and props necessary for a performance. Both vary from choir to choir as well as performance to performance; the song could call for anything from basic jeans and a t-shirt to elaborate period costumes. These will also depend on the competitions that the choir is involved in.
High School Choirs
When it comes to high school choirs, there are a few aspects that directors should keep in mind: personalities and psychology, reasons for participation, discipline, performance, and types of choir.
Personalities and psychology. The members of a high school choir are just like every other teenager. They are still trying to establish their identities. They are figuring out their talents and beliefs. They are establishing their place in society and their relationships with friends, parents, teachers, and others. The director will have to deal with a variety of personalities and attitudes that could change multiple times throughout the students’ membership. There is a sense of rebellion towards authority yet seeking to be important among their peers. The director will feel like there is a need among the students to have some hierarchy in the group. Therefore, the director must clearly establish his place as the authoritative figure of the relationship between teacher and student. However, the director must not forget that the students have the urge to express their ideas and concerns. It is a safe idea then for a choral director to establish a choir council comprised of peer-elected students who will be the general voice of the choir. Directors should also be prepared for the possibility of students outside of the council who will try to express self-proclaimed authority over the rest. The director then should be able to reestablish the concepts of community and equality among the choir. As a high school choir, the director’s main priority is education. This means not just giving them their pitches and learning the music from beginning to end. The director should teach the choir different approaches to music through interesting methods in order to keep their interest. Most high schools count their choirs as a credit, which transfers the mindset of choir as a class to the students. The director has to keep the choral experience educational but interesting so the students will still give some expression to the music rather than just sing it through. The director should try introducing different techniques rather than referring to a certain few for every rehearsal. This could mean different warm ups or just a technique to introduce a style that will be used in one of the pieces.
Reasons for participation. Not all high school students join choir for the reason of wanting to sing music. This is a very important fact that directors should always remember because the individual students’ reasons for being in choir will affect the choir as a whole. As stated before, most schools count choir as one of the fine arts credits a student needs to graduate. Thus, one’s choral program might consist of a good majority of students who just signed up for the credit. This is not necessarily bad since it gives a director a bigger number of students to work with in the choral program. However, this brings on the concern of which is better, quantity or quality. Other students might join for the social and communal aspect behind choir. Most teenagers have this tendency to want to be a significant part of a group of some sort. High schools typically help out with this need by having a variety of clubs and organizations on campus for students to figure out which group works best for them. Choir happens to be seen as one of those social groups that provide opportunities to students for more relationships and being an active part of something bigger than themselves. This reason helps the choir grow as a community but causes the director to establish the time for socializing and for actual rehearsing. There are also the students who join for the musical aspect of choir. These students can range from those with many years of experience to those who either recently discovered they have some musical talent or just heard the choir tends to sing a certain type of music they like.
Discipline. Due to the many personalities within the choir and all the reasons of why they are part of it, there is a definite chance that the director will have some discipline issues. There will be some lack of motivation from students which could result in disrupting behavior during rehearsals. As stated before, the director might have some students who have some self-proclaimed power in the group. This could also cause some tension between those students and the director and the other students. However, the director should not take these disturbances too personal. Making the situations personal could only make things worse by showing the students that their behavior is really affecting the director or even making them lose some respect towards the director’s authoritative and teaching position. Also, anger should not be the first reaction to this behavior. There are many passive ways of dealing with these issues before resulting to expressing anger towards the group. A director should also avoid confronting an individual student at first until the behavior continues on or it is affecting the rehearsals or the rest of the choir in an obvious way. It is ideal to address a section as a whole at first, hoping the student catches on. If the behavior continues, then the director can pull the student aside for a more direct confrontation.
Performance. High school singers have more developed singing voices that can be flexible to a point. The younger members of the choir might have some settling issues with their voices. However, their voices will develop more over the years in the choral program. Because there is room for development, high school singers’ voices may be flexible but damage can still be done if the director pushes them too hard. Therefore, music with significantly high or low ranges is not ideal for these young voices. There should be some variety in the type of music, but the director should keep in mind the level of his choir and the time they have available to them to learn the music. Some variety in language and style is good because it will be educational and interesting for the students. However, the director should remember that not all the students will be committed to participate fully so this will be a hindrance to any of the music they pick for the choir.
Types of choirs. For high schools, there is often more than one type of choir provided for students to join. The amount of choirs and the types of choirs can be determined by the size of the student population, the general student interest in the choral department, the academic focuses of the school, and many other variables. Some typical types of high school choirs might be an entry level women’s choir and men’s choir, an advanced women’s choir, an intermediate mixed choir, and an advanced SATB choir. This variety of choir types helps a high school choral director organize his students based on singing ability and actual interest in choral participation. Each type of choir will require a different focus in choice of music and how one goes about directing the choir.
- Entry level women’s and men’s choirs are necessary for quite a few reasons. First off, some school districts require their students to take a certain amount of electives outside of the main courses. Some high school directors use their entry level choirs to hold the students who sign up for choir as an elective but are not truly committed to the choir. However, some students in these choirs are committed and join choir for more reasons other than the fact it counts as an elective. These students may have been put into this choir for several reasons, such as the choral director’s concerns on how well they would work with the upper level choirs, schedule placement, or did not feel comfortable about their own abilities at that moment of their life. The repertoire for this choir is typically simple, chordal music so that everyone can depend on each other and are not thrown off by difficult rhythms. This takes into account the lack of commitment from some members and the singing ability of others. Music with solos or duets is usually a good idea to help out those students who are fully committed and want to challenge themselves a bit.
- There can be both an advanced women’s choir and an advanced men’s choir. An advanced women’s choir was the only type mentioned before because there is often an abundance of female singers compared to male singers. If choral directors find out that they have enough men to balance out their other choirs, then they could consider an advanced men’s choir. These advanced choirs allow choral directors to hold auditions and select the singers who they think best fits these choirs. Also, the students who audition for these choirs are typically those who want to commit to choir. The music for the advanced women’s choir can be SA, SSA, or SSAA, depending on the amount of voice types you have available. For the men’s choir, the music can have the voicing of TTB, TBB, or TTBB, once again depending on the amount of each voice types and the repertoire the choral director has available. The music can have more independent parts since the singers will be more experienced than the entry level singers and since the choir might have fewer members due to the selective nature.
- Intermediate mixed choirs are seen as open to any student interested in joining a mixed choir. Therefore, they might have students who are only interested in the elective credit. However, these same students may be slightly more interested in actual choral participation than the entry level. This is assumed because of the independent nature of the voice parts. Some of the students may have been suggested to join this type of choir by the choral director. This could be based on their audition for the advanced choirs or overhearing their progress in the entry level choirs. These choirs have a tendency of being in SATB format so some singing experience is needed for the singers to support their own voice part. The music is usually chordal with simple rhythms so the singers can focus more on their balance as a section rather than being concerned about the rhythm. The genre of music can range from secular to spirituals with some solo parts to put some singers under the spotlight. The text setting can also vary more than the entry level choirs.
- Advanced SATB choirs, just as the advanced men’s and women’s choirs, allow choral directors to hold auditions and be more selective on who is part of this type of choir. The focus of this choir will more than likely be on better sound and balance while having variety in genre of music. Therefore, singers will have to be able to support their own parts, be somewhat experienced with sight-reading, and be flexible as they try out different languages and styles. Luckily, these students tend to be very committed to choir and may have a few years of choral experience.
Middle School Choirs
Middle School choirs are similar to High School choirs in multiple ways. However, because of the age and the many things that happen developmentally wise during that time, middle school can be a whole different animal. Generally in schools, middle school is made up of grades sixth through eighth. Depending on the district or specific school it may vary and be only seventh through eighth grade. Similar to High School the make-up of choirs will consist of male and female choirs, or mixed. The numbers will be dependent on many factors. Scheduling will always be a factor and more than likely there will be students that have been placed in choir, simply because no other elective would fit their schedule. Developmentally the stage in which the students are in can be a confusing and challenging one. This creates opportunities to adapt as a director to the change of attitude and participation that will most certainly be present. It requires someone who is capable of reading the mood of the choir on a daily basis and adapting that rehearsal’s plan at the last possible moment. Middle School choir directors face the challenging of bridging the gap between Children’s choirs and preparing for High School choir. Students may or may not have any experience with singing in a choral setting. It is assumed that most will have a basic music understanding from elementary school but at times that may be hopefully and directors will most likely spend a decent amount of time reviewing rhythm and pitch. Most school districts require sight reading, particularly for competitions, these exercises can be used has helpful tools for review of rhythm and pitch, in turn helping with the learning process of the chosen music. The music that is picked should be a mixture of pieces that are considerably easy and pieces that may challenge the choir in effort to prepare the students for begging High School choirs. As a director it is important to understand the difficulties that may come with directing a Middle School choir but understand that these are the years in which a love for signing in choir is being nurtured.
Female choirs consist of solely female voices. These choirs are broken into SSAA voice types (typically), meaning it consists of Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto 1, and Alto 2 voices. This type of choir is not as common as mixed choirs because the repertoire selection is much smaller than it is for mixed choirs. Much like a completely male choir, a female choir is restricted to a more limited selection of music, so the variety of their performances is smaller than those of mixed choirs. This is not to say that the repertoire selection for female choirs is miniscule, but it is much more difficult to find. The director of a female choir needs to know where to look for pieces, which composers write the better music for female choirs, and the skill level of his/her choir. Since the selection of music is more limited, it is important for the director to know the choir they are working with in order to select pieces that are suitable for the choir, as not to waste any time with the rehearsals and preparation for performances.
- A children's choir is a type among itself. This type of choir includes things such as "all boys choir" and mixed choirs. The music used is typically simple, as it is performed by youth with less musical background and knowledge. The voicing for these choirs typically falls into two parts, SA or SSA, depending on the size and ability of the members. The music used has a wide range from sacred to secular, but all use a lot of unison and two-part singing. Due to the smaller experience level of the members, the pieces of music performed are typically shorter and less taxing on the vocal chords. This means that the pieces chosen fall under 4 minutes long and have tessituras that are in the comfort level of the young singers with rhythms that can be done cleanly by all. A director of a children's choir should always be prepared to direct music that is far from perfect, as the children are in the choir because they love to sing, not because they are good at it. Like church choirs, there are some more professional children's choirs, but all children's choirs share the innocent characteristic and childlike attitude in their members. It is important for those directing these groups to remember that no matter how professional the choir has a reputation of being, you are directing children and should treat your members as such.
Professional choirs can come in a few forms. One common characteristic among all professional choirs, though, is that the members either audition or are hand selected for the group. The members have a high level of musicianship and can progress through rehearsals quickly so that detailed attention can be given to performance techniques rather than simply learning the pieces. The members often are trained musicians, have been involved in choir communities for many years, have studied music in some form (whether that be through lessons or simply being a part of musical groups), and can read pieces of music well in a short amount of time. The members are involved in the group to provide great performances to their audiences more than they are there for a fellowship purpose. Some professional choirs will pay their members, creating a more business-like atmosphere. In these choirs, the pace of the rehearsal and the relationship between the members and the director follows the business characteristic. There is less room for joking and distractions during rehearsal because the members are being paid for their time and level of performance. For the professional choirs that are not paid choirs, this business feeling is slightly less, but still apparent. Professional choirs perform difficult pieces of music for distinguished audiences and travel to perform on tour quite often. Even though their members have volunteered their time, they understand that they have a reputation to fulfill. They also know that rehearsals are meant for work and not distraction by jokes and off-topic conversations, such as is the case in some college and volunteer community choirs. A professional choir is often a long standing group in their community, and the past performers have created a standard for the group that must be met or exceeded by the new members. It is often viewed as an honor to be a part of these groups, and the members expect to work for their director, not to spend their time joking around and not progressing in their music. The director must find pieces that challenge the group, but also keep in mind that there are more deadlines for this group than some other types of choirs; therefore, the music must still be accessible to the members for their upcoming performances.
College choirs are sometimes considered a strange form of choir because they border on the line of professional and amateur, depending on the school. At large public schools, there are multiple types of choirs offered within the music program, varying in their level of musicianship and style. For example, at Texas A&M College Station, there are three main choirs (The Century Singers, The Women's Chorus, and the Singing Cadets) that are all auditioned and work at a high level of musicianship. There are also small groups offered at Texas A&M in which singers can audition to join. Offering multiple choirs of various levels is not uncommon for colleges, hence why the college choir sits on the border of professional and amateur choirs. At many schools, the highest skilled choir can easily be considered a professional choir: going on tours, learning a great deal of music in a small amount of time, performing at distinguished events, etc. This is possible because of the musicianship of the members; many will have been involved in choirs for much of their lives and many will be able to read music, blend well with other voices, and employ stylistic techniques immediately. Their understanding of music and choir performance is at a level that greater detail can be payed to performance perfections rather than note learning during rehearsals. However, there are also choirs in college communities that are offered to less developed musicians that can be considered amateur choirs. These choirs are often still auditioned, but the ability level to join these choirs is much lower than the higher choirs. Members of these choirs often do not read music well, if at all, have had less experience in a choral setting, and struggle a bit more to learn the music. The pace of these choirs is slower than that of their peers in higher choirs, and the goal of these choirs is more for enjoyment and growth rather than performances and image of the school. College choirs also resemble high school choirs in that they are often a safe haven for individuals who feel like they fit best in this community than anywhere else in the school community. This is a place they can go to escape the day to day tribulations of the normal school community and have an hour or two of fun and fellowship with people who have a common interest in music. College choirs fill a lot of roles from professional level performances to simply providing opportunity for growth to providing an opportunity for a safe haven of fellowship.
With this all in mind, the following is come aspects of a college choir that a director should be aware of at all times:
Multiple priorities. Some college choirs may have only music majors within the group, which depends on the size of the school and its music program. However, most colleges do not have enough students in the music program to form a decent size choir. Therefore, the director should be prepared to have a majority of students with shifting priorities since not all of them are music majors or not required to be in the choir. This means the director would have to deal with attendance issues and establishing a set of guidelines and rules for attendance. It is important to show one understands that choir is not the first priority of the students, but it should be one of your top priorities. If this does not come across, the director will have students deciding consistently to miss rehearsals and performances but still seeing themselves as a member of the choir. This makes the director not able to rely on having everyone he needs for a performance and could mess with the goal of a well-blended choir. However, if the director establishes a set of reasonable guidelines and rules, then the students will take choir more seriously and understand why they may be dismissed from the choir.
Personalities. It can be safely said that with any choir a director comes upon, there will be a wide array of personalities within the group. That being said, college choirs typically have more defined personalities within their groups with the members being usually around the late teens and early twenties. Generally in that age bracket, people have enough life experience to establish their identity and possibly their place in society. It should be noted that this is not necessarily true for every member of a college choir since college is the time of figuring out one’s major and then the beginning of one’s life plans after school. Overall, though, most college students have established a certain maturity level that is ideal for the choir, knowing the relationship between member and director, when to be serious and to have fun, and being dedicated to using their full potential in order to learn the music. This level of maturity can be expected from the majority of the choir, but once again the director should expect some members to not be on the same level. Choir does help make people better people and create a sense of community, which can entail some fun and games every now and then. However, the director should make it clear when he is fine with a relaxed rehearsal and when he needs the choir to get down to business. This is done by paying attention to every individual’s personality and figuring out what to expect from them and how to approach them.
Professionalism and experience. College choir are typically a step up from high school choir in their sense of professionalism. Most of the students have participated in choir or some musical program for a significant amount of time before attending the college. A director might end up getting some members who have some musical ability but just recently decided to work on it. However, overall, the choir will be made up of mostly musically talented students which makes it easier on the director to teach the music. This level of skill also comes along with an attitude of professionalism and dedication to the choir. The students will want to learn the music the best they can and show up to rehearsals prepared to get straight to work. College choir members, unlike their high school counterparts, come to choir for more than just the social aspect of choir. Due to the fact that the students are virtually adults at this age, the director is able to use more variety in his techniques with a higher success rate. College students are more capable of receiving multiple techniques during a rehearsal and learn quickly what the director is aiming for through his techniques.
Voice. One of the advantages of a college choir is that most singers’ voices have matured and worked on over the years from lessons and participation in choirs. The director can expect to hear fuller voices with quite a bit of focus in the sound. Depending on the level of inclusiveness, the director might have to deal with some singers who are new to the ways of the voice with very little to no experience at all until joining their choir. However, since they are of college age, there is a possibility that these inexperienced singers will learn quickly on using their voices’ full potential and bringing focus in their sound. With the idea of professionalism in mind with some choral experience, college choirs are more likely to be better blended. They all might have their own voice style and interpretation of the music, but they also understand the sense of unity and community within the group. That being said, the director should be aware of the possible few stubborn individual singers who believe the choir should blend with them rather than the other way around. The director must be aware of these singers and those who are similar in relying on their solo voice rather than their choral voice. These singers might try to use the same style and mindset they use with solo singing. This does not only ruin the blend of the choir, but it could also tire out their voices and could do some significant damage to their voices if it is not noticed and changed by themselves or the director. There is no need to have individual singers push that hard in a choral setting since they are not the only one on their part and could be singing more than they are used to with solo singing.
Interpretation and performance. With college choirs, directors are able to ask for more style and interpretation of the music than with less professional choirs, such as high school and church choirs. College students tend to think on a deeper level at their age, seeking for a deeper meaning and interpretations in the subjects they come across. This helps the director move pass a surface level view of a choral piece, which is a basic following of what is written down on the sheet of music. The director can have more emphasis on the diction by asking for such things as rounder vowels, harder consonants, and added emphasis on certain syllables. The director can try different styles with the dynamics and tempos with high expectations that the choir will not only understand what he is asking for but be able to perform it. College choirs are also more acceptable of different forms and style of choral music in a variety of languages. College choirs can have a broader repertoire, including both secular and sacred, a mix of different cultural settings, with or without instruments, and even with sound effects rather than actual words and pitches. This all depends on the director’s knowing what his choir is capable of in the amount of time they have to prepare for performances.
This type of choir is most similar to Church choirs. Community Choirs are generally volunteer choirs. As a director that is something to always remind yourself of in relation to how economical you are with your singers time, as well as the tone and attitude you choose to use with your choir. Volunteer means their motivation for attendance will be more relaxed. One thing to consider before choosing to direct a Community choir is setting a precedence and policy for attendance. The range of singers you should expect to receive will also be very wide. Community choirs are open to all singers. Therefore, your singer's age, musical abilities, and beliefs/backgrounds will be diverse. The main purpose of a Community choir is to promote an ideal of community in its respective area.
Voicing and Voice Types
Auditioning members for your choir is a tedious task that need not be taken lightly. There are many things that a director needs to look for when auditioning members for their choir. Depending on the musical level of the choir, the auditions will require more of the individuals, but most auditions include a basic set of practices. When auditioning individuals for your choir, you first spend a couple minutes getting to know the individual, taking note of their previous choral experiences, music experience, etc., and asking them what they believe their voice type to be. If they are a solo singer, they may even know their solo voice type, which will help you in determining which section they will blend best with. You then can give them a run down of the audition process and let them know up front all that they will be asked to do. One thing that many auditions require is a section of sight reading. Again, depending on the level of your choir, this sight reading example can vary in difficulty, and your critique of their performance can vary in severity. Along with sight reading, an audition for a choir should also include singing scales of various types in order to know if the person auditioning understands whole steps, half steps, and/or has some knowledge of what the various musical scales require. It is also good to have your singers hear a chord and then sing back one of the notes (decided by the director before hand) after the chord is played. This will help the director to know if the singer can find their note in a chord during rehearsals and performances. If the singer is unable to find any of the notes you ask them to, then they may not be a strong singer in a setting where there are other parts singing against them. One other common practice in choral auditions is to play a melody for the person auditioning and have them sing it back to you a cappella. This will show the director whether or not the singer can match pitch well. You should also give the singer a chance to sing a piece of music that is common to everyone, such as the national anthem, so that they can show their skill in a less stressful setting and you can hear the tone quality of their voice in various ranges. It is imperative that during the course of the audition, the director is not only taking note on the skill level of each person, but also the various characteristics of the voice so that if they a chosen for the choir, their voice can be placed in a section in which they will blend well with and add to, rather than take away from by sticking out. It is also the job of the director to make the audition process as comfortable as possible for the singer. If the singer has high anxiety going into the audition, then the stress will affect their voice and the director will not be able to make as educated of a decision about the voice and ability as they would if the singer had been relaxed. The director should also treat each individual as a person, not just a number, meaning that they need to greet the individual by name when they come in and thank them when they are done. This will help to create good relationships with your members if they make it into the choir, as well as ease their stress when they enter the audition room. If the director is warm and welcoming, the audition process will feel much more comfortable to the singer and a more true voice will be heard.
In a choir, there are often pieces of music that have solo lines and solo opportunities for their singers. These solo sections are often either auditioned or the singers are hand picked for the section. The director, honestly, often knows who they will choose for the solo before auditions are held because they know what kind of tone quality they want in the voice and what type of sound they want to hear in the solo. By knowing exactly what you are looking for as a director, you will be able to either greatly narrow down in your head the singers you will pick, or select the one singer before you even hold auditions. Depending on the piece and the difficulty of the solo section, the director may also choose to give the solo to someone that other choir members would never expect. Solos can often be used as learning opportunities for singers; they can be a chance for the director to push an individual member and help them grow musically. If a director knows that a singer struggles slightly in rhythm, they may want to give the solo with more difficult rhythms to that singer to push them to work harder in this area. Deciding who receives what solo is not always a director's favorite task, but it is easier when the director knows before hand what they want out of the solo. If the purpose is to push and challenge a member of their choir, then the director can narrow down the members to a list of people they know can handle the solo if pushed. Likewise, if the piece will be performed for a distinguished audience or will be performed sooner, then the director will need someone who can learn the solo quickly and have the tone quality that will best match the one of the solo section. The idea that solos are always auditioned and not known until auditions occur is a false belief among choral singers; it is not uncommon for the director to choose soloists before he/she ever holds the audition.
- Solo Voice Types vs. Choral Voice Types
In the choral community, members are often asked what their voice type is. It is important for both the members and the director to understand that there is a distinct difference between choral voice types and solo voice types. The solo voice has a multitude of types - far more than the choral setting does. For example, a female solo singer can be a Coloratura, lyric, mezzo, soubrette, spinto, or dramatic soprano (to name just a few). Whereas in a choral setting, the options for females are either soprano or alto with smaller subdivisions (Sop I, Sop II, etc) in each. The difference in identifying the solo voice type and the choral voice type is in the tone of the voice. In a choral setting, the tone quality of the voice is less important than the tessitura of the voice in selecting the individuals voice type. In a choral setting, the vocal range and tessitura of the voice is one of the more important characteristics involved in deciding whether a singer is Soprano, Alto, Tenor, or Bass. Once the director has an understanding of the vocal range and tessitura of the voice, they can then listen a little more to the tone quality of the voice and decide which section the singer will blend with best based on where their vocal range allows them to sing. The director must listen to each member of the choir and find the best blend for the group. The purpose of a choir is not to have one voice stick out among the rest, but to create a blend of the voices that sounds as if each section is one singer. This is not the case for solo singing. When determining a solo singers voice type, the vocal coach listens, of course, to the vocal range but more closely to the tone and resonance of the voice. Since the singers are not trying to blend with anyone else when they sing solo, the characteristics looked for in the voice are different. More attention is payed to the tone quality of the voice in order for the vocal coach to pick music that suits that voice best. In a choral setting, the music is picked for a large group of people, but in a solo setting the music sung must be chosen to fit the voice of the student alone. An example of this occurs with many solo soprano singers. Some spinto sopranos and lyric sopranos have very similar tessituras, but the weight and timbre of their voices are drastically different, so the music chosen for these two singers would be different. In short, voicing a singer for a choral setting is based more on vocal range and tessitura and which section their voice would blend best with, whereas a solo singer focuses more on the tone quality of their voice rather than trying to blend or match any other voice.
- Voice Types in Relation to Tone
It is important for all choir directors to clearly communicate their standards for performance dress to the members of their choir. The dress standards vary from choir to choir, but unity is very important in looking professional and organized. If you let your choir members have full reign over their attire and come individually dressed, then you will likely end up with multiple colors, textures, and styles of clothing leading to a high distraction level from the music to the appearance of the choir. The audience will likely pay more attention to the attire of the choir if everyone is not uniformly dressed, rather than to the music being produced. The point of a choral performance is to provide music to your audience, not to provide a fashion show, so uniformity in dress is highly important to decrease the likelihood of distraction. If you do not have the funds in your choir budget to purchase uniforms for each member of your choir, many choir directors will choose a neutral color that all members must wear to the performance. Common colors include black, white, grey, or navy blue. These colors are easy on the eyes of the audience, and available in many types of clothing so finding acceptable clothing will not be difficult for members. If you are not providing uniforms to your choir, then color is not the only thing to specify, but the style of clothing needs to be determined as well. For females, it is important to make sure that the clothes are not too tight (as that affects breathing), dresses and skirts need to be knee length or lower (so that when on stage the audience is unable to see anything they shouldn't), and the cut of the neckline should not be too deep, as this also causes a distraction. Many choir directors will also require that the females have at least one inch sleeves, if females wear strapless tops, they will be likely to fidget and pull on the tops during the concert, causing yet another distraction. For males in the choir, the director should require all males to dress professionally, with the same colored button down shirt, same colored pants (not jeans), and the same colored socks. Male attire is a little easier to determine without uniforms than female attire, but the males still need to look uniform in their dress in order for the choir to look professional on stage. If the director is lucky enough to have funds for uniforms, it is important that the director remember to find dresses/attire that allows the singers to breath easily and feel comfortable on stage. For females, common attire is floor length dresses, of a neutral color, that have higher necklines and a-line style so that the stomach is not constricted, the dress is not too short, and the cut is not too deep. Your members may complain that the dresses are not in style, but it is up to the director to remind them that the point of the performance is music, not style. Common male attire is suits or dress pants and button down shirts. Whether you, as the director, provide these for each member or not, the attire needs to be uniform among the entire group. The last aspect of dress is also important and often not given enough attention: shoes. The shoes of each member need to have standards as well. For females, avoid high heels, as they will be standing on stage under lights for long periods of time and heels can cause fainting and distress. It is also important that all the shoes are close toed and one solid color. Modern shoes often have bright colors as accents, but this will cause a distraction on stage - remember the more uniform the better! Male shoes follow the same rules: solid colors and close toed. The key of attire is for everyone to appear on the same page when on stage, so that the audience can focus on the music and not the clothing of the choir.
- Call time
On the day of the performance, the call time is highly important to clearly communicate to your members. Your choir needs adequate time to warm up their voices and run through parts of each piece before they perform them, and so having everyone know the call time and be on time is highly important. The call time itself is highly dependent on the time of the performance and the level of importance of the performance. Performances that are of a high level of importance, such as major fall or spring concerts, Christmas concerts, or concerts for distinguished audiences, will require an earlier call time in order to be completely prepared for the performance. Also, if the performance is earlier in the day, the call time needs to be earlier as well in order to fully warm up the voices. For example, a performance that is at 9:30 in the morning will require a call time that is about an hour and half ahead of the performance where a concert at 4:00 in the afternoon may only require an hour ahead of time for the call. The extra thirty minutes will allow for more time to wake the voices up and make sure that intonation is on spot and in key. In general, a call time should be about an hour before the concert itself as to provide enough time for a warm up and running through parts of each piece of music. If your concert includes multiple choirs then you will need to clearly communicate each individual call time to each group and ensure that each group has enough time to fully prepare for the concert. The call time is highly important in giving a great performance and preparing for the concert to the best of the choirs ability.
- Final rehearsals
The director will be able to work on a few things during the warm-up to the performance but ideally there should be minimal concerns by that point. The final rehearsal is the director’s last chance to focus on key issues in the choir’s repertoire right before the performance. The duration of the rehearsal depends on the amount of work that has been put into the music and the success that has been made in earlier rehearsals. Therefore, it could last longer or even shorter than the typical rehearsal the director has held. This rehearsal should consist of more musical focus with any announcements left ideally for the end. The rehearsal should start with a warm-up or one of the pieces so the singers begin in the right mind set for a efficient rehearsal. One of the main goals of this rehearsal is to make sure the choir can sing completely through the pieces on the right pitches. This should hopefully not be a major concern at this point but it is good to cover any problem areas in pitches among the sections that still remain. Once pitches are not a concern, the director should move the focus on to style and phrasing, such as phrasing, vowel shapes, cut offs, and so on. The director should use as much time as possible to focus on these issues but must remember to not push the choir too much. It is just important for the director to make sure all the members of the choir are on the same page about style, phrasing, pronunciation, and cut offs by the end of the rehearsal. These aspects give the music more expression which could cover up any minor pitch issues. After the director covers the musical issues, he should cover the technical parts of the performance. The director should remind the choir about attire, location, times, folders, and other important points that seem necessary before the performance.
- Concert manners
Concert etiquette should be completely understood by your choir members. Some performances, such as church services, will provide easier opportunities for members to falter on etiquette because they are not performing the entire time. You will need to communicate to your choir you expectations of them at every performance so that the group looks professional and well educated to their audience. If, during a church service, your members are on their cell phones playing games or texting during times that they are not singing, they will display disrespect to the audience and other members of the service. Concert etiquette not only includes cell phones, but the manners of the choir itself. It is important for you choir to keep professional when on the stage. This means that members of the choir need not laugh at, or point out anything distracting in the audience or on stage. The members of your choir need to be focused on the music and on the director and if something occurs in the audience (such as crying babies, coughing, crying, laughing, talking, etc), they need to ignore such things and continue with their performance. Members of the choir also need to understand that talking to each other in between songs is unacceptable. This causes the performers to look unprofessional and not dedicated to the performance; this will portray to the audience that your choir is more concerned with socializing than performing their music. A final aspect of concert manners applies when directors allow their members to sit in the audience during other groups performances. If you allow your members to listen and watch other groups during their concert, they need to show audience etiquette and be respectful during the performance. It is important to ensure that your members understand that talking during performances, laughing at mistakes, or causing any form of distraction is unacceptable and makes the entire choir look disrespectful and unprofessional. They are sitting among audience members and need not to distract the audience from the performance on stage.
- Conductor's preparation
As the conductor, you need to be more prepared for the performance than your choir members. You are guiding them through the performance, so you need to know and be prepared for anything to occur. Just as in rehearsals, anything can happen during a performance. You will need to have a plan in your mind in case an emergency, such as a choir member fainting, occurs during the performance. The director also needs to be prepared for any musical mistake that may happen; if the choir refuses to follow your tempo, stay in the designated key, or even sing the correct song, you will need to be prepared and make the transition or correction seem as smooth as possible. By the performance, the director should know the music frontwards and backwards in order to cover or correct any mistakes the choir may make during pieces. The director should also look just as professional as the choir, if not more professional. This means that the director needs to dress in the same neutral color, wear a suit or long dress/skirt, and not have anything distracting on so that the focus is on the music and not the director. If you, as the director, plan to speak during the concert (to explain or introduce various pieces), you need to have what you will say prepared ahead of time so you do not falter in your speech. Of course, mistakes will happen, but it is important to be overly prepared in order to avoid these mistakes as much as possible. It is the job of the director to make the performance run as smoothly as possible. Knowing each piece in and out, looking professional, being prepared for any unplanned occurrence, and knowing what you will say ahead of time will all help the concert to look extremely put together and prepared.
The decision of going on tour with a choir comes across most directors minds at one point of their career. This decision leads to a well thought-out process the director must go through to make the tour possible. The following are some factors that the director must have in mind during this process:
Choirs and participation. The director needs to make sure the choir is capable of going on a tour in the first place. The first concern is the need for permission for such tours. Some school choirs need special permission for the director to take the students on any sort of tour. With church youth choirs, the choral director comes across the issue of parental permission before taking the youth on a tour anywhere. The next concern is the size of the choir. Smaller choirs are easier to plan tours for since less resources are needed. Larger sized choirs are still capable of going on tours, but there are more members to take care of for housing, transportation, and other tour concerns. Another concern is how many members are able to commit to the tour and if attendance should be required or not. Members’ participation in the tour can be affected by cost, dates of the trip, permission, and other factors. The director must be prepared to have a smaller choir than anticipated for a tour due to these factors. The amount of members will determine if a tour is possible in the first place. Too small of a group can cause the director to think twice about the trip.
Resources and cost. The next thing a director should figure out is what resources are available to the choir. Most schools provide some financial support for the choral tours. Churches typically include the choir in their yearly budgets, putting money aside specifically for the choir to go on tours. Some professional choirs may have sponsors, such as individuals or a variety of organizations that providing funding to the choir, which enables them to form a budget for performances and tours. However, this funding is usually limited for only a certain portion of the tour cost. The rest of the cost is then covered either by fundraising or the members of the choir. The director needs to be aware of what is a reasonable cost to ask of the choir members. Too high of a cost could prevent members from attending the tour due to not being able to meet the financial demand. If most members are not able to cover the cost, the director should consider fundraising as an option for the group. Fundraising can occur through activities such as car washes, dinners, and selling items. It is ideal to have a list of planned fundraising options ready to use when the idea of going on tour comes up.
Dates of trip and location. Once a director is aware of the resources and a reasonable cost for his choir, he can figure out where the choir can tour and how long the tour can last in certain locations. The longer the trip, the more money required for such things as housing and meals. Airfare and other forms of transportation are all based on the distance of the trip, making longer trips more expensive. Dates are also figured out by schedules of the members, the school, or the church. For schools, it is ideal to hold a tour on dates with minimal days missed of classes. For churches, the director should plan to avoid important church dates with the individual church itself or the liturgy calendar. However, it could make for an interesting tour if the director plans a tour around certain parts of the liturgy calendar, such as an Advent tour for example. There are many decisions to be made about location. The director needs to decide if the tour is going to be local, national, or international. Another concern is how many performances and stops will be made in the tour. Once this is established, the next thought should be what cities or other stops are not just interesting but reasonable for the tour. The director should decide what types of venues the choir should visit, such as schools, churches, or banquets. For each stop and performance, the director should be aware of the requirements and costs to perform or stay at each stop. These requirements should be met well in advance to the actual tour. These requirements for venues can consist of down payments, certain forms that need to be signed by either the director or the members, sent in recordings, or auditions. For housing and meals, the director should have included living costs in the tour budget, having already called ahead. If hotels are not an option, the director should make sure there is possible home stays through the venues. Meals, on the other hand, can be included or not, but the members should be informed of what meals are covered so they can plan their own individual budgets.
Companies. Fortunately, there are tour companies that directors can work with to make the tour planning a little easier on them. These companies typically have pre-made plans for tours with certain venues and cities plugged in. The director would just need to review these plans and pick the one that is close to what he had in mind for the tour. It is ideal to work along with a group that has musicians or someone with musical expertise on staff in order to talk about the performance aspects of the tour since the tour is not meant to be a vacation. Using one of these companies does not mean the director does nothing for the planning. These companies serve as the middle man, making necessary calls and reservations, but most decisions should be finalized through the director. The director should review different companies, too, before deciding right away. Along with having a set plan, these companies have set prices that may be hard to negotiate with. Therefore, directors should search for companies with costs that fit within their budgets or may have some flexibility within their plans and costs. The director should also look for a company that gives the director more voice in the planning since it is the director’s tour and his choir members. The director should not just simply go along with a plan and have the company be in completely in charge of the whole tour. The director should also consider if working with a company is worth it. A part of these plans include an extra cost for using the company. The director could save money for the choir by planning the tour himself, but that means he would have to plan every aspect of the tour himself without professional help. This decision should also be made many months to a year in advance so there is time for the director or the company to plan the tour in time.
Music. Picking music for a tour can be planned out like any other performance. If there is a theme for the tour based on either the locations or the time period of the tour, then it would be ideal to choose music that matches that theme. The director might think about using music that the choir has already been working on before if there is a small amount of time to prepare for the tour. The main concern about music for tours is if certain venues might require certain music in order for the choir to perform there in the first place. Some churches and cathedrals require choirs to perform certain sacred pieces, such as Mass selections, hymns, or anthems. Schools might require the choir to perform their alma mater or certain pieces that are seen as educational. Some performances might be shorter or longer than the others depending on the location of the performance. Some of the venues might place a limit on the duration of the performance, causing the director to make some cuts from the repertoire. Others might ask for a longer duration than originally planned, causing the director to add pieces to the repertoire and find time to rehearse them before the tour if possible. Another concern the director should be aware of when choosing music is the size of the choir going on the tour. As stated before, there might be a possibility that not all the members can attend the tour for various reasons. Therefore, the tour choir of about twenty-something members might not be able to sing the pieces selected for the usual size of seventy members. The director might have to rearrange some singers to another voice part to cover for the absence of members in order to keep the music well blended.
Rehearsals and performances. Rehearsals and performances for tours usually run a little differently than the usual ones held. The director must remember that the choir is doing multiple performances in a short amount of time. Tours will put quite a bit of strain on the singers’ voices. Therefore, there should be changes made in the music that is considerate of this possible straining. First off, the goal of warm ups will be to have the singers relax their muscles and voices. The problem of tours is that the singers will be using their voices more than usual as they socialize and do extra activities during the tours. All this use of the voice will have caused tension and fuzziness to their sound. The director should start with warm up techniques with more focus on the lower ranges to get their muscles to relax. The warm-ups should also be centered on bringing the choir’s focus back on the music. They must have direction in them with very little room for any socializing. It should be made clear that it is time for the performance part of the tour. During rehearsals and warm-ups, the director can run the choir through some problem areas of the music but should avoid complete run-throughs in order to preserve their voices. Also, the director might want to consider changing the levels of dynamics and energy in certain songs to compensate for the strain on the voices. The goal is to have the choir make it through all the performances of the tour. Each performance should be of good quality without hurting the choir’s voices. This will take close attention on their voices during the whole tour, taking note on their condition during each rehearsal and performance.
What to bring. A last concern the director should address is the tour inventory. Music stands and folders of the music should be included only if the choir is not singing from memorization. If the songs are memorized, folders can be brought only to be referred to during rehearsals if the members need the music. Speakers and microphones might be required for smaller ensembles if the venue is of a larger size than the usual ones the group has performed in. Also recording equipment should be considered to record each performance for PR reasons or just so the choir can refer back to those performances. Stepstools are ideal equipment to include in the inventory since the director might know where and how the choir will be placed at venues. Risers are typically too big to carry around on a bus and are a hassle to set up and take down for each performance. Stepstools take up little space in the bus and at the venues and can be easily laid out for the choir. The director should also make sure to establish certain attire for the performances then make sure all members have this attire with them along with any other luggage needed for the trip. And, as for most trips, multiple first aid kits should be provided since anything could happen on the tour. Even if the tour is not that active, injuries and illnesses are still a possibility. Therefore, the director should be prepared for any accidents that might occur under their watch.
Fundraising is quite the task to handle. To afford a lot of what you and the choir want to do, fundraising might be required. If you are in public secondary schools, you may be lucky enough to have an organization for choir parents that will handle that for you. Most often, this is not the case. Fundraisers are particularly useful for affording trips and tours and making it much less expensive for the singers. There are many different fundraisers, from the ever popular cookie dough sales to even selling salsa. Choosing the best one for your group will depend on your location and the willingness of singers to participate.
With any level of choir, there is some need for the director and the choir to focus on public relations. School choirs have to get the word out to incoming and enrolled students in order to continue receiving members for the choral program. Church choirs rely on public relations in order to get more church members to join and to gain more venues to perform at outside of church services. Professional choirs rely on public relations to gain more venues and the attention of possible donors and organizations as sponsors for the choir. Overall, public relations bring in the money, the members, and the performances. Over the years, due to technological and social advances, the resources for public relations have broadened, giving the choir more opportunities to get the word out about their choral program. The following are only a few of the possible resources open for current directors and choirs to use for public relations.
Brochures and fliers. These are the basic forms of public relations that a director could rely on to get the word out about the choral program. There are many programs that provide templates for brochures and fliers that a director only needs to fill in the sections with information relating to the choir. For brochures, the director should consider including a description of the choir, auditioning information, annual performances dates and descriptions, the director’s contact information for further questions, rehearsal times, and any other information deemed necessary by the director. Fliers are typically made for more specific occasions or as teasers of information. The director should consider fliers for getting the word out about upcoming performances, auditions, or leads to other sources of information on the choral program. Both brochures and fliers may primarily be for informational purposes, but they should be made to catch people’s attentions. They cannot be that successful if no one finds them interesting enough to read in the first place. Therefore, the director should consider using decorative formats for brochures and fliers, making sure to include updated photos of the current choir either at performances, retreats, or rehearsals. The photos give the viewers a glimpse of the possible experiences they could be a part of if they considered to join that specific choral program. Photos of performances can reveal the types of venues the choir might perform at along with how the choir handles their performances. Photos of retreats, rehearsals, and other choral activities show the sense of community and dedication the choir holds as a group.
Recordings. The director should always consider recording their choir’s performances as much as possible since recordings can lead to a variety of opportunities for the choir. Many different festivals and competitions have been requiring choirs to send in a few recordings as a form of audition to participate in the activities. Certain venues require recordings before considering having the choir perform at their locations. Recordings have made it easier on these types of venues and even the choir since it takes away the need to schedule a time for someone to be sent out to watch the choir’s performances. It is now as easy as attaching the recordings in an email or sending them on a CD through the mail. Recordings are also an ideal touch to the choir’s websites, allowing the viewers to experience the choir’s actual sound rather than just relying on pictures and descriptions. Therefore, the director should consider purchasing a reliable recording system for the choir. The director should also record multiple performances of certain works. This allows the director to sift through the recordings to find an ideal recording to send out to venues or post on the internet. Most directors are aware of the possibility that a performance may not go the way they planned due to many different variables. Thus, directors should not rely on just one performance to turn out as the ideal recording. Recordings should also be considered for rehearsing reasons. If the director and the choir are trying to fine tune certain works as much as possible, it could be helpful to listen back on recent performances and point out some problem areas that may still need some work done before the next performance. This could lead for a better performance, giving the choir a more professional sound which will lead to more impressed viewers.
Websites. As stated before, technological advances have worked for the best for the public relations field. The internet provides anyone to get information out to rest of the world, allowing people to not only limit viewers but also get the attention of certain viewers through ads and links on other pages. Schools and churches have begun forming their own websites to state their mission statements and provide information on the many programs that they hold each year. School and church choirs have taken advantage of these websites, making sure they are allowed a portion to be devoted to the choral program. Some of these types of choirs, along with professional and community choirs, have even taken on websites of their own. Websites provide choirs more room to post information that they could not post on brochures and fliers. With the use of links and sections, websites allow for longer descriptions of programs and performances. The choir is able to post forms and other resources viewers might need to obtain tickets or further information for performances and auditions. The director could have a section devoted to recordings, allowing him to format the recordings in whatever way seems more accessible or organized to the viewers. The website could even provide an opportunity for views to donate money to choral program through a link or providing information on where to send donations.
Social Media. Social media consists of printed media, such as newspapers, bulletins, and magazines, and electronic media, such as the use of Facebook and Twitter accounts. With printed media, a director could post ads about the choir and upcoming performances. Directors should take note, however, that there is a certain fee for ads that changes due to length and any added photos. Directors should still consider using these resources to get the word out about their choral program. With electronic media, a director can find Facebook and Twitter as valuable resources for their choir. Both websites continue to grow in members and social coverage. The director could form an account in order to provide descriptions of the choir. Both websites also allow for quick updates on the choir and performances from any location. They also allow for the director to choose who the pages are open to for viewing. Viewers could provide feedback and ask questions on the pages that allow the director know how the choir is seen by their audiences and sponsors. There is also the option of posting videos and pictures as further updates and information on the choir. Both websites also continue to grow and provide many other options to their users that the director will have access to as a user. As the options grow, the choir’s public relations resources and outreach will grow along with them.
Performances and Tours. All these public relations opportunities are very helpful to directors and choirs, but the personal touch is just as helpful. The director should see each performance as reaching out to the community and others. Therefore, tours are very helpful for choirs. School choirs could plan a tour to nearby schools of the same level and lower levels to attract future potential members. Church choirs could use tours to help gain recognition among the community and other churches in the area. Their tour could also attract members and even help bring people to the church. Professional choirs and community choirs can rely on tours to gain future venues and possible future sponsors from a variety of locations either within or outside the community. The director could also use performances to hand out any of the other resources listed above, either giving out brochures or providing links for the audience to view after the concert for further information.
- Choral Libraries
Your library is one of the most important things for your program. It holds all your music! In an ideal world, the director will have a librarian that will take care of music. In schools, that can sometimes be a very reliable member of the choir who enjoys the organization required of a choral library. But when you aren't fortunate enough for that, it comes down to the director. Always before rehearsals, the director needs to make sure there are enough parts or copies of parts for the singers. It would only be a waste of time to have to make copies or find more parts during the rehearsal. Making extra copies can save you a lot of that hassle. Music will always be lost, so it's safe to plan ahead
Another important logisitc of the choral library to consider is giving out music. Technically, copies are illegal, but the price of giving originals to students is heavy. A way to solve this is to have a check-out system for parts. If a singer loses their part, then they pay for a new replacement. Labelling all the parts as part of your library is essential in keeping this. Numbering them is also important.
There are two ways you can choose soloists: you can have them tryout for the solo, or you can just pick the singers you want to sing the solo. There are pros and cons to both. When you have tryouts, all the singers that try feel they have a chance for the solo, even if in your mind you have already chosen the right voice for the part. Singers will try hard for you and you can see the ones making the effort for future reference. When you just choose the soloist, you will have the exact voice you want. On the negative side, tryouts may mean that the voice you wanted doesn't want to try out for the part. When just choosing, other singers will feel that you have a favoritism towards certain singers if they always get the solos.
- Robinson, Ray and Allen Winold. The Choral Experience: Literature Materials and Methods. 1976. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.
- Robinson, Ray and Allen Winold. The Choral Experience: Literature Materials and Methods.1976. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.