Sunday, April 07, 2013

Why being a confident singer is not always a good thing in a choir

I’m all in favour of confident singers (see How to be a confident singer). The problem is there are two kinds and one of them can be disruptive in a choir.

photo by truu

There are confident singers who know what they’re doing; and there are those who don’t. It’s the latter who can cause real difficulties.

confident singing is a good thing ...

I’ve written before that if you don’t know (or like) a song, then don’t sing it. But no matter how many times I say it, there are choir members who are always happy to “just busk it” even though they don’t really know what they’re doing.

I’m a great believer in behaving as if you know what you’re doing. This is shorthand for “99% of the time you’ve got it right, so don’t sing tentatively or look so worried!”

I also advocate singing loud and proud and making big mistakes so you can learn from them. If you always sing hesitantly because you’re never quite sure of your part, then you’ll never really find out if you’re right or not.

See also You are the most important singer in your choir and Handy hints for hesitant singers – 10 tips for singers new to choirs.

... except when it’s not!

But what I don’t want is those singers who sing loudly and confidently and are consistently wrong!

The biggest problem is that because they are loud and confident they will confuse or even put off others in the same part. Their mistakes might not be that evident to the conductor out front or in the overall mix if it’s a large choir, but to those standing next to them it can be really disruptive – whether it’s in rehearsal or in performance.

There are many reasons why people sing loudly and confidently even though they’re singing it wrong. Here are some:
  • they don’t want anyone to know that they might not be “keeping up”
  • they are nervous and unsure so need to put on a front or a falsely confident persona
  • they are just trying to “keep up with the Joneses” and feel that they ought to know it by now (everyone else does)
  • they feel inadequate and insecure so need to ‘demonstrate’ their superior musical abilities and knowledge
  • they’re not really a team-player and perhaps not suited to a choir
  • they want to please ‘teacher’
and so on ...

But whatever the reasons, these over-confident singers can be divided into two broad categories:
  1. those who know they’re getting it wrong
  2. those who think they’re getting it right

those who know they’re getting it wrong

The first kind are easier to deal with. You can:
  • point out to them that they’re putting others off and ask them to be more responsible;
  • spend extra time with them to make sure they’re getting it right;
  • reassure them that they have nothing to prove and they are as valued a choir member as any other;
  • encourage them to ask questions whenever they’re not sure (see Ask questions – your choir leader won’t bite);
  • give them permission not to perform a particular song (which might bring a sigh of relief!)

those who think they’re getting it right (but aren’t)

The second group of singers is harder to deal with as they lack sufficient self-awareness (see The secret to great singing that teachers don’t tell you).

It’s very hard to help or correct someone who doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong in the first place!

You will almost certainly need to take singers like this to one side and let them know that they’re not getting it right, and, more importantly, are putting others off. You’ll need a delicate approach because even though they appear confident, singers like this can be easily startled and come to believe that they can’t really ‘sing’.

Once  you’ve made them aware of the situation, you will probably need to have some one-to-one remedial sessions with them. It may be that they’re just not hearing the part correctly (either literally or musically), or are easily put off by other harmonies (see Singing in harmony – how do they do that?), or are not listening carefully enough (see Singing is all about listening).

Whatever the problem, once you’ve discovered what’s at the root, you can help the singer and hopefully their overall awareness and misplaced confidence will improve.

how to uncover the culprits

As I mentioned above, often the musical director is the last person to know that there’s a problem, especially in a large choir. It’s important that individual choir members feel that they can approach the MD in confidence and share any concerns they may have about other singers in their section (see Trust me – you know it makes sense).

However, you won’t want to encourage ‘tittle tattle’ where singers start to gossip and complain about each other (I’ll be writing more about this later). It’s a subtle balance.

Sometimes it might just be a matter of chemistry or personality clash between singers, or even different ways of approaching being a choir member. Some come just for fun, whilst for others it’s very important to be accurate and do homework. If this is the case, it’s often possible to move people or even whole sections around so certain singers don’t have to stand next to each other.

As a last resort it might even be necessary to ask individuals to leave the choir (see also Dealing with individual singers in a large choir).

even confident singers who get it right can have problems

Even if you are a confident singer who DOES get everything right, there is another danger within a choir: the other less-confident singers in your part might come to depend on you.

This is not really fair and places a lot of responsibility on someone who has come to have a fun time singing. It’s different if you’ve been elected as section leader, but often the responsibility is thrust upon you unknowingly.

If this happens, have a quiet word with your choir leader. They can maybe remind the choir in general How to be a good choir member and that every choir member is the most important singer in your choir. They can also split sections up and move people around in rehearsal so that no one person becomes ‘leader’ in their section.

your own experiences

I’d love to hear from singers and choir leaders who have experienced the kind of things I’ve written about here. I’m sure there are many other solutions that I’ve not thought of. Do pop by and leave a comment.

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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