One of the hardest things for a choir leader is choosing repertoire.
Getting to listen to and pick songs might sound like a fun job, but picking material for a choir is deceptively tricky. However, if you get it right, it has a great payoff!
The Starling Arts Choirs have been singing for almost eight years and in that time we've learned around 200 different songs. Think of all the harmonies, lyrics and printing that's gone into that...!
Whether you're a choir a leader or member throwing a song suggestion into the ring, here's an insight into the Starling Arts process for choosing songs to sing:
Will it work for our voices?
We spend a lot of time at Starling Arts using a range of carefully picked games and exercises to help us get to know our singers and their voices. As we arrange and direct nearly all our catalogue of music, this knowledge affords us some real know-how on whether a song will suit both the personality and the timbre of any one of our choirs.
Our mixed voice choirs (Forte and The Starling Singers) have a combined tenor/bass part (sometimes with female tenors) and, along with our ladies choir Corvida, the women are split into four parts; Soprano 1 and 2, and Alto 1 and 2. Consequently we can distribute the tune to any one part and still have a rich harmony to accompany it.
Will it sound interesting?
We'll look at the chord structure of a song first and foremost. If it's packed full of suspended 4ths or added 7ths, then we're happy! We know we can create some really challenging and interesting harmonies when there are some juicy chords to play with.
A pop song with a good Bridge section is preferable, especially if the verse and chorus are made up of just 3 or 4 simple chords. If we want to keep learning time to a minimum, we can repeat the harmonies from Verse 1 and 2 and the Chorus, and then add a little more detail in the Bridge. However, we never wish to patronise our singers and their ability, which brings us on to...
Will it be challenging enough?
In almost eight years of running Starling Arts, our singers have inevitably improved with experience. Of course new members join along the way, but rehearsing and performing with people who've been through it before raises the bar and brings everyone up to speed each time.
Every time we learn a new set of songs, we try to give each choir:
- a song that sounds good straight off - it's a great reward in the first week of term and a sense of achievement for new members
- a song that's a little more challenging, with juicy harmonies and trickier sections that take time to learn, but are worth it!
- a song that will pop when staged - the majority of our concerts involve movement and there are some songs that sound their best when delivered with a little dance!
Will it complement the other songs in the show?
No one wants to sit through a concert of just ballads! Like a good album or musical, we pick repertoire that takes our audience and singers on a ride of different emotions and stories. To do this we mix up tempo, tone, instrumentation, lyrics, movement and staging to make the perfect set list! That way we can have a stand alone ballad sitting alongside a high-energy dance number, making for a really varied show.
Will it suit the acoustics of the venue?
This is vital. We've performed in spaces from hospital wards to large halls, and basement cabaret bars to proscenium arch theatres. A concert in a church will see us picking and arranging songs to suit the venue's rounded natural reverb, as opposed to opting for wordier arrangements with fewer Oooos and Ahhhs in the closer acoustic of a cabaret or theatre gig.
We also think about how adding a band (if we have one) will influence the overall sound. We don’t oversaturate a beautiful vocal arrangement with bass and drums. Less is often more...
Will there be something for every taste?
Everyone has an opinion about song choices, particularly if we go for a really well known song! From, "Oh, I love this!" to, "Really?! I hate the original!", we brace ourselves for a varied response!
The same goes for audience members. A glance at the programme before curtain up will see them picking out what they're most excited for. The best thing, of course, is changing a bad opinion to a good one. Hearing, "I loved your treatment of X" is so satisfying for any choir leader, and changing the group's attitude towards a once-cheesy pop hit now arranged in glorious harmony will give everyone faith in future song choices, too!
Do you have any top tips for choosing songs for a choir? Have you got a song suggestion for us?! Leave a comment below.