Tips for Conducting a Church Choir

Many professional and non-professional musicians find themselves charged with the job of conducting their local church choir. It’s a fun job with its own unique set of challenges—not the least of which is dealing with the typical mix of trained and untrained singers in the choir. There are several useful tips in this guide which will help you learn how to conduct a choir.

Use a Baton—or Not

The first decision you have to make with regards to conducting a choir is whether or not to us a baton. A surprisingly large number of choral conductors do not, but there’s no hard and fast rule one way or another.

The argument for using a baton is that it helps you better define the beat than using bare-handed gestures. The argument against using a baton is that it may make conducting too rigid and keep the vocal music from flowing as it should.

In reality, however, a good conductor can get the desired results with or without a baton. Using a baton doesn’t necessarily translate into a more rigid or staccato performance, just as not using one doesn’t necessarily result in sloppy beat patterns. It’s all a matter of what works for you; use the baton if you like, or go bare-handed if that’s more your style.

Use Proper Conducting Technique

Whether you choose to use a baton or not, you do need to employ proper conducting technique. That means using the right hand only to define the beat, and not mirroring beat patterns with both hands—which is something less experienced conductors tend to do by default.

It also means conducting the beat, not the rhythms of a piece, which is another novice mistake. It’s tempting to use your hands to emphasize the dominant rhythms in a piece, but that will confuse the performers. They depend on you to keep the straight beat, and that’s what you need to do.

So train yourself to use your right hand (baton or not) to conduct proper beat patterns. Not simplified beat patterns, where you make a simple up-down motion, but the full beat patterns where every downbeat in a measure has its own position on the horizontal plane in front of you.

You then free up your left hand for more musical gestures—conducting dynamics, cues, phrasing, and the like. If there isn’t anything musically to indicate with your left hand, leave it straight at your side; don’t let it get in the way.

Don’t Sing Along

What you should avoid doing is singing along with the choir while you conduct. Now, this might seem natural to you, especially if you’re a former member of the choir. But when you sing along your conducting suffers, since you’re not concentrating fully. In addition, you won’t be able to hear how the choir is doing over the sound of your own voice. Focus on the task at hand, which is conducting, and leave the singing to the choir.

Choose the Right Repertoire for Your Singers

The wrong choice of music is the downfall of many a church choir conductor. Choose the right level of music for your voices and everything will sound great; choose music that’s too advanced or an inappropriate style and even a good choir will sound bad.

The challenge is dealing with the mix of trained and untrained voices found in a the typical church choir. You want to pick music that challenges the more talented singers in the choir, while at the same time isn’t impossible to sing by the lesser-trained members.

This means paying attention to your choir’s vocal strengths and weaknesses. Church choirs are notoriously weak in the men’s voices, for example, which means you shouldn’t choose music that requires a powerful bass presence. The worst-sounding church choirs are those where the choir director’s ambitions don’t fit the choir’s abilities; the best are those where the music matches the available talent.

When in doubt, know that simpler is better. Avoid music with notes that are too high or too low. Be wary of arrangements with lots of fast-moving notes, difficult syncopated rhythms, or lines with too many wide skips. With new music being performed every week or so, you simply don’t have time to tackle overly-challenging pieces.

Work on the Blend

Because you’re dealing with a mix of talent levels, some singers in your choir will be stronger than others. This may make it difficult to achieve a pleasing blend of voices. It’s the danger of individualism; strong singers will stand out like a vocal sore thumb, and not blend in with the rest of the choir. Blending gets easier the more singers you have, but you may need to have an aside with any singer who’s just a little too good for the overall ensemble—but not quite good enough to recognize the blending issue.

You can also achieve a better blend by stressing listening during rehearsals. Ask singers to listen closely to others in their section and try to match the sound they hear. Encourage uniform pronunciation of vowels and consonants, and work hard on group phrasing. Then just work, work, work on blend and balance during the rehearsals; good results take time.

Rehearsals Are Key

Rehearsals are where you really make your mark with a church choir. Unfortunately, the rehearsal schedule for a church choir can be challenging, since you’re typically dealing with infrequent rehearsals after work during the week.

Start each rehearsal with 15 minutes or so of basic vocal exercises, to get the body and the singers’ voices and brains ready for singing. You can then turn to the music of the week, and start working on individual parts and sections as need be.

You’ll want to spend an appropriate amount of time working on when your singers should breathe during a piece. It’s all part of establishing the desired phrasing; you want everyone (or at least everyone in a section) to breathe at the same time, not wherever they fell like doing so. This is definitely an issue to address during rehearsals.

Also important is getting your choir to sing in tune. Intonation is a challenge even for professional choirs; it’s a real bear when you’re dealing with the part-time singers in your church choir. It pays to spend a decent amount of rehearsal time working through intonation exercises.

Finally, keep an eye on the energy level of your singers, especially during long rehearsals. If the energy level starts to flag, have the choir stand up and sing for a while—or, if they’ve been standing, have them sit down and rest. And don’t forget to take a break or two, and have some fun. If you can get the singers laughing, especially in the last half of the rehearsal, it will help to energize them.

Armed with these tips, you will be able to get the most out of your church choir. Happy conducting!

Want more conducting tips? Then check out my book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Conducting Music.

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