The term choir refers to the well-organized ensemble of people, who are singing together and usually are divided according to the voice types. Often choir singing is accompanied with an orchestra or a single instrument like piano or guitar. A choir can also go a cappella, which means that singers are performing without any musical accompaniment.
Apart from the classical voice ranges system, which includes a great variety of voices, ranging from soprano and mezzo-soprano to the baritone and bass, conventional choirs use a more approximate classification system. They usually classify their singers according to 4 basic voice types – soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and are usually abbreviated as SATB choirs. Female and male voices are classified by their timbre, a quality or “color”, and range, which is all of the notes that a person can sing. Soprano is the highest voice and alto is a middle one. Both of them are considered to be female voices. Tenor is the highest male voice and bass is the lowest one.
Sometimes it is difficult to determine exactly the voice of a particular singer. Many voices may have coloratura ranges or simply fall between the main voice categories. Moreover, human voice is prone to develop and may change during the life. It may happen under various circumstances such as pregnancy, hormones change, age changes or illnesses that may affect the voice range very seriously.
There are different types of choirs that can be classified by different aspects such as their gender mix, number of participants, professional level of singers or institutions they are performing at.
Choir Classification by Gender Mix
The most common choir is a conventional mixed one that includes both female and male singers. In this kind of choir 4 basic ranges of voice are presented – soprano, alto, tenor and bass, usually indicated as SATB. Due to the number of singers, there can be made some improvements in the division of the participants in the voice range groups. For example, in small choirs men can share the role of the bass and tenor in a single part. And, on the contrary, in big choirs one or more voices can be divided into two categories. For example, baritone voice, sung by the higher basses can be used in the SATBarB choir.
Speaking about the male choirs, some of them have the traditional SATB voices when boys are singing the upper part, called trembles or boy’s soprano, and men are singing the alto part, often known as countertenor. However, there are also male choirs that have only 2 tenor parts and a bass part that is usually divided into a baritone and a bass. They are usually indicated as TTBB.
Choirs that have exclusively female singers consist of soprano and alto voices, each of which can be divided into two parts. The one that have soprano I, soprano II, and the similar division of alto part is abbreviated as SSAA. Another type of female choir that includes soprano I, soprano II and only one alto part is indicated as SSA choir.
Children’s choirs have the similar structure as the female choirs. They can be either three-part SSA, including two parts of soprano and one of alto, or two-part SA, including only soprano and alto. Rarely they may include more voices. Again, it depends on the number of the choir participants.
Choir Classification by Institutions
Choirs can also be classified according to the institutions, in which they operate or perform, which often indicate the level of professionalism of its singers. There can be distinguished church choirs that are performing during congregations. That can be hymns, service music or the full liturgies, which are sung in order to support and enhance the congregation. Such choirs usually consist of the congregation members or volunteers as the majority of church choirs have a policy of open entrance for anyone who is eager to sing. The singers of such choirs rarely are professionals but the musical portions they are performing are usually well-prepared and rehearsed for the specific purpose of leading the sung prayer. They also may use an accompaniment of an orchestra or an organ, but some synagogues, American Protestant groups and Eastern Orthodox do not use the instrumental accompaniment.
School choirs are usually linked to the student center and include junior and high school students. The university or collegiate choirs are similar to the school ones. Such types of chorus unite those, who are interested in music, have some singing skills and are eager to perform on the special school or university events. They can also participate in the competitions that are held specifically for such types of choirs.
Community choirs can be quiet casual as well as advanced in signing. The participation in such choirs is voluntary, while some of them may require a fee payment when joining the signing group. The members may perform with piano, organ or an orchestral accompaniment as well as a cappella.
Apart from amatory choirs, there exist also professional ones that make a living out of choir singing. They have their own choral repertoire and perform in large specially-equipped concert venues and theaters. The most famous and successful choirs may record their music and make additional profit from selling their CDs. They usually consist of trained singers, who are musically cultured and have special education in the field of music performance. They can be either independent or state-supported such as National Chamber Choir of Ireland.
Some choirs may also be distinguished according to the type of music they perform as many of them were created in order to sing a particular type of music. For example, show choirs are very popular nowadays. This is a group of people that not only sing a part, but also perform a dance making a performance similar to a musical. Vocal jazz choirs such as a multi-cultural Oakland Jazz Choir are the ensemble of people with a repertoire of classic and contemporary jazz. Some choirs specialize in the folklore music; others may perform Baroque music. There are a great variety of choirs, according to their repertoire and style of music they are performing.
Each choir should have a choir leader, who is often called a conductor or choirmaster. He is responsible for leading choir practices, organizing the repertoire, providing singers with musical scores and teaching parts. During performances the conductor is the one, who guides the choir and controls the timing. Besides, he may also be in charge of such activities as audition and approval of the future choir singers, scheduling of concerts and choir promotion. Such duties are usually performed by a conductor of school, university or community choirs. Big professional choirs have a team that performs administrative responsibilities like concerts or tour organization, scheduling, secretary or archives.
A choral conductor, as a musician, is supposed to have deep theoretical knowledge of harmony and counterpoint, but also practical skills such as playing an instrument, conducting and marking a rhythm. Besides, he must have some knowledge on physiology of voice in order to do some vocal exercises to warm up before signing. From the pedagogical standpoint, communication and teaching skills are very important and require strong knowledge of teaching methodology.
In order to skillfully conduct a choir, a conductor should know the key techniques needed for any ensemble singing. They are effective preparatory beats, meaningful face expressions, ability to conduct with both arms, not only the right one, and timely use of a baton. The conductor possessing these skills will be able to conduct different dynamics, tempos and musical styles. A preparatory beat is used in order to provide a successful start of the part. To begin, the conductor takes his place in the face of the choir and raises his arms in order to conduct. It is also a signal for an accompanist to be ready to begin. It is important to feel the beat in proper tempo, the music’s mood and rhythm in this brief moment. When the conductor is sure everything is ready, he conducts the preparatory beat, determining emotion, tempo and dynamics of the part. For example, if the part is fast and joyful, the beat should reflect this mood, but in case the music is sad or calm the first beat will be slow. He must be aware of the responsibly he bears. The conductor’s mistake will result into the misleading of the whole choir.
The conductor’s eyes and facial expressions are two most important non-verbal tools that help him to keep the contact and communicate with the choir. With his hands and baton a conductor can regulate the tempo and rhythm, but with a help of his eyes he can give singers an encouraging look before the music begins or to show approval or disapproval when it began to sing.
A conductor should be good at using both hands when he conducts a choir. For example, he uses both arms for the preparatory beat or a downbeat. Then he continues conducting with both hands, while his left arm is mirroring his right one and drops it down to side. A conductor also uses both hands to show a choir when to make an emphasis, for example when making the beat slower or faster. Left hand and arm are used to clarify the style of the music, but also its mood and phrasing. An ability to conduct skillfully with both hands is especially required when one or more vocal parts, for instance, a soprano and an alto, are singing different musical parts. In a case when one part of choir sustains a note while the other part sings other notes, a conductor holds his hand, palm up, in the direction of the group that is sustaining and continues the beat pattern with his right hand. A conductor uses right hand to conduct the beat while his left arm gives directions to the choir.
Baton is a thin stick that is used by a conductor to indicate rhythm or expression when conducting a choir. It is commonly used for big choirs when it is needed to keep an attention of a large number of people. Anyway, a hand is more useful in conduction a choir and interpreting the music and is usually used with small groups of singers.
Choosing the right music is an important issue that depends on the number of singers, choir type and target audience. Big choirs can perform two, three or more part music, while for smaller ones music written in unison or in two parts is the best. Music that needs a big, full sound would rather be more suitable for large and well-trained choir then for a small one. Sometimes in order to enhance a small adult choir, a group of children or youth can be used to perform along with them.
Key Principles of Good Singing
In order to achieve a good and full sound while singing some requirements should be fulfilled. They include breathing, correct posture, tone quality, blend, diction and balance.
The proper posture for good singing requires standing with back comfortably straight, feet slightly apart, head held high, and shoulders down and back. Singers should stand without any stiffness or tension as the body should be relaxed. Singing with good posture must become habitual for singers.
Proper breathing helps a singer develop beautiful tone quality, sing consistently in tune and sustain musical phrases, which are very important to good singing. When breathing in a proper way, singers should open the throat and inhale deeply, filling their lungs to capacity. They should avoid any tightness in the throat as an open throat helps provide a free and relaxed tone. Another aspect is breath management and awareness of singers about the role of their abdominal muscles in controlling the air flow. A conductor decides when a choir should breath and then gives singers a sign. Usually it is between musical phrases or at a comma or period.
Singers produce sounds that are called tones. Poor tone quality may lead to the thin and unsteady sound, while a good tone quality produces precise, resonant, and rich sounds. In order to provide such a sound, a throat of a singer should be relaxed. Also it is important to carefully shape and control the vowel sound when singing. All singers in a choir should shape a vowel the same way. Singers are often advised to think of the vocal tone as coming from high in the head and not from the throat or chest. The tone should be kept vigorous and firm. A full unified choral sound can be reached when a choir blends well and there are no individual voices that stand out. The same is with the sections. For this reason singers should listen to each other and try to match the sound they hear. There also should be a balance between vocal parts. Each section should be heard clearly and in proper relationship to the others. For example, the sopranos should not sound louder than the other singers unless their part is emphasized in the music. The melody should always be heard clearly as it is the most important.
Good diction is vital for good singing too. It helps to provide a clear sounding and pronunciation of the words the singers sing.
Groups of people that are singing together and are divided according to the voice ranges are called choirs. They can perform either with musical accompaniment or without it. The choirs can be distinguished due to their gender mix, institutions where they are performing, and the style of music they are singing.
A conductor, who is a choir leader, plays a crucial role in the choir organization. He conducts a choir while performing at stage, but also chooses the appropriate musical repertoire, teaches parts, and trains the singers. A conductor should have different skills needed for a successful choir conducting, but also be aware of various techniques used in music. He also should have strong knowledge of musical theory and good pedagogical methodology.
Various requirements should be fulfilled in order to reach a good choir singing. They are good singing skills of the choir participants, regular training and skillful teaching of a conductor. While choosing musical repertoire for a particular choir, different aspects should be taken into consideration, like the level of professionalism of choir singers, their number and the target audience or a purpose of singing.