Monday, October 20, 2014

Is one of your choir sections thin on the ground? 10 ways to find more singers to fill the gaps

Many of us are in choirs where a particular section needs bolstering. In my case it’s a lack of altos, for others it might be too few tenors.

mixed choir

Here are 10 ideas for beefing up a particular voice part.

Before you go to the trouble of trying to find singers from outside your choir, you might find that the people you want are right under your nose.

1. recruit from within
Do a range test for the whole choir. You can make this a fun journey of discovery. I did it once and a soprano discovered that she had an amazing tenor voice, and one of the tenor women found she could singer higher than any of the sopranos!

Remember though that range is not enough on its own (see Everybody has a place in the choir). The singer needs to be comfortable and have their sweet spot within that range. We don’t want people straining.

Many open-access community choirs don’t test for vocal range and allow singers to join whichever section they want (I even encourage singers to move parts for different songs). This means that an inexperienced singer who joins the choir just goes wherever they think they might belong, which is not necessarily the right place for them. They then just stay there out of habit.

2. let women sing tenor (or men sing alto)
For many formal choirs this is sacrilege (see Can women sing tenor?). But in many community choirs where the overall range is not that large, women and men can happily sing tenor together.

If you’ve never considered this before, give it a try. Some women can even sing bass believe it or not (put those lazy stereotypes to one side!), and some men might like to sing counter-tenor and join the altos.

3. mix genders in each voice part
Until those pesky Italians came over and forced us into unnatural SATB voice brackets, English harmony singing often had both genders singing each part. This makes for a wonderful mix doubling up each part an octave apart to create a rich texture.

If you have few men, make sure you spread them evenly throughout the parts. Then it’s just a question for individuals whether they prefer to sing high, middle or low.

4. have less parts
If you’re struggling to balance parts when singing four-part harmony, then why not simply reduce the number of parts?

I have far more tenors and sopranos in my choir than altos and sometimes this causes real problems. But we’re currently singing a Georgian song in just three parts. I put all the men on bass (which is really baritone so not too low for the tenors), and then just split the women into two equal halves: low and not-so-low.

5. find better arrangements
It may be that you have the singers in your choir, but the arrangements you’ve chosen are not suited to their voices.

If your soprano section is small, it may be because the part is too high. Similarly if you have too few basses, it may be that most of your men are tenors or baritones and the arrangement goes too low. Fit the songs to your singers, not the other way round.

6. find out why singers don’t want to be in that part
Sometimes a particular part can get a bad rap. The tenor line is often seen as boring (one note) or difficult (too many accidentals). The soprano line is often thought of as the tune. And many other misconceptions.

If you make sure you choose a variety of different kinds of arrangements, then each part gets to be ‘interesting’ for at least one song. You can also disabuse singers of some of these misconceptions and persuade them to try a different part for a change. If you have a chat with the choir you can find out exactly why one part might be thin on the ground.

7. give the smallest section in your choir the best part
If you find that one section in your choir has very few singers then make them feel special by giving them the best part. You might find other singers suddenly wanting to join them!

If you usually have the tune in the soprano part, try giving it to the tenors if there aren’t many of them. If you have a solo line, give it to the small, but perfectly formed, foursome who make up your tiny alto section.

8. run a targeted singing workshop
And if none of the above solve your problem, then you’ll have to look outside your choir. Don’t just do a general recruitment drive as you may simply make the problem worse. If you’re a choir that doesn’t audition, then it’s hard to ask for (and check) for particular voice types.

Why not run an open-access singing day aimed specifically at the vocal range you’re trying to recruit?

If you need basses or tenors, you can focus on the bloke angle. For basses it could be “Sing like a bloke” for tenors it could be “Find your inner Pavarotti/ Thom Yorke” (choose a suitable angle or role model to suit the age range and repertoire of your choir).

If it’s sopranos you’re after, then maybe go for the diva or operatic approach.

Altos are a little harder, but then maybe target women who think they can’t sing, especially those who think they can’t sing because they can’t sing that high or that low. Remind them that Billy Holliday only had a one octave range!

9. take the section concerned out on the road ...
... and demonstrate how wonderful that vocal range can sound.

You want to show people how cool it is to sing that particular part and make them want to join in. Choose your demo songs carefully to show off your singers (and their vocal range) to the best. Get the audience to join in (teach them a simple song in the appropriate voice range) and show them how easy it is. Have leaflets to give out with all your choir details.

10. team up with other local choirs
Other choirs in your area might have similar problems but for different sections. You may be able to do transfers to balance your two choirs out. Or if one choir has a surplus of the part you need, get them to send new singers your way instead of taking them on themselves. It can be mutually beneficial.

Well, that’s all that I could come up with. I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas out there (or proof that my ideas don’t work!).I’d love to hear from your own experiences whether you have a shortage of tenors or need more altos. Do leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Until next time!

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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