Sunday, July 19, 2009

How to be a good choir member

Last week I wrote about whether you need singing lessons in order to be able to sing. I suggested that people should simply jump in and join a choir before they ever consider individual singing lessons. I pointed out that there are important group and harmony skills that cannot be taught one-to-one.

Photo by CowGummy

This week I want to consider what qualities make for being a good choir member. Of course, this list is personal and not exhaustive, so I would welcome any additions from all you fine readers out there. Do drop by and leave a comment. I always welcome your feedback and wisdom (it can get lonely this side of the keyboard!).

So, in no particular order, these are the qualities that I believe make for an ideal choir member:

  • punctuality
    It takes a while to build up a safe, creative atmosphere, but only a second to destroy it. If we’re doing some focused warm up work, we don’t want people wandering in half way through!

    I know some people get stuck in traffic or have to come straight from work, but persistent latecomers aren’t showing respect for their fellow choir members (or the work or the choir), and are often the ones who would benefit most from the voice training and stress-busting warm up!
  • commitment
    Commitment to the choir can be shown in many ways (not least turning up on time!). But for most community choirs, the most important commitment is simply to turn up every week!

    There are many people who pay for the whole term but show up only once or twice. Again, this demonstrates a lack of respect for both the choir and its members. Also it implies that the work that we do each week rehearsing and learning songs is not that valuable and it’s possible to just turn up for the concert.
  • responsibility
    It’s all too easy to let your choir director or other members of your part do all the work. It’s an easy cop-out. Yes, the director is in charge, but the final result depends on every single individual in the choir. It’s no good thinking that your fellow singers will back you up and cover you through the bits you don’t know that well. If every singer in the choir thought that, there would be no choir!

    You have to take responsibility to attend regularly (and on time), to know your part, to stay aware of rehearsal schedules, to listen to the director’s instructions, and so on.
  • self-awareness
    Many people stumble through life not really paying attention. Or if they do pay attention, its often to the wrong thing! How many times have you been bumped into in the supermarket by someone whose focus is on the cereal packet they’re about to buy, and not the throng of people surrounding them?

    Often it’s simply a matter of being in the moment, being present and engaged with whatever is going on at that particular point. This can be helped by focusing on the warm up each session which assists in the transition between your busy daily life and the job of being in a choir.

    It’s by paying attention to what you’re doing that helps you to learn and improve. When the director points out that you’re tipping your head back, then check in with your own body and see what that feels like. When your fellow alto complains that you’re singing too loudly in their ear, check in with yourself and make a note of how it feels in that moment and what you can do next time.
  • trust
    Some people find it very uncomfortable to be in the middle of a learning process. When you first start to learn a new song it can feel frustrating that you can’t quite nail the tune. Even when you’ve been singing a song for a while, you might still keep tripping over some of the words.

    Try not to get frustrated, but give yourself up to the process and trust that it will come out right in the end. Similarly, if the director’s new structure for a song seems weird, trust that she knows what she’s doing and is not setting out to make you or the choir look forward.

    Throw yourself into these processes wholeheartedly and trust them. If you want to analyse or question, wait until the process is over (i.e. after the concert or at the end of term) to evaluate. If you find that your trust was misplaced, you can always leave and find a better choir!
  • attentiveness
    This is related to self-awareness and having a sense of the whole. Often an individual choir member forgets where they are and starts chatting to their neighbour for instance. After all, they’ve finished learning their part and are, in fact, talking about important singing matters after all. But what they don’t realise is that they’re missing what’s going on around them.

    You need to be attentive to the director (or you might miss your cue), the singers around you (you don’t want to breathe at the wrong time), the overall choir sound (make sure your part is not louder than all the others), and what your own responsibilities are (don’t miss your solo!).
  • consideration for others
    This is all to do with respect: respect for your fellow human beings and hence respect for what you and other choir members are doing and therefore respect for the choir as a whole.

    Don’t be a prima donna – choirs are all about team work. Remember what it was like when you first joined the choir – help out new members. If someone in your part is struggling, don’t feel superior because you’ve nailed it – stand next to them and help them out gently.
  • listening skills
    You may find it surprising that singing skills aren’t in this list of important things for being a good choir member. My belief is that everyone can sing and that, given time, everyone in the choir can get to the same high standard.

    However, to get to that point, instead of focusing on the production of the voice, you need to pay more attention to what you are hearing. Using your self-awareness, you can begin to hear when you are getting the notes right and when you are not. Listening to others in your part will help you stay in time, blend better and work as a unit. Reaching out to hear the other parts will help you stay in tune, enjoy and get a better understanding of how harmony works. And finally, listening to what the director has to say can only be a good thing!
  • sense of the whole
    It’s no good relying on the director to give you feedback all the time. It’s also no good to just focus on those singers around you. It’s much more pleasurable to reach out and try to get a sense of the whole choir. Hear the harmonies working, check the blend, get the volume balance of each part right, wait for the choir to take a single in-breath to start the next song, feel part of a creative team – a living organism.
  • sense of humour
    Maybe this is the most important aspect of all. Keep smiling when all around you are struggling. Laugh off the umpteenth time the director has pointed out that you’re getting a phrase wrong. Find the humour in the man standing next to you who constantly sings the wrong note – loudly! Relax, be playful, make it fun. After all, although you take the whole choir thing seriously, it’s only a bit of singing!


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