Writing for “The Chorus”: Text, Dynamics, and Other Occupational Hazards
In order to guide us all toward a more perfect harmony in writing for the chorus, and because writing for the chorus is often neglected in the training of composers at academic institutions, I have put together a compilation of some of the most prevalent pitfalls that I have seen over and over again—even by some of today’s most reputable composers.
As a composer-conductor who works primarily with new choral music, I encounter over 500 freshly minted new works for chorus each year. Sometimes, I am considering newly published works for potential programming; other times, I evaluate new manuscripts as part of a jury in a composition competition. At still other times, composers will send me scores via email and ask that I consider programming them.
Some of these scores are beautifully crafted, expertly notated, and idiomatically written. More usually, however, the scores will often make exceedingly unwarranted demands on the singers or include some rather basic errors.
In order to guide us all toward a more perfect harmony in writing for the chorus, and because writing for the chorus is often neglected in the training of composers at academic institutions, I am including below some of the most prevalent pitfalls that I have seen over and over again—even by some of today’s most reputable composers.
Point #1: “The Chorus” contains multitudes.
According to Chorus America’s 2009 Chorus Impact Study:
[A]n estimated 42.6 million Americans regularly sing in choruses today. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.
You can probably surmise that not all of the 42.6 million Americans who sing in choruses are paid professional musicians. This leads us to our first consideration: for whom am I writing?
Unlike in an orchestra, where you can probably expect a section of violins to sound a certain way, a section of sopranos can be any one of a vast range of possibilities—10 trained opera singers, 16 Anglican boy trebles, 50 non-professional community singers over the age of 55, etc.—and it is quite critical that you have some awareness of which choral instrument you are envisioning before writing. As you might imagine, the fortissimo of an opera chorus will likely be very different than the fortissimo of a high school chamber choir.
Whether writing a new commission for a youth chorus or a professional chamber choir, recognize that your role in writing for the chorus is closer to what in fashion is known as “bespoke.” You are tailor-making a new work for a specific group of individuals, and those individuals may come from a wide array of professional or non-professional backgrounds.
The same is true in publishing: you probably wouldn’t submit a sacred anthem for mixed chorus and organ to a publisher that offers its catalogue predominantly to a secular, educational market.
So: before you do anything else, define “the chorus” for your situation or project. It will anticipate and surmount a whole host of problems before they even have a chance of existing.
Point #2: “The Chorus” is not “The Orchestra.”
Where many composers lack academic training in writing for the chorus, nearly all composers are expected to learn how to compose for the orchestra and its various instruments. Composers are taught the technical considerations of the string family—harmonics, bowing techniques, which strings are open, etc.—and about optimal voicings when combining the winds and brass into harmonic sonorities.
Composers also learn what is inadvisable in writing for the orchestra: namely, which pitches do not exist on certain instruments, the dynamic tendencies of certain instruments, why you can usually only write seven pitches for the harp, etc.
Here, then, are some regular rules for “The Chorus,” especially as they differ from “The Orchestra.”
Most voices are naturally quieter in the lower register and naturally louder in the higher register. (Very few people naturally “scream” low in their voice; young babies, when they want your attention, will cry high and loud in their range.)
For this reason, it is very difficult to adequately balance a choral sonority when the sopranos are high (F5-A5) and the basses are low (F2, etc.), as the basses will naturally be softer than the sopranos. This is unlike an orchestra, where a dramatic crescendo may often be built with the low instruments descending (cellos, tuba, bassoons) and the high instruments ascending (violins, clarinets, trumpets, etc.).
Unlike an orchestra, the most effective choral crescendos occur when ALL vocal parts move to the upper part of their vocal range.
It is easier for a section of strings to sustain a sonority than it is for a chorus of singers. This may seem self-evident, but singers need to breathe to produce their sound, where string players need to breathe to stay alive, yes, but not to create sound with their bow.
When a chorus is clear on how, when, and where to breathe in music, the resulting performance is always more compelling and artful.
Of course, a chorus can stagger their breathing—where some voices in the section continue singing while others breathe, and then they switch off—but there are limitations to this technique, too. It is easier to stagger one’s breathing without a noticeable effect during passages that have quieter dynamics and lower ranges. It is much more difficult to do so without noticing when louder dynamics and higher ranges are in play.
If you want to sustain a chord over a long period of time, consider planning the breaths and releases into the over-arching sonority and texture. Not only will it be more successful in performance, it will also probably be more interesting to the listener, too.
There is an easy solution for this: when you are writing choral music, sing every part as if you were performing it. Is it clear where the breaths should be placed? Are you having trouble sustaining a particularly long line? When you begin to put yourself in the place of the singer, your choral writing will improve.
3. Range & Tessitura
Singing high notes is difficult. Singing high notes over a long stretch of time is especially difficult and especially fatiguing, just as it would be if a composer were to demand the same of a brass player. Singing high notes non-vibrato, at a very quiet dynamic is exceedingly difficult. Asking a singer to do this for pages on end is simply cruel.
One of the most common mistakes I see in choral writing is a disregard for the tessitura of the singers. Tessitura—according to Wikipedia (I know)—is “the most aesthetically acceptable and comfortable vocal range.” It’s not just an issue in the higher registers either. It is fatiguing for singers to be in any narrow range for a long period of time.
In composition, it is best to consider questions like, “How long has the section been singing in this range?” If you find that the tenors are only singing between D4 and G4 for six pages in a row, you should probably consider re-voicing their part. They will grow tired, their intonation will suffer, and they probably won’t enjoy singing your piece.
So, vary the range and tessitura of your vocal parts, especially for longer and more extended works.
Point #3: “The Chorus” does not have valves, keys, or slides.
From whence cometh the pitch?
While some highly trained choruses can perform any selection of pitches put in front of them, even the very best professional radio choirs in Europe often have to use tuning forks to find pitches in extremely complex music. It is to your benefit as a composer to make this job easier for the singers by skillfully preparing your score to be more successfully executed.
To be clear: I am not advocating for a “dumbing down” of your music. I am saying that we should be aware that a singer cannot just push down a key to find an F#. It is helpful to sometimes find other ways of forecasting the pitch prior to singing.
This may be apparent in the motives played by other instruments before a choral entrance, in the case of choral-instrumental music. In a cappella music, it might be a skillfully placed unison statement for the chorus before a treacherous 11-pitch sonority. Be resourceful but also kind.
A good rule of thumb: Can you, as the composer, pitch every note in your score accurately? If the answer to that is not “yes,” then perhaps consider a rewrite.
Point #4: “The Chorus” does have consonants, vowels, and other assorted phonemes.
Ah, text! Nothing differentiates a chorus from an orchestra more clearly than the use of words and all that they entail.
If you are not used to writing texted music, then some basic disclaimers are worth mentioning:
- The vowel sound of any syllable is what occurs “on the beat” or “on the note.” So, if you write the word “Strength” on a downbeat, the “Str” will all have to occur before the notated pitch, and the vowel will occur on the beat.
- Some consonants can be lengthened (m, n, f, v, s, z, sh, zh, etc.) and some cannot (t, d, k, g, p, b, etc.).
- Chorus releases after notes usually occur on the rests in the music: so when a quarter note on the word “great” is followed by a quarter rest, the “t” sound will occur on the quarter rest following the word. (You do not have to notate this as the composer; the chorus will do this naturally.)
Further: It is your responsibility as the composer to know not only the meaning of the text you are setting, but even and especially the inherent stresses of the language. Nothing shows a novice choral composer more obviously than when the composer writes a motive for a text that inadvertently stresses the inappropriate syllable. Check your dictionary, especially when writing in a less comfortable language, to ensure that you are stressing each word appropriately in your setting.
One of the most common problems I encounter is when a composer hears the composite text of a part in their head, but does not think carefully about what each of the singers have to perform.
In instances like this, the conductor has to reconfigure the arrangement of syllables to make the composer’s intention clear.
Finally, text is expressive. The chorus can communicate not just the text, but also the meaning behind the words. Make sure you, as the composer, have given some thought to how you would express the text—poetically, rhetorically, etc.
A good practice that works for many composers I know: memorize your text and speak through it regularly, until its natural rhythms, inflections, and lines begin to emerge. Do this before you set any of the words to notated music.
Point #5: “The Chorus” is made of people.
At the end of the day, a chorus is a collection of people. These people come into the rehearsal room with an assortment of daily experiences: one of the baritones may have just won an award, while one of the altos may have lost a parent. They both enter that room to have a communal singing experience that will connect them to others and give voice to where they are on that day.
Millions of Americans sing in choruses because making music is part of being human. To truly be successful as a composer of choral music, we have to recognize that all choral music is in some ways communal music. And all choral music gives voice—literal voice, with text—to our human experience.
So let’s be empathetic composers. Let’s put ourselves in the singers’ shoes. And let’s make the study of choral composition and its rudiments as usual in the academy as the study of string harmonics.