Lessons from 40+ Years as a Choir Director

Ten Important Things...

You will notice I didn't say that these are the Top 10 things I've learned. If there is another thing I've learned in my life, it's that the "Top" 10 things can change. So let's just say that when I sat down to write this, these were the 10 things I thought were most important to communicate to you today. Many of these things are not original. Some were told to me by older directors when I was just an angry young conductor. But these have stood the test of time, so to speak, and if you are an angry young conductor, you might want to print this list and put it somewhere that you can find it in 25 years. This is not a "ranked" list. It is just a list.

They should sing more than you talk

Most conductors are drawn to the profession, at least in part, because they think they know more than other people. They enjoy the power of leading people. And they are not afraid to share their expertise and views.

But there are only two reasons why the singers could be listening to the conductor more than they are singing: the singers are so professional that there is little rehearsal needed, and most of the conductor's "talk" is very specific instructions about how to do things -- like giving extensive marks -- so that everybody knows exactly what is expected, OR it is because the conductor is in love with the sound of their own voice, and the singers -- those who stick around -- put up with being in the choir for reasons that have nothing to do with singing.

When I taught graduate level conducting courses, I always put a stopwatch on student conductors at the beginning of their study. Most were amazed at how much time they spent talking. This was in the days before videotape was prevalent. Now I would just fire up the camera so that the conductor could also see the body language of the singers when they start to pontificate.

Give the voices a rest periodically

I'm not a fan of rehearsal "breaks." I understand that when you deal with union players and singers, breaks are a necessary evil (from my point of view). My experience is that after a break, it is difficult to get amateurs back to the focus level they had before the break. So I would rather have a 2.5 hour rehearsal without a break than a 3 hour rehearsal with a 15 minute break in the middle.

That having been said, voices are not like instruments. Voices get tired...particularly if you work them hard, or the tessituras are extreme. 

In most rehearsals there is a point at which it serves no purpose to continue to press forward in singing. As I've gotten older I have come to recognize this point almost intuitively, but if this is new information to you, train yourself to look at the body language of the singers. You can see them start to fade. When that happens it is time for the conductor to talk a bit. In a high pressure environment, this is a good time to talk about the piece you are doing, and your conception of how it should go. In a more relaxed situation, I've found it useful to tell stories, which take the focus completely off the music for a bit. This is particularly useful if you have just reached a point that no rehearsal progress is being made. After a short mental and musical break, the singers will be ready to go again.

Every Time you stop Singing it is a Teachable Moment

It has been said that Tony Dungy, the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, never raised his voice during practices. I wish that were possible in my choir rehearsals, but the reality is that there is an energy level in a fast paced rehearsal that can spill out into "choir chatter" when the singing stops.

I've found that the best way to deal with this is to not stop unless there is something important to work on. People get used to a rehearsal pattern, and I love the much-revered former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden model: Stop. This was wrong. This is how to fix it. Go. In most rehearsal situations, that can be a 30 second break in the action, if you train yourself to be to the point and move on. The added benefit is that musical problems are not personal...they are problems to be solved, not "you [singers] did this wrong so you are bad." Plus, when a problem has to be addressed multiple times, the singers understand that it is an important task to conquer, and you have a chance to set the solution deep.

The trick, of course, is to know what is the most important thing to fix. As a young or inexperienced conductor, if you don't know why to stop, don't stop. They are there to sing, not listen to you try to figure out what was wrong (see above). But if you do stop, teach them something. Most often the temptation is to just drill wrong notes. But if you can teach them how to find an interval, for instance, you may just have solved this wrong note problem, and many more down the road. Teach the most important thing, and you will spend less time stopping and more time singing.

A Good Accompanist is worth their weight in Gold

This should be obvious, but I've found that it isn't. If you find one, do everything in your power to keep them. I once lost the best accompanist I ever had because a pastor decided that it was more important that he get an extra .5% raise than give the accompanist the $1,000 he and I were asking for him. The accompanist left for a position that paid him $10,000 (that is not a typo) more, and it cost the church $5,000 more in the new initial salary to replace the original accompanist with someone who was nowhere near as good.

If you are not introducing new Repertoire on a regular basis, your Singers won't get Better

At my first paid church choir directing position, I took over from a conductor who had been there for 3 years. She had, during that time, done 4 anthems (that is also not a typo). And if you are thinking "OK...one communion anthem, one Christmas anthem, one Easter anthem, and one general anthem...I can see that" you would be wrong. I mean 4 anthems, as in every 4 weeks the anthem came around again, regardless of the season.

Her agenda was teaching voice, and the 6 singers that I inherited could sing quite well. But at the end of the first piece I had them sing (a Bach chorale, so I could figure out what their capabilities were), there was an audible sigh after the final cutoff. I looked at them funny I guess, because one lady said "it is so nice to sing something different for a change."

Here's my best way to help you understand this one: As much as I like vanilla ice cream, I would eventually get tired of it if I ate it, and only it, 3 meals a day 365 days a year. There are reasons why a balanced diet is good for your physical health. Likewise, a balanced repertoire diet is good for musical health.

If you don't have a systematic way of finding new Repertoire, your Choir will get Stale

This is a follow on from the last one. Everybody likes some things better than other things. But as a conductor, if you only program things that you like, and those things constitute a small universe (see above), you should consider renaming your choir to "the singers who only sing 'X' repertoire because the conductor only likes that repertoire."

This isn't one of the 10 Things, but it is nonetheless true: Choirs are only as good as their conductors. If you as a conductor are not exploring, growing, and getting better at your craft, your choir will stall out at a particular accomplishment level. Part of the responsibility of being a leader is leading people to new heights and/or in new directions, and new repertoire is one of those hills to climb. At this point I would like to suggest that you consider Creator's Select 20 and Honored 10 anthem reviews, because we take finding good new repertoire seriously. But whatever your system, don't quit looking.

Recruiting new members is Easy if you provide a Reason for people to Join the Choir

I've known people who were master recruiters for their choirs. I admire them, but that's not me.

Yet I've never had a problem getting new members for my choirs, even though I put almost no effort into recruiting.

I've found that the best way, for me, is to make sure there is an attractive reason for people to be in the choir. It could be because a person needs to be fed musically, and we work hard to be as good as we can be. It could be because their spouse is in the choir, and I point out how nice it might be to have something that they both can do together. It might be because they see the choir, and its members, having a lot of fun. It might be because they think they are a good singer.

Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that people are attracted to things that have value to them. At my last rehearsal, for instance, there was a choir member whose birthday it was, and one whose anniversary celebration was being postponed until after the rehearsal. If rehearsals are boring, the repertoire is boring, nobody seems to be having fun, choir members are gossipy or super-critical, and there is more talking than singing, a high percentage of people will self-select away from being in the choir. The opposite is also true.

It's about the Music, but Relationships Matter

My observation is that most amateur choirs are either musical groups that can have fun, or social groups that can do music. Neither is bad, but the best is a musical group that does have fun socially as well.

Some people just want to do the music. They don't care about how well your children are doing in school. Some people put up with the music so they can have the chance to brag about how well their children are doing in school. 

If you, as a choir director, don't like people, you might want to consider a different calling. If you aren't committed to the music, you might want to look closely at your motives for being a director. Choirs are made up of individual people, but they function as a team in relationship to one another. If you don't give people the chance to be in relationship with each other, your choir will live and die on the musical accomplishments alone. Being intentional about creating a relational environment will pay dividends in unexpected and wonderful ways.

There are Personality "Types" in Every Choir

Every choir has a crankypants. I've directed professionals and amateur choirs, in schools and churches, community ensembles and corporate sponsored groups, in different countries, and I guarantee you this: Every choir has somebody who chronically arrives late, or always (and I mean always) sits in the same seat.

You'll have to deal with these folks, anyway, so be creative, and save up the stories, because you'll be a hit at the next conductor's convention...unless one of your colleagues starts a "I can top that..." dialogue.

They will Forget the Rehearsal Work if they have a Memorable Performance

Don't beat up on me, church folks, for using the word performance here. Just understand the point. If the singers go away from a concert or a benediction response that has "got" them, they don't care how much time and effort it took to do it well. In fact, they may be unsatisfied if you don't insist upon that level for every piece after that.

This goes back to the recruitment issue. Not every piece will create a mountaintop experience in a performance or worship setting. But when it happens, your singers will talk about it for a long time to come. I still have people I see socially from a choir that I haven't directed for over 10 years, and they will talk to me about a particular Sunday, or a particular concert. That's the kind of impact that you can have upon your singers. 

And that's the kind of impact you can have upon your listeners, if you are willing to put in the time and effort to get there.

There is an interesting corollary here too. At the end of a season, if you ask your choir members which piece they like the best, it will inevitably be the one that produced the most groans at the beginning of the rehearsal process...the one everybody thought was too hard. This is only true if the "hard" piece has absolute musical value. It is not true if it is hard because the writer was trying to prove how difficult a piece could be produced.

Final Thoughts

I hope these 10 Things are useful. If you'd like to know more about what I've learned, consider getting one of my books. I'm looking forward to the new choir season this year...aren't you?


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