Sunday, July 31, 2011

STAB, TABS or ASSBAT – how does your choir line up?

Last week I looked at the pros and cons of traditional choir formation vs. mixing parts up (Flying in choir formation – placing singers effectively).

barbershop choir

Photo by sludgegulper

Whichever approach you choose, there are still several choices to be made.

1. order, order!

If you’ve decided on a traditional choir formation where the parts are divided into large, single sections, very often the sections stand in SATB order. However, there is no reason why it can’t be the opposite way, BTAS or even mix the sections up a little: STAB.

There are pros and cons for each of these, and maybe you might even want to vary the line up depending on the song.

2. long and thin, or short and fat?

You’ve decided how to order your separate sections (let’s say SATB for example), but within each section do you line singers up vertically or horizontally? You could have just four rows with one section behind the other.


Or the more traditional way is to have each section side by side:


Or maybe even:


3. all together or split sections?

You’ve fixed on BATS for example, and maybe in traditional side by side formation. But, especially with a large choir, you might want to effectively divide the choir into two halves (or even more) to make for a more homogenous mix of voices.

So instead of lining up as BATS, you split each section into two and line up as BATSBATS (or even BATSBATSBATS).

You might even want to put some space between these two mini choirs. In rehearsal it allows each half to hear how the whole song sounds if they sing to each other separately. In performance, you can place these two mini choirs to give the audience more of a stereo effect (see 7 below).

4. quartets or mini choirs?

Maybe you’ve decided to not go for the traditional division into large sections, but to mix the parts up throughout the choir. For accomplished singers you could simply create lots of SATB quartets with a single singer on each part and have them cosy up to each other to form the choir.

But if your singers are not that experienced, you may decide to make these small groups a little larger with more than one person on each part (for support). As you put more and more singers on each part, you will eventually end up with option 3 above which is a little more traditional.

5. random or structured?

For mixed formation, you can use option 4 above and have small quartets nicely positioned to make up your choir. But you could also decide to let people stand at random, wherever they want.

The advantage of this is that it improves singers’ confidence in being able to sing their part just about anywhere standing next to any other part or parts. This is great for rehearsals.

The big disadvantage, especially in performance, is that there might be ‘hot spots’ where all the Altos, say, gravitate to whereas the Tenors might be scattered more randomly.

6. everybody needs good neighbours

Whichever approach you use, how do you decide which singers stand next to which singers? In traditional formation, you’ll need to decide how, for example, which Sopranos stand next to which other Sopranos. In mixed formation, you’ll need to decide which singers make up each quartet.

Some things to consider are:

  • vocal blend – put similar quality voices together
  • friendship – probably not a good idea to put singers together if they really dislike each other!
  • height – obviously put taller people at the back and smaller at the front (unless you’re using risers, see 7 below)
  • confidence – you don’t want all your confident singers standing next to each other and all your inexperienced singers together. Mix them up.
  • disposition – some singers find it easier and more natural to smile whilst singing, whereas others might frown with the concentration. You might want to feature the sunnier types more prominently.
  • skills – if you have any choreography or clever stuff in performance, put the singers who can do it the best in the most prominent places.

7. the geography of performance

Many of the choices you make will be influenced by where and how you are performing.

  • outdoors – the wind can easily whip voices away, so best to find ways of standing close. Whereas indoors, with a good acoustic, singers can be more spaced out.
  • rising up? – if you have risers or other ways of creating levels, you’ll need to work out how best to place singers regarding things like singers heights, if there are gaps between the risers, anybody with mobility problems (or fear of heights!), whether you can squeeze a whole section onto one riser, etc.
  • obstacles – many churches have awkwardly placed pillars or fixed pulpits and pews. You might need to rethink your master plan on the day. Non-church venues often have restricted view seats too.
  • carte blanche – if you’re lucky enough to have completely free reign over a space including the seating, you suddenly have more options: have the audience in the middle and surround them with the choir, place small choirs in different parts of the venue, scatter individual singers in hidden places, split the choir in two to create a true stereo effect – the list is endless
  • practice, practice, practice! – if you are going to try something novel (especially if you throw it at the choir on the day of the performance) make sure they are ready. Either rehearse in the unusual formation, or move singers around regularly so they are experienced at being in many different formations.

weird and wonderful

I’d love to hear of your experiences with choir formations. Have you done anything you consider to be very unusual? Have you adapted to venues or do you always to do the same old thing? As a singer, do you find this moving about exciting or scary? Are some formations better than others? Do leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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