By Bradley Ellingboe, Senior Editor of National Music Publishers
Every chorus consists of individuals whose voices are unique, and finding a way to create unity can seem to be an overwhelming task. Taking the time to assign seats to each member of your choir can help. This post will show you the steps I have used for many years to assess each individual voice, to create a choral mosaic for an ideal sound blend, and to adjust as needed.
Why Take the Time to Assign Seats?
For 30 years, I led a 140-member, non-auditioned group that included traditional students (non- music majors), faculty, staff, and townspeople. It was meant as a “front door” to the offerings of the Department of Music at the University of New Mexico and, as such, accomplished a great deal toward maintaining a positive relationship with the community. It also functioned as an oratorio society, often joining with the school’s orchestra and auditioned choruses to present large-scale works.
While many members had sung in the group for decades, during any given semester about 35% of the membership was new. The group was large, and it could seem to new members as if it didn’t matter whether they were there or not. Giving each person an assigned seat helped to counter that perception. New members had a consistent neighbor on either side, often a veteran singer helping them assimilate into the group. If they were absent, their chair was left open. In short, people in this big chorus, inside this large university, were made to feel as if they had a place, and everyone felt “heard.” Assigning seats in this choir also provided many musical benefits. Of the 35% new membership, a high proportion often had no choral background. Assigning seats helped to assure that the less-experienced singers could be assisted by hearing the more-experienced singers. It also helped me to distribute the better sight-readers throughout each section.
The musical benefits of assigning seats apply to all singers in all choirs, experienced or not. When seating is consistent, singers can grow accustomed to their partners and coordinate dynamics and breathing. Consistent seating can also help you distribute the musical skills evenly throughout the section. Even in a chorus of experienced singers, there will be some who are better sight-readers than others. If all of the good sight-readers sit next to each other, that will probably be the loudest part of the section. Conversely, if those who are less confident all sit next to each other, with no leaders among them, they are likely to either under-sing or sing the wrong notes. Assigning seats can help you distribute the singers more evenly in order to achieve a better blend of sound; a more balanced choral mosaic.
Creating a Choral Mosaic
I owe the term choral mosaic to my friend and schoolmate, Dr. Anton Armstrong of Saint Olaf College. The Saint Olaf Choir has long been famous for its blend, but it was Anton, to my knowledge, who more aptly named what happens within that group the creation of a choral mosaic. A mosaic in the art world is “a pattern or picture made using many small pieces of colored stone or glass.” A choral mosaic, then, seeks to distribute the various colors, or timbres, of the singers evenly across each section in order to achieve a desired blend of sound and overall picture.
Generally speaking, I categorized all singing voices into three basic timbres: bright, medium, and dark. “Bright” voices are often forward in their vocal production, exhibiting less use of the chest voice timbre. Bright voices can tend to sing sharp. “Medium” voices (my ideal timbre) do a good job of balancing the upper and lower overtones. “Dark” voices can tend to sing less in the “mask” and/or be further back in their vocal production. Dark voices can sometimes tend to sing underneath the pitch. If every voice is a “tile in the mosaic,” the way to get the most unified sound is to distribute the “different colored tiles” (the timbres) as evenly as possible. To put it another way, if you put all the bright voices next to each other, you are going to get a hot-spot in that area. Your goal is to let everyone sing in their most natural voice without having either overly dark or overly bright spots in the choir.
Assigning Seats Can Help Avoid Potential Problems
Once you create an environment where seating individuals is the norm, moving people around no longer draws attention to itself.
To achieve the most successful blend of choral mosaic, you will want to continue to fine-tune your seating chart as needed. This is, of course, a balancing act in and of itself. You want your singers to have predictability in where they will be situated, but you also want to establish a paradigm such that moving someone within a section doesn’t carry with it a negative connotation.
Creating a seating chart, and then moving singers around as needed, can help you avoid potential negatives. One of these is the tendency for big voices, often unknowingly, to compete within a section. Assigning seats can help distribute these bigger voices better so that they can be of help to the smaller voices, and achieve a better overall blend of sound. Another potential negative is that of “problem children.” If singers choose their own seats, they will usually sit next to those they are most friendly with, often resulting in distracting chatter. And, sometimes two personalities simply don’t mesh. If and when this happens, if it is already usual for you to move voices around as needed, then moving people for the sake of teamwork is just as valid as moving them for timbre.
How Much Time to Schedule for Assigning Seats
For my large non-auditioned choir meeting once a week, it was necessary to work quickly in order to give everyone an assigned seat. Typically, I would keep one section at a time after a rehearsal for an extra 30 minutes. This was stated in the syllabus from the beginning, and attendance was mandatory. This meant that it generally took four weeks to finalize seating. In that time, people might drop out, and new people would inevitably join.
For my smaller groups, and especially those auditioned groups where the members were interested in pursuing music as a career (e.g., an auditioned college choir with Vocal Performance and Music Education majors), seating the sections could be accomplished in less time. With these groups, it could all usually be completed within the time frame of one rehearsal with everyone present, allowing future choral conductors to watch and listen to the process.
It was helpful in all cases to issue paper copies of the seating chart to every member of the section, and when needed, to re-issue updated copies with changes. Doing so had the added benefit of helping members of a section get to know each other’s names. Moreover, issuing an updated copy of the seating chart was a tacit way for the group to know that I, as the conductor, knew who they all were and that I was paying attention to them as individuals. It is not necessary to give each person a copy of everyone else’s seating chart, but doing so can help facilitate members of a larger chorus with getting to know each other.
Readers and Non-Readers
My first step with the 140-member non-auditioned choir was to clear the room of all singers, other than those in the section I was about to work with. I would then separate these singers into “readers” and “non-readers.” This distinction was self-selecting. I would say something like, “All those who feel confident in their ability to read music, go to this side of the room. Those who feel less confident, go to that side.”
With my auditioned choirs, I generally did not ask the members to separate into “readers” and “non- readers.” If these singers were music majors, I could safely assume that they were all “readers.” And if they were not music majors, I already had an assessment of their reading skills, based on their audition. In this case, I would use this information without saying so as I seated each section.
My next step with each section would be to choose a pitch in a comfortable part of their range, and to ask everyone to sing it mezzo-forte on “Ah.” While they were singing, I would go very close to each singer, listen for a moment, and then assign her/him a number based on the general timbre I heard: “1” for a bright voice, “2” for a medium voice, and “3” for a dark voice. I made sure everyone kept singing during this entire process so that no one ended up singing a solo.
By the way, from semester to semester, I would often change what each number stood for (e.g., “1” for dark, “2” for bright, “3” for medium), so that those who sang with me for years didn’t feel that one number assignment was better or worse than any other. You can also choose to use more than just three gradations of timbre, but you get the idea.
Keep in mind that your initial assessment may change. Reasons for this include:
- People often under-sing when you are assigning them their number (1, 2 or 3), and so your first impression might be mistaken. When the conductor walks right up and puts her/his ear in front of the singer’s mouth, most singers will adjust their sound. Usually, they will sing more softly, and individual timbres are hard to hear if someone is singing sotto voce. (For example, it’s much easier to identify someone’s voice when they speak loudly than when they whisper.) Once you place the singer in a more normal environment, you may find that her/his voice is not a “2” after all, but a “1” or a “3.” You have to be ready to react to that.
- Sometimes, the same two voices will blend differently when you change which voice is on the left, and which voice is on the right. I don’t know why this is true, but I have noticed it time and time again. Even if the difference is not audible— that is, if you like their blend when they stand either way— it is worth asking the two singers which side they prefer to sing on. Try it! You will find it usually makes a difference you can hear, and even when it doesn’t, your pair of singers will almost always have a preference for having their partner stand on one side or the other.
- Voices are not always uniform across their range, with the biggest shift in timbre usually occurring at the upper passaggio. This passaggio is a spot in which most amateur singers usually struggle. Trained singers can maintain their timbre throughout their entire range. Indeed, that’s a big part of what their training entails! Conversely, the timbre of untrained singers usually changes when they go from their middle to high range. At that juncture, a “2” can often become a “1” or “3,” and since the climax of most pieces involves high and loud singing, you don’t want your carefully achieved blend to fall apart during the most dramatic part of the piece.
Locating the Passaggi
- Generally speaking, the way voice teachers determine a young singer’s range is to locate their two passaggi – the spots in their vocal apparatus where they have to make an adjustment between chest and mid-voice, and then again between middle and head-voice. Many times, an amateur singer will tell you that, for instance, he is a bass when in fact his passaggi indicate that he is a tenor. Singing high notes can be uncomfortable for many amateurs – in fact, this discomfort is usually the norm. But, notwithstanding this uneasiness (due to lack of technique), they may still have the vocal apparatus of a tenor or soprano.
The majority of upper passaggi fall on the following notes:
- 1st Soprano – F5
- 2nd Soprano – E5
- 1st Alto/Mezzo-Soprano – Eb5
- 2nd Alto/Contralto – D5
- 1st Tenor – E4 or F4
- 2nd Tenor – E4
- Baritone – Eb4
- Bass – D4
Building Each Section, Row by Row
After assigning each singer a 1, 2, or 3, based on timbre, I would then separate each group of numbers, while still keeping the “readers” and “non-readers” separate. From there, I would start to build rows, mixing and matching 1’s, 2’s and 3’s, “readers” and “non-readers.” I would not do this all at once, nor would I yet commit the decisions to paper. Instead, I would build one row at a time, testing it as I went along. I have found this overall approach the most successful.
The decisions made in this process are affected by the individual tastes of each conductor, however, some general considerations can help determine the placement of each singer:
- It is best to put strong musicians on the ends of rows since they will either be at the edge of the chorus or next to someone singing another part.
- I have found that having an odd number of singers in a row often creates a better blend than an even number.
- Putting a good number of skilled leaders in the back row helps create the situation where those singers who are less confident sight-readers will have their parts sung into their ears by the good “readers” behind them.
- Place some of your most attractive – but not biggest – voices in the front row. Ideally, the audience will not hear individual singers, but if they do, it will often be those in the front row. Plan for that.
- Make sure that there is enough room between your singers. The ideal is about 18 inches. A quick way to achieve this is to get your singers to put their hands on their hips, arms akimbo, and stand so that they are touching elbows.
Here is an example of a seating plan for an alto section that includes a high percentage of “readers” (14 of the 21 singers) and a fairly equal number of 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s:
1 = Bright, 2 = Medium, 3 = Dark
R = Reader, N = Non-reader
3R 1N 2R 2R 1N 3R
2R 3N 1R 3N 2R
1R 2N 3R 2N 1R
3R 2R 1N 2R 3R
First, notice that 4 of the 6 singers in the back row are “readers.” Since this row will be singing into the rest of the altos, these “readers” will be able to help the “non-readers” in front of them and beside them. Next, notice that I put two 2’s in the center of the back row. These 2’s would be some of my best and biggest voices, and their singing would tend to set the timbre for everyone in front of them. I also placed 2’s front and center, so that their medium, more-balanced timbre will help project a good blend of sound. Finally, I built as many rows as possible with an odd number of singers and placed “readers” on the outsides of each row.
Testing the Mosaic of Each Section
We have discussed the idea of mixing the different timbres, as well as mixing the varying levels of musicianship within your section. We have noted that a singer’s blend can change depending on her/his immediate neighbor. We have seen that your first impression of someone’s voice can change when they are not singing straight into your ear and that things also often change on the high side of the passaggio. Now that you have taken this all into account and built individual rows, test them by having the section sing something unaccompanied.
I recommend My Country ‘Tis Of Thee, a song you may have to teach your singers in advance of the time you have set aside for seating, so they can more confidently sing it when needed. Of course, other songs can also serve this purpose, but the advantage of this selection is that most people know that it should be sung robustly, without scooping or pop inflections.
This tune begins on the tonic, then jumps to the dominant at the phrase, “Land where my fathers died.” The final phrase even goes a step above the dominant. When testing the blend of each row you have assembled, asking your group to sing this song can offer a lot of insight into how the row, and ultimately, the section, will sound when your singers have to go up in pitch for some climactic moment in other repertoire. Additionally, when the key of this song is chosen correctly, the second half will ask each section to jump straight into its upper passaggio, a spot where you might hear substantial changes in color.
I recommend the following keys for My Country ‘Tis of Thee:
- For 1st Sopranos and 1st Tenors, ask them to sing in Bb major, in order to hit the upper passagio at F.
- For 2nd Sopranos and 2nd Tenors, ask them to sing in A major, in order to hit the upper passagio at E.
- For 1st Altos and Baritones, ask them to sing in Ab major, in order to hit the upper passagio at Eb.
- For 2nd Altos, Contraltos, and Basses, ask them to sing in G major, in order to hit the upper passagio at D.
- The even distribution of the various timbres, as well as more and less skilled musicians among the section, yields a section without weak spots.
- Creating a “choral mosaic” allows you to achieve the maximum number of benefits.
- Your singers feel “heard” and “known.”
- Amateur singers’ timbres usually change at the upper passaggio.
- No one seating plan can achieve every goal.
- If the repertoire calls for a different configuration, move into it during a performance.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment. It keeps things fresh for your singers, too!
Giving people assigned seats in the choir creates many positive benefits, including:
- Having your singers feel known, seen and heard. You show you care about their voice.
- Having your singers grow accustomed to their partner to coordinate dynamics and breathing.
- The opportunity to distribute the strong voices, thereby helping the weaker voices.
- The opportunity to distribute the better sight-readers among the section.
- The distribution of the various timbres evenly across the section, creating a “choral mosaic.”
- Being able to separate “problem children.”
- Eliminating, or at least mitigating, the competition among big voices in the section.
- Creating a paradigm where moving someone within the section doesn’t have a negative connotation.
This blog post was taken from a larger discussion of this topic in Chapter 6 of Ellingboe’s A Practical Guide to Choral Conducting (c) 2019 The Neil A Kjos Music Company. For more information on the author, visit http://bradleyellingboe.com