An Orchestral Conductor's Guide to Working with a Choir
You’ve really gone through the looking glass now; you have decided to program a choral/orchestral masterwork, so now what? You’re an orchestral conductor by trade and, frankly, voices scare you. Perhaps you sang in a middle school chorus, but that was (we won’t say how many) years ago. You have heard that choirs can sometimes be slow to learn repertoire and that they speak a different musical language - so naturally you’re concerned. Lay your fears to rest! In this article, I will offer my humbly submitted thoughts on how to navigate the strange and wonderful world of working with a choir.
A momentary aside; while I certainly have so much to learn about this subject, I have been lucky enough to be involved in some incredible projects across the USA and Europe as chorusmaster and my education (and subsequent career) have focused on training largely avocational singers to perform masterworks with orchestras at an extremely high level. Some of my favorite times have been working with professional choirs like the Rundfunkchor Berlin as they performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker, preparing choruses in Baltimore for conductors such as Marin Alsop and Jack Everly, and training choirs to sing Mahler’s gargantuan 8th Symphony in the UK. Another caveat before I launch in as that there are no absolutes and everything is situational. Please take this advice with a heavy grain of salt.
The most important and wide-reaching sentiment I have to impart is the following: If you are working with a decently trained choir, you must throw out the idea that choirs, choir conductors, and singers generally, are lazy/sub-par musicians compared to their instrumental counterparts. Unfortunately, there is truth in most stereotypes, but we are working hard in the choir world to rout this one out. The reality is that the singers on stage will be extremely eager to work hard for you and will be incredibly enthusiastic colleagues to you and the instrumentalists if you foster a sense of camaraderie onstage. Get excited to work with the human voice and to fold the choir’s sound into the mix. Their musicality is up to you and the quality of phrase and nuance just might surprise you!
The second most crucial thing to keep in mind is this: the chorusmaster is your friend, ally, and gateway to all things you do not know about choral music. Think of the choral conductor you are working with in the same way that you would another concertmaster. If you develop that wonderful relationship with your concertmaster, the relations with your orchestra are supremely satisfying. The chorusmaster is equally a partner , if not more so, because they want the performance to be as successful as you do and have many tools in their toolbelt to get their choir sounding polished and deliver the concept you are asking for at any given time. Trust them and build time into the rehearsal to consult with them. Another important aspect of this relationship is to allow the choirmaster to act as a second cover conductor. We are constantly listening for choral/orchestral balance, clarity of diction, tuning, etc; so allow them to communicate with the choir during the rehearsal. This inevitably means a feeling of losing control (which none of us conductors like), however it is crucial that the chorus gets feedback from you and the chorusmaster in tandem so that changes can be made in real time, rather than after they have been singing a certain way for an entire rehearsal. The best relationships between conductor and chorusmaster have yielded the best results; my teacher, Simon Halsey, is commonly regarded as Sir Simon Rattle’s ‘choir man’ starting back in the 1980’s at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, then at the Berliner Philharmoniker, and now at the London Symphony Orchestra. The working relationship I have witnessed between them is one of absolute synchronicity that leads to expertly executed performances. Do not be afraid to ask questions, to not know all the answers, and to let the chorusmaster address the choir in the moment, when appropriate.
Below is a more specific set of practical tools to get you through the piano rehearsal, the general rehearsal, and the dress rehearsal with a little more confidence when working with a choir:
The foundation of choral singing is good, deep breath and subsequent air support using the engaged diaphragm and oblique muscles to both contain and expel breath. This is a wildly simplified statement, but an important one! Good sound, core tone, tuning, timbre, and blend emanate from engagement of the breath and the apparatuses of the body used to foster good support. In addition, singing is an extremely physical endeavor, so posture and body alignment are important. Your chorusmaster should have sorted this out, but if you see slouching and similar body positions, it could be a contributing factor to a less than ideal sound. Generally speaking (again, take this with a grain of salt), if something is out of tune, a simple comment to listen around them with a reminder about low breath with a real sense of supporting the sound is what will make real vocal vibrancy and will make the higher registers of each voice part confidently sung and in tune. Voices and their relationship to the breath are not unlike wind instruments. Explore your bag of tricks you use for woodwinds and see if it helps!
Often, singers consider line and phrase as more foundational than rhythm. Robert Shaw helped us combat that with count-singing (look it up, it’s amazing), but this is still very much the case with many choirs. It is not altogether bad – it would behoove many orchestral conductors to take some lessons from singers about the importance of showing line and phrase shape! After all, a well-established line and emphasis on phrasing are the ingredients of beautiful music and are core attributes of vocal music and thus music generally. At the same time, this is a good opportunity for you to impart some more rhythmic discipline in the choir you are working with. They will often see their conductors show shape more than beats; find a balance that brings out the best performance!
Perhaps more so than the average bassoonist in your orchestra, choral musicians have a strong subconscious association of their bodies with your posture and gesture, that is to say, it is wise to always (or often) stand as if you are singing, whenever you are conducting them. If you give a cue to the choir with your hands way up in the air to convey a soft or dainty bit of music, or if you slouch over in a soft section, or make any other movement that does not look grounded, you will likely get a lousy, unsupported sound.
Probably one of the biggest reasons you have programmed a piece that needs a choir is that the text resonated with you and inspired you. Words are where choirs have a real advantage with regards to communicating in concerts, so it would be a shame if the audience could not understand what they are singing about! Diction, consonants, and cutoffs are a nuanced part of our musical vocabulary and must be shown from the conductor with a sophisticated amount of articulation. Not only must consonants be aligned and unified, but they must be heard! The worst thing in the world is going to a performance and only hearing the vowels. Frustratingly, you might find that much of your general rehearsal is about hearing the diction across the orchestra. Most often when the orchestra conductor I am working with turns to me in the hall to confirm balance, if I have a grievance, it usually has to do with hearing the text.
If I had to generalize, I would warn you that at the end of the day, your rehearsal with everyone in the room will center on balance and diction. This often means that the orchestra,particularly the brass and strings (if you have a large string count), have to play less - which is something that they will not be thrilled about. Tuning, achieving choral blend, musicality, and phrase are of the utmost importance! You already have many of the necessary skills to bring a choir to the place you want them, but I hope that the tips above will be of help. Using these tips, relying on your chorusmaster (both in the moment and their work ahead of time), and considering orchestral/choral balance at all times will be sure to yield a successful performance and an incredibly rewarding experience for you and the musicians on stage.
Toi toi toi!