Sunday, March 03, 2013

Size matters: how to work effectively with large choirs

If I get 30 singers on one of my weekend workshops someone will say “Gosh, what a large group!” whilst another says “Quite low numbers then.”

massed choir
photo by tsheko

‘Large’ is in the eye of the beholder. But however you define it, working with a large group has its own problems.

difficulties of working with a large group

Here are some of the things you have to deal with when working with a ‘large’ choir:
  • keeping everyone engaged – don’t focus on just one part for too long or the others will get restless (see How to teach (and learn) a song by ear about breaking songs up into small chunks) 
  • being heard – with a lot of people, the volume of chit chat is inevitably greater, so sometimes you end up shouting to make yourself heard. 
  • maintaining focus – the more people there are, the more easily it is for singers to get distracted. It’s also hard for you to keep an eye on everyone all the time. 
  • giving individual attention – it’s hard to deal with individual problems and difficult to develop subtle training week on week if you can’t give individual attention to every singer. 
  • working with subtleties and quiet dynamics – is much harder with lots of voices. 
  • logistics of using the space – hard to work in a circle if there are lots of singers. Do you need chairs? Where can you put words up so that everyone can see them? Can you find a big enough rehearsal space? Can every singer see you? Do you need risers or a conductor’s platform? 
  • helping everyone to listen better – can you get your large group to work as an ensemble, perhaps even doing without a conductor? (see Singing is all about listening
  • stopping singers from hiding – it’s easy for singers to ‘hide’ and rely on stronger voices in their section. Make sure singers don’t hide behind ‘usual suspects’ in each part (see Everybody has a place in the choir). 
  • hard to deal with individual singers who are ‘off’ – there maybe something not quite right in the Altos, but you just can’t put your finger on it. Because it’s such a large group you can’t identify the individual singer who is singing loud and out of tune. And even if you could, you don’t really want to single them out if front of everyone. See also Dealing with individual singers in a large choir

some possible solutions

  • work on different days – offer different rehearsal days to suit different people. Do exactly the same thing on each day, then come together for concerts (the Gettin’ Higher Choir in Canada do this). 
  • have sectional rehearsals – if you have a large enough venue you can split off into different rooms, or maybe call different sections on different days/ weeks. 
  • use more than one musical director – several choirs do this, one of which is the Bristol Gasworks Choir
  • assign section leaders – choose the strongest, most experienced singer from each part. 
  • split into two choirs – and each watch the other half. It’s amazing how much can be learnt from this exercise, plus you can focus on more detailed work with a half-sized choir. 
  • set ground rules – especially when you need to get everyone’s attention. e.g. use a drum or rattle; put your hand in the air; use a sung call. 
  • hand over some of the jobs – if you try to be a one-person show with a large group it can end up being exhausting. Obvious practical tasks like setting out he chairs or putting the hot water urn on can easily be delegated. But you can go further and get help with organising rehearsals, contacting choir members, finding venues, booking concerts, etc. leaving you more time to focus on the music. 
  • split the choir up differently – don’t stand in the same formation every week. Singers can get lazy and start to rely on others. Move stronger/ weaker singers around. Try different choir formations, e.g. SATBTAS or even everyone in small quartets SATB spread around the room (see STAB, TABS or ASSBAT – how does your choir line up?
  • one person’s ‘large’ is another’s ‘just right’ – some people relish working with large groups. Maybe it’s not you, but someone else might fit the bill if you’re struggling. I once asked some Zimbabwean singers to run a workshop and said there might be up to 70 people would that be OK. “No problem, we usually work with 200 – 300” !! 
  • offer voice clinics on non-choir days – I offer this option to my choir members. About once a year I set a Saturday aside and work with small groups of 4 – 6 singers to focus on singing technique, etc. Sometimes I offer a ‘repertoire day’ to focus on particular songs as an extra rehearsal. Not all choir members will sign up. Gives you a chance to offer some individual attention and to fine tune things.

what are your approaches?

Do you lead a large choir or sing in one? How do you deal with some of the problems I’ve outlined? Do you have any more solutions to add to the ones I’ve offered?

I’d love to hear your own experiences. Do drop by and leave a comment. I always respond!

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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