Keeping it all together

Choir Conductor

I often ask my choirs how many voices there are in the choir.  It’s not really meant to be a trick question – the answer is of course One. It doesn’t matter how many choir members or how many parts they are split into. Ultimately a choir should be lots of voices blending and singing together as one.  Of course, from time to time there will be solos and some parts singing different rhythms, so the One voice analogy shouldn’t be taken too literally. But it is a good thing to keep in mind when singing with your choir.

Last week, I talked about listening when you were singing together in order to learn a new song. Singing together is also heavily reliant on listening to others as well as watching the conductor.

What is the conductor actually doing?

It’s a point often overlooked by many conductors of amateur choirs. I’ve noticed that a lot of people who have professional training in music and choral conducting tend to assume their choir members understand the intricacies of conducting.  I think it’s probably fair to say that anyone who sings in a choir understands that the person stood out the front facing them, is there to try and keep the choir together. But what exactly should you be watching for and how does it help?

At the most basic level, the conductor is there to beat time, a bit like a metronome or a drummer.  Dare I say it there are a few conductors of amateur choirs who seem to struggle with even this basic concept. I see so many ‘musical directors’ of community choirs who basically just stand in front of the choirs and sort of dance along with the singing!  In case you wondered, this is not the role of a conductor!

Beating time:

Any musical director who has had even the most basic training in conducting will know that the most important reference for the choir is the down beat.  That’s to say bringing your hand down to indicate the first beat of the bar.  Even if your choir doesn’t have the music or can’t read the music, a clear downward stroke using the right hand indicates the basic pulse and goes some way towards giving the choir the timing.

Bringing singers in:

Most choir members will at some point in their singing career have heard the conductor lamenting about people watching.   One of the key roles of a conductor is to bring singers in together. However, this is more than just pointing in their direction when they are due to come in. You need to prepare the singers. Remember coming in together also means breathing together.

For the choir members this means they will need to watch the conductor for their cues.  If you aren’t using music that should be easy. If you are singing from the music, look ahead for entry points and make sure you are at least looking at the conductor in the few beats before your entry. That way you can pick up the beat and entry and in theory the entire section will come in together! Obviously the same is true at the end of phrases.

How does listening help?

However good your conductor is, there is still no substitute for listening!  Things you should be listening to include:

  • Performance directions being given by the musical director (a pencil is handy at this point too!).
  • The other people around you to ensure you are blending with the other voices.
  • Be your own harshest critic. Listen to the sound you are making and focus on your tuning.
  • If you can get hold of a recording of the song and listen to that too.
  • If you choir gives you a rehearsal CD, try listening to this on a regular basis to help you learn your part.

Summary

If you follow these simple tips then you should start to get more confidence when singing with your choir.  Ultimately it is the conductor’s job to keep the choir together, but a conductor is only effective to those choir members who are watching him / her and paying attention to his actions!  If the actions are unclear or no one is watching, then a choir will never be together!