Monday, November 20, 2017

Four ways that your choir can begin a song badly – and how to correct them

It’s wonderful when a choir starts a song in a crisp and precise way. But there are so many ways in which this can go wrong.


How can we ensure that every singer gets off to a good start?

There are so many ways that a song can start badly that it’s a surprise that it doesn’t happen more often!

Here are four main areas to work on to ensure that songs start well.

1. the inaccuracies of starting notes

I’ve written before about how starting notes can be given out (How to give and receive starting notes) and how they are received by singers.

There is plenty of room for errors here.

If your choir leader uses an instrument to get the first note, then sings it to the choir, there is scope for inaccuracy. If the first note is given out accurately, but not heard properly by the singers, there is scope for inaccuracy. If the first note is given and received accurately, but a singer is not able to reproduce what they’ve heard perfectly, there is scope for inaccuracy.

Then multiply all those little inaccuracies by the number of singers in your choir and you have plenty of different candidates for starting notes.

what to work on: minimise the scope for inaccuracies by cutting out as many intermediate stages as possible. The best way to give notes is to play them on an instrument to the choir. Practice this in rehearsal. You may choose to give just the root note or the whole starting chord. Spend time starting your choir in many different keys. Have different sections ‘duet’ (I.e. just two harmony parts sing at the same time) with their starting notes to check that they are pitching accurately. With a SATB choir that means six possible combinations of duetted parts.

2. producing the first note(s)

The starting note(s) have been given out precisely and everyone in your choir has heard them accurately. All is set for the song to start.

Several things can go wrong at this stage.

There is always a time gap between giving out starting notes and the beginning a song. Plenty of time for singers to forget the note they’ve been given.

Even if a singer remembers their note precisely, there’s no guarantee that they will then sing it perfectly in tune. Often what happens is that a singer ‘scoops’ up onto a note. They slide up to it from underneath (or, less often, they might swoop down on it from above). This can be due to lack of breath control, but also because of the slight delay between producing a sound and then hearing that it’s slightly wrong.

what to work on: spend time getting each section of your choir singing back the note you give them. Aim at reducing scoop to zero. Give plenty of feedback as many singers won’t realise when they’re doing it. Also practice putting delays between giving out the note and them reproducing it. Let them practice taking a single effective in-breath just before they make a sound.

3. a jump-start from silence

Most songs begin from silence. There is an awful lot that happens between the conductor’s hand signal and the sound of the first notes of a song. It’s quite a task to gear up the whole vocal mechanism so that it smoothly eases into a song. A bit like pushing a car in order to jump start it. It takes far more concentration and energy than most singers realise. Once the song is up and running, it’s much easier to move from note to note.

what to work on: an image I use is of a moving train. Imagine a long freight train moving slowly past you. That’s the song. It’s already started and you simply have to ease your way on board with no effort at all. Much easier than trying to begin from a standing start. Get singers to use hand gestures to indicate as they move into the song. Practice with both loud and soft entrances.

4. watch those hands

Even if the song is accompanied, your choir leader will use hand gestures to bring you in together at the start of each song. You may think you understand how these hand gestures work, but they are open to interpretation. Also, if you’re not using all your energy and focus to watch your conductor, the song won’t start well.

what to work on: choir leaders shouldn’t assume that all their singers understand all their gestures all of the time (see How to use gestures to conduct your choir effectively). Explain clearly to your choir how you intend to bring them in at the start of a song. Does it differ from song to song? Do you count them in? Do you intend them to breath on the upbeat? There are no fixed ways of doing things, but just make sure your singers understand your way. Then when you do start a song, make sure your gestures are clear an unambiguous. That entails knowing the song inside out!

I hope these few hints will help your choir get off to a better start. I’d love to hear how it works out for you. Good luck!

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Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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