Sunday, November 01, 2009

The six qualities needed to be a good choral director

I wrote a while back about how to be a good choir member. But what qualities do you need to be a good choir leader?

young choral conductor

Musical director by spoedman

Lately I’ve written quite a lot about leading choirs. I’ve looked at the basic job definition, the roles and responsibilities and the notion of the ‘benign dictator’ (What the job of choir leader involves). I’ve considered how you might assess a choir leader and whether the ends justify the means (How to tell if your choir leader is rubbish). I’ve detailed the nitty gritty of a typical week in the life of a choir leader including all the admin. and background preparation that’s involved in the job (The job of being a choir leader).

What I haven’t done is consider what kind of person it takes to do all this well. What qualities does a person need to be good at the job of choral director?

six qualities needed to be a good choral director

This is the list I came up with. It’s what I consider to be the minimum necessary to be able to do the job well. I’d love to hear if you think there are any that I’ve left out. They are not in any particular order.

1. enthusiasm

A good choral director needs to have an enthusiasm for choral singing, for song, and for music in general. But more than this, their enthusiasm needs to be infectious and inspirational. They need to sweep the whole choir along with their enthusiasm, excitement and vision.

2. fun

Any decent choir leader must have an excellent sense of humour and needs to maintain and atmosphere of fun in rehearsal and in performance. Most people join a choir because they want to enjoy themselves and have a good time. Excellent music-making will naturally follow.

3. decisiveness

A choral director needs to be prepared and know what they are doing and what they want to achieve. You can’t be clear if you don’t know what you want! It helps if your decisions are consistent and you don’t change from rehearsal to rehearsal. Choir members need to know that you’re in charge and that you have an end result in mind. They don’t want waffle and vagueness.

4. clarity

A good choir leader will be very clear with their instructions and directions. Choir members need to know what’s happening at all stages of rehearsal and performance without any confusion or ambiguity. They need to know that they’re in a good, safe pair of hands, that the director knows what they want and is clear in passing that information on.

5. musicality

A good choral director doesn’t necessarily have to have studied music, know music theory, be able to read music or play an instrument. But they do need to have a deep, intuitive understanding of how music and harmony works. They need a strong sense of musicality.

6. patience

Maybe this is the most important quality, especially with a community or non-professional choir. Learning songs and perfecting performances takes time. Not everyone learns at the same rate. Not everyone understands in the same way. Un-learning bad habits takes a long time. Some people may still be learning to sing in tune, whilst others are able to improvise harmonies.

You need to have a great deal of patience to be able to make allowances for all these different needs. That’s where a good sense of humour comes in!

leadership secrets from a maestro

As I was preparing this post, I came across an article by the classical music conductor Roger Nierenberg (Leadership secrets from a maestro). From his many years experience of conducting symphony orchestras and working with business leaders, Nierenberg  believes that a maestro and an executive face very similar challenges.

He then goes on to outline four basic things that a young conductor needs to know before stepping onto the podium. They can be summarised as:

  • have a clear vision for success
  • listen to your people
  • be clear and unambiguous with your directions/ instructions
  • it’s not about you: it’s about the music

These dovetail neatly with some of the qualities above, and some of the issues I considered in last week’s post on What the job of choir leader involves. Nice to know I’m in good company!

what do choir members think?

My perspective is obviously from the front of the choir. I’d love to hear from those of you who sing regularly in a choir: what do you think are the essential qualities of a good choir leader?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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