SETTING UP YOUR CHOIR
Why do we run children's choirs?
The fact that you are reading this book means that you've probably decided what you think about this already. Suffice it to say, therefore (in case you ever have to justify yourself to a parent or head teacher, for instance), that singing lies at the root of nearly all world music, that virtually all peoples, tribes and races sing as soon as they can talk, that choral singing in the Western tradition is the best possible musical training, that there is no better way to develop aural and musical intelligence, that it represents so demanding a degree of teamwork as to make Manchester United look like a hockey match at St.Trinian's, and that it can make the freshest, liveliest, saddest, happiest, most soulful and altogether most beautiful sound on God's earth. Luckily, children actually enjoy it as well.
As a choir-trainer your job is simple. You first have to attract children to your choir, and then keep them there. This means that your rehearsals must be interesting, your personality attractive, and that you must treat individual singers fairly and with respect. If you fail in these goals, they will vote with their feet.
So long as they are there, it is also your job to empower them - to show them how to make the very best of their natural ability, how to apply their intelligence to a simple function in order to transform it into high art, and how to nurture and enhance that intelligence. You will show them how to recognise when they are succeeding, and how to approach success calmly and constructively. You will show them how to recognise when they have failed, and how to utilise simple techniques to turn that failure into success again. You will help them achieve what they will recognise and remember all their lives as something joyous and very special.
And what do you get out of this?
Not a lot. There's certainly no money in it! But a successful choir will give you their loyalty, their affection, quite a lot of fun and the satisfaction of creating music so gorgeous it makes you cry. Nothing much, really ......
Adults and children
From the conductor's point of view children's and youth choirs are often more satisfactory to work with than choirs of adults. Nor should you assume that adults will necessarily be able to give you higher standards. Children are quick to learn and infinitely more flexible, able to absorb changes of style and method and a variety of repertoire that adults would find hard to cope with. Adults tend to have more entrenched opinions about what they want to sing, who they want to sit next to (or, frequently, who they don't want to sit next to), how they should learn the work etc., while children trust you to make the decisions. They have amazingly catholic tastes and will cheerfully tackle anything from Thomas Tallis to modern pop songs without complaint - provided that both are presented in a lively manner and are within their range of ability.
The question of trust is paramount. The most frustrating thing about training an adult choir is their insistence that they must feel absolutely secure about every single note - they do worry so! Almost every rehearsal can be punctuated by requests to "... just go over this particular bit of the tenor part once more, as we are not quite sure about the E flat at the end of the second bar?" Children, on the other hand, will be quite prepared to let such a detail slide if you tell them it's all right - they trust you. One of my colleagues has been heard to say that if he told his youth orchestra their next concert was at the top of Mount Everest, they'd just shrug and say "OK, when does the bus leave?"
This puts more responsibility on you, of course. If your choir fail to learn a particular piece in time for the next concert, it won't be their fault, but yours. If they perform badly it will be because you failed to pace their work, or made a foolish decision about the timing or the venue or something. If they have to sing to an empty building, it will be because your judgement was poor when you selected the venue, date or time for the concert, or because you failed to identify and target a suitable audience.
And you have to look after them all the time. You have to judge how tired or bored they are and tailor the rehearsal to suit, you must make sure that you can cope with little accidents and emergencies, you must ensure that your travel arrangements are foolproof, and at all times you must accept responsibility for their safety. For instance, at the end of rehearsal it is up to you to make sure they have all been collected by their parents and to wait behind until the last one has safely departed. The thought of some poor mite waiting fearfully in the dark long after the hall has been locked and bolted is too awful to contemplate, and it's just as much your responsibility as the musical decision making.
This means considering how many assistants you should have. Local Education Authorities have guidelines that apply to activities under their control, and even if you are running an independent choir you could find out what these are and follow them for your own protection as much as anything else. For example, my own LEA insists that for any residential course or foreign trip, there should be one member of staff (or parent or other responsible adult - not necessarily a teacher) to every ten children, which is quite a good rule. Education Authorities are also bound by law to make sure that nobody gains access to young people who has a criminal record of offences against children. Are you certain about your own helpers?
For the average weekly rehearsal, a main priority is to know that you can cope with an emergency. If one of the children is taken ill, is there someone else in the building who can help them or keep an eye on the rest of the choir while you do it yourself? If you are a man, is there an adult lady nearby in case one of the girls has a problem of an intimate nature? If you yourself were suddenly taken ill during rehearsal, do the children know where to go for help? One of the most effective ways of dealing with these requirements is to enlist the help of parents, who will instantly see the problem if you explain it to them in these terms. A rota system can make it very easy to have one or two parents sitting in the rehearsal or nearby just in case. They will probably be anxious to help in other ways, as well - marking the register, acting as choir librarian, organising drinks of squash during the break etc.
How many parts should you sing in?
Every young choir should sing in unison sometimes, with at least one unison work in every programme (Handel is good. Have a look at Shine out, great sun from Samson, or Where'er you walk. Wide range, lots of big leaps to navigate, and lovely tunes).
You have a responsibility to your members not to let them become entrenched in just one part, but to continue using their whole voice. For instance, very few young "altos" are really altos at all - they are mostly sopranos who have chosen to concentrate on the lower part of thier voice. Sadly, more do so from laziness or shyness than from real physical necessity. You would be failing if you did not make sure that they still had a soprano voice at the end of their time with you, and to have it they must use it. Therefore, I make all my young singers do their warm-ups together, and I insist that everyone shall sing in the same keys and throughout the same range at least some of the time. Consequently, we have an alto section who can all sing up to top G above the treble stave - and sopranos who can reach G below middle C. Yes, really!
By the same token, do some two-part work and don't allow your singers to be too rigid about which part they sing. It's a good idea sometimes to swap the parts over. It's always beneficial, if you can manage it, to make everyone learn both parts. My younger choir includes in its repertoire Bob Chilcott's Two Singing Songs. These excellent pieces are interestingly dissonant, totally charming and really very easy. We don't know who is singing which part until just before each concert, as we line up in the dressing-room and number ourselves: "You're 1, you're 2, you're 1, you're 2, and you're 1, and 2, and 1, 2, 1, 2, 1 .......... now, in the Two Singing Songs, all the "ones" sing the lower part, and all the "twos" sing the top part. And swap over for the second song!" It has never failed, and the children enjoy the element of uncertainty. And it's a good introduction to the art of singing "scrambled", of which more anon.
Fortunately there is no shortage of repertoire for upper voice choirs, whether you wish to sing in unison, two or three parts or even more. Therefore it is easy to find enough material for the younger choir that needs to sing in unison or two parts most of the time. Don't be afraid to do this. A really good performance in only two parts is much better than a ropy one in three, so cut your coat according to your cloth. Of course, the bulk of upper-voice material tends to be in three parts, and here you must consider the question of balance .....
Most children want to sing the top part ("first soprano") because they find it easier. That alone is a good reason for not letting them do it, but making them all learn all the parts. Their musicianship and their awareness of the harmonic basis of the music will improve if you can make them swap parts readily.
In a two-part choir you need more singers on the lower part than the upper (well, it stands to reason, doesn't it? Higher sounds are more penetrating). Similarly, when in three parts you need most singers in the second sopranos. The second soprano section is the "power-house" of the choir. The altos provide the bedrock on which the harmony sits, while the first sopranos are the icing on the cake, so to speak. Try to have a balance of power and experience in each part - don't allow all the best singers to congregate in the firsts. Explain to them that every part must have its own balance of strength and ability, and every part is equally important. I usually put new members into the second sopranos, and only move them either up or down when they have gained experience at reading and singing an inner part, and I have had an opportunity to assess where they will be most useful. In our older choir this season we have 16 first sopranos, 30 second sopranos and 15 altos, and we feel the balance is exactly right.
Choosing repertoire - where to look and what to look for
Most of the major publishers have good lists of music suitable for young choirs. The two that have made most of the running in recent years are Faber's and Boosey & Hawkes. Faber's have a number of excellent books - quite expensive but you get several songs in each - offering a variety of styles from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Schubert, Godspell to plainchant. Well worth a look.
Boosey & Hawkes have their Choral Experience Series, published in smart red leaflets and edited and compiled in America by Doreen Rao. This series is very mixed indeed. It contains some songs composed or arranged by American composers for the American market which will not appeal to British choir-trainers at all. Others are well-written but dull. A few are "arrangements", so-called, of composers like Handel or Purcell in which almost nothing has been changed from the original so that one could have done just as well oneself. But many are enormously successful, and the list is so large that one is always bound to find something one likes.
Children and audiences absolutely love Niska Banja (seven beats in a bar, Serbian words, 4 parts and not nearly as hard as it sounds), A-tisket a-tasket and When I sing (jazzy songs with "do-be-do-be-do" words, good fun), Goin' up a-yonder (nice gospel song with a big ending, and sounds harder than it is), She shall have music (odd but very effective), Las Amarillas (Mexican style, audiences love it but very hard), Wind Song (weird, effective, the last page unperformable as written - can you sing "zzzzzz ...." on a top F? - so you have to adapt!), Cantate Domino (a good way of approaching modern, partly aleatoric music; has an accompaniment for synthesizer but works perfectly well without it) and a number of others.
When assessing material, look carefully at the alto part. Inevitably, to keep the upper parts within a comfortable range arrangers often find themselves writing alto parts that are very low - too low for young singers, in some cases. While the odd bottom G or even F is manageable, if they occur too often the song is best avoided. This is particularly true with unaccompanied songs. Most choirs go flat sometimes when singing a capella, and when this happens the poor altos can suddenly find themselves falling out of the bottom of their voices! The answer is not to go flat, of course, and there are ways of avoiding this, but it is a danger to be considered in advance.
This section continues, and deals in more detail with .......
Why do we run children's choirs?
Adults and children
Your rehearsal schedule
How many parts should you sing in?
Choosing your singers - why bother?
Boys versus girls
Choosing repertoire: where to look and what to look for
Copyright © The Choirmaster Press 2001