By Pat Guth
When you’ve taken on the reins of a non-auditioned choir or – in my case – purposely formed one from scratch, you shoulder a plethora of challenges that conductors of auditioned or professional choirs will never face. Some of these challenges can be quite tricky, especially when you’re keen to welcome everyone and to make your choir space one that is comfortable and judgment-free for all, no matter their skill or experience.
I spent 42 years in church music ministry before I retired a few years ago and, of course, that’s a place where many conductors first encounter those who can’t match pitch or who are easily distracted by others around them who are singing different parts. We struggle with what to do because “Betty” or “Joe” has been singing with the choir for 50 years and we don’t want to be the one to tell them they can’t sing anymore. So, more often than not, we just let it go because nobody wants to make waves. After all, Joe’s family did donate the piano in the sanctuary!
However, in my nearly 100-voice non-auditioned women’s chorus, which has been around for just short of 9 years, I’ve handled things a bit differently. After all, these singers pay a tuition fee and they expect a top-notch experience unencumbered by the pitch-challenged, even if they do recognize that there is no prerequisite for joining.
Throughout my tenure with this choir, I’ve been fortunate enough to attract mostly singers who don’t struggle with pitch or with learning their parts. But we do get the occasional singer who, unfortunately, just doesn’t sing well . . . yet.
I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of struggling singers: the ones who recognize their shortcomings so sing quietly and really don’t affect anyone around them, and the ones who stick out like a sore thumb, as the saying goes, totally unable to hear their part but singing robustly, nonetheless. Dealing with the latter is where the challenge often arises because those around the out-of-tune singer begin to complain after a while.
“Aren’t you going to do something about Eleanor?” a gang of altos says to me after a rehearsal. “She can’t sing and she’s throwing us off.”
I manage to keep the eye-rolling to a minimum, admit that I’ve heard something unusual coming from the Alto 1 section, and promise to take care of it. But how?
If you’re in a similar position to mine, this has likely happened to you. In my ensemble, it’s occurred a handful of times over the last several years and I sometimes still struggle with how to handle it, especially if I’ve become really fond of the individual who seems to be the culprit or if I recognize that this person really “needs” our choir.
So, do you approach that person and tell her that others around her believe she’s struggling with her part? Probably not. That hasn’t worked for me thus far. But you can’t just let it go either because other singers will get to the breaking point and take it into their own hands. I’ve seen it happen and it wasn’t pretty. Feelings were hurt. I had to step in and reprimand the bullies. It didn’t make for a happy situation, it put a damper on the concert season, and nothing was solved.
Offering my help
Generally, my gut reaction in such scenarios is to personally offer to work with the pitch-challenged singer. So, at the next rehearsal I make sure I saunter past that person as she is singing so that I can say that I “personally” detected a problem.
Next, I call the singer and awkwardly tell them that I thought perhaps I heard them struggling (“This music is really hard. No wonder you’re having a problem!”) and offer to meet with them personally to review their part or to help them learn how to better use our recorded choral tracks to practice at home. That’s usually met with a “No, thanks. I’ll get it eventually.”
I understand that. Though I pride myself in being a kind, vulnerable, welcoming conductor, I’m still intimidating. After all, I’m the conductor. The one in charge. The last thing a singer wants others to know is that she needed to have a session with the conductor! That speaks of incompetence and the inability to keep up with others. She may as well just quit.
Putting it in someone else’s hands
However, there are other options. I find that most of my aurally-challenged individuals will respond better to help from a peer. In most choirs, I’ve discovered, it’s not difficult to find a fellow singer who is willing to lend a hand.
A number of the women in my choir have taken it upon themselves to form practice groups outside of rehearsals. As we have a fairly hefty concert schedule in “normal” times, many have recognized that they need more than just the two hours we have on Monday nights to master their parts. So, they gather together an additional time each week (or a few times a month) for that extra preparation time.
So, when I find someone who needs assistance, I target these groups and ask them to invite their singing sister to their next gathering. Or, I ask a singer who I know has superior skills if she would take this person under her wing. Sometimes it takes a few tries to find the right match but, overall, it’s worked wonderfully.
Here’s an example of a success story.
A handful of years ago, we acquired a new member who had never sung in a choir previous to joining us. It was evident that she was truly struggling and had thought about quitting, but because she had paid for the entire year she decided to stick it out. In addition, she had signed up for our performance tour that spring, which included a choral festival and the need to learn a major work by Haydn. I was frantic. I couldn’t imagine her ever learning that very complicated alto part.
Enter the woman who sat next to her, a lovely retired teacher of a similar age who had never lost her teacher instincts. She had also been a violinist in her younger years, had excellent pitch, and was always on the ball when it came to learning her parts. Without any prompting from me, she let me know that she was working with this individual and that all would be fine by tour time. And it was. I was so proud of both of them.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help
Ever since that happened, I’ve made it a point to remind my choir members to listen for anyone around them who might be struggling and, if they feel able, to offer to work with them. It’s amazing the number of practice pairs and small groups that have formed because of that simple request. In addition, it’s a task that makes both the teacher and student feel good when all is said and done.
Truly, seeking help from your choir members to assist other singers is a win-win situation. Together, my musically-gifted choir members and I have succeeded in turning several non-singers into very good choir members who can now stand on their own and who may – one day – become a mentor for someone else.
I believe there is no such thing as a person who can’t sing. It just takes the right kind of nurturing from the right kind of person (or people) to turn that individual into someone who can be a valuable part of the choir and who can enjoy a fun, stress-free choral experience that’ll keep them singing for the rest of their life. And that’s what it’s all about.