Sunday, May 20, 2012

There's always one! – coping with different singing abilities in a small group

Sometimes in a small group there is just one person out of step with everyone else.

odd one out - poppy

Photo by Trish Steel

In a large choir, it’s not too much of a problem, but the smaller the group, the more noticeable it is. How can we deal with this?

big is easier

Large choirs can cope quite easily with a wide range of different abilities.

There is mutual support from fellow singers; the overall sound is a mix of individual voices (which can cover up lots of small imperfections); emphasis is often on process and not product; and regular rehearsals means that skills can be developed over time.

But in a one-off singing workshop or performing group with only a few people, it becomes much harder to deal with the odd one out.

ways to be out of step

There are many ways in which an individual singer can be out of step with the rest of the group. They can be:

  • an advanced singer who picks things up much faster than anyone else
  • a person with under-developed listening skills
  • a singer who is consistently out of tune
  • someone who struggles with lyrics, especially foreign ones
  • someone who sight reads well whilst the others struggle
  • the rhythmically challenged
  • the singer who can’t move
  • a person who never seems to get their part right

I’m sure there are lots of other issues, but that’s enough to be going on with!


Depending on the particular issue, there are many possible solutions. But what I’m most interested in is the potential disruption that this person might cause and how the other singers can deal with it.

If someone is singing loudly and consistently out of tune, it can make it much harder for the other singers to stay on track.

If someone is struggling with lyrics or their part or sight reading, then it can hold back the group as a whole.

If someone is finding it difficult to perfect dance moves or really get a rhythm right, it might throw a whole performance.

strategies for coping

Here are some strategies:

  • ignore them – just get on with the job at hand and let the individual proceed at their own pace. They will probably get there eventually.

    If it’s an on-going group, they will probably leave of their own accord at some point if they feel they can’t keep up (or are way ahead of the rest). But if it’s a one-day workshop, they’re not going to make much progress, so (without side-lining them) try to keep going without letting them put you off too much.
  • work with them outside the group – offer to give some one-to-one help with the area that’s proving to a be a problem.
  • ask them to leave – not really an option in a one-day workshop, but in an on-going group it might come to this if they are disrupting the group too much. If you’ve tried to help them without success, then your priority now becomes the group as a whole.

    Be gentle and diplomatic. I’ve only once ever had to ask someone to leave a group. They sang loudly, confidently and consistently wrong which put everyone else off in their section. For the greater good I took them to one side and suggested they need to go away and develop their listening skills and unison singing ability. I pointed out that even though it was an open-access group, everyone else happened to have a little more experience than them. I said they could come back any time when they felt they had mastered these new skills.
  • deal with the issue as a group – take whatever the individual is out of step with and use it as a training objective for the whole group. No matter how experienced we are, we can always learn more. It might be pitching, sight reading, holding a part, etc. Devise a series of exercises that challenge everyone in the group (whatever level they’re at).
  • get the group to be supportive – rather than seeing this individual as a hindrance, focus on the group as a whole, pull together and find solutions for making it work for everyone.

I’m sure there is a whole bunch of other strategies that you’ve tried. I’d love to hear from you. Do leave a comment and share your experiences.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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