Sunday, October 21, 2012

Energy conservation for singing leaders: how not to get carried away

Last week I wrote about how, as a singer, you can pace yourself in choir rehearsals and singing workshops.


This week I want to consider those of us who lead choirs and singing workshops. How can you avoid using all your energy up too quickly?

First off you can take on board and adapt many of last week’s suggestions for singers:
  • don’t give 100% all the time – especially in rehearsals. Save energy for when it matters.
  • less is more – when you first start out there’s a tendency to over signal, make big gestures, shout, sing loudly and use both hands symmetrically. Once you get more experienced and your singers get used to you, you’ll be surprised how powerful small gestures and gentle speaking can be.
  • you are not alone – it’s not all down to YOU! You might like to think that the whole choir is totally dependent on you, but remember it’s a team and everyone is equally important. This is perhaps the most important consideration and I’ll look at it in detail below.
  • you have nothing to prove – the fact that people have come to your choir or workshop means that they know you have something to offer. Just be yourself. Don’t try to prove yourself all the time. People will see through you if you’re not being natural!
  • be your own version of a choir leader – you may know other workshop leaders or choral directors whom you admire. You can learn a lot from them, but don’t try to be them.
  • don’t try too hard – do what you can do, do it the best you can, and let the rest take care of itself. Work within your limits, take into account your context (are you coming down with a cold? has it been a busy week?) and adapt accordingly. If you’re not a natural tenor or soprano, for example, don’t try to sing that part at pitch when teaching a song.
  • check in with yourself – don’t lose sight of yourself and your own needs. Check in with yourself regularly. Are you breathing properly? Has tension started to creep in? Do you need to sit down? Are you using your voice properly? Can you do what you’re doing more easily, using less energy?
  • it’s not that important – it’s a good idea every now and then to step back and get some perspective. We can all too easily get sucked into trying to make a song perfect and forget that, in the greater scheme of things, it’s just a bunch of people singing. See also Calm down dear, it’s only a song!
  • pace yourself and take breaks – you know how long the session is, so make sure you parcel out your energy appropriately. If you feel you need a break, there’s a good chance that the singers need one too, so everyone will be happy! Lots of subconscious work (and socialising) goes on in these down times. They are important.
  • take some time off – leading choirs and singing workshops is very tiring, no matter how well we pace ourselves. So you’ll need to factor in some time off. It’s part of the job. A colleague came to the same conclusion as I have recently: for every one-day workshop we run, we needed two days to recover.

let others do the work

This is possibly the most important issue for choir and singing workshop leaders.

We have a tendency to believe that we alone are keeping the whole thing afloat. Everyone depends on us. We stand out front and mouth the words, use our faces manically, wave our arms enthusiastically and smile with every ounce of our being. If we were to stop then the whole thing would collapse.

The trouble is, the longer we continue to believe this, the more our singers will depend on us and it becomes a vicious circle.

If you persist with this view you will end up giving all your energy away. The more you smile and give out energy, the less the singers need to give because you’re doing it all for them!

You are there as an enabler or facilitator. Your ultimate goal should be to make yourself redundant, or at least to be there just as a gentle guide. Your aim is to empower the singers.

Practice backing off and you’ll be surprised how capable the singers are without you. Plus they will learn to be more self-sufficient, to listen more, to work better as a team and gain confidence and a sense of ownership.

ways of backing off

Here are a few simple examples of how you can give more responsibility to the singers (and hence use less energy yourself!).
  • make your conducting gestures smaller – and smaller and smaller until they are virtually invisible. And use your face less. Stop mouthing words. Get the choir to fade out, sing silently in their heads, then come back in again.
  • speak very quietly (or not at all!) – one of the best ever choir sessions I had was when I lost my voice. Everything was much calmer, singers were more attentive, and everyone listened better. You can read about my experience here: No energy? Sing different, sing better
  • count them in then leave – singers find it easy to pass all the responsibility onto you. Just start the song and then wander off. After the initial shocked look on their faces they usually manage the song perfectly well!
  • get someone else to lead – as you become more confident as a singing leader, you might want to try asking if someone else would like to have a go at conducting. Or you might ask different people to listen to the group and then offer feedback to the singers.
  • try different placements of singers – complacency and habit set in very fast. Some singers rely totally on the other singers around them and you to lead them. Try splitting the group in two and getting each half to sing to the other. Or divide everyone into small groups of four, with one singer from each part. Initially everyone can be close together, but as they get more accomplished you can separate groups more or even get one or two groups to sing on their own.
  • do nothing! – I used to teach theatre at Coventry University. One morning I arrived at a practical session feeling very tired and in a bad mood. Lots of students were late and I decided I wouldn’t start until everyone had arrived. I just stood silently in the corner glaring! Slowly the group felt that they ought to do something. So they started the warm up and then went into several exercises we’d done before. They almost ran the whole session themselves whilst I said and did nothing!
By trying things like this you will come to realise that you are not entirely indispensible! And yet your singers will still love you and need you to lead them.

further reading

You might want to check out these other posts which deal with how we look after ourselves as singing leaders.

Little voice
Taking care of ourselves as choir and singing leaders
What I did on my summer holiday – why we all need a break sometime
Don’t stress about things you can’t control
How to deal with unwanted talking during choir rehearsals without killing anybody

over to you

I’d love to hear other ideas from you singing leaders out there. Do you have any handy hints to help us conserve our energy whilst working? Do leave a comment and share your experiences.

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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