The Thoughts of a Choir Leader (pt 1)

I believe that some people think all I do is stand at the front, wave my arms a bit, sing at people and this incredible sound comes back at me! There is a bit more to it than that and I thought I’d share my thought processes for how I pick and arrange music for my groups.

I start planning the term based on what the steering group/ committee/ boss has told me the activities are to be. For come groups this means looking at the concert schedule and picking the repertoire appropriate for that concert, for others it means planning what events we might do. Some groups have two or three concerts/performances each term, another group has one community coffee morning at the end of the term.

Sometimes finding repertoire is as easy as opening a book and thanking the author over and over for such a great arrangement at the flick of a page, other times it can involve finding a poem and writing the melody and harmonies from scratch.. The latter is much more common than the former! That’s the very fun and creative part of my job… it’s also the time consuming bit! I try to have about 2/3 of the repertoire that is needed ready before the start of term. I don’t tend to have it all ready because things change, events change. If we have 2/3 new material and an event changes, or the group take much longer than anticipated to learn something then we can use 1/3 of older material that just needs a little polish up.

I tend to do a mixture of tiny, short and medium songs. Community choirs aren’t wonderful at long songs. That isn’t because they won’t like them, it isn’t because they won’t try their best and have a go but a long song is either repeat after repeat of the same material (in which case it’s a bit musically boring and the idiosyncrasies in the words of each verse are tricky to manage) or it is different music for each verse which is incredibly difficult for non-music-readers or those who read a little bit to manage. Also, a long song is not ‘value for money’. You have to spend lots of time learning it but it still only lasts around 5 minutes where as you can do two short songs in that time. What we get out of a song vs what we put in to a song is very important.

Choirs need a sense of satisfaction… to have sung something and sounded brilliant. They need to make a great noise quickly in the term. They also need a challenge, but a challenge they can succeed at. Once or twice I have pushed a choir too hard and the result is heart breaking for all concerned. They feel that they have let you down, while you know that your choice has let them down.

How I arrange material directly impacts the enjoyment and satisfaction rating of choirs. As I’m a soprano I naturally give the tops the tune and work downwards in part creation… This was fine for a year or two but it can lead to boring arrangements. Basses are more than just drone singers, more than just the root and the fifth. Similarly if tenors get stuck ‘filling the gaps’ it’s disempowering because those parts are difficult and not particularly musical, not intuitive. So now I take my melody and pick a key for it, if it is within alto, tenor, or bass range then I give the melody away to one of those parts. Oh, I should say that within a community choir the basses are more like baritones, the tenors can have men and women, and the sopranos are mezzos. Bass range is somewhere around an octave from G-G, tenors are around a lower F to a high A (that is pushing the men!), altos manage low A to a C, and sopranos are about a middle C to a high E. The range is quite close together. It makes for lots of close harmony!

I’m a folk musician, I will always have folk music in my veins and I don’t compose or arrange in a western classical manner. I like to arrange ‘live’ where I make a part and give it to someone and then carry on to make another but that requires patient friends with time on their hands so a lot of the time I use RecTools, GarageBand etc. I stick my headphones in, record the melody and then add tracks from there. When I try to compose using Sibelius and put it straight in to the computer I create unnatural lines, they are either boring or hard to sing (and not in a good way). I like to create harmony that weaves between parts, parts that cross each other and create different timbre because of that, parts where the melody isn’t always where you expect it.

Because my arrangements are ‘hand made’ and often not notated it gives me freedom and flexibility to change things if they don’t work with a larger group (for example if I’ve given altos and tenors the tune but kept the sopranos low in their voices then there may be no way to boost the volume of the soprano part and so the logical thing is to move the soprano part to the altos, leaving the tenors on the tune, and create a new soprano part). I think my choirs are sympathetic when ‘tweaking’ happens because they know the effort and thought that goes in to creating arrangements for them. This does only happen sometimes!!

For any choir member reading this… this is always my aim and intention… I’m not claiming to always succeed!

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