I frequently remark that leading a choir is a great workout. Moving pianos, waving your arms around, carrying folders of sheet music everywhere, it keeps you fit! But, aside from strong arms, what are the essential skills for a choir leader?
I liken running a choir to presenting children’s television. Other than a long-harboured ambition to be a Blue Peter presenter, I’ll admit that I don’t have any experience in that domain, but leading a choir requires a physical and mental energy like nothing else.
Over the years Emily and I have run rehearsals whilst poorly, exhausted, grieving, and when simply not in the mood, but we have to cast that aside for the sake of injecting energy into the room and, in turn, our singers.
The best bit is, it always makes us feel awesome!
This poster was designed by Starling Arts member Jenina Juuso, inspired by a quote from our TEDx Talk on Why the World Needs to Sing.
Breathing, diction, timing, dynamics and story all need to be communicated to your choir. Establish a set of gestures, nods and expressions to indicate different ideas to your singers. Maintaining eye contact and offering a reassuring smile every now and then is a must! It’s not enough just to beat time. The body language of a choir leader must be clear and focused, remaining present in the music whilst with an eye and ear on everything else going on. This can take a while to develop as you and your singers get to know each other, so don’t worry if that rapport doesn’t come straight away.
In a blog post last year we discussed the Many Hats of a Choir Director. Leading a choir is the ultimate test in multitasking. In a typical rehearsal I might play piano whilst conducting our singers, provide a friendly ear to someone, act as administrator, or give my best sales pitch for an upcoming event. In concert, I’ll conduct the choir and band whilst playing piano, turning pages, controlling a series of musical patches on my computer and managing the singers on and off stage. The key is to be in the music enough for it to come across to an audience as you intended, but step outside it enough to be aware of anything else that might need tweaking in the room, be it volume, speed, a technical hitch, etc. All that has to be done calmly, confidently and whilst on display, but it’s a great ride!
You are the face of your choir. From motivational speeches in rehearsal to warming up an audience, welcoming new members and establishing the right mood with a joke or an anecdote, leading a choir is a very public facing job. We advise just the right amount of humour, honesty and emotion to inspire great singing and community spirit in your choir.
Patience really is a virtue when it comes to running a choir. Sometimes an arrangement might take a while to sink in, sometimes your singers feel dispirited. There might be a small conflict, either musical or personal, meaning your role as a choral diplomat must surface. Tickets might not sell as quickly as you like, or people might chat over you whilst you’re trying to call attention after a break. Breathe deeply and remind yourself that these people come week in, week out to rehearse because of something you created. You’re doing something right!
It goes without saying that at the heart of all of this is a strong musicianship. That said, there are many excellent singers/musicians who might not make excellent choir leaders because they don’t use the essential skills above to enhance their musical prowess. Remember that you’re always learning. Rehearse your accompaniments, speeches, teaching methods, page turns, and every nod, gesture and expression. Watch other choir leaders in action, pick apart songs, play around with harmony, have a sing every day that’s just for you, and remind yourself what a joy it is to do something you love and to share that love with other people.
Do you run a choir? Have you any other essential skills to add to the list? Drop them in the comments below!