Helping your singers feel like their contribution is important
Date: October 18, 2012
Many thanks to Philip Copeland for the invitation to share with you through the ChoralNet blogs! Let's get to it.
Since coming to the University of North Texas in 2009, one of my choirs was a chamber choir (24-32 voices), the 2nd of the 3 mixed choirs at UNT. This year, for a variety of reasons, Jerry McCoy and I decided to make it a larger choir, around 65.
My own background, especially in the past 12 years or so, has had me conducting chamber choirs, often around 24 singers, not larger groups (unless guest conducting). So this forced me to think of more ways to make sure each member of the choir understood and felt that their contribution is important. Instead of being one of 6-8 in a section, now they're one of 15-17. So it's been a fun process to work to create an atmosphere that says to each singer in the choir: you're important and what you do is crucial!
When I took over the Choir of the West at Pacific Lutheran University, I inherited a number of practices from Maurice Skones, my predecessor. One was that he almost always had the choir in quartets--and in fact, always in double choir (both sides balanced as to divisi and color/weight of voices), since the traditional opening piece while on tour was for double choir. Even though I hadn't studied with Maurice, I knew (or learned) a fair amount about his methods.
Of course, simply singing in quartets makes the singers much more independent by itself--they can't "lean" on someone singing their part right next to them. So I put them in quartets very early (I know this isn't possible for everyone--you may have to do a lot of work in sections before moving them into quartets). Furthermore, one of Maurice's rehearsal techniques was to sometimes work with one choir (of the double choir) at a time--this has several benefits: the other half of the choir gets to listen to what's happening, and can more easily hear for themselves what I'm talking about (are they together? was that chord in tune? was the phrasing musical?), start to make their own musical judgements as well, and there's also a small element of competition (each choir wanting to outdo the other).
I've taken this a bit further, often having just the front or back two rows of choir 1 or 2 sing, or even one row. That exposes the individual singer even more--which means it's important that I give positive feedback about what I hear. I don't want to shut them down or have them fear singing in front of others! I've also had just a quartet, or in a couple of cases, just one singer come up in front of the group to sing and work on a passage. All of this reinforces the importance of what every single singer does . . . and also gives each singer a chance to show what they can do. More about this process later, since I have a few models in mind who have done this extraordinarily well.
Finally, this week I started rotating the rows, so the same row isn't always in the front or back--this means I hear the individual voices much better and know what they're doing--again, it's harder to "hide." And since they're in quartets, it works perfectly well, although it could work to rotate in a sectional formation so that the same group isn't in back or front all the time.
As I say, it's been a fun process! I've enjoyed re-thinking my approach to rehearsals, it keeps me creative, and from falling into the same rut I've done for . . . well, a lot of years!