Choral Singers and Choirs

A friend commented once, “Instrumentalists work hard to get into the orchestra; singers work hard to get out of the chorus.” There are notable exceptions, of course—when did Joshua Bell last serve as concertmaster?—but mostly this generalization works. Music schools of greater and lesser renown turn out singers who want solo careers, and players who want orchestra contracts. A pitifully small percentage of those singers will ever achieve their goals; most of those who continue singing, will do so in choirs, large and small. Some of these gifted, trained singers will never completely recover from their disappointment, and will approach choral singing with resentment -- they will dislike and undermine their conductors, compete with their fellow choristers for any special recognition that happens to be lying around, and generally spin their musical tires in the slough of despond. Most will ultimately cultivate specific niches—early music, church music, chamber choir, opera chorus, symphonic chorus, and every conceivable variety of overlap between these various genres—in which they feel best satisfied, and in which they receive the most recognition. And many of them will learn to be happy with this. The common denominator is, they are all choral singers.

And these are only the very peak of the choral pyramid. Millions of people sing in choirs-- some professionally, some vocationally, some informally. A Google search focused on the Chicago area alone yields an astonishing number of choral opportunities, from Lyric Opera Chorus, Music of the Baroque, and Symphony Chorus at one end of the spectrum, to local church choirs at the other. Thousands of Chicago singers take private lessons, purchase expensive performance attire, learn repertoire on their own time, hire baby sitters, drive long distances through bad weather—basically, organize a good deal of their lives around choral singing.

Good choral singers, across the spectrum, have certain talents, skills, and attitudes in common. A good amateur choir can be as satisfying for its members, and its audiences, as a choir that pays top money for its singers, so long as the singers themselves accept the disciplines of their craft, believe in their repertoire and their leadership, promote their organization enthusiastically, and put in the time and work demanded by their envisioned final product. Such a group can even exceed its professional counterpart, if the singers in the professional organization do not accept the disciplines, and exemplify the commitment and enthusiasm, which motivate the amateurs.

Choral singers must work together, for the common good. In the very best groups, at any level, they must nominate themselves neither leaders nor followers, but somehow all pull together, at the same time and in the same direction, the stronger with the weaker. They must fit their voices into the ensemble sound articulated by the conductor and required by the repertoire; they must accept the musical ideas of the conductor, and place their own musical sensitivity, instincts, and ideas, at the service of the ensemble. They must take responsibility to learn their music at a rate appropriate to the ensemble’s level and goals; they must embrace the necessity of good attendance; they must understand that doing their best usually does not mean singing their loudest, and their most distinctively.

The humility, the discipline, the communal commitment to honest and excellent performance of great music, which one finds in a good choir, results in something so much larger, so much better, than the sum of the individual possibilities represented by its members. I can’t help but feel that choral singing is a window, for its participants, on a better world, and represents the kind of work we all should be doing, all the time. Always, I have come out of choir rehearsals feeling that I have just been my best, most contributing, self; and wishing that the high I feel would more successfully carry through my non-choral life.

I sang my first B Minor Mass thirty-five years ago, with a good choir and orchestra. By the time we reached Dona nobis pacem, I felt as though the roof had lifted off the building, and that I, my fellow performers, the audience, and the music, were all one with the stars filling the sky. It is the closest to transformed, and better, that I have ever felt. I have known ever since—this is what choral singing can do for you.