The Choral Dirge

As the holiday season kicks into full swing and choral music concerts abound, I am invariably reminded of why it is that the genre has so little street cred.

Here are the problems as I perceive them.

1. Composers like to write tediously slow, earnest music. Most of the contemporary repertoire sounds like a dirge, with the same superficially complex harmonies borrowed from the Lauridsen and Whitacre cannons. There’s little rhythmicality and joy to any of it. In short, the sincerity bores the pants off me.

2. Choral directors take themselves way too seriously and program too much samey stuff. I guess they can’t help it — that’s all that’s being written at the moment, apparently — as per my above point. The concerts generally lack variety and are often way too long, sending the audience into a comatose state.

3. Singers usually seem completely disengaged. With expressionless faces, they look akin to many performers of contemporary dance. At most, you get one or two simperingly beatific expressions, which are as off-putting as the blank, robotic looks. Where’s the fun?

4. The churches in which most choral concerts take place couldn’t be less inviting. The pews are hard. The air is cold. The toilets are in the basement. The lighting is bad and there’s nowhere to get a drink.

5. Choral people often dress very poorly. I can’t stand choruses’ attempts at homogeneity e.g. matching uniforms. And the “all black” thing is boring plus leaves too much room for people to get away with ugly variations on a theme like ill-fitting shirts, trousers that are too short and, worst of all, clogs. (I know clogs are comfortable and singers have to stand for a long time. But there are limits.)

I believe that the above issues are easy to fix. Choruses should commission composers to write more fast-paced, joyous and/or rhythmic pieces. Directors should program shorter concerts (max 90 minutes) and include a wide variety of moods and styles into a single program. Singers should understand the words they’re singing and wake up. Choruses should stop performing in churches so much. There are plenty of other kinds of venues with decent acoustics. Oh, and the singers and their directors should take a style lesson. Looking good on stage doesn’t have to cost much money.

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  1. Melissa Cirone says

    Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Choral concerts lack joy, levity, surprise, and spontaneity. Too often you feel like you are sitting through something rather than opening yourself up to any kind of real experience. It shouldn’t be this way – nothing should feel as accessible as a choral concert. But the programming is boring and, as you said, choral directors take themselves waaaaaayyyyyy too seriously. And don’t get me started on the church.

  2. says

    Now, I’m living in a somewhat different choral world from yours, so can’t judge how accurately the stereotype you present describes choral life round your way. But I certainly recognise the syndrome, and of course any complaints about a church’s amenities the New World makes can be trumped by the discomforts and inconveniences of a British parish. (You can get to the toilets without going outside? Wow! I bet you have heating too, and padding on the pews.) We don’t get so much of the Whitacre overkill over here; actually, my mother’s perpetually unanswered prayer is to go just one Christmas without Rutter, who at least does produce cheerful music.

    But I think this picture also represents the problem that choirs have with the way a certain form of choral activity gets taken as representing all choral activity. (Jon Silpayamamanant talks about this mode of cultural definition here:; I also blogged about it in relation to choirs last year though I think Jon’s analysis of the processes of definition is possibly more useful.) You get so many choirs feeling they have to brand themselves as ‘not your typical choir’ because they’re battling against what they feel are outdated stereotypes.

    It’s not that the concerts you describe don’t go on, but how do the people who are trying to create a different experience get to redefine the genre if every example of the older model is taken as axiomatic?

    (Actually, I think the answer is probably that they should start reading Sandow, but you see what I mean 😉

  3. says

    If you think those items are all “easy to fix,” that just proves you’re not a choir director. Choirs perform in churches because they’re acoustically friendly and inexpensive to rent. What are the alternatives? Pricey concert halls where they’d need to be amplified to be heard? Somebody’s living room? School cafeterias? Similarly, it’s possible to find outside-the-box, exciting repertoire which isn’t too “samey,” but it’s not easy; it requires hours and hours of research. And if we do expend that effort, won’t you accuse us even more of “taking ourselves too seriously”? That complaint doesn’t even make sense: what could be less serious than doing the same old Messiah every year?

    I’m not saying your complaints aren’t valid, but it rankles that you think solving these tricky problems is “easy.” Conductors do triage all the time. With limited rehearsal time, do we spend a lot of it on facial expression and appearance, at the expense of working on intonation, phrasing, etc.? Do we program challenging music which they’ll have trouble learning in time, or mix in some old favorites to speed the rehearsal process? And will audiences buy tickets for unknown composers? How much of our limited volunteers’ time do we want to spend on costuming?

  4. says


    I don’t necessarily agree with all of this de facto, but I definitely agree with the point about “disengaged singers,” with “expressionless faces.” And if that point were addressed successfully, I posit that many of the other points would be moot.

    From the introduction to my book:

    On November 9, 2003, in a glorious stone church with impossibly high ceilings, I had the great pleasure of experiencing a concert performed by the UC Berkeley Choral Ensembles. Director Mark Sumner had created a wonderful evening of anti-war songs, interspersed with poems and readings done by individual choir members. His 160 singers (combined) did a spectacular job with the material–they felt it deeply, expressing themselves individually and collectively in such a way that I was spellbound, and deeply moved. It wasn’t until the concert was over that I realized I was in pain from sitting on a hard wooden pew for two-and-a-half hours. When talking to some audience members after the show, I realized I was not alone in my appreciation. “The singers were so ‘into it,’ almost like rock singers. Their faces were so alive and expressive!” was the response of one gentleman. Another audience member said, “Wow! There was something so different about that concert. But in a good way!”

    I had worked with Mark’s groups for about four hours as I recall, over several rehearsals, but choirs can be completely transformed in about one hour to an hour and a half. The skills required are simple, basic, and familiar as they are behaviors and processes we all engage in every day of our lives. No “almost professional” acting training required. I’ve worked with hundreds of choirs, many of which were demo groups at state, regional, or national ACDA/MENC conventions, and (with the exception of about five groups) they all EASILY embraced the process. Regardless of the group’s initial expression or engagement, they managed to transform into an incredibly dynamic and engaged group by the end of the rehearsal. The audience experience was transformed as well.

    To those who think that we work with expression “at the expense” of the ‘more important’ musical issues like phrasing and intonation, consider the following:

    *When singers’ minds and bodies are engaged with the humanity of the piece (meaning, purpose, ‘soul’…), they sing better. Pitch is better, phrasing is more unified, et cetera.
    *And yes, this means that singers must not be told to “stand still” all the time since the body’s state will affect the mental/emotional state. It also means that we mustn’t tell singers to “only smile with your eyes….”
    *Singers who experience the purpose and meaning of the text are “on the same page” as the composer, and have a much easier time incorporating the musical elements. They intrinsically understand the dynamics, the phrasing, the nuance, and the poignancy.
    *So, rather than predominantly trying to control through external direction (the standard paradigm), directors could empower the singers to be expressive artists themselves. Ironically, empowering the singers this way from day one gives the director much more to work with, and results in a choir which moves ahead in the rehearsal process by several weeks or more.
    *Contrary to many people’s opinions, directors do themselves and their singers a profound disservice by avoiding this expressive connection … ending up with singer and audience experiences similar to those related in your Choral Dirge. Ironically, we avoid expression “at the expense” of our collective musical experience!

    If a director wants to help their group be more expressive, please note that working on expression does not mean telling the choir to look a certain way or feel a certain feeling. Those are ineffective and counter-productive methods, and will NEVER result in a choir which is authentically engaged or engaging.

    What to do instead? Here’s a short-hand version (for much more, please visit my website or investigate my book):

    *Come up with a scenario which would give an individual or group of singers a reason to sing the words and music. When I do workshops I suggest one or two, then we explore them. Having singers suggest/brainstorm scenarios can be equally effective.
    *Help the singers come up their identity and the identity of the Other to whom they are singing. They can sing as themselves or a character with equal connection and belief.
    *Help the singers identify their objective — how they’re trying to affect the person/animal/entity to whom they are singing. In everyday human experience we try to affect other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.
    *Help the singers come up with their Other’s imagined reaction. Is the Other resisting? Walking away? Crying? Laughing in our face? Finally giving in? When in the music is the Other doing these things?
    *Have the singers “Face the Director” by imagining you as their Other, then trying to affect you. This paradigm shift is perhaps the most powerful; they try to affect you rather than your trying to affect them.

    To see how this works with an actual song, check out the Barbershop page on my website.

    All my best,

    Choral Charisma: Singing with Expression published by Santa Barbara Music Publishing

  5. Vicki Farmer says

    Interesting converation – especially for someone who commonly closes her eyes during concerts. Most times, I feel like it helps me hear the music better…
    I don’t think any of these visual additives were ever as important until the advent of MTV and other attempts to bring multi-media into the mix (I know, I’m oversimplifying). Having said that, there’s no denying that they would certainly help to increase audience/popularity. I just hope they aren’t done to the detriment of the most important thing – the sound.

  6. MaryB says

    I appreciate this post – clear, concise points that aren’t addressed nearly enough. Total agreement regarding the pews, the temperature (brr!), the lack of variety in programming (do we want to hear three 40-minute long works that sound the same? NO) and CLOGS.

    I was in a choir that focused on extremely ambitious 20th century music, so no we didn’t work on expressions. Most singers were buried in their folders. And the music chosen – there were exceptions, but most of it was not accessible to the average listener. No wonder our concerts were not well-attended; my parents resisted going and they love seeing me sing.

    Lastly, a 2-hour long choir concert? It’s like doing bikram yoga. Just counting down until the end – and this coming from a chorus lover. It’s basically a crime.

  7. says


    I read your thoughts one week after you posted. I largely agree. Number 4 is a tough one.
    Some, who are either selling something or are in a position where they dare not offend any one (spare me)
    jump on your kind of daring.
    Some say, “What you see is what you hear.” Dressing in high formality fools some people’s ears.
    Some of us are convinced that a really fine chorus singing singable vocal music can be enjoyed in
    adverse conditions such as you describe. QUALITY WILL OUT! All the clever “other stuff” cannot
    make up for a poor sounding chorus.
    Faddists reign!



    • says

      To counter Ed’s comment (maybe?), I would say that even a great-sounding choir will bore most audience members if all the choir is focused on is great sound. And to avoid confusion, my objective is to “sell” a paradigm and a process; please don’t hold it against me that I cared enough to write a book. 😊

      • says

        I did not isolate “sound” as my definition of quality. The thrust of this article, to me, is the bemoaning of the
        “dull literature dully rendered, “with which I fully and enthusiastically agree.
        I define a successful performance as a really fine chorus singing singable music. Perhaps my last sentence should have read, “All the clever “other stuff” cannot make up for a poor PERFORMING chorus.”
        That includes sound, of course.
        If Chloe is, in fact, not a choral director, her perception is to be commendrd.

        • says

          We’re in agreement if you’re including authentic engagement with text … with said engagement to include the body, the mind, the heart … and the voice. And we’re in definite agreement about the fact that a technically deficient chorus can not be helped by any “other stuff” — the poor musical delivery will negatively trump the visual and humanly connected choir every time.

          Best of both worlds is the ticket!