Five Things You’ll Know if You Sing in a Choir


Five things you’ll know if you sing in a choir

Chris Taylor reflects on the many therapeutic benefits of choral singing…

1. Your conductor is amazing

Sorry, but they are. Maybe you think the last thing your Dear Leader needs is yet more hero worship but, really, adulation is like oxygen to conductors. Why do you think they stand out at the front? Did you think it was for your benefit? They crave our love. And they deserve it too.

Take Rock Choir, one of Britain’s most successful modern choral movements. What’s their secret? “Well,” they told me, “we employ the most talented choral leaders we can find, all across the country. They’re all brilliant in their own way, but each local group thinks that their conductor is the best one!” I was introduced to Steph who leads the Rock Choir in Cowbridge. It was quite something to see her in action: energising her singers, encouraging them, keeping order but making it fun too. Always working to make it better. And, I swear, choir members really did come up to me and say, “Steph is amazing, we’re so lucky to have the best leader with us, here in Wales.”

I hear that same affirmation wherever I go in the choral world: “Our conductor is amazing”, “we love our director”, “our choir leader is the best”. All across Britain, extraordinary people are organising, inspiring, guiding and nourishing choral music. In schools and churches and communities. Our great living tradition of singing together rests on the shoulders of these special individuals, and for hundreds of years now, Britain just keeps on producing them. They are the true reason why ours is truly a choral nation.

2. There are never enough tenors

Tenors are worshipped as the heroes of the operatic world. In popular music, too, it’s the high notes that sell records. T

enors are natural leading men and, in my experience, have all of the same qualities of humility and restraint as Hollywood’s finest! Maybe it’s justified. After all, the tenor voice has a very special place in choral music. The name comes from the Latin, “tenere” which means “to hold”.

In early music, the tenor voices were the ones that held the tune in strong, sustaining notes, while the rest of the choir wove harmonies and counterpoints around them. And still, tenors can feel like the beating heart of an ensemble. A choir with a full complement of tenors is a truly happy choir.

So, why is there such a shortage? Almost every mixed choir director I’ve ever met has wondered where all the good tenors have gone? Maybe what we’re really talking about is a general lack of men. Certainly, in amateur choirs, women often significantly outnumber their male counterparts (and let us take a moment here to recognise all the lady tenors out there, holding their own).

But I think it’s more than that. Is it that (whisper it…) singing tenor is tough! I reckon it’s a lot easier to be a lazy bass than a lazy tenor. And I wonder, how many of those gentlemen lurking on the back row of your choir could step up their game and reach for the high notes? Suggest it, and see how their voices rise in protest… wait, was that a high E?

3. Choral music is the food of love

How many couples have found love in your choir? Choirs come in all shapes and sizes, of course, and not all of them are hotbeds of seething romance, but I see a lot of it about. Let me tell you about how I met my wife…

Actually, choral groups offer the perfect environment for nurturing all kinds of social relationships. Of course, you might say, what would you expect from any group that brings together groups of people on a regular basis? And people in choirs already have lots of things in common – a love of singing, for starters.

But the subtle brilliance of choral music as the perfect social activity is the way choirs effortlessly accommodate all varieties of temperament and personality. For the hopelessly gregarious they can provide an essential, regular dose of friendly contact and interaction.

And yet, it’s also perfectly possible to stand and sing next to the same person, week in, week out, and barely exchange more than a few pleasantries.

After all, it’s difficult to hold meaningful conversation when your lips and ears are already fully occupied with Zadok the Priest. For introverts, choirs can be the perfect solution to participating in a crowd.

It’s no wonder then, that all kinds of people say they love their choirs for the social side. It’s a social side that can suit all kinds of people. Yes, choirs can be great places to find love, but that’s really because they’re also great places for people to be themselves.

4. It’s all about inner beauty

Here’s how I was taught to write in simple four part harmony… First, take your melody and give it to the sopranos. Putting the tune on top lets it ring out clearly and, let’s be honest, sopranos get anxious when they’re not in the spotlight! Next, map out a good strong line for the basses; a solid foundation to support the rest. Finally, tackle the inner parts. Use your altos and tenors to fill in the missing harmony notes, and complete the chords.

Be sure to avoid ungainly leaps from note to note; smooth, stepwise progression is the ideal. What this last rule means, in practice, is that alto and tenor parts, while essential for the harmony we hear, often leave a lot to be desired in terms of basic melodic beauty. They can meander slightly aimlessly from phrase to phrase.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to find the inner voices sitting on monotonous repeated notes as the as the outer parts swing gracefully around them. Tenor and alto lines (particularly alto lines, I think) just don’t catch the ear, or fall from the lips as naturally as those on the top and bottom of the ensemble. When they do get a lovely tune, oh look! it’s sitting underneath an even nicer one in the sopranos.

There are exceptions. Can you see why choirs all love the great fugues of Bach, Handel and Mozart – music where each of the voices is held on a much more equal footing? And, to be sure, the best arrangers can and do bring great sophistication to their art.

Nonetheless, spare a thought (and an ear) for the inner voices – whose lot is so often to wrestle great beauty from less thaninspiring melodies. To wring fervent emotion from leaden lines. In short, to selflessly bring colour and lustre and richness to the whole choir.

5. If you’re having a bad day (or a good one), choir makes it better…

Why do people sing together? Of course, it’s about making music. It’s about being part of a community, too. And singing together is good for you: more and more scientific studies are showing how choral singing has all kinds of positive effects on health and well-being.

Even so, most choristers will tell you that they sing in choirs simply because they love it. Nothing is quite like the experience of submerging yourself in the larger whole: joining with others to create great art. Choirs get to inhabit music in a way that you just can’t do by yourself – and that’s an extraordinary buzz.

Choral singers all around the country have told me that, whatever the cares and worries of the day, choir practice restores, renews and fortifies a tired soul. A young cathedral chorister called Ben, whmo I recently recorded for Radio 4’s Choral History of Britain, put it brilliantly: “I just feel like another person when I’m singing, and I feel so much more brave and confident.”

The best news is that you don’t even have to sing to get a taste of all this choral goodness.. Go and support your local choir next time they perform, and be uplifted.