This post has me intrigued, since I know of NO American choral director who doesn't place the singers(!). Whether it is through a complex process of experimentation and close listening (a la Weston Noble), or it’s a more random assignment by height and voice part, never have I sung in or worked with a choir which allowed the singers to stand wherever they wanted.
I’m intrigued, and am now wondering if your practice applies to other Natural Voice directors, or even other British (as opposed to American) directors.
Now, I’m sure I can’t answer for British choirs in general (never having been in one!), and I can’t really comment on how other Natural Voice choirs are run since everyone approaches rehearsals and performance differently, so this reply is very personal.
From all that I’ve read and seen, I really believe that the choirs that I (and many other Natural Voice practitioners) run are not ‘choirs’ in the sense that most people think of them. In fact, I would be very happy to use a different term if only I could think of one! Many people are put off joining any kind of singing group that uses the term ‘choir’ because it has so many negative associations. One of which is its formal nature and the fact that there’s an emphasis on performance and a notion that there is a ‘right’ way of doing things. I can only imagine this to be the case, for otherwise why on earth would any choir leader want to place the singers!
I imagine this placement is to do with the blending of voices and the overall sound as heard by an audience. I can’t think of any other reason (please correct me if I’m wrong). However, my approach is that we are a group of people gathered to enjoy singing together and making as good a noise as we can. It is a communal event and a team process. The joy is had from the harmonies we make with each other. Why not let people sing whichever part appeals to them and why not let people stand wherever they want? Surely the main point of harmony singing is to actually hear the harmonies, in which case it’s really cool to stand right next to people singing a different part (the only reason that I ask people in the same part to stand together is that it makes the initial learning of a song much easier. In fact, let’s walk around the space and try out our part and our voice next to different parts and different voices! What an amazing sound!!
This is much nearer to how people sing in cultures, communities and traditions where the singing experience comes first, and often there is no notion of ‘performance’. In many such cultures there is simply no distinction between ‘performer’ and ‘audience’. Wouldn’t it be great if we could to that here in our British culture? As a small step in this direction I try to make all the concerts we do as relaxed and as informal as possible whilst trying to maintain the highest musical standards. I often make reference to the fact that we’re not an auditioned choir and that everybody can sing. And I always teach the audience at least one song to prove to them that they can sing unaccompanied in harmony.
However, this does not mean that we don’t make a good overall sound as can be heard by listening to samples from the recent live WorldSong CD.
So that is the spirit of the choirs that I run. In which case, I don’t see why I need to be placing singers. I would love to hear from people in other choirs who do this so I can understand why choral directors do it!