Tips for Choir Directors
The number one rule for directing church choirs is and always will be this: the entire experience should bring the participants closer to the Savior, Jesus Christ. That’s the most important thing we do.
Even when that goal is clearly a priority, the logistics of running a choir can still be daunting. Throughout my years of directing choirs, I’ve learned a lot by devouring books on the subject, and by watching the real pros, then putting the principles into practice to see what worked.
The tips assembled below are just a few things, gleaned from reading and watching the experts, that have worked for me. Hopefully they will help you make your own choir a fun and uplifting experience.
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Recruiting and Retaining Choir Members
- To recruit new choir members, an announcement in the bulletin or newsletter will do little more than to let a few people know that you would welcome new members. Personal contact by the director is the best option for recruiting.
- Send reminders, and keep people posted by e-mail, message boards, phone calls, and any other means available.
- Peripheral “business” should be accomplished outside of practice time.
- Use practice time to sing, sing, sing. We talk too much and sing too little. Spoken instructions, remarks, etc., should be kept to a minimum. Besides simply wasting limited time, too much talking will make the practice tiresome and may drive away even the most staunch supporters.
- Ask choir members to rate their enjoyment of a song after they have presented it. Find out if it is a selection they feel is worth repeating. Pay attention to their feedback, and take their tastes into account for future selections. It’s easier to encourage attendance when singers know they’ll enjoy the music.
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Before Practice: The Director’s Preparation
- Choose music that suits the abilities and time constraints of your group, as well as the purpose of your presentation.
- Spend some time studying the text of a hymn or anthem, as the text is usually what gives it a place in the worship service. In addition to metronome markings, a thorough study of the mood of the text will help determine appropriate tempo, expression, etc.
- As you study your score, mark it up… but use a pencil so you can change your mind.
- A major element of effective conducting is eye contact. Learn your score, so you can look at your choir. You can’t expect them to look at you if you’re not looking at them.
- Physical preparation matters: be sure chairs are arranged; have folders ready; make pencils available; check sightlines; check room temperature.
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- Whether or not to use a baton is largely a matter of personal taste.
- The mirror is your friend. Conducting in front of a mirror will help you see what you’re doing right and where you should make changes.
- One pitfall to avoid is using a beat pattern that is too rounded, not definite enough, or uses too much motion.
- The size of your arm movements indicates dynamics, but should also be proportional to the size of your group. Larger arm movements will be required for a congregation than for a 16-voice choir.
- Overuse of the left hand (i.e., keeping the beat with both hands) makes it relatively ineffective for special situations (i.e., attacks, releases, crescendos, etc.).
- Good sound starts with good posture. The choir is likely to emulate the director’s posture.
- Do not sing while conducting. Listen.
- Recommended reading: “Conducting Technique for Beginners and Professionals” by Brock McElheran.
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- Start on time. End on time. Every time. If you possibly can.
- Humor will be one of your best tools. Laughter relaxes the singers, which makes them sound better.
- It’s impossible to blend voices unless the vowel sounds are sung uniformly by everyone in the group.
- Better diction will produce a better sound quality.
- If your choir needs to improve rhythmic unity, work to intensify consonants.
- Choir members need to be reminded (perhaps repeatedly) never to sing so loudly that they cannot hear the individuals and parts around them. Their ears are as important as their voices.
- When singing legato, words should be “linked” (that is, the end consonants abut the following syllable) unless doing so causes new words to be formed that obscure the text. Example: “Gladly the cross I’d bear” should not become “Gladly the cross-eyed bear.”
- Avoid too much dependence on the piano (or other accompaniment). Passages should occasionally be rehearsed a cappella.
- When the choir needs to work on learning notes for extended periods of time, break into sections. You’ll get twice as much accomplished and avoid boring the idle sections to tears.
- If the singers have their “noses in their books” (and are therefore not watching for cues), instead of telling them verbally to watch you, try conducting the passage erratically–speed up or slow down at will, and use fermatas where none are noted. It becomes a sort of game, and teaches them to watch the conductor.
- Singers become fatigued by singing too long in a sitting position. Occasionally have the choir stand to rehearse.
- Simply saying “Let’s sing it again,” doesn’t accomplish much. There should be a purpose for the repetition, and the choir members should know and understand the goal of the repetition.