Dramatic Expression for Choristers

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There are so many things to think about when you are singing. Especially when you are singing a classical repertoire in a choir. You have to think about the quality of your tone, maintaining pitch, maintaining strong diction throughout. On top of all this, you have to think about one thing that is probably the last thing on your mind: dramatic expression.

Sometimes I am concentrating so hard on the correct production of sounds and breath support that I have a pained expression on my face no matter what I am singing. This is fine when singing something tragic or serious, but when what you are singing is  joyful, this can be incongrous to behold. Moreover, it can affect the sound, making your tone more melancholy and less bright.

So we have to be aware of ourselves when we are singing. We should think about how we look, not just how we sound. Often we have to do this without any training in the dramatic arts at all. This puts us in a considerably more difficult position than a soloist who has years of coaching in dramatic expression behind his or her belt.

So how do we give the best dramatic interpretation of what we are singing?

Much of the time I don’t think we choristers actually think about our part in the piece we are performing as a role. We consider ourselves as like members in an orchestra, we are tools for the production of music rather than actual performers. However, if you look at how composers have produced scores, that is not the case.

Let us take Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius as a case in point. The chorus is an integral part of the drama of this work.

  • The chorus begins as being the people at the bedside of the dying Gerontius, mourning his passing and begging God to have mercy and rescue him.
  • Upon his death, they join the priest in joyfully sending him on his way to heaven.
  • In the second half they appear both as a chorus of demons in Hell and as souls in purgatory
  • At the end they act as a chorus of angels.

In this work, the chorus has to change roles several times and these changes should surely be comprehended by the audience.

It’s crucial that choir members take their dramatic expression seriously when singing Elgar’s masterpiece. The demons must convince the audience that they are demons. The mourners must convince that they are mournful, and that  they are joyous when they are supposed to be joyous. Finally, if the power of the second part of this work is to come through, the angels must be thoroughly angelic.

For this reason, as a chorister, it is important not only to study the notes that you have to sing in the work you are performing, but also the role you are playing in every movement you participate in, and the text of the composition as a whole and its meaning.

Another thing that I briefly alluded to above is that facial expressions actually affect the tone that you produce when you are signing. In order to achieve a brighter tone, many choir masters recommend raising the eyebrows and the cheekbones. A brighter tone is essential for most choristers as it is very common for choirs to go flat as a work progresses.

Do you think that it is important for the choir to get into the dramatic expression of the piece they are performing or do you think it could be off-putting for the audience? I would love to hear from you in the comments section. 

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