The Psychology of Choir Practice

Discussing choir practice at a recent university seminar in the USA, I was asked by a perceptive student if a “nit-picking” approach to rehearsal was correct. He suggested that a choirmaster should continually look for and correct the smallest of problems and mistakes and he implied that he took great pleasure in spotting and diagnosing countless choral errors.

This set me thinking about the attitude which a choirmaster should adopt and the best way to get the quickest and finest results out of your choir practice. I recognised in the student’s question the attitude to choir practice I had at his age, and I can assure you that it creates more problems than it solves!

It’s a heady feeling – being able to hear what others can’t – and it’s easy for a young person to lose the plot and consider himself above his singers. Without a choir you aren’t a choirmaster, so a shift in perception may be required to keep in mind that you are part of a team. The aeroplane mechanic may not be as elevated as the pilot, but the pilot would do well not to annoy him!

If choir practice consists of nothing but mistake-spotting, choristers quickly become bored and resentful. You will lose choir members and the approach will not improve standards – quite the reverse. There is, of course, a place for nit-picking, but you have to choose it carefully.

Not only is the choirmaster’s attitude in choir practice vitally important, but you also need a clear understanding of what choir practice is for.

The purpose of rehearsal is to give your choir complete security and accuracy in performance, and to enable it to sing with commitment and sincerity. Anything which militates against this should be abandoned and anything which undermines the mutual respect between choirmaster and choir should be eliminated.

Never treat your choir practice as a performance, it’s exactly what it says it is – a practice.

So what’s the best approach?

What attitude should you take? How should you behave with your choir?

Aim for a laid back and humorous approach. Set out to enjoy the choir practice! You need to feel completely at ease with your choir. And if you do, they will feel completely at ease with you. Obviously mistakes have to be corrected, but this can be done in a non-judgmental way. Whatever you do, don’t find fault, only encourage and suggest roads to improvement.

If you were not a choir director but a singer, giving up your free time to sit on a hard bench for choir practice week after week – even if you were paid to do so – ready to make mistakes in front of others, and prepared to put in a lot of work to support your choir and director, would you respond better to the statements on the left, or the ones on the right?

“That’s the fifth time you’ve made that stupid mistake” “You’re nearly there Next time you’ll probably have it.”
“You’re singing that note a semi-tone flat” “Let’s see if we can get that note higher by brightening the vowel sound – it’s slightly under at present!”
“You keep on coming in wrong” “Watch me carefully and you will get your entry right”
“You sound terrible” “Your singing is already beautiful, let’s see if we can find ways of making it even finer

If your choir sees that you are on the same side as them – working with them to help them to achieve more than they possibly could without you – they will give you their loyalty, effort and devotion.

A two-way street

The more you can draw your choristers into the process of interpretation the better. You need to challenge their intelligence and involve their brains. The combined intelligence of 100 singers is often better than the wit of one choirmaster.

Rather than impose your own views, seek to assimilate their ideas into the music you’re singing. Avoid developing your own “cult of personality”. It destroys real and spontaneous music-making. Your choir will respond to humility … it will not respond to arrogance. Acknowledge your own mistakes!

Once your church choir understands that choir practice with you will be exciting, positive, dynamic, and lively, you will have established the right spirit for productive work.

So, what about “nit picking”? Yes, there is a place for it in a choir practice. If you’re preparing for a recording you’ll need to be mighty particular about ensemble, consonant-placing and all the other things that microphones take great pleasure in reproducing! But even here, make positive suggestions rather than negative comments. Not “Can’t you ever get that t together?” but “Put the t on the bar line”.

These are, of course, counsels of perfection, and after 50 years of rehearsing choirs I still often fail to live up to them. The most important – and, at the time, surprising! – discovery I’ve made is that the more pleasant you are in choir practice, the better your results will be. Don’t become a raging, fault-finding monster.

Keep your directions precise without talking too much, know your music, and always display humour. Let the choir feel that you love them and, most of all, set out to enjoy the music you make with your singers. You have gifts to share with them – always be extremely generous.

These articles may also be of interest to you:

Choir Practice – Taking a Choir Practice

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

Minister vs. Organist – Minister vs. Organist

Rehearsal – Rehearsing a Children’s Choir

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