I’ve been running choirs now for nearly twenty years, starting at school then university, then conservatoire, abroad, in offices, old-people’s homes, large venues, hospitals, schools, churches, the community and have learnt so much about what makes a happy, well-functioning choir as well as what doesn’t. And the more I learn and experience, the more I realise that although the music-side is, of course, essential, there is so much more to it in terms of a group functioning well and developing together over time. There are the different (difficult) personalities to try and gel together, different vocal sounds, differences in leadership styles, committees and managers to work with, different musical aims of different members….Sometimes the job of a choir conductor can feel like an impossible, uphill struggle where you’re pleasing none of the people none of the time! So here are my top tips for how to change this, dealing with both human and musical problems – it all comes down to the same thing really.
1. Ask Your Choir Members What They Want
This may sound either blindingly obvious or a classic case of asking for everyone’s opinion only to be shouted at by the strongest, most forceful personalities. The important thing about this is to create a process within a choir whereby each member has the opportunity to give feedback. It is really important as leaders, whether committee or choir leader, that we are in touch with what our members think and respond to that. If we don’t have these processes in place then there is a real danger of consistently losing members, throwing the whole existence of the choir into question. Most choirs have some kind of annual meeting, but few seem to have proper systems of communication so that even the quiet, shy personalities can be heard, and lots of choirs have crises and in-fighting, due to forceful personalities bullying the choir-leader or other members into getting what they want.
The next question is how? There is no hard and fast rule, but here are a couple of suggestions:
Post-Its! I got this suggestion from The Real Group Festival in Stockholm a few years ago (I’m not quoting verbatim) , from a workshop with Peder Karlsson (ex Real Group, current conductor of Perpetuum Jazzile and a truly inspiring musician/leader). You have a choir-meeting where you divide everyone into groups of around 6 and give them all a load of post-its. Everyone writes down what they want for the choir (it can be absolutely anything, positive or negative). The groups then swap around places leaving the post-its in situ. The new group arranges the post-it suggestions into themes eg events, warm-ups, socials or whatever is coming up. The groups move around again and present their findings to everyone else. Then lastly (and this is the interesting bit) a new group is formed consisting of the newest choir members who have the lowest status in the choir. This group chooses the suggestions to be acted upon in the coming year. This is a really interesting proposition in that it deals very effectively with the well-known group phenomena: I’ve been here the longest so my opinion has the most validity. It also raises the status of newcomers, as well as providing an impersonal system for implementing changes, which have been put forward by the whole group.
Anonymous Survey. Alternatively, you can send out an anonymous survey, using, say, survey monkey, asking a handful of key questions (repertoire, events, aims, leadership and an open question for any other comments/suggestions) is a good start and means that everyone has a chance to have their say. After this you can go through the responses and see where there’s repetition. The most popular suggestions can then be acted upon, and any other concerns addressed.
2. Get Them to Listen and Respond to Each Other Attentively
This is about active listening in a musical sense, but in my opinion it functions more deeply in a personal sense as well. The amazing thing about it is that it sorts our pretty much every musical problem when it comes to choirs, from intonation, to ensemble, to blend, and encourages each singer to take responsibility, rather than having strong singers and passengers (you know what I’m talking about!) This is based on exercises in a workshop with Anders Edenroth and Katarina Henryson from The Real Group. You take a simple song that everyone knows well eg Amazing Grace and sing it in unison a number of times to check everyone is familiar with the lyrics, tune. You then split the group in half assigning one half the role of “leader” and the other half as “followers”.The “leader”-group both lead/follow each other purely by listening and adapting to each other and have to change the volume. They have no external leader conducting but have to start together and change what they’re doing as they go along. The “follower” group just follow by also listening/adapting to the “leader” group so that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. Everyone singing Amazing Grace together in unison, with the “Leader”-group changing the volume as they wish and the “follower”-group listening and going with them. Then swap the group’s roles so that the “follower” group becomes the “leader”-group. You can also change the criteria so that the “leader”-group has to change the speed or voice quality, for example. I also adapt these kinds of exercises to rounds and other simple songs to further challenge my singers’ listening and adapting to each other. You will find that incorporating these kinds of attentive listening exercises into your warm-ups solves a myriad of choir-issues, especially with singers who have trouble blending or adapting to the group. You can also use these kinds of exercises in a short passage of a song or section, which is proving troublesome and it will be fixed in no time.
3. Socialise in and out of rehearsals
Lots of choirs do this anyway, but I’m not sure that everyone realises how important it is for there to be personal harmony in order to achieve musical harmony. A choir is a group of people with needs, desires, problems and emotions. If I am to sing fully and unconditionally with a group of people, I really need to trust them. And how can we build this trust? By interacting musically and personally. This takes time and thought and needs to take the needs and preferences of different members into account, and in my opinion should involve an element of getting people to talk and integrate with people they don’t usually. I incorporate a lot of ice-breaker games into my choir warm-ups so that everyone talks to everyone else in the group at different times and learns a bit more about each other. I use warm-ups where you have to find a partner and sing a simple vocalise together with some kind of rhythmic punctuation changing partners when you move up a semitone, as well as doing rhythm/name exercises where the whole group taps out a rhythm with a gap. In the gap you go round the circle and say your name, but you can develop it to saying your favourite colour, where you’re from etc. Or even more challengingly, say the name of the person on your left! You can also have social events, such as some kind of activity eg karaoke or a pub quiz, or a bring-a-dish meal so that everyone is contributing something. If it is going to be a simple, free-for-all party then think about starting things off with a simple game to get people mixing up and talking to each other eg The rizla game, where everyone writes the name of a famous person on a rizla and sticks it to someone elses forehead. Then you have to go round asking questions to try and work out who you are.
4. What do YOU need to improve yourself?
As I’ve said above, being a choir-leader is a tough job, requiring not only musical but personal and political qualities! We all have our gripes and moans about the tricky personalities or a terrible rehearsal or whatever it is. BUT as the person standing at the front, your choir unconsciously mirrors you. So if you have a recurrent problem with your choir (the altos sing flat, the basses aren’t in time) then the chances are that the problem is with you, their leader. So rather than blaming them, you may need to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself: do I sing flat in a particular register? Do I always give good musical examples of how I want my singers to sing? Am I prepared enough for my rehearsals? Do I need to invest in professional development for myself? There is absolutely no shame in any of this, and actually, giving out the way we do in choir sessions can be somewhat draining. So have a think about how you can replenish your energies yourself…whether it’s singing more yourself, doing a course, having some singing lessons – whatever it is, you will get so much from it and have more tools to draw on in your choir rehearsals.
5. Praise, praise and more praise!
I keep pointing out that a choir is a group of mere mortals, who come together to make music. I’ve touched on the notion of trust in a group as well as groups functioning with “strong” singers and “passengers”. I also find that when I tell people that I’m a choir director they invariably say “Oh how wonderful! But I can’t sing…” and actually what I think they’re really saying is “I’m way too scared to sing with other people”. There seems to be an idea, even now, with the explosion of community choirs in the UK, that there are those that can and those that can’t sing. We, as choir leaders, are working with people who either feel that they can or who have taken a leap of faith and realised that it’s all about your attitude. They join a choir and grow in confidence, but confidence is such a fragile thing. It takes so long to build up and one harsh or ill-thought comment can shatter it. So praise your choirs! Praise them for turning up and especially for turning up on time and to every rehearsal. Praise them for how they sound, before helping them sound even better, and then praise them even more. Praise them for their hard work, then help them work even harder, and, yes you’ve guessed it, praise them some more! Praise them for their performance, especially if it wasn’t their best and help them understand that it’s the process that is the most important thing. They will grow in confidence and trust, sound more musical than they had ever dreamed and create a strong community of friends and music-makers.