Taking a Choir practice – made easy

The first time I took a choir practice I was just sixteen years old. I walked into a room full of staring eyes and I was terrified!

Some people were talking, some came in late, and they were all probably wondering who this young whippersnapper was, and what could he teach them with all their church choir experience?

As I tried to look as if I knew what I was doing, thoughts were racing through my mind: “How do I get started? How do I get through this? … How do I get out of here alive?” Further thoughts crowded in on me as I tried hard to look a little bit older: “Will the Choir do what I ask? Will they laugh at me?” or – even worse – “What if they make fun of me?”

I needn’t have worried. What started out as a frightening experience turned out to be most enjoyable – in fact, it totally shaped my life.

Have you ever found yourself in this situation? Or perhaps you want to start a choir and you’re just not sure how to structure a choir practice? To start with, think positively! The singers are there in the rehearsal room because they chose to be there, and it’s just possible they’re more worried than you are.

They want to be inspired, to have a good sing, to be excited – moved even – but most of all they want you to succeed because … if you don’t, then none of those other things can happen.

They will become your friends, and will eventually give you a loyalty that will enrich your life. I still have choir friends made over fifty years ago: friends who will do anything for me – friends whose friendship is of immense value. This is what you can look forward to, but first things first: how do you start the choir practice?

Choir Practice has to be fun!

If you want to keep the choir’s attention, get them to turn off their cellphones right at the start. And wherever possible, make them laugh! They’re volunteers, and they’ve come out to choir practice when they could have stayed home and watched television. You have to make it enjoyable, but whatever you do – don’t make them giggle!

As a boy I sang at an important funeral. Somehow giggles erupted and the choir nearly came to a stop. In those days, punishment was rough and ready, and some of us had trouble sitting down afterwards!

Things were more relaxed when one of the guests at a wedding got the giggles. It quickly spread through the church like an epidemic so that soon everyone was giggling – including the wedding couple and the priest! The wedding vows were taken to the sound of giggles and guffaws. It was impossible not to join in and I only just managed to stumble through the Wedding March!

Practice makes Perfect …

After putting the singers at their ease with a bit of laughter, try some warming-up exercises. They needn’t be all vocal exercises. You can use some simple breathing work and a bit of movement to music. Singing is a highly physical occupation, so a lively dynamic warm-up is helpful.

Tongue twisters sung quickly are always good fun at choir practice. Here are some of my favourites: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” and “Red lolly, yellow lolly” (try it fast!) Invent some yourself and get the choir to come up with some new ones.

Choirs are full of eccentrics, many looking for a kind of music therapy. Spend time getting to know the individual quirks of choir members. Who won’t sit next to who at choir practice, for instance, where the personality clashes are, and who won’t share their music. Some are obsessed with choir dress and some with discipline. That’s all part of the fun – enjoy it and humour them!

Time to Start the Music

Practice something cheerful at the outset – definitely not something miserable … you can keep that for later on.

Taking a choir practice is like driving a car: avoid hazards, change gear correctly, give way at the right time, indicate clearly, and don’t crash! Study the map and know where you’re going. This one is particularly important, because the choir must never be allowed to suspect that you don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t let them doubt your infallibility – given half a chance they will!

When you prepare a piece, work out where the difficult bits are. Leave these until you have the choir’s complete attention. It’s often useful to say, “Let’s just get this bit right tonight.” Always give the singers a well-defined goal, and make sure they leave with a feeling of achievement … but remember that by the next choir practice most of them will have forgotten what you’ve taught them.

In the end the singers should leave the choir practice happy and exhilarated. You should leave the choir practice happy, exhilarated … and exhausted. So go to the coffee bar or the pub with them, make friends, relax, laugh and joke.

Next time the choir practice won’t be nearly so frightening.

These articles may also be of interest to you:

The Psychology of Choir Practice – The Psychology of Choir Practice – getting the best from your Choir

Choir Warm-Up – Choir Warm-Up – wind up your singers

Sight-reading – Sight-reading – How it’s done

Children’s Choir – Children’s Choir – a list of favourite church music

Rehearsal – Rehearsing a Children’s Choir