Sunday, October 30, 2011

Taking a song from source to performance – the many roles of a choir leader

My main skill is as a teacher of songs to those who don’t read music.

choir rehearsal

Photo by elfsternberg

Other choir leaders have different skills – like polishing songs for performance.

I was at a singing workshop recently and felt that the person leading it wasn’t very good at teaching the songs. But they had some wonderful songs to share that they’d collected from all over the world.

At another workshop the learning experience wasn’t that great, but the person leading it got the most amazing sound out of the group at the end.

It made me realise that not all choir and workshop leaders have the same set of skills and that there are several stages needed to get a song from its source to a performance.

  1. choose song
  2. teach/ learn song
  3. polish song
  4. perform song

Each of these stages requires a different skill. Not all choir leaders are equally good at each role, but we need them all.

choosing songs

Finding repertoire can be as simple as getting a songbook down off a shelf. Or it can mean an extended field trip to a remote culture collecting songs in the field. See also Finding songs for your choir.

Sometimes a choir leader doesn’t have this responsibility, but a committee decides, or a curriculum is imposed, or a repertoire is inherited.

teaching songs

If a choir doesn’t use sheet music, then song teaching becomes very important (see How to teach a song by ear). You need to:

  • break a song down into appropriate chunks,
  • be able to sing it as you want it to sound,
  • keep the interest of all parts whilst others are learning,
  • be able to spot tricky intervals/ rhythms and help singers to nail them
  • demonstrate how the different harmonies work with each other
  • help with pronunciation of foreign words

But if a choir uses written scores and the singers are sight readers, then teaching becomes far less important. More attention is then focused on the next stage: polishing and refining the song.

polishing songs

Once the group has learnt the song it’s time to focus on details of blend, tightening rhythms, honing the tuning, adding dynamics, etc. until the song has been polished and presented in the best way possible.

This is where a good choir leader can get the best out of their singers.

performing songs

Some smaller ensembles don’t need a conductor in performance and their work will have been completed at the rehearsal stage. But larger groups will need a conductor to guide them in the performance of their polished songs. Not only will this keep them on the straight and narrow and hold the whole thing together, but it also allows for changes in the moment: dynamics, repetition of certain phrases, etc.

other roles

If a choir is an open-access choir, then there may be a need for some vocal coaching each week in order to develop and improve individual voices. This is perhaps less necessary in auditioned choruses.

Whatever kind of group you lead, it’s always good to regularly work on ensemble skills: how your singers work together.

You might be a non-performing choir, but make recordings. In which case you’ll need some work on using microphones.

jack of all trades?

Not all choir leaders are equally good at all roles.

Sometimes more than one person can be involved. You might have someone who leads rehearsals or chooses repertoire or does vocal coaching and this may be a different person from the one who conducts or leads the choir.

Whatever your particular skill, that is the one that people come to your choir for. Whether you are a wizard at getting amazing performances from your singers or you provide a unique collection of songs from unusual sources, that is why your singers come each week.

Keep up the good work!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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