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Training the Choir to Watch

The only way to learn how to do anything, other than by divine revelation, is to practice, practice, practice. Even professional choirs have to be reminded to watch and respond to the conductor's gestures; for a parish choir, it's a constant crusade. Here are some tips and tactics I've found effective. Let's get right into it!

  1. Make sure the choir can see your hands. I'm not being flippant! Depending on the size and arrangement of your kliros, some singers may have trouble seeing you, particularly if you're on the shorter side of tall. If you stand facing the choir, it's a simple matter of standing on a podium (makeshift or otherwise) if you need to. However, if you conduct facing east, standing in the middle or on one end of the choir, it's a bit trickier. This can work well with a small choir, but if you have more than three people singing (including yourself), I wouldn't recommend standing in a straight line, because then the people on the ends won't easily be able to see you and the music simultaneously. I've had success with a deeply curved crescent, which makes me visible to all the singers.

  2. Run tempo drills in rehearsal. Pick a piece the choir knows well, and run through it several times, changing the pacing, rubato and dynamics each time. I tell them why I'm doing it, too. I'm a big believer in explanations; the choir needs to know what we're doing and why. If they're not following you, stop, point out the error, and try again.

  3. Don't cave in! This is another biggie. I absolutely, categorically refuse to go along with the choir when they're dragging. It sets a terrible precedent. If that means a few people sound really off for a measure or two, so be it. They might feel a bit silly for a moment (we've all been there!), but that can be good motivation to pay more attention going forward. An important note about singer embarrassment: whenever someone makes an obvious mistake, particularly in a service, they're likely to feel a twinge of embarrassment. I make it a point to smile at them and try to give some kind of gesture that conveys "It's okay; no worries". It's super important not to have an angry or frustrated expression on your face. This is critical. If you convey anger or frustration even once a month, you're going to have alienated singers and, eventually, attrition. (This is hard sometimes. The phrase "herding cats" comes to mind. Ha!)

I want to briefly touch on congregational singing here — and the effect it has on tempo if you're not careful. Whenever a group of people sing together solely by ear (that is, without a conductor), they will invariably slow down. This is because the singers are following the beat, rather than anticipating it. This means they're relying solely on their ears — hearing the beat and then quickly jumping in, a microsecond behind the true beat. Over time, this slows the singing down. In order to keep a congregation in tempo, the director must act as a human metronome, with no allowance for rubato or gradual tempo changes. Ever wonder why Protestant/Catholic hymns never feature tempo changes? This is why. The organist has to be a metronome.

What this means for Orthodox parishes is that if there is any congregational singing, the director has to really stick to their guns on the tempo, and the choir has to stick with the director without paying attention to the congregation. This is often very difficult for untrained singers, so it's wise to discuss this in rehearsal. More on congregational singing in a future entry.

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