Monday, March 14, 2016

Does you choir need a conductor?

The OK Chorale had their annual concert this weekend. There were over 40 singers squeezed into quite a tight space and I stood out front and conducted them. We were supported by the 13 women of Heartbeat who had no conductor.

Children in Need Community Choir  - Chris Rowbury

How big does your choir need to be to warrant someone being out front? Can a large choir do without a conductor?

the ideal size for a choir

There has been an interesting discussion recently about the ideal size for a choir. Ideal in what sense?

If it’s a beginner choir and it’s too small then singers can feel exposed when singing 3- or 4-part harmony. But if it’s an experienced group, then with 12 singers or so you can really work off each other, nail the harmonies, get a real sense of the whole song, breathe together and not need a conductor.

If a choir is very large, it’s possible that the weaker singers end up relying on a core of confident singers and the choir stops working as a unit. Also, it’s hard to get an overall sense of all the harmonies if there are 15 or 20 people in each part. It’s easy for singers to stop listening to each other and to defer all their responsibility to the conductor.

However, I believe it is possible for a large choir to sing without a conductor.

downsides of having a conductor

Conductors and choir leaders are great when you’re rehearsing and learning new songs. They can point out mistakes, they have a clear impression of the overall sound, they can help balance parts and bring sections in at the appropriate times, they can keep a rein on the pace of a song and remind singers of the song’s structure.

But when a song has been rehearsed many times and the choir know it really well, what does the conductor do?

The danger is that the singers assume that they need the conductor. They relinquish some of their responsibility and let the conductor do all the work (even sometimes mouthing the words). Because they’ve never had to do it entirely by themselves, it’s easy for singers to believe that they can’t do it on their own. With a conductor out front singers can end up giving them their whole focus and forget to listen to the other singers and connect with the audience.

upsides of getting rid of the conductor

Get rid of the conductor and suddenly the singers have to rely on themselves and each other. They begin to listen more closely, they become more aware of the audience, they work as a unit and become a single organism, breathing as one. The sound becomes more balanced as each part listens to the other, dynamics become more sensitive. The audience can also see the singers rather than the conductor’s back-side!

why don’t more choirs do without conductors?

Sad to say, but some choirs leaders have big egos. It’s important for them to be out in front of the singers at concerts to be seen to be doing the work. It also strokes their ego to believe that the singers can’t do it without them.

Of course, many choir leaders don’t have big egos. They try to encourage their singers to develop their voices and harmony singing skills. They tease out the best in people, help them to become more confident performers, and show them how capable they are. In a sense – like the best teachers – the best choir leaders are the ones who make themselves redundant. Job done! And the brilliant teachers and choir leaders are so good that their singers don’t even realise that they’ve taught them anything. The singers think they’ve done it all by themselves.

letting go of your conductor

Why not give it a go? Even if it’s just a rehearsal technique, getting the choir leader to stand aside will reveal so many aspects of how your singers work together.

If you’re a choir leader, you can try just wandering off during a song rehearsal. Sit at the back and just listen. There will be a moment of panic amongst the singers, but they’ll soon settle down.

If you’re a singer in a choir, have a gentle word with your choir leader to see if you can try a song on your own without a conductor.

I’m not saying that all choirs of every size can always do without a conductor, but you’ll be surprised how much the singers can manage on their own if they’ve been rehearsed and trained well. Why not give it a go?


Chris Rowbury


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