Sunday, July 24, 2011

Flying in choir formation – placing singers effectively

Last week I looked at how singers choose where to stand in their section (Don’t stand too close to me! – finding the right place to stand in your choir). But that assumes that your choir is divided up with all singers in any given part standing together.

Mixed choir

Photo by laihiu

But it is also possible to have a mixed formation with individual singers from different parts standing next to each other. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these two alternatives?

There are two main approaches to choir formation:

  1. all singers in the same part stand (or sit) together in one group or section (the traditional way)
  2. singers from each part are scattered throughout the choir as individuals or small groups (the mixed approach)

the traditional way

Singers from a single part sing together in one block or section. For example, all the altos together, all the tenors together. The choir is then made up of these sections singing next to each other in a predetermined order, e.g. S-A-T-B or S-B-T-A.


  • blend is better – the whole section pulls together aiming to blend as one voice
  • mutual support – weaker singers are supported by all the singers around them singing the same part
  • easier to conduct – it’s much easier for the musical director to teach and conduct songs as everyone in the same part can be addressed directly at the same time
  • smoother sound – the overall sound of the choir can be smoothed out by making simple adjustments to whole sections


  • tuning problems – it only takes one individual to lead a whole section astray and before you know it they’re all off key
  • no sense of the overall sound – individual singers can often only hear their own part. They can’t hear the other parts clearly and get no sense of the overall sound of the choir or how the different harmony parts fit together
  • can’t pinpoint problems – often it’s very clear to the director that something is going wrong with a section, but very difficult to isolate the individual(s) who might be causing it
  • individuals get lost – individual singers often can’t hear themselves and if there is a stronger (or louder) singer standing next to them, they can be put off easily.
  • weak singers can hide – it is easy to hide in a large section without having to confront difficulties or bother to improve

the mixed approach

Individual harmony parts are spread throughout the choir, either as individual singers or in small groups.


  • tuning is better – and more accurate because each singer can hear all the other parts clearly
  • easier to identify problems – individual problems with tone, pitch, blend, quality, volume, etc. can be spotted much more easily and dealt with
  • more self-awareness – singers notice their errors more easily so can make adjustments and improve more quickly
  • individuals can hear themselves – which means they recognise their contribution to the whole and hence grow in confidence and feel ownership of the song
  • emphasises team work – locally it’s much more obvious that there is a team at work. There is less of a gender divide, more cross-fertilisation and socialisation (you don’t always stand next to the other sopranos each week)
  • less talking, more focus – when a part is not being sung, since each singer is right in the middle of the action and standing next to the sung part, they must stay engaged. When standing in sections singers can zone out when it’s not their turn
  • more listening – since singers have only themselves to depend on, there is more at stake and they listen more carefully to the other parts. It is a chance to really enjoy the harmonies and not be part of a homogenous crowd.


  • harder to be spontaneous in performance – a conductor may want to respond in the moment and, for example, bring the altos in quieter. When the altos are scattered throughout the choir, this is not easy
  • weaker singers can flounder – using a mixed formation is really only for more accomplished singers. Weaker and less-experienced singers will find it very hard to hold their part on their own.
  • too much work for large choirs – it will take a lot of time in a big choir to get a proper sense of each individual voice and therefore be able to put them in the right mixed group within the whole
  • audience won’t hear individual lines – with much polyphonic music it is important to hear each individual part clearly and hear how it works against the others.
  • membership turnover makes problems – if a choir has discovered a mixed formation that works well, it’s hard to make adjustments when singers leave or new singers join the choir

other considerations

Whichever kind of formation you decide on, it’s important not to keep it fixed. Each song is different and requires thought about the appropriate formation. One size does not fit all.

It may be that you use one kind of formation for teaching and learning a song (e.g. the traditional way), but another for rehearsing and performing it (e.g the mixed approach).

Once you’ve decided which formation you want to use, there are still lots of choices to be made. Next week I’ll look at the different options available.

which formation do you use?

I’d love to hear about your own experiences – as a singer or choir leader. Have you had experience of different choir formations? Which ones work for you? Do you use different formations in different circumstances? Can you think of any other advantages and disadvantages that I might have missed out? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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