Having been a director, I acknowledge that through the years I have fallen prey to using cheap techniques – “tricks” that skirted around the issues of posture, tone production, breathing, vowel formation, physical awareness, and aural skills. These were temporary patches over a myriad of problems plaguing the ensembles before which I stood. Why go for the slight of hand? Why not dig deeper?
From a practical standpoint, there isn’t enough time. In any given choral situation, there is too much music and barely enough time to learn it, let alone make it performance ready. That, in addition to the web of personality, levels of proficiency, and, frankly, psychological baggage that the average group of amateur singers brings to the table, it’s easier to keep your head down, repeat a few easy-to-remember catch phrases that may or may not work, and get the music ready to the best of your abilities.
On a more personal level, the slight of hand is easy when you are a choral director who is not a professional singer.
For a little over a week, I’ve been rolling out sections of a forthcoming book about choral singing and sight reading in a choral situation. Originally conceived as a text and workbook for choral singers, the focus later changed to assist those in choral leadership – directors, organists, choirmasters, section leaders – as an aid to assist the singers in their ensembles, in turn.
The response I have received in the last week, however, has led me to reevaluate this focus once again. Talking about vowels, concepts in matching pitch, communicating ideas about common vocal technique in clear language, teaching tuning, and, eventually, guiding an ensemble to better reading capabilities – these ideas are aimed squarely at choral directors.
Even when I was a professional singer (and I mean that people paid me to sing for over a decade), I wasn’t really a professional singer. I had never taken private study, enrolled in pedagogy or repertoire courses, learned the physiology, or seriously confronted my own psychological barriers to singing through study and performance.
After being a director, I simply got more work as a singer in choral ensembles, likely because my keyboard skills were not expert to do it all alone. In that role, and with my experience on the other side, I began to witness extremely talented, expertly knowledgeable, sensitive and communicative musicians stand before a choir and proclaim that they knew nothing about singing (sometimes – I’m not kidding – by using those exact words). And then away we went, the blind leading the blind, so to speak. I don’t have numbers, and I’m not saying that all choral directors have no concept of vocal technique. I fear, however, that this situation is incredibly common across the thousands of amateur choral ensembles and church music programs in the US.
As leaders in choral situations, we can do better. We can be better and the amateur singers under our direction deserve it. Tuning and sight singing are still incredibly important to me and I will continue to delve into those subjects, and how to utilize them to improve the sound and musicianship of an amateur choral ensemble. The focus, however, will now shift solely to those on the podium.
Thanks to the thousands of you who have been reading this past week.