Every Voice Counts - Motivation and Repertoire for Community Choirs

26 Apr 2018



EVERY VOICE COUNTS – Repertoire and Motivation for Community Choirs

Firm believer in the importance of music in our lives for its educational, health, social, spiritual benefits.
The most natural way to make music together is in song

The ideas I’m sharing now have been growing over a number of years. Many of them I worked on specifically while I was MD of Auckland Choral for 20 years.

How do we develop a real sense of commitment in all members of our choirs? Some are brilliantly committed but there always seem to be those on the edges who do the minimum. Obviously the choir is still important to them, but you don’t sense that feeling of wholehearted commitment.

Often I believe this is because those members don’t really understand what they are doing. Their knowledge of how music works is very limited, their vocal ability is limited.

One of the joys of being in a community choir is that you don’t have to be a great musician to be there, nor do you have to have a wonderful voice.

BUT I am more than ever convinced that if we enable people to improve their skills then we will see greater commitment from them. And those who are already 100% motivated are always keen to learn more.

So I’m proposing a multi-stranded programme that will take your choir members where they are and help them to grow.


It is an old truism that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. Nowhere is this more true than in choral singing where a group of modest ability and with average voices can, under a skilled director, produce something quite remarkable. But we tend to sit back and rely on this. By increasing the skill levels of each of the parts – each individual in the choir – the whole becomes so much greater, and the performance so much more remarkable. In addition individual choir members gain greater satisfaction as they sense that they are contributing more to the musical life of the group.

In a big group it is easy to think that you won’t be missed and if you are aware that you don’t really make much of a contribution anyway then it’s easier to think that.

Our job as conductors and administrators of choirs is as facilitators – to enable everyone to do their best.

But some people’s best isn’t good enough.
In fact most people’s isn’t.
Mine certainly isn’t.
There’s always room to improve.

I’ve spent countless hours and even more $s, it seems, honing my craft as a conductor – studying music, reading, watching other conductors at work, attending courses and conferences, going to concerts, listening to the radio and CDs, etc

What about the singers? Some do have that kind of motivation, but some don’t. What can I do to help them?

I have to persuade the singers that they need to know more.

It’s really PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT for choirs.

None of the aspects of Every Voice Counts will work without the conductor’s enthusiasm. In fact very little in choir will work without that! Enthusiasm is definitely contagious. You really need to lead by example.

It starts with

We all need to be appreciated and feel cared for.
Set up a structure where people who miss rehearsals without making an apology are contacted to check that they are ok, that nothing has happened at rehearsal that has upset them. Those that do send in an apology can also be checked on. Find gentle, caring people in each section of the choir who will undertake this in a low key way. They could also take the roll for their section so that every soprano knows that they need to check in with this person. If there are notices they have missed these could be passed on by that person.

In Auckland Choral we had one wonderful member who would note down all the significant things I had commented on in the music during rehearsal and would send an email to the absentees so that they knew which pieces we had worked on and what things I had specifically asked for, so that absent members could mark their parts before the next rehearsal. It helps people, who are inclined to miss rehearsals lightly, to realise that something went on that they missed.

I believe genuine caring for others is central to the Community Choir.

It is after all by nature a community and, if we demonstrate that, members will feel more committed and hopefully more motivated to align themselves with the ideals of the group.

If the conductor and committee are going to lead by example, how are we going to do that. Arrive early, greet people. I’m a naturally rather shy person and would much rather rush in at the last moment and get going with the rehearsal or sit in a corner with a good book, so I have to work quite hard to make myself more sociable.

Perhaps at the beginning of the year suggest that people come early and have the coffee break before the rehearsal with a chance to catch up before the year’s rehearsals start.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the community feeling. Many members will tell you that’s what they appreciate most about choir. So make it even more important to them. Make it so that there is no way that they would want to miss.


Have a dream and a direction for the choir. Perhaps once a year with the committee you could present a plan for the direction you would like the choir to be heading in. Where you hope to be in another year’s time. Don’t be unrealistic. But do set attainable goals. These may relate to improving the tone of the choir, improving attendance, recruiting new members, bringing the age level down. Don’t plan to achieve everything in one year. But do try to be doing something that pushes the members in a new direction.

Then the difficult bit, you have to set in place strategies that will move you towards your goals. This sounds terribly business-motivation-speak, but we can learn something from that area.

Find a way to measure how you got on.

Now the other suggestions I have are in no particular order


We often tend to focus first on improving sight-singing skills or vocal development, and those aspects are terribly important, but we forget that an amazing number of choir singers have no idea about how music works. No wonder it takes us such a long time to learn things. I have always believed that the conductor’s job is to make music not to teach notes. Sadly many rehearsals degenerate into merely note learning and we think we have succeeded in performance if we didn’t actually make mistakes. We need to lift people beyond that. They need to be listening critically not just to the notes but to the music. Performing is so much more than notes. Its about shape and style, texture and colour in the music.

Try to find a way to help those who are interested, with basic theory.
Pitching accurately for a less experienced musician is always difficult but rhythm is something you can master, if you know how it works and have sufficient practice at it.
Note values, bars, time signatures – find someone who can give a 30 minute class before choir for a few weeks for any who are interested.
If singers have a real knowledge of how scales work and what different keys are, reading music becomes much easier.

If you want a text to use there are many music theory courses. I have to declare an interest in this one as I’m a Trinity Guildhall examiner, but I do believe it’s hard to beat TG’s new “Theory of Music Workbooks” by Naomi Yandell (Trinity College London). They are clear, sequential, not childish. An intelligent adult can work their way through it on their own. Then if they want to have some confirmation of their achievement they can always sit an exam at the various Grade Levels.

And on the web there are many sites that offer you free tutorials www.8notes.com/theory is one of simple graded lessons but there are many others. Your choir members may well be interested in doing a bit of self-directed learning here.

You can help by using some technical terms in rehearsal. It all helps to get people more familiar with the language. We’ll go from page 2, second system, fourth bar, the third crotchet, it’s a chord of G major. Don’t worry if they don’t know G major from a bar of soap. It’s called infiltration! But don’t go overboard so that you loose them completely.

(NB - do give instructions from the general to the particular – no point in starting with bar 4 or someone will immediately say “What page is he on?”)


This is an area we frequently miss out on altogether yet our singing will be so much better informed if we know something about the pieces we are singing. When were they composed? Who for? What sort of occasion were they performed at?

Are you singing music from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th or 21st Centuries. A few words when introducing a piece can make a huge difference to how your choir take to a piece of music.

This Mass by Mozart has really short movements and the reason – the Archbishop Colloredo who commissioned it liked his services to be done and dusted in 45 minutes, so the music had to be speedy. A bit tricky with the Gloria and the Credo where there are so many words to get through.

Haydn was so keen to get the Credo over as quickly as possible so that he could have more time on the Sanctus that he had different parts of the choir singing different portions of the text at the same time in order to get through the words more quickly This didn’t always please the authorities and some mass movements had to be re-written..

Just little snippets can make a huge difference.

I had an absolutely wonderful experience once when preparing a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. The Sheffield Choral Union had sung it in Auckland on their World tour in 1910. It so happened that in the semi-chorus was the wife of a grandson of one of those choristers and he had his grandfathers diary. His descriptions of the tour and of Auckland and of singing this work and of Elgar himself who traveled with them (though not as far as Auckland) were fascinating. Being able to share this information with the choir over the weeks leading up to the performance was such a boost to us all.

We won’t always have gifts like that, but there is always something we can say that will help our choir members to get inside the work a little more.

Tied in with an understanding of music history is an understanding of performance practice.

This is one of those areas where we often do not get enough time. We’re so busy learning the notes that we don’t give time to thinking how it could or should sound.
What did it sound like in Mozart’s day?
How do they sing this in Cuba?
What sort of pronunciation did the Elizabethans use in their madrigals? How can we make this piece sound really French or Italian?

If it’s in Latin – do you use Classical Latin, Church Latin or German style Latin

How do you find out the differences?

One authoritative book here is:
Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire. Ron Jeffers. Volume 1: Sacred Latin Texts
Word by word and overall translations of standard texts
History and background to texts

Mike Brewer’s “Fine Tune Your Choir” has an excellent section briefly pointing out distinctive features of different periods

20th-21st Century
Popular and World Music


Nothing will do more to improve the sound of your choir than to work consistently on their vocal training. But how?

Some conductors have a great advantage here in that they can model really good singing to their choir. Others of us have more modest ability but can still convey the kind of shapes and sounds we hope to achieve from the singers. If you can’t do that it might be time you went for some singing lessons yourself. We can all learn to do better.

You may think it’s worthwhile bringing in an expert. I was very impressed when I spent some time visiting choirs in the UK a few years ago. I went to a rehearsal Simon Rattle was taking with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus in preparation for an upcoming performance. At that rehearsal was Simon Rattle, the Choir’s regular Musical Director, the Accompanist, the Vocal Coach and the Language Coach - they were preparing a work by Szymanowski. Five professionals all working as a team and Rattle involving them all in the rehearsal. It was wonderful to watch and no wonder that “amateur” chorus is rather good. But we can take something from that. Involve the experts. Have a voice coach on hand. If you don’t like the sound of something the choir is doing, ask them to comment, perhaps suggest something the singers could do to improve things. Get people who know the languages and how to sing them to help.

I’m fortunate in that I have a wife who is a singer and singing teacher and we’ve been able to work in tandem with a number of choirs both here in NZ and in the UK.

We also offered all members of the choir a vocal consultation – a 20 minute session with an expert who then provided a brief assessment and suggestions of ways the voice could be helped to develop.

I’m very aware that many people are not in a position to pay for singing lessons and with Auckland Choral we managed to find funds for Professional Development which enabled us to offer singing coaching during rehearsals with members going out for half-hour sessions.


I know many choirs are quite conscientious about warm-ups these days and that’s to be commended. But do you really know what you are doing? What’s the purpose of these things you do? Do your choir members know what they are trying to achieve? If not they won’t be motivated to use them in their private practice and they’ll probably come late to rehearsal to avoid them. So use exercises that have an obvious purpose.

There are plenty of books to help you here
Nancy Telfer “Successful Warm-ups” (Kjos) as well as having interesting and fun exercises has a wonderful diagnostic chart in the back of the conductor’s edition dealing with problems of:
Concert problems
Dynamics flexibility
Musical expression

Another book that I really like is “Vocal Warm-ups” by Klaus Heizmann (Schott). And the reason I like it is that there is a clearly defined purpose for each exercise. The book is in sections covering:
Physical warm-up
Breathing exercises
Deliberate diaphragmatic breathing
Relaxing and opening the vocal tract
Vowel formation and modification

“Mike Brewer’s Warm-ups” (Faber) is another good one

I also like
“Sing Legato” by Kenneth Jennings (Kjos)
Particularly the first exercise, because legato singing is what amateur singers find so hard – they like to peck at the notes and we need to encourage them to really sing from note to note.

For traditionalists Vaccai’s “Metodo Pratico” (Peters) has some very demanding and very beautiful exercises in it
Then for something really devilish you could try
“Preposterous Vocalises” by Josefa Heifetz (Kjos)

There are loads more!

Again the motivation has got to come from you. If you’re not demonstrating that you really care about the vocal sound you make why should the choir? Lead by example.

Where possible in rehearsal give vocal demonstration rather than just playing the notes on the piano. That way the choir get to hear the style of the musical line as well as the notes of it. This puts a big onus on you as the conductor. But you took on the job!!


Always “we” wish “they” would learn the music more quickly. We can help them by helping them learn to sight-read. “Oh but I can’t sight-read” is the most common reaction of many singers. Of course they can sight-read. They just may not be very good at it yet, but you can help them.

I set my choir a series of tasks.
1. Can you sing Amazing Grace
2. Can you imagine it in F major
3. What note does it start on
4. Can you sing it naming the notes
5. Can you sing it in another key naming the notes eg G major
6. Or in E major
7. How about F sharp major??!!
8. What is the time signature of the piece
9. Can you see the rhythm as you sing it

If you can do all these things you don’t need to come to my sight-reading classes!

There are many wonderful sight-reading course

Judy Bellingham’s “Sing what you See, See what you Sing” (Hazard Press) is excellent

Nancy Telfer’s “Successful Sight Singing” (Kjos) is quirky but fun
I love the way she launches straight into quite difficult concepts without really explaining them – you learn by osmosis.

Paul Harris and Mike Brewer have “Improve your sight-singing” (Faber)

The Associated Board have their Specimen Sight-Singing Tests (ABRSM)

TrinityGuildhall have “Sound at Sight” (Trinity College London)

You’ll find more on www.choralnet.org

I love using my own version of what I call reverse sight-singing.
Whenever a melody comes into your head try to see it on the page.

Morning has broken
See the pitches
C major
See the rhythm
See it in a more complex key – say B flat major
See it on the piano keyboard
See it on the violin/recorder or whatever instruments you play

You’ll be amazed at how quickly your sight-reading improves.

I once made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t let any tune come into my head without trying to see it on the piano. As a student it certainly filled idle hours waiting for trains or buses! But that was before the days of ipods!


I’m aware that the word repertoire also came into the title of the workshop and I do want to talk about that too.

Singing the right repertoire for your choir is absolutely crucial. All these factors need to be considered
Is it:
Too hard
Too simple
Too long
Too short
Can the choir cope with the:
Is this piece:
Ringing the changes for the choir
Supporting NZ composers

Rather than giving you actual repertoire which may or may not be suitable for your choir I thought it would be better to show you some places I go to explore repertoire

SOUNZ – the Centre for New Zealand Music – is a great place to start. We all need to be great supporters of NZ music because we have many wonderful choral composers.

At the SOUNZ website www.sounz.org.nz you can easily explore a wide range of music. You can refine your search by:
Music category Vocal ensemble
Availability Purchase
Format Scores
Suitable for Beginner
Duration Less than 5 mins
More than 30
Year of creation

Some are available as scores, some as downloads
Use it!

I’m not a great net-surfer and probably many of you know far more than I do about places to go on the net.

If you’re just starting get onto www.choralnet.org and explore

If you want music that’s available directly from the net try:
www.cpdl.org the choral public domain library. This has countless scores and access to translations

www.choralia.net has many training aids

www.note-perfect.com has interesting resources

But I love to actually get music into my hands. Consequently every time I head overseas I scour the music shops.

Some publishers have fantastic free resources available
Feature some of the great choral composers:
John Rutter, Bob Chilcott, Andrew Carter, Mack Willberg, Alan Bullard, Gabriel Jackson
OUP CHORUS MAGAZINE – you can read it on line, but you can also join their mailing list
Once on their mailing list they will send you free promotional CDs with Chorus.
Then you can join OUP’s New Choral Music Sample Copies scheme. This is not free but for £15 you will receive a package of pieces three times a year – about 25 pieces in all. You can sign up on their website or contact: [email protected]

For some varied but interesting and simpler repertoire try OUP’s:
Flexible Anthems
Flexible Carols
These are arranged so that they can be sung by varied groupings of singers
Voiceworks 1
Voiceworks 2
Junior Voiceworks 1
Junior Voiceworks 2
Folk Voiceworks
Popular Voiceworks
Young Voiceworks
Voiceworks at Christmas
Jamaican Voiceworks
The Voiceworks series have lots of great ideas for teaching the songs.

Other publishing houses also have demo cds too:
Boosey and Hawkes
Music Sales
Faber Music

And in the US:
Each year I receive their main catalogues
and a set of 4 CDs with recordings of their latest pieces on them.

And that’s only scratching the surface

Have a great time!

If you want further ideas don’t hesitate to contact me

[email protected]
or via my website

Peter Watts