By Marvin Copaus
Every week you have the challenge and privilege of helping a group of voices present music that honors God and ministers to His people. The challenge is to make sure that your choir is well-prepared and sings to the best of its ability. The privilege is watching God use those individual voices together for His glory. Have you ever wished for a way to extract a bigger sound from those in your choir? Try a few of the following tips. No matter the size of your choir, you should hear a difference.
Work on environmental influences.
Many factors affect the sound level (and sound quality) of the choir. Among these factors are microphones and sound levels. If you use choir mics, work with your sound person to ensure that they are placed properly and that the volume levels are right. Meet with a few of your best singers and your sound person outside of choir time to check out the choir mics. Put your singers in the choir loft and test each mic. Each of your microphones should cover a certain area of the choir. If you find that there are dead spots, work on a plan to change the way the mics are set up. If you don’t use choir mics, look into purchasing them. A good set of high quality condenser choir microphones can make a world of a difference.
Your sound person is a vital part of the music ministry. Work with that person to ensure that if you use accompaniment tracks, he or she makes the track volume loud enough through the choir monitors. This will build the choir’s confidence. Be sure that the volume through the church’s main speakers does not drown out the choir. As many of you can attest, this creates a whole other set of problems.
Recruit a few people to act as your “sounding board.” Ask them to sit in different parts of the sanctuary on Sundays. Coach them to listen carefully to sound balance, choir tone, and clarity of words. Meet with them on a regular basis for feedback, and use that information to work on areas that need improvement.
If you normally practice in a choir room, move your rehearsal to the church sanctuary every now and then. Sometimes it helps to hear things as they will be heard on Sunday mornings.
Give your choir the proper tools.
It’s amazing how quickly you can learn music when you listen to it on a regular basis. When working on songs from musical or choral collections, encourage your choir to listen to them online or with rehearsal CDs.
You will also want to use music that utilizes the strengths of your choir. Arrangements such as those found in Brentwood Benson’s Ready To Sing series are a good place to start. In addition to new and challenging songs, allow the choir to sing selections that really make them sound great. From time to time, pull out a choir favorite, dust it off, and let them have fun with it.
Change the seating arrangement.
At the risk of taking your life in your hands, place vocal sections where they will benefit most, instead of where every section traditionally sits. In most choirs, the women sit in the front with men in the back row. This may work well if all four sections are balanced, but that is rarely the case. If you have a very small men’s section, you may want to try moving the men to the middle. If you have a few strong music readers in each section, you may want to try making the sections more from back to front, with the stronger voices in the back of each section. There are no right or wrong ways to do this—simply do what works best for your choir.
Encourage correct singing.
Remind your choir to sing correctly. Encourage them to start by using proper singing posture: back straight, shoulders relaxed, and feet apart a little less than shoulder-width. Help them practice breathing deeply from the diaphragm (no chest breaths) and really open their mouths vertically when singing. To help them learn to breathe from the diaphragm, have them take deep breaths without moving their shoulders. A deep breath will actually cause the stomach to expand, eventually causing the chest to begin to rise. Also have them breathe deeply and let their breath out slowly using a hissing sound. The more your choir practices this, the better their breath support will be. Remind them that proper enunciation of consonants and vowels is vital for the congregation to hear the song’s message.
Have them practice over-emphasizing consonants during rehearsal. One exception to this rule is the letter “s.” You don’t want any “snakes” or “leaky tires” to get in the way of the message. You may also wish to have the choir try buzzing consonants such as “m” and “n” sounds. This will make those softer consonants more clear.
Try this activity to help your choir see the value of singing the correct vowel and how important intonation is. Recruit one of your more confident singers to sing any note on “ah.” Match their note exactly. Then slowly begin to change your vowel sound without changing the pitch. Your choir will notice that as you change your vowel sound, the pitch will sound different. After that, change your vowel sound or match your volunteer. Then have different sections of the choir do the same. Encourage the choir to work towards really matching vowel sounds with one another. It will improve (and increase) the sound dramatically.
Ask your choir to really sing out with confidence in rehearsals.
For one thing, a loud mistake is easier to correct. Secondly, if your choir sings with confidence in rehearsal, much of that confidence will carry over as they sing on Sunday.
Use word pictures to encourage a bigger sound. If your altos are singing in a timid manner, ask them to imagine being five feet tall and five feet wide. You’ll get some weird looks, but they’ll sing with more confidence. If your men are flat on some semi-high notes, encourage them to let the sound “float.” It will help them relax a little, and the sound should be better. You get the idea.
Teach your choir to express the emotions of the music through their expressions. This can be done most effectively through the eyes. When looking for a dark, somber sound, encourage somber faces with deep vowel sounds. When singing something celebratory, teach them how to smile through their eyes. Encourage your choir to sing with their eyebrows up rather than having an angry look.
During rehearsal, have them sing something like “Jesus Loves Me.” First, ask them to sing it with the most downcast face they can muster. Then, ask them to sing it with a face that shows the joy of someone who has realized the truth of the words for the first time. It’s amazing how much more joyful a song can come across when the choir is more animated and confident.
Lead by example and with encouragement.
Allow your choir to see that you strive to sing correctly. If you ask them to memorize music, make sure that you are memorizing it as well. Make sure that you really express the emotions that you want the choir to portray. As your choir sees you doing these things, they will work much harder to match what you are doing.
Most of all, encourage your choir. It’s normal to expect to spend much of your rehearsal time working on parts, rhythms, and other areas that need improvement, but it’s also important to find things that your choir is doing well and compliment them on it. A few times a rehearsal of, “Good job, tenors” or “Choir, you sound awesome” when done in sincerity and love will make each choir member realize that you really appreciate them and the effort they put forth.
Pray for your choir members on a regular basis.
You may wish to make a prayer calendar with one person’s name per day. Pray for each to become more like Christ. Pray that God will open a door for you to minister effectively in that person’s life. After all, you are the first ministerial presence many of your choir members think about when they are in crisis.
Whether you are a part-time, full-time, or volunteer choir director, God has given you a very special place of ministry within the body. What an awesome privilege to lead a choir to use their talents for God’s glory. Whether your choir is large or small, God will use the combined talents of each person in it to make a joyful noise, bringing the praises of His people to the very throne of God.
About the Author: Marvin Copaus is Sales Manager at Brentwood Benson. He has been with the company almost 20 years and in music ministry 40 years. Marvin and his wife Rita live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee with their two sons, along with several dogs and cats. Marvin currently serves churches in Middle Tennessee by doing international interim music ministry.