Monday, February 06, 2023

Everything you need to know about choral jargon (but were afraid to ask)

If you’re new to the choral world, you might find some of the terms used a bit unfamiliar.

Don’t worry, I’m here to help! Here’s a glossary of some of the more common choral jargon.

  • choir – 1. the part of a cathedral or large church between the altar and the nave. Can be spelt quire (which is cool).

    2. a group of singers. Well, to be strictly accurate, an organised group of singers. A bit like a singers’ union? Often associated with church services (which is why I don’t like the term much). Sometimes known as a chorale or a chorus. The last one’s a bit confusing because it’s also part of a song!
  • choral – anything pertaining to choirs. Alternatively, a group of genetically identical polyps. A set of tentacles surround a central mouth piece. Need plenty of water. They don’t make much sound.
  • choir leader – somebody who is in charge of a choir (or thinks they are). The person who leads the singers in song: teaching and conducting. Usage: “Take me to your choir leader!”
  • choirmaster – invented by a TV producer to describe Gareth Malone. Now in wider usage. Reminds me of “headmaster” – not a good thing. Not sure if it is gender-neutral. “choirmistress” sounds a bit odd. Shouldn’t there be a space after “choir”?     
  • musical director – the person responsible for all the music elements in your choir. As opposed to the Financial Director, or Company Director, or Movement Director,or Director of Refreshments. Or whichever other directors you have in your choir. Also known as the MD (“My Darling”).
  • conductor – 1. substance or object that allows electricity to flow through it.

    2. a collector of fares on public transport.

    3. the leader of a musical ensemble.

    This last definition is the one that interests us the most. Your conductor may also collect tickets (at the door of the concert) or allow electricity to flow (during a particularly successful performance).
  • choral conductor – see above, but with reference to choirs only.
  • semi-conductor – somebody who stands in for the conductor when they are ill.
  • section leader – a singer who leads a section of the choir. They are sometimes responsible for taking rehearsals for just that section (harmony part). These singers often have their eye on the main job of choir leader (see risers below). They are very good at eye rolling if they don’t agree with the way the choir is being led.
  • rehearsal – a time and place for finding (and demonstrating) all the wrong ways in which a song can be sung.
  • concert – a public demonstration of all the good bits that are left after the rehearsals are over.
  • choral literature – 1. novels which feature choirs in them.

    2. the general body of musical scores and compositions that are used by choirs to create music. Strange terminology since choirs create sound and not writing.
  • tops – those singers who (think they can) reach the highest notes in a song. Commonly used in community choirs (because sopranos sounds too scary). Sometimes they think that tops means they are superior to other singers in some way. They are wrong.
  • middles – commonly used in community choirs for the middle part of a three-part harmony song. These are singers who are frightened by the idea of being tops or basses. Can be confusing in four-part harmony songs. You often find individuals wandering around saying “Where are the middles?”
  • basses – the part that all the men have to sing in three-part harmony songs. Often results in confused tenors and baritones.
  • SATB – “Share All The Biscuits” or typical four-part harmony using Italian words (no idea why): soprano, alto, tenor, bass.
  • SAT – a test to assess academic progress. Or something that singers wish they could do (“I wish I could be SAT down right now”). Or a three-part song arrangement.
  • SAB – a hunt saboteur. Somebody who objects strongly to hunting with dogs. Or a singer who tries to sabotage a harmony part by singing the wrong notes loudly. Or a three-part song arrangement for arrangers who don’t know what to do with the men’s voices (“Oh, just put them all in the bass part”).
  • SSA – Society of Scottish Artists. Or the elite part of the SS. Or a three-part arrangement of a song for women’s voices only.
  • SSSS – a song arranged for tops only, or when your choir leader is trying to get you to sing quieter.
  • risers – singers who want to get to the top. Starting off as a lowly back row singer, they progress to section leader, then have their eyes on taking over the choir. Or singers who like to mock others. Or even small steps or platforms that singers stand on so they can feel a little bit superior to those around them. Or people who always arrive at choir early.
  • robes – similar to aprons worn in the kitchen or by artists to cover their normal clothes. Voluminous, shapeless, identical (often branded) costumes which protect singers’ regular clothes from spittle, wrong notes, and disapproval. Can also be used as a disguise.
  • score – number of boxes ticked off on a choir bingo card. Or tally of mistakes made by a particular section of the choir. Or a piece of paper covered in hieroglyphics used by some singers to distract from their singing.
  • sheet music – musical notes written on a large sheet so everyone can see. Not to be confused with blanket music. Alternatively, a piece of paper covered in hieroglyphics used by some singers to distract from their singing.
  • starting note – a sharp sound made to signify the start of a choral race. Usually such races are won by whichever vocal section gets to the end of the song first. Or a musical note which bears some relationship to how a song starts. Often overlooked.
  • finale – the last song in a concert. Or the end of a choir’s existence (whichever comes first).
  • encore – the finale is never the last song in a concert. There is always at least one more. Encore is French for “again”, but most choirs don’t sing something again, they sing another, entirely different song. Go figure.
  • a cappella – when your choir can’t afford an accompanist.
  • backing track – pre-recorded music that makes your choir sound much, much better than it actually is.

I’m sure there are plenty of other terms that you’d like to know about. Do let me know and maybe I’ll write another post. Or you may even have your own definitions. We’d love to hear.

Chris Rowbury


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