How Many Singers Make a Choir?

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There was an interesting discussion in the LinkedIn Choral Enthusiasts group last week about how many singers it takes to make a choir. It was started by ChoralNet stalwart, Philip Tolley, who articulated the question thus:

What is the minimum number of singers that constitute a choir - is it 2 voices per part (depending on the number of parts) or is it 9 singers as anything under already has a name (Octet, trio, etc)?

I found the discussion interesting because, on the face of it, you'd think it was a simple question. Some ensembles are clearly chamber ensembles, and some are clearly larger bodies of singers, and it's to the latter that we'd usually apply the term 'choir'. But it's harder than you'd think to define a numerical value to where one becomes the other.

This is because there are multiple factors going on at ones in the act definition. Philip hints at two: naming conventions for small ensembles that acknowledge the individual identity of each member, and the distinction between one-per-part and more-than-one-per-part performance. These are both reasonably generalisable conditions, but participants in the discussion found enough exceptions to suggest that they're neither necessary nor sufficient. Suzi Digby, for instance, talked about doing a 12-part piece with 12 singers, which she felt was a big enough body of performers to call a 'choir' even with only one singer per part.

Other participants wrote much more pragmatically: Anthony Doherty's comment that, 'Sometimes it's just whoever shows up on Sunday,' received agreement from several other participants. I think many directors of fledgling or struggling choirs would sympathise there: it is wonderful moment when your new choir hits double figures! And you wouldn't want to be told that you don't count as a choir while your making that journey.

This made me realise that whilst the one-per-part versus body of singers offers the prototypical distinction between chamber groups and choirs, it needs to be applied more at the level of artistic intent and mode of operation than the objective criterion of raw numbers.

The point about artistic intent is that it matters less how many singers the group has than how many they want. If you have 6singers, but would like 120, you're a choir. If you have 6 singers and don't want to recruit any more, that's much more likely to be a chamber group.

In terms of operation, both forms of ensemble will have a leader, though the role may be implicit and shifting for a chamber group, whereas it will be clear and titular for a choir. The director is also much more likely to be more functionally separate in a choir: standing outside the group and listening rather than singing as part of the ensemble.

But these descriptions, again, are contextual and prototypical. The extremes remain clear, but individual ensembles can blur the edges. Indeed, one of my aims with Magenta has always been to explore how much one can operate as a chamber ensemble with a choir of up to 20 singers. As I've written before, in many ways the directing role is very clearly in my hands (as anyone who has experienced one of our rehearsals would observe), but in others we make systematic efforts to devolve artistic power through the group (as people who witness our performances remark upon).

But even where people aren't deliberately testing the boundaries like this, there is ambiguity. Another participant in the LinkedIn discussion, Gillian Hargreaves, asked the rather pertinent question: 'Does it matter?'

In some sense, clearly not. The beauty of the music you can make does not depend upon the label applied to the group making it. And I would certainly think we shouldn't be niggardly about the labels: if you want to call yourself a choir, it's not up to anyone else to say you can't.

(That is not to say you can impose your definition on others in turn of course. If a festival you want to participate in requires a certain number of singers to constitute a choir in a particular class, you can go negotiate with them if you like, but they also have a right to their own definitions.)

Because in a way it does matter, too. In assuming a label, you are aligning yourself with a tradition - or indeed distancing yourself from one. You are making a statement to yourself and to the world about your relationship with other forms of artistic practice. You are saying you want to hang out with, who you aspire to emulate, who you want to critique.

Your sense of identity as an ensemble has an impact both internally, on how you go about making music together, and externally, on how you interact with your audiences. To an extent, artistic conventions and expectations are like cultural gender roles. You can conform to them, you rebel against them, or you can pick and choose which bits you embrace and which you resist. But you don't get the option to ignore them. Even if you try to, other people will view you through those cultural filters.

Thank you for your article generated by my original discussion on what constitutes a 'choir'. Your blog successfully articulates the question, better than I could, suggests answers but leaves enough unanswered strands to generate further discussions

Philip Tolley
British Choirs on the Net

Hi Liz,
So what is the difference between a chorus and choir?

In barbershop, as you know, some MDs/CDs make a big thing about our groups being choruses and not choirs!

Does it matter? Not to me, but it certainly does to others.


Good question Donna!

I think it's entirely down to usage/convention in different genres, and in different countries. I get the impression that America uses 'chorus' for some of the large adult choirs that over here would get called 'choral society', and the usage in barbershop would have been imported from the States with the genre.

Interesting how it has become one of the genre's shibboleths though, isn't it?I guess people get exercised about it as it's one of the ways you can tell an 'insider' from an 'outsider'.

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