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Arranging singers in rehearsals and performances
by Harold Rosenbaum for Vocal Area Network
Posted December 22, 2007

Harold RosenbaumThe most ideal arrangement of singers, in both rehearsals and performances, is to have curved rows. This would best allow those on the ends to sing somewhat towards each other, and to hear those on the other side of the group a bit easier. Hearing each other during rehearsals and performances is essential. It creates a more interactive choir, which produces better intonation, and more uniform diction, phrasing and dynamics, among other things. If your rehearsal space does not allow for any curvature in the seating arrangement, try to find another location. If you are stuck with fixed rows or chairs, try to set up folding chairs in the aisles or on the sides, so that some curvature results. If there are no extra chairs, have the singers use more rows than they normally would, thus compressing the choir into a more centralized block. The sound will be more compact, and they will more easily hear each other.

How to arrange the sections in rehearsals and concerts

If at all possible, the arrangement of singers should be the same for rehearsals and performance. With a chamber choir, it is suggested that the women be in front of the men, primarily because of height differences. Even if some of the women are taller than some of the men, the men can place themselves in between the heads of women. Of course, using risers will always help. Elevating the singers helps to project the sound better. The use of choral shells, placed in back of the singers, can make a huge difference, especially when the hall's acoustics do not favor voices, and when the choir is performing with an orchestra or other ensemble.

For choirs rehearsing and performing in two rows, here is how I would place the singers. Beginning in the back row and moving clockwise: B2, B1, T2, T1, A2, A1, S2, S1. This arrangement makes it possible for singers in one section to join those in other sections, when the need arises. For example, an alto can be added to the 1st tenor section when the tenors divide and their ranks are thinned. Or when there is soprano division, to achieve a better balance, you might decide to add an alto or two to the soprano section, and a tenor or two to the alto section. For larger choirs it is standard to have, from left to right, and in as many rows as needed: sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. However, the conductor might have his own preference.

To perform in sections or in mixed formation?

Once every few years a singer asks me whether I might consider singing in mixed formation for rehearsals and performances, i.e., no two singers from the same section standing together. The claim is that there would be better blend, and that it would be more fun. However, with mixed formation, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, even though the audience (at least those sitting towards the front) will hear a more blended, homogeneous sound because the ensemble will consist of units of SATB voices. Only an ensemble in which every member is fully secure with the music should attempt this arrangement. Those singers who are at all dependent on others in their section will not do as well in mixed formation. In addition, the listener will not easily perceive individual lines emerging and interacting with each other as the composer conceived them, especially in polyphonic music. Most importantly, standing in mixed formation prevents spontaneity in performance, since the conductor would be less inclined to attempt ideas which have not been worked out in rehearsal. Furthermore, he cannot impart subtle gestures, for example, asking the sopranos to crescendo while at the same time asking the basses to decrescendo, or cueing the altos with a certain emotion, then immediately focusing on the tenors to give another conducting signal. When in mixed formation, spontaneity is stifled, since communication with each section is impossible.

Antiphonal singing

Works written for double choir eg., Bach's motet: Der Geist Hilft Unsrer Schwachheit Auf, motets by Heinrich Schtz, and Frank Martin's Mass for double choir, require careful thought regarding the placement of singers. The following should be considered when making your decision.

a) Acoustics: When acoustics in the concert hall or church are poor, and the singers are having a difficult time hearing each other even when in single chorus formation, the choirs should be as close together as possible. In this case, two or three rows in an upside down v shape (^) might work best. Even when acoustics are good, care must be taken not to separate the choirs so much that hearing becomes difficult.

b) Abilities: Choirs generally having trouble maintaining pitch should be placed in that ^ formation mentioned above, with no separation between choirs, regardless of how fine the acoustics are.

In performance - number of rows

For a choir consisting of 24 or fewer singers, two rows are best. For larger choirs the following principle applies. The further the singers on both ends are from each other, the more difficult it is to have real interaction. Therefore 5 rows are better than 4, 6 better than 5, and 4 better than 2. I once saw a performance in Carnegie Hall where no member of the 40-voice choir was within 8 feet of any other. This formation may look interesting and striking, but it places each singer at a severe disadvantage. Here raggedness, tentativeness, and less blend are more likely to occur. Also, less spontaneity will happen, since subtle signals given to sections during performances become more difficult to convey and sustain.

Harold Rosenbaum is Artistic Director and Conductor: Sound Of The Baltics Choral Cruise, The New York Virtuoso Singers, The Canticum Novum Singers; Choral Consultant to Hal Leonard Corporation and G. Schirmer, Inc. ("Harold Rosenbaum Choral Series"); Director of Choirs and Associate Professor at University at Buffalo/SUNY; Music Director: The Foundation for Universal Sacred Music; Music Director: St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Katonah, NY.

Content Contact: Harold Rosenbaum.
Revision Date: December 22, 2007.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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