One of the most difficult things that can frustrate a choir and hinder performance is having to deal with incomplete vocal formation. An incomplete vocal formation is simply not having the right number of voices in a choral space or not having adequate vocal skill to perform a song effectively. In many cases, this incomplete formation limits the potentials of the choir, restrict repertoires and hinders true choral achievement. At other times, it poses a challenge to a balanced vocal harmony
Many weeks ago, someone once asked a question in an online music forum: “how many sopranos, altos, tenors and bass would be required in a choir comprising 35 members.” An incomplete vocal formation is one major challenge choir directors face almost regularly and need to know how to deal with it. It is very important to be deliberate about vocal formation especially during auditions. It is also why some auditions specify the range of singers needed.
Whether it’s an all-male or female singing group, the right number and mix in vocal range are very important. Even if you have a group of ten guys with the same vocal range say, tenor range; the harmonic texture will vary in a way with the right formation; regardless of the same gender. In all of the tenor formation, there should be some tenor range that can fall within alto, tenor, baritone and bass. Having ten all round baritone singers will do no song any good.
I also understand that in some context, singers join the choir indiscriminately without limitations, proper scrutiny and skillcheck; all in a bid to encourage more people to join the choir and look many. Of what use is it populating the choir with voices that may set the choir back vocally? When this happens, some range of voices will dominate in the choir.
Should choir directors go-ahead to accept such formation and perform? And if they do, what are the remedies for cases where these voice ranges are already part of the choir? There are many choir situations for instance, wherein about 40% constitute tenor singers which leave the remaining 60% amongst soprano and alto and bass.
The points I will be listing here on how choir directors can cope with incomplete vocal formation are by no means exhaustive. They are from years of experience, research and interaction with other music stakeholders.
CHOICE OF REPERTOIRES
Choose repertoires that best support your type of vocal formation or strength. There is always a song for every choir type. As much as limiting this statement sounds, bear in mind that not all songs can be performed by every choir; considering factors like number, range, musicianship, skill and genre. For now, limit rendering songs your choir has no complete range for. Some songs require certain vocal skills, range formations, numbers, etc. for vigour. Anything short of this may create problems and discouragements.
This is also one of the reasons song renditions are different when you compare the actual song with the performed score. For now, stay with songs your choir can pull till they grow and have complementary balanced vocal range.
Every harmony has a structure and an underlining effect intended. Looking at the vocal range you have, you may want to try a vocal harmonic swap. A swap enables you to place vocal ranges in the manner that balances your harmony. For instance, if you have fewer soprano singers such that the melody of a song rests on them and these few singers are not enough to pull the melody for balance, alto or tenor singers may take the place of soprano taking into account the chord structure of the song in other not to mess the harmony.
It is more like an inversion but a more permanent shift. Shifting or changing harmonic parts to suit range enables you to transfer where you have less to more. Also note, that this must be done carefully to avoid voice crossing – this may not apply to every piece taking into account the key signature and pitch. Refer to vocal harmony tutorialfor more guide on vocal swap and inversion and Introduction to choral style inversions.
RECRUIT SPECIFIC RANGE
If you find out that your choir is being dominated by a particular voice range, go hunting for more singers to fill up those vacancies. The idea that some voice range can be manipulated or made to play a certain harmonic part may be damaging to singers. For instance, due to shortage of soprano, if you ask or make alto singers sing soprano or mezzo-soprano part to make up for soprano singers, you may be causing a damage to their voices especially if alto singers are to belt beyond their range. Please note, this is different from vocal inversion which is temporal and not always the case.
GROW THE SKILL
Another alternative is to grow the skill level of your singers. Having a good harmonic blend is sometimes not in the numbers but in the skills resident. If you have very skilful singers, they can make up for certain inadequacies – at least for some songs. It is possible to have four skilful soprano singers pull a repertoire rendered by ten soprano singers. All these depend on the ability to project using dynamics and other techniques. I am sure you must have encountered singers who possess many voices in one – like they say: two sopranos in one.
I love dynamics! With dynamics sometimes, anything can be achieved. In my years of choral directing and observation, I have noted that being loud is not a function of the number of singers (though it plays an “effect” role) but the ability to inject and use dynamics effectively. When you find yourself having more tenor singers (which is usually the case with many upcoming choirs), apply dynamics – control of loudness or softness. With the ability to deliberately control the loudness of tenor, a better harmony is achieved rather than allow tenor voices outweigh or overshadow other voices.
When referring to the subject of vocal range, gender is not important. For instance, there are male singers with alto or soprano range. Similarly, there are female singers who possess tenor range. Even amongst tenor range, choir directors can split these ranges to meet or make up for missing ranges. This temporal quasi arrangement may also play an effective role in harmonic balance. There is a clear difference between harmony parts and range. An alto range does not necessarily have to sing an alto part!
One underlining problem of having a large number of singers with an imbalance in vocal formation is that it leaves uncertainty in the area of planning songs and performance; especially in situations singers are not very committed to rehearsals. Think of it this way, if out of 40 singers where soprano is about 7, alto 12, tenor 14, bass 6 and only 5 sopranos show up for rehearsals with most of the alto and tenor showing up, that leaves the rehearsal imbalanced and “unhealthy”.
Splitting the voices to achieve a balance is one way of meeting up. How can this be? If the few sopranos available are unable to pull their weight, cut down on other voices if you are unable to apply dynamics and other techniques pointed earlier.
There should be a threshold on the number of vocal formations for songs. The same way an incomplete accompaniment can have an impact on the feel of music, an incomplete voice range will affect a song too.
Living with the status quo of incomplete vocal range is a non-proactive way of dealing with the situation. Choir directors should brace up. While they try to cope with this inadequacy by applying techniques, effort should be made to change it completely.