VERYONE WANTS to have a great sounding choir. We dream of a choir that is expressive, communicative, always in tune, attentive, sensitive and powerful. Those are only some of the attributes of a great choir. Many choral conductors spend considerable rehearsal time teaching notes and rhythms to their volunteer singers. At the end of the process—success! Everyone in the choir has made a great achievement by learning the music the director has chosen. They can hold their part in a piece of polyphony, stay in tune and keep a steady tempo. It all sounds great. But—maybe not as great as the director had hoped. So what is the difference between singing all the right notes and sounding like a great choir? IMAGINATION.
Any good conductor is only as good as his or her imagination will take them. Before the very first note is sung, the conductor must have an ideal sound in mind, the perfect sound, for every phrase, every measure, every note. The conductor should be able to hear a perfect performance of the piece before it even begins. During rehearsals, any deviation from that perfection can be addressed and corrected. Only by knowing exactly what he wants to hear can the conductor then teach the choir the way to make a great sound.
How does a conductor decide on an “ideal” sound? With imagination, preparation, and passion.
First, imagination. Spark your imagination by listening to choirs that you think are great. Do you want your boys to sound fantastic? Then listen to a fantastic boy choir. In fact, listen to several fantastic boy choirs singing the same piece. You’ll be amazed at the differences, and how your tastes and preferences will soon make themselves known to you. Do you want to know how to get a great soprano sound on a Renaissance motet? Listen to some fabulous SATB choirs singing the repertoire. (Women are most likely not going to sound like boys!) Ask yourself—do you have a favorite choir? Is it the choir of Westminster Cathedral, Polyphony, the college choir you sang in, the old Robert Shaw Chorale? Just do a lot of listening and figure out what makes any great choir, well, great. Then you can start to imagine!
Robert Shaw used to say about the Atlanta Symphony Chorus something like, “We start our process here at 95%, which is where most choirs end, and then we try to make it up to 98% or 99%.” Will you achieve the “ideal” sound? Probably not. But by infusing the music with your imagination, your choir will sing ever closer to your ideal, expressively, with intention and purpose. And that is great.
Next time: Preparation!