A Solo Singer’s Survival Guide to Singing in a Choir

When I started taking voice lessons some 25 odd years ago, I had a battle to win. My technique was quite poor and I required a lot of work. Pushing my chest voice too high, tension in the throat, and having a nice big “yodel of a break” were just a few of my problems. Within several months, I got a “Handel” on things ( play on words ) and my voice started showing remarkable improvement. One battle was starting to turn into victory, but now, I had another skirmish to deal with…how to be a solo singer in a choir setting.

Singing in a choir has its own set of rules that are different from what you might have learned in a private voice lesson.

In your private lessons, emphasis is given to qualities that are required to “cut through” an orchestra and be heard in any sized hall. When correct technique is applied, your voice will gain range, resonance and power. Breathiness, tension, straight tone and many other “bad qualities” will start to disappear and you will start to “stick out” in your choir. All of a sudden, you might hear your choral director say things like “lets listen to each other”, “blend,..blend please” and many other “suggestions”. There is no doubt, especially if you were a “good choral singer” that you will start to stick out like a sore thumb among your musical peers. This is to be expected, as the goals of your private voice teacher and choral director are different in some areas.

Your private voice teacher and choral director might be sending you mixed signals.

This was a really big problem, especially when the group was asked to sing Jazz. Choral Jazz, for the most part, is 70 percent tone and 30 percent breath. The breathy approach allows the group tone to be “feathered” and the blend can be quite remarkable. When I started my voice lessons, breathiness was not a quality that my teacher had in mind. It was so confusing when my teachers seemed to be sending me mixed messages. I had several weeks of adaptability problems switching from my “solo voice” to my “choral voice” and it really hampered my overall progress of being a singer. When I went back to my voice teacher, we spent the first 15 minutes or so “breaking down” my voice and re-building.

In the beginning of any voice lesson, the student walks a tightrope between applying what they’ve learned and the old way of doing things. This can be a critical time in a young singer’s life (and I’m not talking about age ).

So, what do you do when you’re a “solo singer” in the midst of “choral singers”?

The thing to remember is, your voice teacher is always right ( if you have a good one ). The overall goal of your private teacher is to help you to find your perfect voice. If you, as a “solo singer” find yourself in this “duel world” situation, you can do some things, such as:

1. Only blend your volume, NEVER YOUR TECHNIQUE! If you’re in a section that doesn’t have strong voices or good overall technique, YOU WILL STICK OUT, especially when you incorporate lessons learned in your private studies. You can back off of your volume, which should be taught in your private lessons, and blend your dynamic, BUT NEVER EVER BLEND YOUR TECHNIQUE! Never take on the bad methods of your peers for the sake of the group.

2. Approach your choir teacher and tell him / her your problem. 9 times out of 10, your choral director will notice the change in your voice and they are more than eager to get your technique incorporated into the choir. Make sure that you are pro-active and politely tell your director that your voice teacher really wants to keep good overall technique. Assure him / her that you will work on blending your dynamic to the choir.

3. Listen…listen…listen! This was my big problem when I started. I thought that my new technique gave me license to sing loud all the time, which it doesn’t. Remember rule #1.

4. Blending doesn’t mean sacrificing technique, especially when it comes to vibrato. Most choral directors hate vibrato when it comes to certain pieces of music. Many directors even want a pure straight tone to occur at all times. Vibrato, when done correctly, should be at 6 cycles per second and never interfere with intonation. If you back off your dynamic with correct technique and your vibrato is produced correctly, you will blend. If this is not the case, take this problem to your voice teacher. Vibrato, with correct technique, is a naturally occurring thing and shows that everything is balanced and correct.

5. Never sing outside of your voice class. Many choral directors have a shortage of Tenors, Sopranos, Altos or Basses and they may want you to switch sections. This can be harmful, no matter what direction you take. If you are a Baritone (between a Tenor and a Bass), you may be asked to sing with the Tenors. If the part gets too high for you, see your director and tell him / her your dilemma. If they tell you that “they really need you on Tenor”, then go ahead and sing with them BUT let the other “true Tenors” carry the weight. Sing with proper technique, but if you’re not a Tenor, you’re not a Tenor. Don’t sacrifice your vocal health for a part in a song.

6. Let the other voices carry the weight, you don’t have to carry the section. It’s easy to fall into this trap. If you’re love for music outweighs common sense, you will hurt your voice and possibly create a new set of problems for you and your private instructor to deal with. Back off and blend properly ( Rule #1 ).

7. If all else fails, don’t sing. It’s a sad fact, but there are some choral directors that don’t give a rat’s behind about your vocal health and would rather have your progress hindered or hurt your voice for the sake of the group. This is where you’ve got to put on the big pants and ask yourself, “is this worth my voice?” I’ve been in many a choral situations where I’ve just moved my lips while singing Bass when I was actually a Tenor (Yes, you can hurt your voice singing too low). If you’re new to the technique and you’ve tried everything you can to change the situation, then you may have to be satisfied with a lower grade and/or a dissatisfied director.

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