Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dealing with individual singers in a large choir

Question This post is part of a series of occasional Questions and Answers. Just use the contact form if you want to submit a question.

Morning Star asks:

“What do you do with your big chorus, when there are some folks that have real trouble with the pitch and some of them tend to sing loudly and throw others off?

I have spoken to the whole group many times about blending and we have done exercises to work on blend, but when those people get back in the group it often continues to happen. Do you ever speak with people individually?”


Fortunately, this hasn’t happened to me very often!

things usually balance out

If you run an open-access choir there will always be a range of different voices, experience, talent, needs, interests, etc. etc. This is one of the joys of community choirs – the amazing mix and variety of people.

Usually there is a reasonable spread of ability across the choir so things tend to even out. The more experienced singers carry the less experienced along with their enthusiasm and confidence, and any small tuning problems or glitches are ironed out in the overall mix.

But sometimes you will find that your choir is quite evenly balanced, with most people having similar experience. So if you get just one or two people who have far more or far less experience, they will stick out like sore thumbs.

giving individual attention

I often get frustrated with large choirs (anything over 20, say) because I can’t give people individual attention.

In a community choir there is always an element of training and vocal development in the warm ups each week. Sometimes I can see that people are struggling or just getting an exercise wrong and would love to go over and spend some one-to-one time with them, but there are 60 other people in the room who need my attention too.

For this reason, I try to pitch the warm ups so that everyone is challenged, whatever their level or experience. I constantly remind people that they are not to judge themselves against others, but only against themselves. Also, even if a warm up is very familiar, there is always something new to be learnt. In this way, I hope that each individual will develop at their own pace week on week.

However, there will always come a time when you get down to learning or singing a song and one voice will dominate.

the odd one out

The issue of whether or not they’re in tune, singing the correct part, have too much vibrato, have a screechy quality, etc. can be dealt with in the warm ups, but you need to be patient.

The only reason that there is a problem is that the person is singing too loudly. It will upset the overall sound and also put off other singers in their section.

There is a variety of reasons why someone might be singing too loudly:

  • they have little self-awareness and just don’t notice
  • they need to sing loud in order to hear their own voice
  • their voice is very powerful and they have not yet learnt how to control it
  • they have not yet learnt how to control their breathing properly
  • they are over-confident
  • they are under-confident
  • they don’t have enough experience of singing in harmony

Most of these can be fixed in the warm up session, but again it will take some time. The one thing that is very hard to fix is lack of self-awareness!

singing too loudly

You can take individuals aside and point out that they’re singing too loudly and draw their attention to how to blend in in terms of volume:

  • if you can only hear your own voice, you’re singing too loudly
  • if you can only hear everyone else, you’re singing too quietly

It’s a bit like Goldilocks: you need to find the “just right” volume.

The aim is to sing and hear your own voice AND the other voices in your part AND the other parts which make up the harmonies. A tricky balance, and one that only comes with experience.

If you do need to have a chat with a particular individual, make sure it is in private and not in front of the rest of the choir.

for the greater good

There is only one time I’ve had to ask someone to leave a choir and I felt awful! After all, the choir was founded on the principle that everyone can sing and everyone is welcome, no matter what their experience is. But there was one person who consistently sang loudly and out of tune. It didn’t affect the overall sound of the choir too much, but it DID affect the other people in the part who kept getting put off.

For good of the choir as a whole, I had to ask the person to leave. What I said was that they needed to go and develop their listening skills (not their singing skills). The fact was that the other people in the choir had more experience in this area. I told the person to go an get more experience singing in unison, for instance, singing hymns at church. In this way they would learn when they were singing the same notes at the same volume as everyone else.

It was a hard thing to do because I didn’t want to knock the person’s confidence, but I felt that I had to do it for the greater good of the choir.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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