Getting a good blend out of your choir can be hard. But when everyone sings with the same tone, breathing together, matching their vowel sounds –– it’s a beautiful experience for both choir and congregation. It’s the difference between a gang of voices attempting the same song and a unified group singing as one. But it can be tough to create that unity.
I think we can narrow down the obstacles to one thing: singers who, for various reasons, listen to themselves more than the rest of the choir.
Here are a few likely suspects you may recognize:
You may have a soprano that always stays in “solo” mode. Her entrances and cut-offs are often slightly out of step with everyone else. She may sing with a lovely, lilting vibrato regardless of the tone you’ve asked for.
If you don’t have many tenors, the strongest voice in the section may overcompensate. He belts out his part, believing he needs to make up the difference. Volume is his goal and his voice always sticks out, often with a shouty quality.
You may have an alto who reads music well. Maybe a little too well. She executes every rhythm with rigid precision. If you hold out a phrase a beat too long, she’ll cut-off when the music says to, regardless of your conducting.
Sometimes there’s a bass who enjoys booming out those low notes. He loves it when his part ventures toward the bottom of the staff. No matter how delicate a passage, he’ll be pumping out deep tones from the back row like a sub-woofer.
Now your “music reader” may be a tenor and your “shouter” may be an soprano. Whatever hybrid of characters you’re dealing with, these people have a few things in common.
They like singing in the choir. I mean this sincerely. They are often your most dedicated singers, the kind of people you want in choir.
They are focused on their own performance. And this isn’t all bad. They truly want to sing well and believe that the approach they’ve taken will bring out their best performance. They’re not intentionally sabotaging the blend.
Because they love singing and want to do their best, their attention is centered exclusively on the sounds coming out of their own mouth. Their motivations are good, but they’ve come to believe that focusing solely on their individual singing is the best way to contribute to the choir.
Here are steps you can take to guide these folks:
Acknowledge what they bring to choir. Tell that bass you love having someone who can rumble those low notes. Comment on that tenor’s power. Do this in front of the choir during rehearsal. But this isn’t empty flattery: you can do this honestly. When a song calls for those vocal abilities, you can be grateful to have singers who can do the job.
Ask them to listen to those around them. This should be a comment to the whole choir, reminding everyone to listen and match the voices next to them. If that tenor is still blaring away, then call them out gently. “Fred, you know I love that power, but here we need something else. You’ll need to listen to the others and back down to match them.”
Affirm their efforts. When these people sing for blend rather than just doing their own thing, they will not sound as good to themselves. They’ll feel they aren’t singing as well. The music-reader will feel sloppy when she relaxes. The solo soprano will feel bland and weak. But when they listen to your instructions, stop and praise their success. “Oh, the blend was great! Did you hear that? Fred, when you eased back, the whole thing just locked in. You were listening to each other and making music together. Let’s hear that again!”
When these people break their old habits and hear the magic of good blend, the experience will reinforce your directions. They’ll begin to understand that different songs call for different vocal styles. Your encouragement can help them listen and adapt and, ultimately, enjoy choir even more.
Luke Woodard is the engraver and editor of all the music on Discover Worship. With an experienced ear for transcription and arranging, he creates charts for many publishers, artists, and churches.