26 Choristers' Commitment?

How to transform your choir
and fill your stalls
with enthusiastic singers
26 Commitment of one’s choristers


by Dr John Bertalot

Organist Emeritus, St. Matthew's Church, Northampton
Cathedral Organist Emeritus, Blackburn Cathedral
Director of Music Emeritus, Trinity Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, USA

In article 25 I dealt with the first of three main questions which I was asked when I led a choral workshop for choirmasters at Hereford Cathedral. I omitted to say when discussing pushy parents,  ‘Beware of the tigress syndrome’.


Some mothers in certain situations can protect their young like tigresses. When this happens, get out of the way quickly!


Now to answer the second question which basically is, ‘how to run an inspiring choir rehearsal’. I shall deal with adult choirs in this article, for the next article will be about children in choirs.

First, do you agree with these two statements?
    (i)    There’s no-one so conservative as a choirmaster. (‘I’ve always done it my way and don’t see how I can change.’)
    (ii)    If you want your choir to work harder for you, you must work harder for them.

Let’s deal with the first point: How many of the practical tips which I have given in these choirtraining articles have you tried? If you can’t answer that question, let me ask another. Are you willing to try just one of the suggestions I will make in this article? If not, stop reading and look at someone else's blog!.

 I received a most encouraging e-mail from a choirmaster in Canada:

I've enjoyed and learned a lot from your article on the benefits of choir warm-ups. Your tremendous book Immediately Practical Tips for Choral Directors has been a Bible for me, and this article was a tonic. I immediately inflicted a warm-up on my choir the following Sunday (we have 15 minutes, max.) – and what an improvement. Everything happened just as you had predicted.
You probably get tired of people telling you what an effect your common sense remarks have on so many choirs. I constantly go back and check for new ideas, as I have 45 teens in my Anglican School choir – and your book is more helpful than a whip and a chair (well, most of the time!).
Thank you for sharing your knowledge with so many of us! I will watch to see if you get to do a workshop in Toronto.


I found that most encouraging. So, have you tried warm-ups with your choir? If not, why not? (‘I’ve always done it my way ...’) It’s been rightly said that, in time, leaders will reach their level of incompetence, and once that has been reached they can go no higher. (This is adapted from the Peter Principal. Look it up on the web.) So, if a choirmaster has been in charge of a choir for, say, five years, that choir may never get any better, for their leader has run out of ideas and so cannot inspire the choir further.

Therefore, if you’ve reached this point, (as some questioners at Hereford seem to have done – ‘How can I inspire my choir to sing better?’), we come to my second question: are you willing, right now, to work harder for your choir? If you’re not, then your choir won’t work harder for you. But if you are, then you will begin to see the improvements which you and they really want.

Do you realize that every singer in your choir is there because they want to sing well? No singer wants to sing wrong notes; no singer wants to belong to a choir which is inefficient. No singer wants to belong to a choir where lateness and unexcused absences are overlooked. So, realize that your singers want you to lead them ever upwards. They’re on your side, so go for it!

Try just one of the following ideas at your next practice, and see what happens:

(i)    Music:    Give them only worthwhile music to sing.

(ii)     Preparation: Take your hymn book and anthems home with you and prepare everything that you will rehearse with your choir at their next rehearsal. Mark where breaths should or should not be taken in hymns and anthems. Sing through every voice part of the anthems so that you can discover for yourself where the awkward places are, and so that you can work out how wrong notes can be corrected at those points. All this applies not only to new music, but also to music that everyone knows.

You can regard this need for meticulous preparation as ‘the first and greatest commandment’, for out of it everything else will flow. If you’re not prepared to prepare, then your choir’s commitment will never improve, for you will have shown that your own commitment to them is weak. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a choir’s attitude is an accurate reflection of their choirmaster’s personality. They will catch from you your own attitude to them. So, prepare!

(iii)    Authority: A group of people needs a leader who speaks with authority.
And that person must know and believe in what he, or she, is talking about. Thorough preparation will enable you to speak with authority, for you will now be able to say, ‘This is what we’re going to sing and this is how we shall sing it.’


(iv)    Arrive early: Is your practice room tidy? Is it welcoming? Is it warm in winter and cool in summer? Is it well lit? Is there plenty of fresh air for singers to breathe? Is the music for your practice laid out neatly for every singer? Why should singers leave the comfort of their homes to come to an untidy practice room? So, when you arrive early – at least 30 minutes early – spend the time in preparing the practice room, so that you will be ready to welcome singers when they arrive. Talk to each one of them – make them feel that you’re glad they came. When you show that you are pleased to see them, they will show that they are pleased to see you. And so you will begin the practice on time – thus encouraging the spirit of punctuality in your singers. (Be sure to finish punctually, too.)


(v)    Warm welcome:
Some years ago I led five weeks of choral workshops and university lectures in South Africa. On one particular evening I went to a large hall to which a number of choirs had travelled long distances. Also, there were some 30 choirmasters from even further away, who sat at one side to watch the rehearsal. The piano accompanist had put on her most attractive dress for the occasion, and there were lavish refreshments laid out at the far end of the hall for us all to enjoy when the practice ended. When I walked into that hall their welcome was so powerful that I could feel it vibrating through me. Is it any wonder that I led a great rehearsal that evening? And it all sprang from the warmth of the welcome that they had given to me.
So, give your singers, both individually and corporately, a warm welcome when they arrive, and they will try even harder for you.

(vi)    Guest director. My South African experience leads me to suggest that you might like to consider inviting a guest choirmaster to lead a practice for you; ask your local Cathedral Director of Music if he could come; your local RSCM representative will also know of experienced choirmasters in your area. This will give not only your choir but also you a musical shot in the arm, which could be just what you and they need to help you to kick-start new ways into your rehearsals. Arrange for refreshments afterwards – turn it into a social occasion as well as a musical one, but remember to ask your guest beforehand what his fee is.

I guest-rehearsed a nearby church choir recently; I worked them really hard, so much so that I thought I might have pushed them too hard. But when it was over they gave me a rousing ovation! Choirs like to work hard when they can experience improvement!

(vii)    Order of rehearsal.  I found it very helpful, during my 16 years in the University town of Princeton, New Jersey, to write on a whiteboard (which was immediately behind the piano) the exact order in which we would rehearse the music.

If you haven’t got such a board, try duplicating the order for that evening on sheets of paper – one for each singer. Such as:
1    Warm-ups.
2    Hymn numbers 5, 9, 34 and 128.
3    Anthem book pages 2, 15 and 78.
4        Notices: Excused absence: Mrs. Smith. Discuss the choir party.
5        A preliminary look at a new anthem for Easter, page 166.


    This will give the feeling of efficiency – which is what you and your singers want. By the way, it’s important that you start your rehearsal well – singers should reach a high standard very quickly, so don’t begin with an unknown anthem, start with something easy – that’s another reason why warm-ups are so important. They really can weld your choir together in a matter of seconds so that they can experience that they are singing well. And once that standard has been reached they will know that that is the standard which you and they will be aiming for in every piece of music they sing that evening.

(viii)    Practical tips.

            Look at your singers when you talk to them. 90% of the choirmasters I’ve observed look at their music when they’re giving instructions, therefore they are not communicating with their singers. They think they are, but they’re not. And they’re not aware of what is going on in the back row. Back rows are notorious for encouraging inattention!

            Correct only one fault at a time. Define the error and rehearse it until it is wholly correct. This may take three or more attempts.

            Rehearse the majority of the music unaccompanied. That way your singers will have to think. Most choirmasters do the thinking for their singers – that’s why their singers are so apathetic. I recently received an e-mail from a cathedral organ scholar in which he wrote, 'Our Director of Music always plays the melody with all the choristers in his rehearsals, and your theory about every chorister following a millisecond behind (and therefore not having to think) is really obvious.'

           So, just give a chord when you’re rehearsing well-known hymns. Then get away from the piano. If you play the first line through, you’re spoon-feeding your singers – and so they will remain musical ‘babies’, for only babies are spoon-fed. Better still, ask them to try to pitch the first note for themselves. That will mean that they have to look at the music and think. It doesn’t matter if the note they sing isn’t the right one, for their brains will have been stimulated by thinking, and so they will be more prepared to sing intelligently for you. 

            Get your singers to tell you what it is that you want to tell them. (I’ve written that many times in these articles.) If you spend your practice telling them all the time what to do, they will never have to think for themselves, and so they will never grow musically. It is your job to turn every singer (however unpromising they may be) into a practising, informed musician. So, ‘Was that too loud or too soft? What does that expression mark mean? Did you do it? Let’s try it again. What was the wrong note in the tenors? Are the sopranos singing slightly flat or slightly sharp? Where does the out-of-tuneness begin? Are these words joyful or sad?  Let’s sing the spirit of the words.

            Yes – sing the spirit of the words. The words were the inspiration for the composer, so let the words be the inspiration for the performance of that music. I once heard the first chorus of Messiah sung as though the choir were reciting the 13 times table in Greek! There was no feeling at all of joy that ‘the glory of the Lord’ would be revealed. The words must come first, for they will govern how the notes are to be sung.

           Teach your singers to read music! See my two books which are available on the web.

    That’s enough to be going on with.

How many of these ideas will you try at your next rehearsal?


© John Bertalot, Blackburn 2013