Sunday, March 09, 2008

Size matters

I've talked before about the issues of conducting (or not!) small ensembles (How many conductors does it take to lead a choir?), but today I’d like to focus on big choirs.

I absolutely love working with large groups of singers. One of my great pleasures is to run open-access workshops where we create a fantastic big harmony sound in a relatively short time. With such a group of widely varying abilities, the sheer numbers filter out any real problems, and everyone usually goes away on a real high due to the quality of the final result. I’ve always used the mantra the more the merrier when promoting my one-day workshops and when recruiting for my regular choirs.

However, there came a point with my regular choirs when I began to question this wisdom! It may be fine and dandy to do a one-off with a huge group of singers, but in regular weekly sessions it becomes very, very tiring. I’m really not sure why this is, but I noticed quite a big difference between 60 singers and 70 singers. I can’t figure out why it’s any more tiring teaching a part orally to an alto section of 20 than it is to 15. But that’s the way it is. My solution to this has been to limit the size of the choir. We now have 80 members on our books, of which around 70 turn up in any given term. We also have a waiting list of around 15 singers. I really don’t like doing this as I believe that singing should be available to all, and I don’t like turning people away (what my choirs do is quite specialised, so it’s not as if they can just go and join a different choir).

There is certainly a difference in group dynamics as a choir gets bigger. I remember my first ever concert 10 years ago when I managed to muster 12 singers to do a 20 minute set. Some of the songs were in four part harmony and pretty much all the singers were beginners. At the time I thought we looked and sounded impressive and that it was a good turn out. Looking back, I now realise that it’s much harder to get a good sound out of such a small group and it was a pretty mad and brave thing to do! We were such a small group that everybody knew everybody equally well, no matter what part they sang.

As my original choir WorldSong grew, I managed to remember everyone’s name since only a handful of new people would join each term. As time went by, the social side of the choir became stronger and people made lasting friendships. For the two choirs that I took over, I’ve never managed to learn everyone’s name (sorry guys!), because it was just too overwhelming being faced with such a large group to start with. Despite my own shortcomings, many friendships have developed within the choir, yet not even the choir members know everybody’s name. Most people make closest friends within the part that they sing. This means that sometimes there has been slight resistance in the choir when I have taken on new members and it has grown in size. Many choir members hark back to the good old days when there were only 40 members, etc. etc.

One way of dealing with a large choir size is to have more than one musical director and/ or conductor. In the UK two choirs spring to mind, both having more than 120 members: the Manchester Community Choir and the Gasworks Choir in Bristol. Both have (or had) two choir leaders. Having never experienced this myself I really have no idea how it works! But I am soon to find out. In April there will be a large community choirs’ festival locally where around 20 community choirs will gather to learn some songs together as well as sharing songs they already know. This means that there will almost certainly be a choir of several hundred singers. There will be four people to teach each song – one to each part – with one taking overall responsibility. I am really looking forward to finding out how this works!

On a final note, if one does go down the route of co-leading a choir, I wonder how this works financially – doesn’t it simply cut your own income stream in half in one fell swoop??!!

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Chris Rowbury


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