32 Am I really dispensable?



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

I am amazed that so many choirmasters, both highly professional and also devoted amateurs, spend so much of their rehearsals sitting behind a piano rather than coming out from their safe ‘personal space’ to stand before the singers whom they are supposed to be training.

I’ve been in the business of choirmastering since I was a student last Millennium (or was it the Millennium before that?) and it took me some time to learn that if I want my singers to lead – to lead the congregation and to sing with wholehearted confidence – I must not continually lead them by playing the piano ‘to show them how it goes’.


I asked a Cathedral Director of Music fairly recently why he accompanied the psalms in his services by playing the tune all the time, instead of decorating his accompaniments with soaring creative Clarinet solos, as many cathedral organists do. ‘If I play little descants,’ he said, ‘the boys will sing what I’m playing instead of the notes they should be singing.’ I was almost struck dumb by his reply (and it takes a lot to deprive me of speech!). He was such a distinguished musician that I dare not tell him why his trebles couldn’t sustain their own melodies.

You've guessed it! It was because he always played the tune firmly on the piano when he was rehearsing psalms – and so he was training his trebles to follow what he played rather than to think for themselves. But he couldn’t see that.

He thought that, by playing the piano, he was showing them how he wanted the psalms to be sung – but that wasn’t the message that came through to his trebles; the message was: You needn’t try hard, for I’m doing all the work for you. The louder he played the less effort his trebles had to make. He was training them to be followers, not leaders. He didn’t even notice that some of his trebles didn’t sing at all, for all his attention was on his own playing and not on their singing.

Now you may think that the illustrious cathedral musical world is very different from one’s own parish church set-up. No it isn’t.

In my retirement I've been organist of a little parish church in the heart of the Lancashire countryside where I have a choir of 16 adults – most of whom are grandparents – apart from those who are great-grandparents! They all arrive punctually, they try hard in rehearsals and they try hard in services. They lead the congregational singing, and they can also sing simple anthems whose accompaniments may be different from the music they are singing.


Their leadership was unexpectedly demonstrated a couple of years ago when my super digital organ suddenly decided to stop playing in the middle of a verse of a hymn. But the choir carried on as though nothing had happened.

Being fairly computer literate I turned the organ off at the mains, waited for a few seconds, then turned it on again, and the organ decided to work. But by this time everyone had begun to sing the next verse of the hymn.

After the service several of my singers said to me, ‘You did that on purpose, didn’t you!’ No! I told them that the organ had temporarily given up the ghost, and so I congratulated them on their confident musical leadership. Although they were pleased by my approval, they thought that nothing special had taken place, for ‘That’s how we always sing.’

I dare not tell you that I’ve seen another cathedral Director of Music also playing the piano continuously when he’s rehearsing hymns with his cathedral choir. And not only that, he plays the tune through to them whilst they are finding their place in the hymn book. (Such lack of perceptive leadership makes me want to throw up!)


And I also forebear to tell you that I once saw a young, enthusiastic and highly talented choirmaster lead the singing of the warm-ups for his choir, not only by playing the piano with them (very loudly) but also by singing very energetically himself at the same time. He thought that by singing and playing and trying very hard himself he was encouraging them to sing better. But as he was doing all the work for them there was no need for them to try hard, so they didn’t.


Moral 1: Never sing with your choir for, when you do, they’ll let you exhaust yourself whilst they sing with diminished effort. ‘If he’s doing all the work, we needn’t!’ By all means demonstrate how you want a passage sung, but then challenge them to do it on their own.

Moral 2: My purpose in training my choir is to make myself dispensable.

This was clearly demonstrated by the incident with my temporarily recalcitrant church organ. (Needless to say, I was thrilled by the leadership my choir had given that morning.)

So, having had my gripe, what’s the solution? How can you train your choir to lead?

Of course they need your help to show them how to sing, but it’s not by playing the piano all the time. You need a different and more challenging way, and that’s best achieved by frequently allowing your choir to sing unaccompanied. By doing this they can hear what they’re doing, and you can hear what they’re doing too, and so you will be able to perceive what needs correcting or improving.



Here are some quick and immediately practical things you can try at your next practice.

1. When you announce a hymn to be rehearsed, just give the number once in a firm, clear voice, then wait ten seconds without saying anything. This will begin to inject a spirit of discipline into your rehearsal – which is essential if your choir is to achieve anything. (Your choir can’t achieve anything unless they’re trying hard. This short silence will enable this to begin to happen.)

2. Play the first chord of the hymn-tune. Don’t play the tune through – not even the first line, for almost certainly everyone will know that hymn. By playing just the first chord you will be encouraging your singers to begin thinking: ‘What hymn is this and how does the tune go?’ Very few choristers think during rehearsals, because the choirmaster generally does all the thinking for them. (But that’s for another article.)


3. Then look your singers straight in the face, without playing the piano at all, and say, ‘1, 2, 3, begin!’ Almost certainly they will start untidily and some won’t even begin at all. (‘Why haven’t you played the tune for us? You always play the tune! We need your accompaniment.’) So tell them that as they know this hymn so well they don’t need your help to start it; they don’t need you to accompany them. ‘So let’s try it again.’

4. Let them sing the first verse all the way through without comment. It will take time for them to begin to realize that you are expecting them to take responsibility for their own singing. They’ve never done that before – this is a new situation. So ask them how that first verse went. ‘We could do it better, now that we know what you want. ‘OK – let’s try it again.’

5. And this is where you can begin to rehearse in detail instead of just ‘singing through’. For example, most singers take a breath in the middle of every line of a hymn, whether or not it destroys the meaning of the words. ’My God, I love Thee, not (breath) because I hope for heaven thereby.’ When other helpers (breath) fail, and comforts flee.’ So challenge them to sing that first verse again, but to breathe only once for every line. You’ll find that half your singers achieve this, but half won’t. So, what do you do?


This is where your standards will begin to be defined.

Once your singers realize that it’s OK to get away with sub-standard singing (i.e. not wholly achieving what you ask them to do) then that is what your choir will accept as the norm. ‘It’s OK to be half right; it’s OK to arrive late; it’s OK to chatter when the choirmaster’s talking…’ No, it’s not!

Whatever you ask your choir to achieve, they must achieve it. Therefore you have to decide throughout your rehearsal whether or not your singers (all your singers) can achieve what you ask of them.


Is it reasonable to ask them all to breathe only once a line? Yes it is. But there will be some who don’t realize that they are breathing when they shouldn’t. (Some will swear that they didn’t breathe but, as you will have been watching them, you’ll see that they did!) So after having tried it two or three times (some singers will still breathe where they shouldn’t – you’re asking them to get out of the habit of a lifetime, and that’s not easy) you could say, ‘We’ve achieved a lot tonight even though it’s not perfect. But it will be even better next week!’ That way you will have given them notice that standards will rise. And that is a good thing.

Why is that a good thing?

Ask yourself these questions: ‘If I were thinking of joining this choir, would I want to sing right notes or wrong ones? Would I want to join a choir which is well organized or one where anything goes? Would I want to join a choir which has standards, or one where trying hard isn’t the norm?’ The answers are obvious.

ANTHEMS? But what should you do when rehearsing anthems that have accompaniments? You can’t rehearse those unaccompanied, can you? Oh, yes you can!

By all means spend some of the time playing the accompaniments on the piano, but once your choir knows the notes, tell them that you will play the introduction but that you will stop playing immediately before their first entry. (i.e. Don’t play their first chord.) They will have to make an extra effort to come in firmly for that first entry – and that’s what you want: you want them to try harder.

First choral entries: I have discovered from watching many choirs – both cathedral choirs and church choirs – that first choral entries are often untidy because the choirmaster is too busy playing the accompaniment to notice. So by asking your choir to sing their first entry unaccompanied, you’ll notice immediately what needs to be improved.

So, the first step in helping your singers to become increasingly self-reliant and thus to sing more confidently, is to allow them many opportunities to exercise this leadership during your rehearsals by singing some of the music unaccompanied.

If the grandparents and great-grandparents in my village church choir can do it, so can yours.

Does what I've written make sense?  If so, try it!

©John Bertalot, Blackburn 2013

John Bertalot’s four books on choirtraining can be found on Amazon.


‘How to be a successful choir director’ “should be required reading for the RCO’s Choral diploma.” Dr Roy Massey, past President of the Royal College of Organists.