Conducting: Messiah sing-along
I conduct a Messiah sing every year at the Episcopal Cathedral in
Peoriajust give enormous cues, the kind a truck driver could follow.
Nancy, when I was studying at Emory in Atlanta, I attended Robert Shaw's
sing-along Messiah rehearsals with the ASO. Believe me, Shaw stopped for no
one. If you kept up, bully for you. If you didn't, too bad. Every other
Messiah sing-along that I'd attended was the same way. Good luck!
Good luck! It is fun (and somewhat scary). I have done a Sing Along
for the last 10 years or so. Some thoughts:
The symphony chorus will carry the sound: The audience will have
little effect on them if they are solid (and I'm sure yours would be!).
The audience, for the most part, will not get the long melismas in
"And He shall Purify" and "For unto us" and similar passages, or they
will just end a bit behind, but, they catch up. Movements with
multiple quick entrances ("His Yoke is Easy", and the like), are tricky
for the audience as well. In the beginning, I designated some choruses
as to be sung by my chorus only, not the audience. But now, we just
invite the audience on all the choruses in the program (we also do not
do the whole Messiah).
I've done it with the audience being seated by part, and just random.
Now we offer the seating by section for those who wish, and open
seating for those who do not want to sit with some strangers in a
Tempi: I really don't bend too much from my usual thought of "faster":
if my chorus can do it, the audience will come along. Will you have
speakers around or behind the audience so they will not be effected by
the sound delay? I don't generally like to have any amplification, but
acoustics can be an issue, and better safe than sorry.
Will you have a "shadow" conductor? Or will you be able to be seen by
the orchestra, chorus AND the audience? It can be a real crazy thing
to keep "spinning around" on the podium, leading both your orchestra
and chorus, and the audience. I've done both, and much prefer to have
a shadow conductor who cues the audience to stand, and cues entrances,
and helps them keep tempo by the visual presence. What will your set
up be? Chorus and orchestra on stage, singing to the audience? Or
will you have your chorus amongst the audience? (I've never done it
that way myself.)
I hope this helps!
I have done sing-alongs yearly but only on the Hallelujah Chorus portion,
at the end of our "Messiah" concert. I know it would be difficult to
accommodate the audience' tempo so I never did. My section leaders stand
next to me (two on each side), leading the audience. The sing along is
announced during the welcome/announcement time. It is also on the printed
program. I'll be interested in a compilation.
I conduct the choral portions of "Messiah" for our "Do-It-Yourself
Messiah". The way it works in our area is thisthe local youth
symphony is the orchestra and we have paid soloists. The youth
symphony conductor conducts the orchestra and for the choral
portions, I face the audience and conduct them. I am really
conducting in tandem with the orchestra director. It sounds weird
but it works very well. I give them directions, motion for them to
stand up or sit downjust like you would if you were conducting a
real chorus. They started this tandem conducting thing about five
years ago, and this December 5 will be the third time I've done it.
I've sung in many of these events and this addition makes it go much
smoother than others I've been to. One comment about tempi: don't
go too slow because a group such as goes to these things will get
bogged downonly take the choruses slightly slower than you normally
would. bsp; And forget about conducting the hemiolas in "And the
Glory"the audience won't understand what you're doingbut it does
feel strange when you do it all in 3/4. Hope this helps and good
luck. These "Messiahs" are always lots of fun.
I did it several years ago at St. Joseph Cathedral in Columbus a space
that Nancy is familiar with. The occasion came about because of the sudden
cancellation of the annual Messiah Singalong by the Columbus Symphony. You
may not have the advantage of a somewhat flexible, acoustically live space,
but this is what worked for us:
The chamber orchestra was in the altar area, which is about 1/3 of the way
into the room. Audience members (about 200) who were there to "audit"
rather than sing were in the area behind the altar (and behind the
orchestra). The "singers" were placed in sections in the rest of the church
(about 400). There was a small set of risers on either side of the
orchestra, facing toward the orchestra, but slightly turned toward the
I used my professional chamber singers (18 voices, including a couple of
soloists added to the group for this performance) as "ringers" throughout
the church. They sat randomly among the sections, but each of them had an
aisle seat so that they could move quickly to the risers when needed. We
had one short section in the program that was sung by the chamber singers
gathered on the risers - "Lift Up Your Heads," and a couple of others. That
also gave a break to the singalong group. All of the solos were also
assigned to the most appropriate chamber singer.
This was probably a somewhat smaller singalong than you will have the
capacity of our building was about 600. I found it unnecessary to make
major tempo adjustments. We had a brief rehearsal, where I instructed them
about paying attention because they were indeed the choir so that we
could stand and sit together, etc. We sang a couple of excerpts to get them
used to their sound, and to convince them to be light and fluid in their
singing, with lots of listening for blend and balance. I also warned them
about being alert for any surprises in tempo or dynamics that I might ask
for from the podium. For example, we started the "Hallelujah Chorus" quite
fast, but pianissimo, opening up the volume as we went.
It was very successful, and well-received. Spreading the solos among the
chamber singers gave variety, allowed assigning the most appropriate voice
to each solo (these chamber singers were mostly current or recent grad
students from OSU), and also kept them from getting too tired since they
were also singing the choruses.
These ideas probably wouldn't work in a traditional concert hall, but it
worked great in our particular venue.
I'd be very interested in the responses. I've been requested to do this and
have been able to talk my way out of it. I don't know how long this will
I was in just your position two years ago. Except I had never
conducted more than two movements of Messiah at all, so it was a real
jumping-off experience. Here are some thoughts:
1) Our local sing seats the singers in sections. If you can arrange that, do.
2) Understand that half the people who come to a Messiah sing
probably know their part of the score just as well as you do. They
need your cues not so much for real guidance as for friendly
3) I decided I had very little power over what was going to happen,
and concentrated on two attainable goals for my preparation: setting
and holding tempi I liked (NOT slower ones); and giving very, very
clear entrance cues. I wore out a metronome on a month's worth of
air conducting, giving cues to section signs placed around me. These
two strategies worked very, very well.
4) I understood that something about singing in a pickup massed
choir makes people sing loud all the time. I don't know what that is.
So the one thing I asked the singers was not to yell, but to dance.
This request had no effect whatsoever; the people who felt like
yelling still did it.
5) The sing-in was a blast for everyone, except for the people who
need to have things made more "personal" by a lot of conductor-talk.
I personally loathe conductor-talk (what can I say that Handel hasn't
already said better in the music?), but another time I might respect
their need for a few more oral program notes.
Have a wonderful time!
While I have not personally conducted this work in this manner, I have
participated in the annual sing here in Virginia Beach. The way it's
handled here is: there's the conductor for the orchestra and chorus, and
another conductor for the audience. The audience is seated by voice part,
assisted by signs posted in the front of the seating area and ushers. Prior
to the actual sing thru there is a brief "rehearsal" of tricky parts, like
the tempo of "For Unto Us a Child is Born." The soloists are seated across
the apron of the stage so that the audience may enjoy their voices without
Above all have fun with it... the folks that come to participate are there
for the pure joy singing this wonderful oratorio with a full orchestra. Enjoy!
I have done Sing-Along Messiahs for about 20 years. I don't know the
level of musical preparedness that you will be dealing with, and that
would seem to be the biggest factor. I think it's really important
not to frustrate the participants by taking tempos that they really
can't do well, so I usually take the edge off the movements with
16th-note runs. In addition, I think audiences usually find the
following movements most difficult, and I therefore slow the music
down even more:
The Lord gave the word
Let us break
I have occasionally done one movement and then, when it went really
badly, asked them if they would like to try it a second time. That
can be a lot of fun, and it can break the tension when you
acknowledge that singing Messiah without rehearsal is a difficult
thing you're asking them to do. I like giving people the freedom to
laugh at themselves gently.
My advice, having done it once, don't do it. OR get really drunk
before you conduct. Anyone who cares about the work, has troubles
with this. GOOD LUCK!
I've been doing a Messiah sing-along in Middlebury, VT for the past 20
years... it's not with the luxury of a trained orchestra and choir, but
just with whoever shows up (I do hire first-chair string players and
harpsichordist, and they repeat from year to year).
I'd suggest going into the event with a goal of encouraging the
audience to have fun. For some of the pieces with sixteenth-note
runs, I do a"mini-rehearsal" first taking, say, the alto part, and
having everyone sing along with it, so that they get the idea of the
Over the years, I've gradually increased tempos as singers & players
return, and are increasing familiar with the work. Sometimes I'll go
through a movement twice - once at a moderate tempo, and then repeat it
a bit quicker - the participants enjoy that since they get a second
chance to get through all those passages!
Chair, Department of Music
Saint Mary's College
Notre Dame, IN 46556-5001
FAX: (574) 284-4884
South Bend Chamber Singers
Northwest Indiana Symphony Chorus