Monday, August 27, 2018

Choir leaders, are you doing too much for your singers?

I’m not looking for sympathy, but leading a choir can be hard work!

photo by Jean-Marc Volta

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe you’re working too hard. It’s possible to do less and get the same results.

Never mind all the behind-the-scenes work that choir leaders do, just being in front of a choir can be exhausting.

I see many choir leaders waving their arms around frantically, mouthing words, sending tons of energy out to their singers, indicating every little nuance of each song, signalling madly with their eyes in order to get results, and more. I get tired just watching!

It’s as if the choir leader is trying to do everything for the singers, and not allowing them to just get on with it.

Some of this can be fear (“I hope they get it right”), some of it is about control (having led rehearsals for so long, it’s sometimes hard to let go in performance), and some of it can be ego (“I’m important, they can’t do it without me”).

The fact is that your singers are often far more accomplished than you think they are. You’re just not giving them the chance to shine if you try to do everything for them.

Here are some things that you can try which will make your life easier and not use up so much energy.

  • conduct smarter – find the least you can get away with to get the effects you want. Remember you have two hands and arms. Don’t just mirror what the other is doing. Use one arm and hand for the main work, and the other for subtleties. Yes, bigger gestures can mean more energy, but you’ll end up being exhausted. There are other ways to get more from your choir without draining your own energy.
  • what’s the least you can get away with? – in rehearsal try gradually minimising your input to see how little you can get away with whilst still getting the same results. A raised eyebrow from stillness can signal a great deal. You might just need to count the choir in, then watch and listen to them.
  • do the work in rehearsal – if you rehearse well then the choir will know what to do. There is no need to re-emphasise it in performance. Your job is basically done by that point. There is a wonderful video of Leonard Bernstein conducting a performance of a string quartet. Basically he stand with his eyes shut bathing in the beautiful music. He’d done all the work in rehearsal.
  • trust your singers – if you take control all the time, you’ll never let your singers discover what they’re capable of. Use plenty of listening exercises. Divide the choir into small groups. Get half the choir to sing to the other half. Rehearse in the dark. There are loads of things you can do to build your singers’ confidence so they stop relying on you.
  • don’t do the singers’ job for them – when you’re standing in front of your choir you can be seen as a solo performer with the singers as your audience. They can end up being too passive as you do all the work for them. The more you express what they’re supposed to be expressing, the less they need to do it. They also end up performing for you rather than the audience. The singer’s focus should be on communicating with the audience, not having their eyes glued on you.
Here are some other posts that you might find useful:

Should conductors mouth the words for their choirs?

Make your choir leading easier by doing less

Trust me – you know it makes sense

Don’t let your choir leader do all the work – realise how capable you are as a singer

Does your choir need a conductor?

Your job as a choir leader is to disappear

Do let me know if you’ve found any of these ideas useful, or if you have any other useful tips to add. I’d love to hear from you.

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Chris Rowbury



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