"My Choir Can't..."
I had a conversation yesterday with a young choral conductor, who has recently taken on her first “real” conducting job, working with a non-auditioned community chorus. I knew that they had just done their first performance together, so I asked her how it went. “It went pretty well,” she said, “But they aren’t very good.”
I asked her to define “Not very good.” “Well, they don’t make much noise, and they can’t sing in tune.”
So, what was she doing to remedy these shortcomings? “What can I do? I tell them they should sing louder, and I tell them they’re flat, but they just don’t know how to sing better. They just aren’t very good.”
Now, that sounds like she’s just had shoddy teaching, and maybe she has, I don’t know her teachers very well. But you’d assume that, wouldn’t you, because the whole world and her cat knows that if your choir doesn’t do something well, it’s your job as the director to teach them how to do it better. That is, in fact, pretty much your whole job as a choral conductor: to improve your choir’s level of performance – and by extension, their performance skills – by whatever means necessary.
But to be honest, I’ve had this conversation before, and with a variety of conductors, working with a variety of choirs both professional and amateur. “My sopranos can’t sing in tune”; “My choir can’t count”; and of course, that delightful passive-aggression: “There’s just one note there, altos, figure it out.”
So let’s get this out in the open, right now: if there is something that your chorus consistently does poorly, then it is your responsibility to diagnose the cause, and to work to fix it. Your choir can’t count? Work on rhythm exercises. Your sopranos are flat? Teach them to breathe properly to support their high range, teach them to sing more lightly, change their standing order. Too many notes in the alto part? Isolate it, correct it. That’s your job.*
Yes, it will likely take time, and some repetition. If you feel you don’t have the time to spare because you are busy working on the music, then you should likely consider programming more carefully. If your choir needs to learn a particular skill, then program with the understanding that you will be spending time on that skill. You can program works that will help with that, or you can program works that will leave you with time for that, or you can balance the two.
Their success is your success. No more blaming them.
* Your job is also to show what you want clearly through your gesture. Many a carefully-prepared performance has gone awry as a result of inadequate gesture. But that's a whole 'nother blog post.