This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as Get in line! in March 2007.
Sometimes trying to get your choir to stand in the right places is like dealing with an unruly kindergarten class. It seems as if spatial awareness and singing don’t go together.
NB this is a fictional account based on truth and many, many rehearsals. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Any similarity to any choir or individual living or dead is entirely coincidental. No animals were harmed in the making of this post.
lining up for the off
“OK, let’s just get into two rows in a semi-circle”. They all look at me. Some of them go and stand somewhere they think is a good place to stand. They’ve stood there before, so why not try it again? It was a nice place. Another person sees this initiative and goes to stand next to them, even if they don’t sing the same part. Maybe they are friends.
People begin to stand in rows of three or even four. Sometimes five. One person is vaguely wandering around because they’ve forgotten which part they sing in this song. “Which part do you sing in this song?” Middle. “But it’s a four part song” I always sing middle. “Yes, but it has four parts, there is no middle”. I always sing middle.
One half of the choir is in a dead straight line, whilst the other is in a weird spiral shape. I point out where the front of the stage will be. They look at where I’m pointing, look back at me, then just carry on doing whatever they were doing before.
“Two rows please, not three”. Those in three rows nod wisely because they know they’re doing the right thing. “Somebody’s going to have to move, we only want two rows”. Yes, they nod, and stay where they are.
“This is the centre of the stage so you’ll have to move to your left. No, left. Not that left, the other left. Yes, you. And you. Not that way. A bit more please. No, not you, you’re fine where you are. Where are you going? You were in the right place!”
“Why is there a big gap between the tops and the altos? Do you not like each other?” Gap? They don’t see a gap. “Just move to your left a little. No, not that left …”
“And why is there a big gap here?” That’s where Jane stands. “But Jane’s not doing the concert”. I know, but that’s where she always stands. “And this gap?” What gap? “This one”. They look at each other and don’t move. “Can we just fill this gap up please?” That’s not our gap, we’re in the right place. It’s them. They point at the tenors. That’s where Jane stands.
Finally – somehow – we end up in some kind of choir formation. I stick tape down at the feet of those in the front row. “OK, now just remember who you’re standing next to, then when we line up to come in, you’ll all be in the right positions”. What song? they ask. “The first one, of course, the one we start the concert with”. Then I’m not in the right place (Neither am I!). So we start again.
These are intelligent, confident, experienced adults who have done this many times before. But something about standing in rows as a choir suddenly becomes very difficult. It’s what takes up most of our final rehearsal: finding our starting positions and moving around between songs. It’s always been like that. At least it gives some of us a good laugh!
Unlike more traditional choirs, we don’t have fixed sections of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Of course, some people might prefer to sing higher or lower, but I always encourage people to move around, try different parts and explore different areas of their vocal range. Also we often have songs with more than four parts or some songs with only two or three parts, so it’s not possible to stick with the traditional divisions.
This is all very well in our weekly sessions where we are free to move about as we like, but when it comes to a public performance, then things get a little more complicated. Somebody might sing in one part for one song, then have to move right down to the other end of the choir for a different part in the next song (if they remember). Sometimes this might involve most of the choir so the results can be pretty chaotic!
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made a rod for my own back and fantasise about individuals being bar coded on their necks at birth with the part they sing and the place they have to stand in. I’d just wave a laser thingy at them and it would tell them where they needed to be.
trying different shapes
Even if we do manage to get into a reasonable choir formation, I try and sabotage that too by introducing dancing and moving around the stage. I figure that going to a concert can get a little boring if the choir just stands still for the whole performance. Not only is it strange to be static whilst singing an upbeat African song, it’s nice to have some variation to keep the audience interested.
I’ve tried teaching some simple dance moves. Straightforward steps to the side or forwards and backwards, sometimes some arm movements to Maori songs. Suddenly people forget what they’re singing. They can either sing or move, but not both at the same time. Even if they’ve known a song for years, adding some moves washes it out of their brain.
Even when we get the moves down and it’s not looking too bad, there will always be some people with two left feet or not much sense of rhythm. Fair enough. Not everyone has the same skills. I don’t mind. But why do these people have to be on the front row and those who can do the moves stay at the back??!!
It gets even more complicated if we have any stage management involved. Sometimes I have women only on stage so the men have to leave and enter later. Sometimes the men come in first and wander round the stage and then the women enter and all are supposed to get into choir formation.
Anything out of the ordinary and people’s sense of space goes out the window. You end up with a bunch of people aimlessly walking around the stage looking as if they have no idea why they’re there or what happens next. And that may well be the case!
start as you mean to go on
At the very least I reckon it’s always good to enter slickly at the beginning of a concert and to take a neat bow at the end.
As I’ve outlined above, it’s the devil’s own job to get the choir to stand in the right shape to begin with, but then as the concert goes on (and people move parts or get excited during a song) the shape begins to drift. Gaps begin to appear, the front row start to look raggedy, the whole choir seems to shift to one side of the stage.
But as long as we start out neatly and end with a big flourish, hopefully the audience will forget all the raggedy shifting about in the middle of the concert!
it’ll be all right on the night
But we do get there in the end. It may take some time, but it usually works. They look slick on stage, any aimlessness is not noticed by the audience and we seem to impress them with our African dances. So all is not lost. I just wish it wouldn’t take so much time!
During rehearsals it’s as if everybody leaves their individual sense of space at home, along with their ability to understand the difference between left and right. They also forget how to count, they go deaf and their legs stop working properly. Grown adults who can cope with tricky tunes, strange harmonies and foreign beats suddenly become four years old all over again.
Does anybody else have the same experiences? And more importantly: does anybody have any good solutions??!!