List of Choral Singing Skills and Responsibilities

Most people probably don’t sit around thinking about all the skills and habits one needs for excellent choral singing, so they might be a little surprised by the rigors of the choral rehearsal process under a professional director. It can be loads of fun, but there’s also work involved–which can also be mostly fun for the right sort of people! The goals of this page are to provide a concise listing of the sorts of things we work on, and to help current and prospective members alike with some self-assessment regarding their skills and knowledge, as well as with whether they’re currently in a spot in life where they have the time to get done what needs doing.

Quick Q&A

Be sure to see this helping page: Q&A About Joining.

The Big Picture

At Sing, Montana!, we want to sing meaningful choral music of several different styles skillfully, such that it’s not only fun for us, but that we can delight a general audience. Our theme song says “We sing because it’s beautiful—and everyone does his part”, and so we hope that by the end of this page, you’ll have a pretty good understanding of what all of that entails.

Our theme song, “Because It’s Beautiful”.
(Freedom Choir in May 2021. We hope to get a better audio of this song soon!)

We have lots of fun rehearsing and performing music that we like. Some people who’ve never done it before walk in and do surprisingly well, while veteran choral singers also enjoy being in the group. We try to sing two big shows a year (December and May, with summers off), and here’s the real trick: to prepare for these with only one rehearsal a week! This means we have to be very efficient and diligent in our approach, and also, that we have to have singers who are committed to showing up prepared to rehearse.

The fundamental challenge for any great community chorus, of course, is “finding the talent with the time”. Not everybody has the singing skills needed for a great chorus. And even if everybody did have those skills, not everybody will have the time to commit to what we’re doing. If we had the power to draft every good singer in town, we’d have a world-renowned chorus! But obviously, in this real world, it doesn’t work out that way. Even so, we think we can get to about 100 members in a community of this size, and hope to do so by 2024.

In our rehearsals, we are constantly training our members in the choral skills necessary for us to be excellent in the songs we sing. While we’re constantly modeling good vocal technique, we don’t have time to stop and teach voice lessons in rehearsals, so we hope our singers walk in the door with a pretty good sound already—but even so, considerable improvement does go on over time. We have a wide range of skills among the various singers in the group, with some being choral veterans and some being beginners (who can match pitch pretty well already). Everybody is expected to do their best, and the barre is set high with the best practices and standards of choral music as the goal.

When a song doesn’t go well in rehearsal, it’s almost always because of one or both of these reasons:

  1. Singers not practicing their parts enough at home; or
  2. Singers forgetting to pay attention to the details we master in one rehearsal, such that we have to teach them all over again the next week. (There’s quite a skill to be developed in learning how to pay constant attention to these details.)

Excellent choral singing is definitely an exercise in managing the details. The fantastic shower singer may be surprised at what hard work it is to make things sound great in a chorus. It’s quite an extravagance to get a few dozen singers together, working on polishing a few hundred details to make excellent music. If you’re the right personality type for this, however, it’s fun and invigorating—and the music that comes from it is its own, along with the fellowship, of course, is the payoff.

So, what does it take to be a productive member of an excellent chorus? Well, in short, it takes whatever it takes (which is what this whole page is about) to see to it that you can perform your part accurately, as per the quality standards of the group, and that you attend rehearsals regularly and punctually, carrying your part.

Now, regarding your singing skills, we try to pick our repertoire with the skills of our current membership in mind. We don’t want to overburden our members with songs that are beyond their musical grasp. At the same time, however, we recognize that people’s skills increase over time as they go through rehearsals. So we’re constantly facing the question of whether this or that song is good for us at this time.

List of Standard Choral Singing Skills

There are different ways to order the items below. Some are more advanced than others, but don’t necessarily appear in the order of least-to-most-advanced. And this list is a work in progress—so don’t be surprised if you some something basic (or advanced) that’s left off.

  1. Speak and read English. (We may occasionally do a song in another language, and we’ll teach you how.)
  2. Match pitches accurately and quickly on demand. You need to be able to sing a pitch played on piano, or one sung by another person. You need to learn fine tuning, so you can be dead-on, and not just “close”. And you need to get to the pitch right away, rather than scooping up to get to it.
  3. Sing notes throughout your vocal range. No matter your vocal range (soprano, alto, tenor, or bass), you need to be able to sing all the notes normally sung by people of that voice part. This requires learning to sing both high and low—and those extremes require learning how to manage your breathing/supporting mechanisms.
  4. Mimic rhythms accurately. Music involves not only pitches but rhythms. You need to know how to recognize the details of a rhythm and to be able to clap (or otherwise perform) it back accurately yourself.
  5. Steady beat. You need to be able to keep a steady beat, whether by clapping or speaking or singing. You need to be able to feel it internally—to have your own personal sense of the beat, rather than to be trying to sing along without having your own internal beat generator running.
  6. Slow and fast. You need to be able to change the speed of the things you say and sing, such that you can do them at slow, medium, or fast speeds.
  7. Loud and soft. You need to be able to perform things at different volume levels, including loud, medium, and soft.
  8. Breathing. You need to learn to breath on purpose, and at the right times—and when not to breath at the wrong times. You need to learn how to make breathing marks in your music—as per the director’s instructions—and how to follow those markings from then forward.
  9. Matching vowel sounds. Every great chorus agrees on the vowel sounds the singers use for every word. You need to learn how to make the right vowel sounds, as demonstrated by the director, and to monitor yourself to be sure you’re doing it consistently. For example, a full “Ah” sound requires that the jaw be dropped fully, and not just partially. You need to learn how to mark your music with the proper vowel sounds, and then to use the proper sounds every time you sing a word.
  10. Enunciating the consonants. You’ll be expected to get good at spitting out the words clearly, including things like the final consonants, which need to be clearly heard and understood, without being too loud or overly-pronounced.
  11. Sibilants. The ssss sound, such as at the end of “house” or at the beginning of “sing”, is surprisingly hard to teach some singers to manage well. Many will prolong it to much, or make it too loud. Many will start an S word early, before they’re supposed to, or leave an S sound lingering after everyone else has stopped. You’ll be expected to mark troubled sibilants in your music, and to pay attention to the markings every time you perform it. (See also #12 below.)
  12. Elision, elongation, and final consonants. Oftentimes, you’ll be called on to join successive words together smoothly (elision), rather than pronouncing them separately. Consider the text: “Nothing but my best will do.” Suppose you are instructive to sing or speak the line without taking any breaths—and suppose that the word “best” is supposed to be held out longer than the other words. You will commonly be instructed to think of the line this way—and to speak/sing it this way: “Nothing but my be——stwill do.” In other words, we hold out the VOWEL sounds, and never the consonants. We think of it as if we were singing “Nothing but my beh— stwill do”. So the word “will” now starts with an “st”. We practice saying “stwill, “stwill”. We would never elongate “best” by increasing the amount of time singing the “s” or the “st”. It is impossible, of course, to elongate the “t” sound”, but the “s” is another story—and many will naturally sing “Nothing but my bessssssssssst will do” when asked to elongate the word “best” in this line. This is a particularly difficult habit to break, and it’s particularly disruptive to a great choral sound.
  13. Learn and reproduce a musical line. Whether it’s the melody of the song, or a harmony part, you need to be able to learn it and sing it back accurately by yourself.
  14. Singing unison with others. You should know how to sing a musical line in unison with your own section.
  15. Part Independence. You should learn to sing your part against the other parts, without distraction, and without switching from your part to theirs. This skill makes a huge difference in who can sit/stand where in a chorus. The fewer singers who can do this, the more you have to keep the sections isolated from each other, otherwise the song will crash and burn.
  16. Singing different styles. Not all songs are written in the same style. One may be sweet and flowing while another is punchy and choppy. One may be gentle, while the other is rough. One may call for a smooth and warm sound, while another calls for a more commanding tone. Even within a single sing, there may be a call to change the style of your vocal sound. Unless your chorus only sings one style of music, you’re going to need to learn styles and what to do with them.
  17. Following the director. Not every song has a strict speed. Many change speed during the song, and some may call for holding some notes out at the director’s discretion. This means you need to be able to watch the director during the process, whether you need to be reading the sheet music or not. Entrances and cut-offs are the main places where the need for following is the most obvious. However, it’s also crucial to follow the director’s beat throughout, neither getting ahead or falling behind.
  18. Listening to the whole ensemble while singing. The novice singer may struggle just to maintain his own part, and may not want to hear the others for fear of distraction. The veteran, however, learns to listen to it all, and will even make adjustments to his or her own singing to better fit into the ensemble. These adjustments might include slight pitch adjustments, or tone, or volume, and so forth.

List of Standard Organizational Skills/Habits

  1. Punctuality. Being late takes a bigger toll on the organization than you may realize. For you, it may just be a matter of a couple of minutes, but your absence has changed the situation in which the chorus is rehearsing. Without you there, it’s not the same chorus; it sounds different, feels different, and looks different. The differences throw people off and they aggravate the director. (Imagine something like this: You’re an organist, but your organ doesn’t have the same set of keys and pedals every week—or the volume won’t work the same every time you play it.) Also, a section may sound great one week, and weak the next—and this can be because just one or two people are missing. Sometimes, you have people who really carry a section, and when they’re gone, you realize that some of the rest are “leaners”, who do fine when next to a strong singer, but not nearly so well when that strong singer is missing.
  2. Regular attendance. If the punctuality problem is bad, attendance problems are even worse. Absences should be kept to a bare minimum. The rehearsal schedule should be made public before the semester starts, and when you agree to be a member, you should be agreeing to come to the rehearsals. Yes, things happen, and some of them are unavoidable. Sometimes, however, with a little extra effort, that rehearsal conflict that would have made it convenient to miss rehearsal can be worked out. And if you find that a track record of not wanting to be at rehearsal is building, you should reconsider whether being a member is something you really want to do. If you’re just going through a hard time in general, and you’ll surely get over it, that’s completely understandable, but it still hurts the chorus in the meantime.
  3. Ettiquette/Discipline. Every group has a different personality and various dispositions about this or that. You should learn what the standards for your group are, and abide by them most of the time. Many musical groups (of all kinds) waste a lot of time by continuing to sing/play after the director has cut them off, or by continuing to talk when the director has started talking. This is a waste of time, for one thing, and may also be disrespectful. A good ensemble knows how to come to order quickly and regularly. Its members learn to decouple from whatever they were doing, in order to do something else.
  4. Communication in rehearsal. “Please help us basses with our part” is much more efficient when communicated more precisely, such as: “Please help the basses on Page 3, Measure 42.”
  5. Following the rehearsal when you are not singing. Suppose the director is working with the sopranos for two minutes on a difficult line, and then says, “OK, everybody else please join us here.” If you have all been following what’s going on, you can start immediately. If not, then the director needs to 1) get your attention; 2) tell you where to start.
  6. Excellent communication outside of rehearsal. If you were managing a group like yours, and needed to poll everybody, or to announce something, how hard would that be to get done with limited time? How frustrating would it be if you didn’t know whether people received and read your communications or not? How destructive would it be if everyone was supposed to show up at rehearsal being ready for something, but only half had received, or bothered to read, the communication that gave those instructions? This is such a needless hurdle, yet it is probably the biggest frustration I face in running the chorus as a volunteer with a limited schedule. In our culture, we are generally terrible at this, and here’s a situation where that really takes a toll. On the one hand, it has almost nothing to do with making music, yet it is such a necessary step in the overall process of things. I ask that the members respond to our messages through, just to let me know that they got them. Sure, this takes some effort. But if they don’t do it, I don’t know whether they’re seeing them or not. And when I send out something that needs their attention in a timely manner, and then half show up having not seen it (even though it was delivered), this makes it more obvious why i would want some confirmation that it has been received and read. Everyone needs to get good and checking their messages and taking the time to read them. Otherwise, we have to limit ourselves only to those communications that can be accomplished at rehearsal time—when we’re supposed to be rehearsing music.
  7. Kids becoming adults. We have members as young as 13, which is great! Here’s something to consider, and I offer it not with regard to or criticism of your parenting philosophy, but purely from the point of view of the main manager of Sing, Montana!. The sooner they start thinking like adults with regard to their role in the group, the better. For example, if they can get their own email and accounts, they can receive communications independently from the parent (who may not always be reliable at passing on such messages). The sooner they get their own login to the website, they can rehearse their parts on their own.
  8. Organizational habits. Keeping one’s own music folder in good order is a great example. This saves us time in rehearsal, as we don’t have to wait for anyone to sort through the music in search of what we’re singing next.