Size is in the eye of the beholder. How ‘big’ a choir is depends on the context of course, but working with a large group of singers in any circumstances can prove to be difficult.
I recently started a choir in my new home town of Woodbridge: the ok chorale. I was lucky enough to have over 100 people turn up to the first session. Working with such a large group from the outset has set me thinking about how one works with large choirs.
can there ever be too many singers?
From personal experience, I find that working on my own with more than 70 singers at a time is very tiring. I don’t know why it should make a difference that there are 20 singers in each part instead of 15, but it does.
The maximum number of singers you can work with also depends on the space available and how you work. Obviously a larger room can take more singers, but even a large space might be too small if you need to do lots of moving around. If you work with the singers seated, you can squeeze more people in.
The singers also need to be able to hear you clearly, so even if you think you can work with 200 singers, there might be trouble ahead if you’re in a large hall with no amplification.
When you start out with a new choir, you may think that bigger is better, but there are definite pros and cons to having a large group.
the advantages and disadvantages of a large choir
- big sound – you can really tackle those big, juicy songs that need a large sound
- less confident singers can hide – until they feel more confident, new singers have plenty of places to hide whilst still enjoying the experience of singing with others
- plenty of people on each part – nobody is exposed and there will be enough people to paper over any cracks or deal with any wobbles
- lots of enthusiasm and energy – which can buoy up the choir leader and keep things moving along
- good earner! – if you’re charging by the head, there will be greater income from a larger group and hence more financial security for the choir leader or organisation which runs the choir
- more likely to have spread of vocal ranges and abilities – you won’t end up with a group of totally inexperienced singers. There will be enough variety for singers at different stages to help and learn from each other.
- individuals can feel redundant – it’s so easy to feel like a member of a crowd. Individual singers might feel that they don’t count
- not possible to give individual attention – the larger the group, the harder it is to keep an eye on those struggling or to help individuals with their technique
- very tiring for the leader – the bigger the group, the more tiring it is for those who lead
- hard to keep track of people in each part – if you encourage people to swop parts regularly (as I do), it becomes hard to keep track of how many people in each part for each song
- often not enough space to move around – if you attempt any kind of choreography or different choir formations, you might find the room is not big enough
- can lose subtleties – it’s great being able to have a big sound, but it becomes harder to work on subtle dynamics with a big group, also articulation, ends of lines, etc. all become more tricky
- hard to hear overall harmony – since there are so many singers in each part, if you stand in traditional choir formation, it soon becomes difficult for individual singers to hear other parts and hence harmonies
some solutions to the difficulties
- break into smaller choirs/ groups in each session – rather than work with the whole group all the time, divide the choir into smaller groups (e.g. split the choir in half and have one half sing to the other) and work separately with them. If you have enough people you can have sectional rehearsals in different rooms (if you have the space!)
- mix ‘n’ match people/ partners – don’t let individuals always be surrounded by their own part, do work in pairs/ trios, etc. getting people to sing with others they wouldn’t normally sing with
- get help (more than one conductor) – there are lots of examples of this. Some big choirs have two leaders, others have four – one for each part. You’ll have to work well as a team though, and usually one person has overall responsibility
- split the group on different nights – turn one choir into two separate choirs, or keep the whole choir, but have rehearsals over several nights and people choose which one to attend
- limit numbers in each part – to keep track of who’s in which part, you could use chairs. Once the chairs in a part are filled, there is no more room in that part.
Chris Rowbury's website: chrisrowbury.com