Monday, April 27, 2015

What should individual singers focus on when performing as part of a choir or small group?

Whether you sing harmony in a small group or a large choir there are many things demanding your attention: other singers, conductor, audience, your own part, remembering lyrics, sheet music, and so on.

Magnifying glass
photo by andercismo

But what is the most important thing to focus on? It turns out that there are several.

When we perform as singers in a group, there are all sorts of things we have to focus on. The worst thing we can do is to “zone out”, get totally lost in the music and start daydreaming.

At first it can all seem overwhelming, rather like when we first learn to drive a car. But over time it is possible to leave some things to our subconscious and put all our energy into focusing on the important things.

None of this is rocket science, but it’s all too easily forgotten in the excitement of live performance.

Here’s a reminder of the important elements.

inside vs. outside

To perform effectively as part of any harmony singing group – whether it’s a trio or a 100-voice choir – we need to focus both inside the group and outside the group.

Our inside focus needs to be both within our part (if there are several singers on each part) and between parts. We need to be aware of blending our voice, balancing volume (both with other singers and with the other harmonies), keeping time (and making sure we are matching the rhythm of the lyrics with the other singers).

Our outside focus needs to be on the audience: communicating the meaning and feeling of the song, connecting with audience through eye contact and engagement, projecting sufficiently to be heard properly and also on the conductor (if we have one).

Studies into so-called ‘multi-tasking’ have shown that we are actually very bad at it. We are not truly able to focus our attention on several things at once. What we do is shift our attention quickly between each thing that demands our focus.

So we need to constantly and quickly shift our focus between inside and outside.

It’s very easy to forget this and to choose just one thing to focus on (e.g. watching the conductor like a hawk or pleasing the audience) in which case the other elements will begin to suffer (e.g. tuning or timing or balance).

ears vs. eyes

Many choirs use sheet music or lyric sheets in performance. However, we live in a very visual culture and it’s all too easy to get our heads stuck in our books.

I might know the lyrics to a song inside out and have sung it for years, but as soon as you put the lyrics in my hand, I will start to look at them and find it hard to look away.

The most important sense when singing harmony in a group is our hearing. But it’s very easy to forget this when we have something to look at (audience, conductor, sheet music, lyrics).

So like the inside/ outside focus shift outlined above, we need to constantly shift our focus between our ears and our eyes with a definite bias towards our ears.

focus of attention in rehearsal

In performance we constantly shift between inside and outside and between ears and eyes. After a while these shifts become second nature. Things only become problematic when we get stuck with our focus on just one thing to the exclusion of other, equally important elements.

But in rehearsal we can be directed to focus on a single element in order to refine our group singing or to work on particular aspects of a song. For example, your choir leader might ask you to focus on volume the first time through, but then the blend or enunciation the next time through.

This is fine as a rehearsal tool, but there is no way that you can focus on all these different elements in performance.

When you come to perform you need to trust that the fine detail work has been done and not try consciously to apply any of the specific work you did in rehearsal.

You just need to remember inside/outside and ears/eyes.

further reading

You might also find these other posts of interest.

Singing is all about listening

10 exercises guaranteed to get your singers listening more carefully

Singing in harmony – small group skills

Singing in a choir – balancing individual freedom with the demands of the team

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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