Choral arrangement

1st June 2001 at 01:00
If you are setting up a choir some simple tips will keep you tuned in, says Jo McNally

In a moment of madness you agree to start the school choir. All your colleagues breath a sigh of relief, having been saved from the threat of leading the "singing". What do you do now?

Singers: take everybody who wants to sing, no matter what they sound like.Do not worry about auditioning or deciding on high and low voices. Everyone needs to be able to use their whole voice. Initially choose pieces that are singable by anyone and change around the parts gvien to different singers. It is the only way singers learn to be comfortable and competent singing harmonies.

Rehearsing: Fix a weekly, consistent time to rehearse, with support from your headteacher and colleagues. This time should not be in lieu of the music lesson but in addition to it. Colleagues may need to be gently reminded that just "singing a couple of songs" when parents or local dignatories visit takes just as much time, preparation, and commitment as any other subject.

Before or after school and during the lunch break are often the only times available and usually only for 30 minutes. Many of the schools I work with have made a compromise by giving the choir an extra 15 minutes of the school time that backs on to a rehearsal.

Stand and deliver: You want to be able to deliver a good "singing" sound that will not send you and your audience away in screams of horror or fits of laughter. Before you begin and throughout your rehearsal check and reinforce good posture. The key is alignment so your body helps you sing. Stand or sit tall and proud with the face nice and relaxed, eyes open and eager. Take the time to do a warm-up with your group. Even a short exercise helps set the tone for a rehearsal and gets the group thinking together as an ensemble.

Stop hiding: Get out from behind the piano. Your singers will never watch you and react to your conducting unless you train them to do so. Try learning some of your songs away from the keyboard and use it more as an optional extra. Your singers will quickly learn to listen to each other and begin to develop "ensemble" skills. Workshops are available from the British Federation of Young Choirs (BFYC), and through the Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD) there is a new course designed to help improve choral conducting skills through a practical approach to developing choirs and choral singing for all ages and levels.

Good tunes: Find material that your singers will enjoy and perform well, that will not drive you crazy, and just possibly will have some educational value. Harmony is "optional". It is better to sing simply and musically together than to do the most complex piece either badly or with no heart. As well as the songbooks already available to schools, many of which are used for songhymn practice, I recommend two new publications: Junior Choral Club, and Voiceworks, a handbook for singing (see box). Both are published in association with the BFYC, which is a good starting point for advice on courses, repertoire and workshop leaders.

Time to develop: Choirs and young singers develop but not always at the pace we would like them to. You may not have the most advanced groups in the world but when they move on they can be musically more competent as well as tolerant of other developing voices and, importantly, enjoy singing.


For KS2 and 3: Junior Choral Club Volumes 1, 2, 3. Novello pound;14.95 each (available end of August)

For KS3 and 4: Voiceworks, A Handbook for Singing (OUP pound;45. Web: www.oup.comukmusiceduc)

British Federation of Young Choirs, tel: 01509 211664

Singposium July 3, London Music for Youth, tel: 020 8870 9624

Association of British Choral Directors Annual Convention 24-26 August, Surrey. Web:

ABCD Choral Conducting Course Tel: 01935 389482. E-mail:

Jo McNally is a classchoral music educator, and is a vocal animateur for the BFYC and the London borough of Harrow

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