Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Leave Your Ego at the Door: The Choral Compact

In a recent discussion on ChoralTalk, choral directors discussed matters of discipline, constructive criticism, and how the attitudes of the singers affect rehearsals, for good or ill. The exchange got me thinking about the miracle that can happen when a diverse group comes together for the shared experience of choral singing. Of course, the miracle happens only when the group enters fully into what might be called a choral compact, wherein each singer – and the director – agrees to a series of expectations and commitments for participation in the ensemble.

Here are my informally-articulated tenets for the choral compact:

A successful choral ensemble comprises individual singers who willingly leave their egos and vocal individuality at the door in order to create a unified and uniform choir. Singers’ respect for the music, for each other, and for the director (who in most cases will be the most experienced choral director in the room!) should prompt everyone to behave respectfully at every rehearsal.

For the same reason that a chorus wears uniform attire, singers must have a uniform attitude and be willing to receive instruction on how to produce a uniform sound and sing with “one voice.” Though a choir comprises individual singers, it is not a collection of individual voices; rather, it is a single choral unit. A good choral singer lives and breathes this understanding. A good choral singer does not show up at a concert in non-approved attire. Neither would a good choral singer come to rehearsal with anything other than a good "choral" attitude, ready to learn and ready to work toward a common goal.

Good choristers come to a rehearsal ready to learn how they can sing in a way that is good for the success of the choir. A choir rehearsal is not the time to show off your voice, your sight-reading skills, or your presumed knowledge of choral conducting.

Good choristers understand that the director's goal is to produce a uniform sound and to help all individual singers become part of the uniform whole. Good choristers support the director's goals. This can be as simple as sitting quietly and listening carefully while instruction is being given.

The larger the ensemble, the more important it is that every chorister be willing to do what is asked, and to do it quickly and quietly. Comments, quips, or mutterings from the choir are distracting, energy-wasting, and just plain rude, not only to the director but to the other members of the ensemble who are trying to listen and follow directions. (As a chorister, this is my pet peeve: chattering neighbors who prevent my hearing what the director is saying! Grr.)

There can be only one leader of a chorus, and that is the person on the podium, the director. If a chorister does not like the style, philosophy, rules, repertoire, etc., then perhaps that singer should find a different chorus in which to sing. Comments from the floor, disagreements with the conductor, etc., have no place in a choral rehearsal. Perhaps a very small ensemble that does not engage a conductor would be best for a person who does not want to work under another person's direction or who cannot keep quiet during a rehearsal.

That said, it is certainly the responsibility of the director to lead with grace, professionalism, maturity, expertise, and kindness, and to offer instruction that is supportive and not "critical." All of those things are possible – I know from my experiences with several great choral conductors and with several fine choral ensembles.

Read more essays about my experience -- and views -- as a chorister:

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