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How Conductors Create Incompetence in their Singers

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Last autumn I had the opportunity to read a fascinating dissertation on choral singing in Oxford colleges by Emma Hall. (She has since blogged about some of her conclusions here.) It was a rich and nuanced piece of work, with lots to teach us, and there was one finding that really caught my attention for its implications for all choral practitioners.

This was the dynamic whereby conductors tend to correct sopranos more often than the other parts, giving both the sopranos themselves and the rest of the choir the impression that they need more correction, that they make more mistakes, thus both drawing on and reinforcing the stereotype of sopranos as the least competent voice part.

Sopranos themselves observe that tenors and basses get away with a lot more than they are allowed to. Being further away from the conductor in a typical chapel choir layout, the lower parts just don’t have their errors picked up on nearly so assiduously.

The effect of this is to engender a sense of superiority in the other parts, and the erosion of self-confidence in the sopranos. And of course, under-confidence affects quality of singing, thus making the stereotype into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is, I think, an interesting comparison here with the barbershop world, in which it is often the lead section that gets labelled as the ‘weakest’ part. The comparison is particularly interesting because, whilst the soprano stereotype intersects with sexist stereotypes from the wider world (blonde, air-head, vain), the barbershop stereotype works in parallel across both genders.

The idea of the timid chorus lead is often explained as the part being the refuge for singers not skilled or confident enough to sing anything other than the tune. And, indeed, directors do often create this scenario by placing their stronger singers of that range in the baritone part.

But you can’t help wondering if we’re also seeing that same dynamic whereby the director exacerbates, or even creates, a differential confidence and perceived competence level by commenting on this part more than on the others.

And you know what? (This was the really jaw-dropping bit for me.) It turns out that, in both classical and barbershop ensembles, it is the perceptually most obvious part that gets the most attention from the director. Could it be that directors correct these parts most often because they are simply the easiest to hear? If so, the tension and tentativeness that underlie the pitch issues both types of section are routinely berated for are a direct result of the director’s lazy ears.

At last year’s LABBS Directors Day I shared the observation in our session of Listening Skills that one of the key factors that differentiates a chorus getting contest scores in the upper 60s and one scoring in the upper 70s is how much the director is listening to the baritones. It turns out that this isn’t just about the integrity of the chording, it’s also about the self-image, internal power dynamics and morale of the entire chorus.

Want to make your sops sound better? Work on your tenors.

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