Monday, September 28, 2015

Fit the song arrangement to your singers and not the other way round

Most singers in choirs don’t fit neatly into choral vocal ranges. Yet we try to squeeze them in to our off-the-shelf arrangements, chastising them when they can’t reach the notes.

community choir
photo by Garry Knight

How about thinking of your singers first and choosing arrangements that fit their voices rather than the other way round?

Singers in community and other non-professional choirs are like Goldilocks: the high notes are a strain, the low notes are too low, and the notes they like are somewhere in the middle and are “just right”.

I reckon that the majority of female singers in my choirs are in the middle of the contralto range and the majority of male singers in the middle of the baritone range. Unfortunately most published arrangements don’t include these ranges, but stick with Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass.

Most of the ‘tenors’ in my choir find that the tenor part goes too high and the ‘basses’ find that the bass part goes too low. They don’t feel fully comfortable in either part. It’s a similar story for the Sopranos and Altos.

I’ve had people join the choir who love being there, but end up leaving after a while because they think they can’t sing. Why is that? Because they can’t hit all the notes in their chosen part.

This is a very common situation. I often get emails from other choir leaders asking me how they should deal with the singers in their choirs who can’t hit all the notes.

Rather than trying to squeeze our singers into the straightjacket of an existing arrangement, I always advise that the singers are considered first. Each choir will have a unique set of voices and vocal ranges so you should choose your arrangements to fit those voices and not the other way round.

Celebrate what your singers can do and not what they can’t!

How can you do that? Here are five ideas:

  1. choose off-the-shelf arrangements carefully – and make sure they fit your singers before you buy. There are plenty of arrangers out there who bypass the big publishers and specialise in arrangements for community choirs.
  2. tweak existing arrangements – not strictly legal if your arrangement is in copyright, but it is possible to swap a few notes between parts or change the octave of the occasional note to make it more singable by your singers.
  3. make your own arrangements – it’s not as hard as you think! That way you can make sure that the ranges suit your particular singers. If you’ve not done it before, start with simple drones or two-part harmonies a third apart.
  4. mix genders – forget the strict SATB rules and mix genders in each part an octave apart. This is what harmony singing in Britain used to be like before the Italians imposed their ‘rules’. It works best with three-part arrangements. This way your singers just have to decide if they’re high, middle or low. It also creates an interesting texture to your choir sound.
  5. create arrangements with your choir – how about trying to harmonise a song with your singers in a choir session? You might be surprised what you/ they come up with. And it’s bound to suit their voices!

I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas out there. Do drop by and share your ideas with us.

Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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