Keys to Successful Choir Concerts

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Choral Music

With the holiday season here, a myriad of choral music performances are scheduled in concert halls, places of worship, shopping malls, schools, etc. Whether large or small, professional or amateur, choir concerts create a favorite seasonal soundtrack. What factors make these concerts successful?

Hearing is Paramount. “The choir’s ability to hear itself is crucial to music-making,” says Dr. René Clausen, Conductor of the Concordia College Choir in Moorhead, Minn. “Risers and an acoustical shell both help shape the acoustical space around a choir, affecting the group’s ability to hear itself. If they can’t hear, the choir suffers on every level — intonation, balance, timing, confidence — all the aspects of ensemble that coalesce to create a beautiful sound.”

The typical auditorium, with a proscenium arch and curtain separating the stage and audience area, poses acoustic challenges for a choral performance. The fly loft space over the stage absorbs much of a group’s sound.

In any performance environment, the lack of reflective surfaces – such as acoustical shells or overhead panels – will make it difficult for musicians to hear each other. In addition to losing the sense of ensemble, the undirected sound energy may be dissipated before reaching the audience.

Home Comforts. When a choir travels away from its “home” environment, a portable acoustical shell can provide important benefits, according to Dr. Anton Armstrong, Director of the St. Olaf Choir, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. “Even when we perform in a superior concert hall – and not many of these exist – it takes some time for the group to feel comfortable,” comments Armstrong. “A portable shell provides a degree of acoustical security for the choir.”

Recording Expert. Al Giles has recorded a wide range of choral music performances for more than 30 years, including tours with renowned college choirs. He says the floor surface in front of the choir is a key acoustical consideration, because the initial sound waves skip off the floor toward the audience. Even a thin layer of carpet can inhibit sound reflection. Solutions include black-painted plywood or clear stiff plastic (like used for stair runners) laid on the floor between the choir and audience.

Optimal Arrangement. Along with an acoustical shell and adequate reflection, a tiered arrangement of vocalists is also essential for optimal sound projection. If performers are all on one level, a portion of the group’s sound will be directed at the back of their fellow performers.

Even insecure singers usually find their singing improves with a larger window of space around them; Giles recommends an 18-inch buffer. “They hear their own sound in better balance with other voices,” he explains.

The goal of the risers and shell is helping each singer hear his/her own voice naturally. It’s very important that the shell not be crowded up against singers.

“The basses particularly need to hear their own reflected sound off the shell behind them,” Giles observes. The low pedal tones from the basses have wavelengths of approximately 16 feet; he recommends this measurement be factored into determining the proper spacing. While 16 feet is ideal, it’s often not feasible. Eight feet, or half a wavelength, is a compromise. In tight situations, the minimum measurement he recommends is four feet. Another solution is moving altos or tenors to the back, bringing basses as far forward as possible.

(Inspired by Choral Director article, 2004.)

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