On individual agency for chorus singers

As a chorus director, I often feel that I have to give as much information as possible to my singers to get them to do what I need. Let's say the basses are singing a note a bit flat. I'll try and help them figure out a way of singing on the pitch by talking about relaxing, maybe getting them to tune into another voice part or countless other techniques.

And this often doesn't work.

This can cause MDs to bang their heads against walls in frustration. “I've told them exactly what they need to do, so why can't they do it?” we cry to ourselves over a triple scotch after rehearsal.

A recent experience with a coach led me to realise that we can often make things a lot easier for everyone by saying a lot less. At the recent Spirit of Harmony retreat, we were very fortunate to be joined by our international coach, Jordan Travis. Fairly early in the weekend, Jordan identified some issues with pitch and designed a warm-up for the next day, including some exercises to help specifically with flat singing.

He was working through the vocal exercises and noticed the basses singing a note flat. He just said to them, “Basses – can you fix the pitch on this note?”

And they did. It was in tune every single time after that.

The key phrase was “fix the pitch”, and it was used throughout the weekend whenever flat singing was spotted. 90% of the time, just using these three words was enough to enable the singers to correct themselves using the skills they knew.

This made me think a lot about my experiences as a choral singer. Very often during rehearsal, I'm unhappy with something about the way I sang a piece of music, and would just like the opportunity to try it again so I can correct it myself. I don't always need instruction from an MD – I already know how to do it better next time. It's important when I'm sitting in the MD's seat to recognise that my singers are capable of self-evaluation, and can often diagnose and fix an individual issue very quickly – if only they were given the opportunity.

It brings to mind a story I was told about David Wright: one of the barbershop world's most well-respected and accomplished arrangers, coaches and directors. When he coaches a group, I'm told that he asks them to sing a piece once, and then just says, “Okay, that was great. Now do it again, but better.”

For MDs, this apparently lazy style of coaching can be incredibly frustrating to watch, not least because it works! We spend our weekly rehearsals digging deep into our toolboxes, trying to find that nugget of genius that will help our singers make the improvements we want, and these coaches just come in and say something as simple as, “just do it better,” and can get the group to perform as they've never performed before.

But I think the reason this coaching technique works so well is that it puts agency back into the hands of the singers. No longer are they just instruments being “played” by a conductor; they're human beings with critical thinking and problem-solving skills, capable of improving themselves without being spoon-fed. This is a hugely powerful mindset shift for both singers and directors and draws on one of the fundamental pillars of what makes great coaching. The best coaches and educators, in my experience, don't explicitly tell you what to do; they ask the right questions and let you figure out what to do for yourself.

So based on this thinking, here are a couple of practical things I'm going to try and put into more frequent practice for my rehearsals.

  1. Never judge the first attempt. It's tempting to go straight into “fixing” mode after hearing something once, whether it's a warmup exercise or a run-through of a song. But this can be frustrating for singers who often just want another shot because they already know they can do it better. A technique I've seen used before is to ask everyone to come up with one thing they can do better next time.
  2. Prefer subtle nudges over direct instructions. If there's a wrong note in the baritone line, just ask the baritones to “pay attention to this note in this bar”. Often, simply drawing attention to where a problem exists is enough to fix it. If not, add more detail to your feedback as needed. If you jump straight to telling the baritones what their note should be, they become passive instruments again.
    • Side-note: This works for concepts as well as specific details. You can say, “Let's pay attention to our vowel matching this time.”

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