Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I hate a choir in uniform

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Dress to impress? in October 2007

Many choirs dress identically when they perform. Some have a choir uniform, some choose a particular colour for a particular concert, some have specially made t-shirts. I had occasional requests from my own choirs for some kind of uniformity when we perform.

formal choir

Unfortunately for them, I really dislike identically dressed choirs!

send in the clones!

For me, wearing the same uniform removes any sense of individuality. I can only assume that is why some choirs do it: they want everyone to look identical so there is an overall sameness and nobody stands out.

Why create such an identity for a choir? I presume that this is to:

  • show that everyone belongs to the same unit, that they are all part of the same team
  • give a clear indication that this choir is different from all other choirs
  • use the chosen colour or design as some kind of logo or aid to recognition.
  • give individual choir members a sense of belonging, a kind of banner or flag to unite them and under which they perform for the honour of the choir
  • avoid distractions for the audience so they can concentrate on the music

On the other hand, what I see is a group of clones, an attempt to wipe out any sense of uniqueness and to promote the (false) impression that everyone is the same.

This also carries over into the sound that such choirs make. There is every attempt to arrive at a perfect ‘blend’ of sound so that no one individual voice stands out. There is no scope for individual expression, there is a conscious suppression of any kind of difference. For such choirs I imagine that the prospect of actually cloning their best singer would produce their perfect choir!

most choral concerts are boring to watch

When I see such choirs performing I wonder why I am there. Why not simply listen to the choir on the radio or on CD? There is nothing to look at: everyone looks and sounds the same, they’re even encouraged to use the same mouth shape and facial expression.

If there is something special about hearing the choir live, then simply hide them behind a backdrop or have them perform in the gallery or from behind the audience. Perhaps there could be some kind of film or video projection or dance performance to watch whilst we’re listening.

To my mind it is very much like watching an orchestra: a sea of identically dressed violinists all bowing at exactly the same time, all focused on their music and paying us no attention whatsoever.

It seems that this is what most people think of when they hear the word ‘choir’. It represents a passive experience sitting for a couple of hours in fixed seats watching nothing much happening and hearing some ‘perfect’ rendition of a particular piece of music.

It doesn’t really compare well with a rock concert or a stage musical or son et lumière or River Dance. So why bother? And in fact many people don’t bother. It’s very old fashioned and rather unexciting. Which is perhaps why the average age of audiences at concerts is quite old.

It’s rather safe and non-threatening. There is a sense of control and order – identical costume, identical voices, no quick movements – no surprises.

there are alternatives

Maybe we need a different word for ‘choir’. Maybe we need a different form of performance to bring in younger audiences and audiences who wouldn’t normally go to a ‘choral concert’.

colourful choir

Choir choir pants on fire by Simon Nathan

If we do that, however, I don’t think we can get away with static rows of identically dressed singers. To my mind, aiming for uniformity destroys the humanity inherent in a group of human beings coming together to give voice. I want to hear the individual voices which have chosen to work together as a group, I want to hear the tiny errors and individual accents that make people who they are, I want to experience the rich texture and spine-tingling harmonies that result when a group of people choose to share their voices together.

further reading

You might also like following related posts:

Picture this – photographing choirs

Avoiding the ‘C’ word – problems with using the word ‘choir’

What do you think? Does your choir have a uniform? Do you get pleasure at a concert when all the singers look identical? What other alternatives are there? Do drop by and leave a comment.


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Chris Rowbury


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