The Ten Commandments of Choral Singing
When it comes to choral singing, I’ve found that there are two types of singers out there: those that love it, and those that hate it with a white-hot passion. No matter how you feel about it, though, ensemble singing is an inescapable reality of being a singer. Virtually every vocalist finds him or herself in some kind of choir at some point in time, whether it be by force, by choice, or for money. School chorus, a capella groups, chamber choirs, community choruses, church choirs – there is a choral ensemble virtually everywhere you turn, performing a myriad of styles and genres of music.
Personally, I think every singer should sing in some kind of chorus at some point in their lives. Provided that the director is competent and the rehearsals well-run, it can be a very valuable experience. Singing in a chorus can really improve your musicianship – you become a better sight-reader, develop a keener ear, and become more adept at singing harmony (yes, even the sopranos have to sing harmony sometimes!). It’s also a good place to work on your technique, provided the director doesn’t make ridiculous vocal demands of his singers. It also trains you to be a real team player, a trait that every musician should have (let’s face it, no one wants to work with a diva).
In case any of you are wondering, I really enjoy choral singing. It has its unique challenges and rewards. I also really enjoy choral directing – in fact, one of the aspects of my job is directing a small girls’ chamber choir. Being on both sides of the podium has given me a pretty solid perspective over the years about what makes for a good choir and a well-run rehearsal.
So last year, as I was preparing the semester’s materials for my girls’ choir, I thought to myself: what are the cardinal rules, so to speak, of being in a choir? What actions, traits, and attitudes are absolutely essential to building solid musicianship, good camaraderie, and ultimately, a good performance?
And so I give you: the Ten Commandments of Choral Singing.
I. Thou shalt attend every required rehearsal with a good attitude. Regular attendance at choir rehearsals is absolutely essential. It does not matter if there are twenty singers in your section, or two. Every member is important. If you miss a rehearsal, your section, and therefore the rest of the choir, is compromised. While you are there, you must put on a positive attitude, even if you are having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. Negativity spreads like wildfire in a chorus. One cranky person can totally ruin it for everyone else. So don’t be that person.
II. Thou shalt be attentive to and compliant with the director’s instruction. This means that, for the love of all that is good in the world, do not talk when the director is talking. It also means that you follow the conductor’s musical directives to the best of your ability. This is entirely your responsibility, and there is no excuse not to do it consistently. If he has told you to crescendo in measure 5, you must crescendo in measure 5 every single time. It doesn’t matter if you think the directive is dumb. You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but alas, you are not in charge, so you must keep it to yourself.
III. Thou shalt raise thy hand if thou hast a question. If you don’t understand something, ask. Just do it in a polite, orderly way. It is better for everyone that you ask, rather than simply guess (likely incorrectly) what the conductor might mean. Conductors have strong intuitions, but we are not mind-readers. We may not be aware that we’ve just used a term you don’t understand, so in that case, it is your job to make us aware. Politely.
IV. Thou shalt watch the conductor as much as possible while singing. We conductors are used to being ignored, but that doesn’t mean we like it. Especially when that ignoring leads to the choir dragging or rushing the tempo, singing at the wrong dynamic levels, or a section missing a cue that was handed to them on a silver platter. Yes, it means you have to take your eyes out of your score. If you are singing the piece for the third, tenth, or one hundredth time, you should be able to do this easily. I promise you the world will not come to an end if you take your eyes off your page for an instant or two (or three or ten). You must get used to multi-tasking, and you must watch the conductor.
V. Thou shalt do thy best to sing with good posture, and to hold thy book up high. In addition to the basics of good singing posture, good choral posture also means holding your music up high enough so that you can look back and forth between your score and the conductor without looking like one of those bobble-head dolls. If you hold your book too low, there is no way you can execute Commandment IV. If you’re holding it right in front of your face, there is *also* no way you can execute Commandment IV. (Not to mention that holding it right in front of your face completely blocks your sound. Why would you want that.)
This choir is breaking Commandments IV and V. Don’t be like this choir.
VI. Thou shalt bring thine own sheet music to every rehearsal. Forgetting your sheet music is obviously inconvenient for you, but it’s also inconvenient for your neighbor who has to share his music with you. Also, if you forget your music, you won’t be able to mark in any directives, which means you’ll probably end up breaking Commandment II at some point.
VII. Thou shalt bring a pencil to every rehearsal. If you forget a pencil, it is your responsibility to procure one at the beginning of rehearsal. As one of my past conductors would say, “Beg, borrow, or steal.” You are just as likely to break Commandment II by forgetting a pencil as you are by forgetting your sheet music.
VIII. Thou shalt not point fingers at someone else’s mistake. Oh, you can hear that the altos are singing an F-sharp in measure 52 instead of an F-natural? Well, I applaud your ability to discern this error, but it is not your responsibility to fix it. That means no passive-aggressive comments like, “Um, I’m hearing *a lot* of people doing Thing X instead of Thing Y” or “Can you tell us again how to pronounce Foreign Word X? I thought you said it was [whatever] but I’m hearing a lot of people singing [whatever else].” This kind of behavior is insulting to your fellow choristers. It’s also insulting to the conductor, because, NEWS FLASH: We always hear the mistakes. If we’re not addressing it, it means we’ve chosen a much more worthy battle to fight at that moment. We will get to it later, I promise.
IX. If thou art absent from rehearsal, it is thine own responsibility to catch up, on thine own time. If you miss a rehearsal, you must approach the conductor or a fellow chorister and find out what was covered that day, including any directives that you should mark in your score. Just like your teachers in school, the conductor cannot backtrack and review every time there is an absence – we would never get anything done.
X. Thou shalt review thy music at home at least once between rehearsals. You don’t have to sing your music at home, per se, but you must at least look at it with your eyes and mentally/visually review anything that was covered at the last rehearsal, and/or any spots that you personally are having trouble with. If everyone did this, imagine the progress the group would make. And don’t think you can blow it off without the conductor knowing. Just like your voice teacher knows that you haven’t practiced, the conductor will be able to tell if no one has reviewed their music at home. She might not let on that she knows, but boy does she know.
And so there you have it. May your choir rehearsals be efficient, productive, and harmonious – in more ways than one.