The "Ten Commandments" of Choral Singing
I don't know about you, but the news earlier this month about aerosols and COVID and singing and super-spreading got me REALLY down. The bulk of my work as a professional singer has been in various choral contexts, and the thought of not being able to collaborate with other musicians in this way for the foreseeable future makes me rly sad.
(If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can watch this video for all the deets.)
I know I'm not alone in this feeling, and that's why I also know that singers are going to find a way to keep doing their collaborative thangs anyway. And it's for that reason that I wanted to re-publish this post, which I originally wrote back in 2017 for the Rising Stars Productions blog.
In addition to singing in lots of choirs, I've also had many opportunities to direct and conduct them. Being on both sides of the podium over the years has given me a good sense of what's needed from all parties for a successful rehearsal. A few years ago, as I was prepping materials for a new semester of a girls' choir I was directing, I thought to myself: what are the cardinal rules, as it were, for choristers? And I compiled this list, and actually printed it out and gave it to them, and then walked through each one.
Because, let's face it - we've all been in *that* choral rehearsal. You know, the one where people don't follow these rules. And we all know how that goes.
So, without further ado, I humbly give you this chorister's Ten Commandments of Choral Singing.
I. Thou shalt attend every required rehearsal with a good attitude. Regular attendance at choir rehearsals is absolutely essential. It does not matter if there are twenty singers
in your section, or two. Every member is important. If you miss a rehearsal, your section, and therefore the rest of the choir, is compromised. While you are there, you must put on a positive attitude, even if you are having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. Like in many other group dynamics, one cranky person can totally ruin it for everyone else. So don’t be that person.
II. Thou shalt be attentive to and compliant with the director’s instruction. This means that, for the love of all that is good in the world, do not talk when the director is talking. It also means that you follow the conductor’s musical directives to the best of your ability. This is entirely your responsibility, and there is no excuse not to do it consistently. If he has told you to crescendo in measure 5, you must crescendo in measure 5 every. single. time. It doesn’t matter if you think the directive is nonsense. You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but you are not in charge. So you must keep it to yourself.
III. Thou shalt ask clarifying questions with a raised hand. If you don’t understand something, ask. Just do it in a polite, orderly way. It is better for everyone that you ask, rather than simply guess (possibly incorrectly) what the conductor might mean. Conductors have strong intuitions, but we are not mind-readers.
IV. Thou shalt watch the conductor as much as possible while singing. We conductors
are used to being ignored, but that doesn’t mean we like it. Especially when that ignoring leads to the choir dragging or rushing the tempo, singing at the wrong dynamic levels, or a section missing a cue that was handed to them on a silver platter. Yes, it means you have to take your eyes out of your score. If you are singing the piece for the third, tenth, or one hundredth time, you should be able to do this easily. I promise you the world will not come to an end if you take your eyes off your page for a hot second.
V. Thou shalt do thy best to sing with good posture, and to hold thy book up high. If you hold your music too low, there is no way you can execute Commandment IV. If you hold it too high (i.e., right in front of your face), there is *also* no way you can execute Commandment IV. You should hold your music at a height where you won't have to constantly bob your head up and down to look back and forth between it and the conductor.
VI. Thou shalt bring thine own sheet music to every rehearsal. Forgetting your sheet music is obviously inconvenient for you, but it’s also inconvenient for your neighbor who has to share his music with you. (Ask me how I know.) Also, if you forget your music, you won’t be able to mark in any directives, which means you’ll probably end up breaking Commandment II at some point, and which brings me to the next Commandment.
VII. Thou shalt bring a pencil to every rehearsal. If you forget a pencil, it is your responsibility to procure one at the beginning of rehearsal. As one of my past conductors would say, “Beg, borrow, or steal.” You are just as likely to break Commandment II by forgetting a pencil as you are by forgetting your sheet music.
VIII. Thou shalt not point fingers at someone else’s mistake. (#petpeevealert) Oh, you
can hear that the altos are singing an F-sharp in measure 52 instead of an F-natural? Well, I applaud your ability to discern this error, but it is not your responsibility to fix it. That means no passive-aggressive comments like, “Um, I’m hearing *a lot* of people doing Thing X instead of Thing Y” or “Can you tell us again how to pronounce Foreign Word X? I thought you said it was [whatever] but I’m hearing a lot of people singing [whatever else].” This is just obnoxious. And insulting to your fellow choristers. It’s also insulting to the conductor, because, NEWS FLASH: we always hear the mistakes. If we’re not addressing it, it means we’ve chosen a much more worthy battle to fight at that moment. We will get to it later, I promise.
IX. If thou art absent from rehearsal, it is thine own responsibility to catch up, on thine own time. If you miss a rehearsal, you must approach the conductor or a fellow chorister and find out what was covered that day, including any directives that you should mark in your score. Just like your teachers in school, the conductor cannot backtrack and review every time there is an absence – we would never get anything done.
X. Thou shalt review thy music at home at least once between rehearsals. You don’t
have to sing your music at home, per se, but you must at least look at it with your eyes and mentally/visually review anything that was covered at the last rehearsal, and/or any spots that you personally are having trouble with. If everyone did this, imagine the progress the group would make. And don’t think you can blow it off without the conductor knowing. Just like your voice teacher knows that you haven’t practiced, the conductor will be able to tell if no one has reviewed their music at home. She might not let on that she knows, but boy does she know.
And so there you have it. May your choir rehearsals be efficient, productive, and harmonious – in more ways than one.