Singing in a choir is completely different to singing as a soloist and requires a different skill set. This doesn’t mean that you can get away with being anything less than excellent however, as a choir is only as good as its weakest members.
1. Choir Members Need to Blend
As a choir member, you need to first imagine yourself as an audience member. If you observe the best choirs around, one thing you notice is that the members of the voice groups sound like one voice. When you are in the audience listening to a choir, the last thing that you want to hear is an imbalance in the levels at which members of the choir are singing. A difference in volume or pitch or even tone can create a dissonance which is unpleasant to the ear. Choir members need to be able to leave their egos outside the auditorium and stop caring about being noticed as an individual. The aim is that the choir as a single entity sounds as good as possible. You need to think of yourself as orchestra members think of themselves. It would be ridiculous for an orchestra member to try to be noticed as an individual. This gets forgotten with singers sometimes, as people have a tendency to think that their tone is better than that of the next person and that the audience would benefit from hearing them better than the person next to them. Not so! This is the first and most important lesson for a chorister.
2. You need to look after your voice
Soloists have to take good care of their voices. If you damage your vocal cords, you might never get your voice back again. This goes for choir members too. Those who sing a classical repertoire especially have sometimes extremely demanding material to sing. Your voice should always be warmed up before you start and you should always be hydrated. If you haven’t been able to drink enough water before a rehearsal or a show, having a vocal cord steamer really helps.
You should also give yourself vocal rest if you have been singing and you hear that you are hoarse. If you are hoarse or clearing your throat more than normal, or if you simply feel like it is taking more effort than usual to sing, this is a sign that you may have swollen vocal cords, and in that case you need to give them a rest. This means avoiding singing or even speaking for a day or two. If you do speak you should do so in the most comfortable relaxed way. Whispering should be avoided as it is actually more of a strain on the vocal cords than quiet, relaxed speaking. Finally, you should never sing when you have a cold, a sore throat or a cough, you can put yourself at risk of vocal cord damage if you go on singing as usual when you are unwell.
3. Choir members should practice
This might seem obvious, but I have heard many choristers, especially those who are very experienced and sightread very well, say that they never practice and just attend rehearsals every week, feeling that they are doing enough. Instrument players, however, practice daily, and solo singers practice for hours every day. I don’t see why we should take ourselves any less seriously. Sure it is not necessary to go overboard and sing for hours daily, but a chorister should sing every day, even if it is just a ten-minute warm up, and at least one movement from their repertoire (a) to keep the voice in good shape and (b) to make sure that one is contributing all one can to the choir and benefiting from each rehearsal by implementing the advice given by the director.
4. Choir members should record themselves
If you have ever heard your director complaining about a section (usually the soprano section) losing pitch, it is important that you don’t just assume that it is someone else he is referring to. There are a number of reasons why a singer might lose pitch, including vocal cord swelling from overuse, and it is never easy to tell if you are one of those that is going flat. For this reason, I think all choir members should record ourselves practising the repertoire more or less a capella (getting the starting note for a section only) and then checking your recording against the piano. Chances are, actually, that even without the piano, you will be able to hear that you have lost pitch on the recording. It is just when you can only hear yourself in your own head that it is difficult to tell if you have gone flat sometimes.
5. Choir members should learn singing technique
I think it is a good idea to get some singing lessons as it can damage the voice to sing difficult passages without a good technique for hitting high notes, for example. It is important, however, to get a teacher that understands the requirements of a chorister, which are to blend rather than to stand out, so that they work on the right things, such as excellent pitching and sustaining notes with stable voice, good articulation of consonants and vowels and breathing, rather than on trying to strengthen the voice or work on embellishments as a soloist would require. If you can’t afford lessons, a good book that gives you exercises helping you with technique is a great idea.
Being a chorister is a privileged position and you should wish the choir you are a member of to excel. On this site, you will find information that will help you become an asset to your choir, subscribe to the blog to continue to access information to help you perform at your best!
Are there any other things a choir member should know that you think I should have included here? Let me know in the comment section.
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