A Note to Frustrated Choral Conductors

What does a choral conductor do — or indeed the music director of any ensemble do — if he or she feels frustrated at the standard of the amateur chorus he or she is leading?

Should she (OK, I’m switching to ‘she’ now to avoid using that cumbersome ‘he or she’ thing throughout this blogpost) get angry at every rehearsal and lecture the choir about how they’re not delivering the goods?

Should she institute more rigorous rules about things like attendance and pre-rehearsal preparation and threaten the chorus members with tortures like forcing them to “re-audition” if they miss more than two rehearsals?

Or should she consider a move into the world of ‘professional’ choruses where financial support supposedly dictates a higher level of focus, commitment and talent?

Theoretically, I actually think that the third option may be best for the conductor who refuses to accept the allowances that have to be made for a choir consisting of people who sing primarily for fun (albeit often to a very high level of musical excellence).

The fact is that no matter how devoted the members of amateur choruses are to their choral organizations, putting in many hours of rehearsal and time on their own preparing their music, they have other obligations like paying jobs that sometimes get in the way of choral activities.

So if a chorus director has been stamping her feet on the podium like an impetuous child one too many times, she should probably consider seeing how she fares in the professional choral world.

If she’s really good, she might be lucky enough to land one of the very few paying chorus gigs available.

And at that point, I’m guessing, the reality check will set in.

The truth is that unless you’re leading a group like Chanticleer, which rehearses every day and whose members do nothing for a living besides singing full-time in that ensemble, issues to do with intonation, blend and other aspects of musical refinement will always be there. Everyone deals with these problems, actually, even the top professional groups.

And let’s not forget that the best volunteer choruses manage, in spite of the competing obligations in their lives, to deliver the musical goods admirably well.

So I’d like to suggest a fourth option for chorus directors who feel they’re at a crossroads and spend too much time in rehearsals haranguing their singers:

Suck it up, smile and work to the best of your abilities with the happy, talented amateurs that you’ve got standing in front of you.

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  1. says

    Well said. This requires great patience and perseverance on the part of the conductor who, unlike the singers, is usually a professional musician whether conncected with a college/university or not.

  2. says

    Another option could be hiring a singing teacher to come in for one or two sessions at the beginning of the season to give some group warmups and pedagogy. These sessions should be mandatory for all members, and agreed to when they sign up. When the chorus understands the mechanics of how to produce good tone, breathe correctly, and standardize the vowels*, they will feel an uplift of self confidence because they then can better meet the artistic demands of the conductor.

    * I’m a big fan of setting a communal standard for the “ah” (as in Ave Maria) vowel. There are so many variations in this vowel that if you ask a room of 20 people to sing “ah” you will see 20 different facial positions and 20 different sounds. A conductor who gets the “ah” lined up properly will get better results overall.

  3. Rita Mathsen says

    I think that Ms. Ivanoff is correct, especially where an “ah” vowel is concerned, but I will take it one step further: does the CONDUCTOR know how to sing? Or does he/she just have an idea of how they want to piece to sound as a end product? If the conductor does not know something of the actualy mechanics of singing (you’d be surprised how many don’t know where the diaphragm is located or what it IS!), how can he/she expect to get a choir to sing? I think that the conductor should take a few provate lessons as well.

  4. says

    Well, there are two different dynamics at work here…on the one hand, no, amateur musicians cannot be expected to achieve at the speed and level of professionally trained ones, and those rehearsals will take longer and often have a sort of “ceiling” of how close to the conductor’s ideal it’s going to get. (And lemme tell you–pros have intonation and blend problems too!)

    On the other hand, I don’t think it’s too much for a conductor to ask that if a member is going to commit to the season, or the year, or the concert series, or whatever, that they FOLLOW THROUGH on their commitment, attend the rehearsals they agreed to attend, be on time, and be as fully mentally present as they are able at each one. When you agree to be part of something, you’ve created an expectation not just on the part of the leader but on the part of everyone else in the room who’s made the same commitment, and when you fail to follow through on that mutual contract you are in effect saying, to the conductor and to your fellow choristers, that you do not respect them enough to keep your word. (Obviously, yes, Life happens–but there’s a big difference between a major work meeting called at the last minute and “gosh I’m wiped out, I don’t think I’ll go to choir tonight.”)

    Without a solid and reliable body of folks who actually show up to experience the unified “ah” vowel or whatever the conductor is working on, there can be no success. And the members themselves won’t have fun or succeed–not just the ones who were there, but the ones who missed will know they are way behind, have much more tension and anxiety in their voices and spirits, and no one has fun.

    I also find that when the expectations are laid out in the beginning of the season, laid out as above but with maybe a little more nuance and kindness in the phrasing, people generally do live up to them. Or they thoughtfully decide that maybe this is not the month to do this, and could they perhaps rejoin after the April concert when tax season is over…Volunteer musicians can still be treated like grownups. And I think they appreciate it when they are.

    (who by the way has never stamped my foot impetuously on a podium.)
    (and who now needs to go prepare for a rehearsal with my 40-voice choir, at which about 25 will likely attend, if I’m lucky. Sometimes the fourth choice gets us all.)

  5. says

    i’m into a church choir.
    and i’m accepting everybody who wants to serve singing even though they don’t have experience and tone deaf.
    the problem is, there are no strong singers in each sections.
    how to handle that?

  6. Sam says

    You’re suggesting that a choral conductor who fails to get a community choir to sound good (and acts like a child on the podium) should be promoted to a professional position. Hmm…

    Perhaps a better idea is for the the “conductor” to videotape herself during the rehearsal, and then view the tape with her regular conducting teacher, and incorporate that method into her regular conducting lessons, which any amateur conductor would clearly be taking on a weekly basis, just like any amateur musician.

    If things don’t improve, then it’s time for either a new conducting teacher, or a new profession for the “conductor”. Anyone who acts like a child or yells while rehearsing (and many do) should step down from the rostrum.

  7. Richard Awuy says

    Choose interesting yet less demanding choral compositions, make yourself the best choir clinician for amateurs… It’s a chance (take it as a free lab), and a real challenge as well. If you love your job, you’ll survive.. =)

  8. Gina says

    Has anyone ever heard of choir director rage? I think it’s a real thing. I don’t know why they do it but they need some serious help. Sad, because sometimes they have real talent but they lose respect when they act like a kid with a temper tantrum. I was once the accompanist for a choir & the director stopped me during a performance & made me start over because I played the intro a tad to slow for his liking that day. I just felt really embarrassed for him because he looked like such an idiot & made everyone in the audience feel uncomfortable instead of enjoying the performance.
    I’ve seen other music directors treat the musicians poorly as well. Someone should do some research & write a book or something.