Before I launch in, I’d like to mention that my esteemed colleague Anthony Black Clark has already written an article for Everything Conducting on this same topic. It’s full of excellent points and insights and I can recommend it very highly. In my article, I’m going to approach things at a more basic level and address practical concerns of working with a choir that a nascent orchestral conductor may never have even considered.
Another point of contrast from Maestro Clark’s article is that I’m writing from an American point of view, and this is where I’d like to start. American choirs—with precious few exceptions—are ensembles made up of non-professional singers. Some choirs may operate on a semi-professional model where section leaders may be compensated monetarily, but the grand majority of vocalists singing in choirs are not earning any income from this activity.
Amateurs, however, are not dunces. If you’ve ever conducted a non-professional orchestra, you’ve likely found that amateur musicians are incredibly well-informed, intelligent people who are proficient in many areas of life. The same is true of amateur choristers.
Tip #1: Keep in mind that most choral singers are not professional musicians and may not have professional training, but remember that they are experienced, intelligent musicians who are capable of great things.
Types of Choirs
There are three basic types of non-student choirs that you may end up working with on a choral-orchestral project: symphony, community, and church.
Tip #2: If you want to make choral-orchestral works a part of your programming, introduce yourself to directors of as many local choruses as possible.
A symphony chorus is organized by the administration of a symphony orchestra. Generally its membership will number at least 100 people; these folks will be attuned to the particular challenges of performing with an orchestra and will have a strong familiarity with the repertoire.
A community chorus may rarely perform with an orchestra or with any instruments at all, aside from a piano or an organ. Community choruses are likely to perform a lot of contemporary choral music and may be less familiar with the classical repertoire. Most community choruses have between 30-60 voices. Often when putting together a large choral-orchestral project, it will be necessary to recruit two or three community choruses.
A church choir will usually number between 10-40 people, but some cathedral choirs can be much larger. Church music is an entire multi-genre species unto itself, but generally church music for choirs is straightforward and singable on little rehearsal; it’s often based on hymnody. Churches will often recruit an orchestra to perform with their choirs for special occasions or performances. If your community has many church choirs, it can be worth assembling them for a project, but choose your repertoire wisely. Mendelssohn’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht might not be what you go for (though it’s a fantastic piece!)
Tip #3: Your goal should be to have roughly twice as many singers as instrumentalists on stage.
Student student choirs are their own separate beast, but they will likely have similarities to the three types of choir listed above. In the remainder of this article, please presume that when I refer to “choirs,” I am referring to adult, non-student ensembles.
How does a chorus work?
Due to the non-professional nature of choral singing in America, nearly every choir will rehearse in the evenings. Even in professionalized choirs such as the symphony choruses of Chicago and San Francisco, evening rehearsals are the norm, since choral singing is at best a part-time profession, and these singers have day jobs during regular business hours.
Most choirs meet once a week. Because of this, the choir will typically begin work on a choral-orchestral piece several months before the concert, much like a community or youth orchestra.
During the rehearsal period of a choral-orchestral work, it is beholden upon the orchestra conductor to visit at least one choral rehearsal ahead of the “sitzprobe” (the first combined vocal-orchestral rehearsal.) It’s important to time this visit (or these visits) appropriately.
Tip #4: Schedule your first visit to work with the chorus several weeks prior to the concert.
Depending on the choir’s level, the first rehearsals in a choral rehearsal cycle may be devoted to learning notes and rhythms; this part of the process does not require your involvement, so do not schedule your visit too early in the rehearsal cycle. The notes need to be in place before you can work on musical values such as phrasing, clarity, tempo, diction, and balance.
Having said that, you don’t want to wait until too late to visit either, because you don’t want the singers to have acquired unbreakable habits that run contrary to your interpretation.
After you rehearse with the chorus, you’ll have a chance to discuss what you heard with the choir director, who can then spend the next couple weeks addressing any changes you’d like the singers to make.
The Chorus Director
This chorus director is a subject-matter expert and you can and should rely on this person’s expertise.
Many of you have probably heard similar advice regarding the concertmaster’s expertise with relation to string playing - i.e. if you’re not a string player, don’t go making technical recommendations to the members of the string section. It will cause more trouble than it’s worth, and it will likely degrade your standing in the eyes of these musicians. Rather, explain to the concertmaster what you’re after, musically, and then allow the concertmaster to translate that into technical advice to the strings.
You can get yourself into just as much—or more—trouble if you give singers instructions that don’t make sense, so if you are not a trained singer yourself, rely upon the chorus director for their advice.
Tip #5: If you have questions, ask.
The choral singers (and mostly likely the chorus director) will all be working from a choral score.
[A brief side note: the terms “choral score” and “piano-vocal score (aka P.V.)” are often used interchangeably, but they are not identical. Strictly speaking, a choral score only includes the four choir parts and NOT a keyboard reduction of the orchestral part. Do whatever you can to avoid having your choirs use this type of score. It makes it incredibly difficult for the choral musicians to find their starting pitches and to enter in the stream of the music. You’ll often encounter pure choral scores in French music from the turn of the 20th century. Off the top of my head, three works that are commonly performed from this material are the Duruflé Requiem, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Poulenc’s Gloria. The piano vocal scores cost more, but you’ll make up that extra cash in time and sanity saved.]
Because everyone in the choir is using the same document, you can communicate your musical wishes to a choir full of singers with exceptional efficiency by marking a copy of the choral score and giving it to the chorus director before choral rehearsals begin. Ideally, this score would include every breath mark, cut off, articulation, metronome mark, and tempo alteration.
Tip #6: Write your interpretation into the choral score and deliver it to the chorus master ahead of rehearsals.
Perhaps you’re not quite at the point where you know how to make these decisions with 100% confidence, but if you’re taking on the challenge of conducting a choral-orchestral work, you should be far enough along in your training as an interpreter to make good headway, and you can work with the chorus director on the rest. You’ll certainly know what your tempi are and where you intend to move or relax the tempo; mark these indications in the score. What you may be less familiar with are the practicalities of breaths and cut offs.
Breaths and Cut Offs
Giving the choir singers time to breath is, at the very minimum, important from the view of their basic biological functions. But from the musical point of view, it’s crucial to the interpretation of a vocal work.
Composers in the standard classical repertoire often did not notate rests in the vocal parts where singers were meant to breathe. Like so much else in historical notation, much was assumed based on common practice. You should not assume that the choir will know when and when not to breathe, and you should make sure that the breaths accord with your phrasing concept of the music. (It’s perhaps better to view this the other way round: the phrasing should take its cue from the breaths.)
If the music seems to demand an unbroken stream of sound, you can ask the choir to “stagger.” This works best with a large number of singers. Individual singers simply catch a breath wherever they can, and the empty space is covered up by the continuous singing of the other choir members around them.
Tip #8: Remember that consonants are vocal percussion.
Much more than orchestras, choruses require you to conduct the ends of notes, especially when the whole chorus cuts off together. As often as not, the final syllable of a choral phrase passage will end in a consonant. If so, the moment of the cutoff is just as much a cut off as it is a percussion cue. Conduct it accordingly.
Sitting and Standing
Choirs perform standing up. However, in a choral-orchestral work, the choir will often go for long stretches—entire movements, even—without singing. During those periods, they should be seated.
This means that you will need to give careful consideration to when the choir should stand and sit. Ideally, it is best to have the choir achieve this choreography during movement breaks, but sometimes it makes the most sense to do it during the course of the music. The sound of a hundred people sitting at the same time is not negligible, and it can be very distracting, so you should always aim to have them sit and stand at climactic moments (i.e. when the orchestra is playing loud.) It is the choir director’s duty to teach the singers their standing and sitting cues and to ensure that they are well rehearsed in these movements.
I’ll also mention here that choirs are used to an alternation of sitting and standing in rehearsal. If you’re working with a choir, allow them to sit when you’re giving instructions, asking them to mark breaths, rehearsing passagework, etc. When it comes time to run larger sections or to listen for balance, ask them to stand.
The primary balance problem in a choral-orchestral work will always be that the orchestra is playing too loudly and covering up the choir. You should plan for this accordingly by asking the orchestra to adjust their dynamics down before you get to the choral-orchestral rehearsal. If you find that the orchestra is underpowered when the forces come together, they’ll be able to play louder, I promise.
Tip #9: Always ask the orchestra to play softer before asking the chorus to sing louder.
As far as *internal* choral balance is concerned (by which I mean the balance between the sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses) choirs actually have some interesting options to make balance adjustments that are quite different to how orchestras adjust balance and thus might not occur to the orchestral conductor.
Because everyone in a choir is reading from the same score, it’s entirely feasible to ask individuals from one part to join another for a specific passage. That means that if there’s an important tenor melody and you can’t hear it, you are fully within your rights to ask all the second altos to join the tenor part. Singers are accustomed to such tricks and should be able to accommodate such “re-voicing” without fuss.
Choral Rehearsal DOs and DON’Ts
DON’T refer to the chorus as “singers” and the orchestra as “musicians.” This implies that singers are something other than musicians, which could not be further from the truth.
DO refer to the chorus as “singers” or “chorus” and the orchestra as “players” or “orchestra.”
DON’T address the choral members as “men” and “women,” even if you’re rehearsing all the sopranos and altos, or all the tenors and basses. As recently as five or ten years ago, this was the standard practice. It has never been the case universally that all tenors and basses are men and all sopranos and altos are women, and in this age of greater sensitivity to the variety of gender expression, conductors should not use gendered language in choral rehearsals.
DO address the choral sections as “sopranos” “altos” “tenors” and “basses”.
DO explain to the choral singers how the scoring works, i.e. which instruments are doubling their parts during a given passage. This will make them better listeners and more connected to the overall sound.
Text and Language
It should probably go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the text matters! It is your responsibility to become thoroughly acquainted with the text of any vocal work that you’re conducting, be it a song, a choral work, or an opera. If you are unfamiliar with the language of the text, you need to translate every word on a word-by-word basis. This is not the same as reading a translation of the text, which will likely be an approximation that captures the text’s overall meaning rather than the specific meaning of each word.
Tip #10: Enlarge the text in your score. Write (or tape a printed copy of) a chunk of text at the beginning of the passage in which it appears.
Why is it so important to understand each and every word of a text? Because the words and their accentuation should inform your musical interpretation. It is impossible to understand the phrasing of vocal music without understanding the inflection of the language.
Choral-orchestral works, even relatively modest ones, are big projects. They require more preparation, both logistically and musically than standard instrumental pieces. But the payoffs are huge. Musical collaborations should reward everyone involved with a special sense of fulfillment, and, as Robert Schumann once said, never forget that vocal music with instruments “is the most sublime music.”
Your challenge as you rehearse the orchestra apart from the chorus will be to keep the big picture in mind. This requires a particularly deep knowledge of the score and an experienced auditory imagination.
If you really want to prepare yourself for a project like this, the best thing you can do is to join a choir. I know that conductors are often afflicted with serious cases of Conductor Voice (much less dangerous than Conductor Brain, to be sure), but I guarantee you can find a choir that will take you on. Singing in a choir will improve your voice, and conductors really ought to be able to sing well.
More than anything though, singing in a choir will open up an enormous vista of music that you may not have realized existed. There is peer-reviewed scientific research proving that singing in an ensemble benefits your health. If you’re a student, now is the time to start singing, even if you’re involved in multiple orchestras and chamber ensembles already. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a requisite element of every conductor’s training, and the more you sing, the better overall musician you’ll be.
William C. White is a conductor, composer, teacher, writer, and performer based in Seattle, WA. He currently serves as music director of Harmonia, a unique performing ensemble comprised of a chorus and orchestra that concertize as one. From 2011-15, he served as Assistant Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. A noted pedagogue, he has led some of the nation’s finest youth orchestra programs, including Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony and the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra. He publishes the weekly Tone Prose newsletter on Substack, analyzing news and trends in the world of classical music.