Three Things Good Choral Directors Do

By Jamie Babbit

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Choral directors have a fun, yet rough job. Imagine commandeering a room/church/auditorium filled with singers. I know, the mind boggles, doesn’t it? I hate to generalize, but singers are almost impossible to commandeer; I liken it to herding cats. Firstly, most of us singers love to talk. A lot. On top of that, we love attention; many of us are creative, dramatic and most definitely emotional. And we also love singing the right parts, and hate making mistakes. When we sing the wrong parts, we feel bad about ourselves, and thusly our very existence, and then we proceed to eat our feelings. That’s why wherever there are singers, there is candy. So, what can a choral director to do to insure they’ve got it going on, and to keep their convocation of choir members happy and singing like little birds?

Bring candy to rehearsals and performances.  Oops, wow, sorry, that’s a given, but seriously…

Know what makes vocalists tick and present that info with what is hopefully your usual flair: If you come to the podium in a non-alpha, wishy-washy way (this goes for both men and women), you’re sure to have wishy-washy rehearsals and performances. Start by knowing your group. Try hard to learn our names; we love that. Warm up our voices with far more than simply the couple of rounds of obligatory lip trills. Don’t admonish us for talking, but know that’s part of who we are; perhaps set up several breaks throughout rehearsals so we can chat a teeny bit, yes? And get water. Singers love water. Go over difficult words and pronunciations carefully and slowly so we know what we’re in for. Be encouraging as we’re learning, pat us on the back as we improve, and praise us when we sound great. (Notice I said ‘when we sound great’; we don’t need anyone blowing air in our tires, if you get my meaning.).

Have your music chops together at least as much as we do: While you don’t necessarily need a Ph.D. in music education or choral studies, you need to be able to find your way around a complicated score and know when your accompanist is doing his or her job well. Also, having great ears is mandatory for anyone who wants to lead a choir. I always tell my vocal students: ears are the most important parts of a vocalist’s body…and I think the same goes for directors. Well, your arms and hands are pretty important, too, which is why it’s imperative that you practice your conducting chops in a full-length mirror in the privacy of your own home.  In addition (and in my humble opinion), I think it would also behoove choir directors to: be somewhat proficient on piano (or guitar, sure), take some theory and sight-singing classes and some voice lessons wouldn’t hurt. A choral director who sings is a fantastic boon for the choir; he or she can know–and understand–the vocal apparatus more intimately in order to then pick just the right exercises for the warm-ups; they can sing our parts to us, which, if we’re having trouble hearing them, is an absolute godsend. And the best thing: when a choral director sings, they get to know the most convenient places for their choiristas to breathe for optimal note-holding satisfaction. Breathing is to singing as pedaling is to biking, right? And finally:

They know in their bones that patience is not only a virtue, it’s a downright necessity. This goes for pro, semi-pro, amateur, young adult, youth and toddler choirs alike. There is nothing quite as anxiety-provoking to choristers as a choral director who conveys that he or she is having a bad day and then takes it out on the choir.

The best choir directors know to keep their bad days tucked away in little locked boxes. Also, please don’t overreact if we have questions; we shrink like delicate little flowers if we see or feel any sort of overt or covert ‘eye-rolling’ emanating from our fearless leader. There is no one correct way of learning, as anyone will attest when watching choir members figure out his or her parts. Some are auditory learners, some need to read the music, some need to perform the same selections over and over, so do what you can to help everyone at rehearsals: making sure there are section recordings, check; sheet music and pencils, check; running things as slowly and deliberately as needed, check. Candy…check.

There are plenty of other things one can do, of course: have a super-optimistic outlook, lots and lots of energy, be respectful of another persons’ time, be the ultimate cheerleader. If you played sports, think of your favorite coaches. They exhibited all these qualities…and they also meant business. They inspired confidence and their players felt both relaxed and, on their toes, and proud to do a good job for the team all at the same time. That’s leadership. That’s teamwork. That’s why we do this. And also, for the candy….

Jaime Babbitt coached voice/performance for Disney and wrote Working with Your Voice: The Career Guide to Becoming a Professional Singer (Alfred Publishing). As a session singer, she’s “jingled” for Coke, Pillsbury, Chevrolet and hundreds more. She’s sung thousands of gigs and toured with Leon Russell and Sam Moore. Jaime sang background vocals with George Strait, Courtney Love, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Webb, Miley & Billy Ray Cyrus, and Johnny Mathis. For info, please visit workingwithyourvoice.com

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