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Sing Baby, Sing! Crisp Commands for Choral Singing and Choirs

Updated on June 23, 2013


Question: How many choir directors does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: It doesn’t matter. Nobody listens to choir directors anyway.

-- Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion


If you just laughed at that lame joke, I know who you are. You enjoy choral singing. And I bet you’ve been doing it for a few years.

Your choir director is there to help you achieve a certain kind of sound that he favors. How can you get there?

I like to think my ear is good for something. For years, I had heard of a nationally renowned singing group (they are now defunct). Finally, I downloaded a few of their selections to my IPod. Blah…. Way too precise, way too pristine. No character whatsoever. I almost concluded that I was listening to machine voices, and I’m one who really appreciates a cappella singing. Perhaps, through sound mixing, their director got just the sound he wanted, but he may have sacrificed a certain passion that his group possibly achieved at the live performance.

What’s the problem? Maybe we need a few imperfect vowels on any CD. Maybe we need a hint of a regional accent now and again. Maybe we need a little charm…. or something!

Don't Aim For Perfection


Perfection is not really achievable, though good sound mixing for a choir can help cover up unevenness. To use an example from the world of art, the best oriental rug weavers will leave one imperfection in their rug (not necessarily visible to the novice). That’s so their work can be distinguished from the thousands of other, perhaps inferior, examples out there.

So, how do you do your best choral singing, and not aim for perfection?

Eyes Up


Watch your director frequently during your performance. Get your head out of the music! By looking down too much, you’re preventing the sound from projecting out.

Choral groups always sing best from memory. But I have sung with many directors who do not require that their choir members memorize the music for a major performance. If you’re reading from the music, then keep your eyes up! One way to do this successfully (after you’ve become somewhat familiar with the text) is to let your eyes scan across an entire phrase, like “Angels in the evening sky, sing gloria”. Then immediately look up and watch your director. Look down again for the next phrase, and repeat.

Put Your Ego Aside


You may have sung for many weddings and funerals because you’re good. Perhaps you’ve won several singing competitions since high school, and your baritone pierces through the droning sounds around you like a unique guffaw from a sitcom laugh track. But in a chorus, you’ve got to blend your beautiful singing voice with all the others around you. Tone down that strong vibrato if necessary, and concentrate on teamwork.

If you’re a singer with a need for attention, may I suggest making the rehearsals fun with well-timed one-liners? Most choir directors are a riot themselves, but even those who aren’t will appreciate your sense of the ridiculous. To get attention, you could also volunteer to be in charge of a choir project.

The Most Important Thing

Joy. Sing with emotion appropriate to the piece you’re performing. Advanced techniques can help achieve the best shading, but what you’re singing comes from your heart. It’s energy, reverberating around and into the void before you.

Without energy, your choir could miss out on sheer greatness. If you’re a member of a church choir, then God has called you to be a worship leader. Make the most of it. Even if you’re a member of a secular choir, you have to know that people went even more out of their way to hear your group sing. Remember, in effect, you’re an actor, so play your role well. If your choir is not into its performance, you’ll sound tired and bored.

It’s true that if you don’t connect to the compositions you’re singing, it will be difficult for your choir to achieve the goals the director sets for your performances. It may take time for you to find a chorus where you feel comfortable with the style of music and the director’s methods. Keep looking, though.

What Was That About Perfection Again?

Look up. Blend in. Sing out with joy.

Will you possibly miss a word or two of the text by keeping your eyes on the director half the time? Probably. Could it be that while you’re trying to blend in, that second soprano in front of you draws you off? Yes. Will you feel silly over-emphasizing child-like awe in a phrase about the creation, when the person next to you is probably thinking about lunch? Could be.

But as a choral singer, you should do nothing less. And you’ll come close to achieving that unique sound your director wants for you.

Question: How many choral singers does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Two, silly. Everyone knows you have to get permission from the choir director to take a breath before doing anything.



St. Paul's Cathedral Singers - Awesome Video!

Photo Credits

 Photo of Tracy Community Choir by daveparker


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