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.

Another thought-provoking item Liz. Many thanks for putting into words what has been a nagging doubt for so long. Great writing as always!

Interesting! Kind of makes sense.

However ... in the community choir world (if such a unified notion exists!) or at least in the world I inhabit, it's not necessarily the same part that gets the main melody.

I often find that the sopranos can take care of themselves, the tenors are loud and confident, the basses need to have an eye kept on them, but it's the altos who are timid.

I spend a lot of time trying to focus on the overall sound, so I usually pick on those parts whose harmonies aren't shining through - that's seldom the sopranos or the tenors!

Chris
From the Front of the Choir

Interesting that different genres have somewhat different stereotypes for what are ostensibly the 'same' voice types!

Two thoughts...

One, the secret to "fixing" the lead section is addressing the bass section. Anyone I've ever coached (quartet or chorus) knows that the basses get the lion's share of the work, whether they are the "weakest", "strongest" or anywhere in between. The biggest mistake ever made was creating the notion that the lead must "lead" the group. All that you get is vocal issues. Get the bass going and it liberates the lead and makes them infinitely more successful.

Second, in a quartet where one singer is far better than the rest, I will often work that singer more. Especially when they happen to be the lead singer. I never coach to the least common denominator. That limits the growth of the other singers. Coach to the strength and others will follow. Coach to the limiting factor and no one grows.

Thanks Kevin for both of these thoughts. Very useful practical what-to-do-instead advice.

I could not agree more with Kevin on this - and add in ...

the leads, in my opinion, should equally be fulfilling their obligations to the movement of the musical narrative, just as any other part. No one carries any one a part of the chord more than the other because not only doew it lead to vocal issues, but also psychological effects for all -

.. and yes, the basses do have an extraordinary opportunity to set the soil, as it were, but they are not alone ...

they have a teammate in the sopranos/tenors - this cooperation is essential to ushering overtones and creating balance.

my preference - to "kill two birds" as it were. .. is to duet the basses/ tenors extensively - often cleaning up the extremes gives the middle parts stronger context, which leads to more relaxed vocal opportunities ..

when i say cleaning up, i mean locking slowly, each chord, and working small phrases for cone, balance, and note pressure until there is enough agreement to create space for the bari and lead ...

which is a whole other duet to work out ..

my brief two cents on a fathomless topic ..

This article causes me to think further. I would consider a couple of additional factors here. The pitch of each part and the tune/melody. The ear appears to be drawn to the melody and the higher pitch more easily than the lower and non melody parts. This can add to the listening/awareness/focus. Also whatever voice part the Conductor sings/sung can also influence attention or competence in a particular part. For me the art here is to try and share all Conductor activities to empower those who are able/willing one of these is the listening burden. Have active listeners within each part who can assess and either report back or address issues immediately upon a 'stop point' in the song. This allows the Conductor to focus on other performative and musical issues and allows the singers to become more responsible forvtheur role. Helps with 'burnout'.

I sing with a large Philharmonic chorus and we perform with a fully professional orchestra who are currently at the top of their game. We have to pass a stiff audition to get into the choir and are re-auditioned every 3 years.

In choir I can tell you that the LEAST corrected section are the sopranos. Currently the most corrected section are the tenors.

Our Chorus Master has a very keen ear and reacts to whichever sections needs help or correction as you put it. New-comers change the balance of the choir and it's then the problems occur especially when the newbies are young and inexperienced.

I also sing with a local choir which is more or less an all-comers choir. There is a very wide range of musical ability from semi-professional singers who can sight-read accurately to members who cannot read musical notation at all.

We try and help all members of the choir by posting links to rehearsal websites where they can hear their own part singled out and learn it.

My experience with my local choir leads me to a contentious conclusion.
The ladies - altos and sopranos - will do their homework and learn their part at home so they come to choir with a very good idea of the piece. They don't like to be found wanting or to embarrass themselves in rehearsal.

The tenors and basses are not so dedicated. Currently our 4 tenors are all good sight singers so they have an advantage. The basses are lazy and don't look at their music from one week to the next and often make a mess of their line even in concert. They rely on a few good singers to get them through which means they are often behind the beat.

Largely I have to say that my Philharmonic choir is no different from my local choir in terms of doing their homework. The ladies do it, many of the men do not.

I accept that this is contentious conclusion but it's borne out by many years experience of choral singing.

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