Surviving Concerts - A Choral Singers' Guide Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Surviving Concerts - A Choral Singers' Guide

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The cast of the sitcom 'Are You Being Served?' preparing for a concert.

As any musician will tell you, performances can be stressful. In fact, they are stressful. It is impossible ever to be certain that they will go well or of the reaction of the audience, and the adrenaline of the performance itself creates emotional repercussions for months afterwards. This entry aims to reduce that stress by giving some advice regarding preparation, performance and recovery1. As advice, of course, you are free to take it or leave it as you choose. There are no 'secrets of success' in this game.


  1. You are a singer or other musician2
  2. You are giving a performance within the next six months or so
  3. You want it to go well
  4. ...actually, that's it


If you're an experienced musician, you may want to skip this part.

  • Melody - the tune. The sopranos (high female voices, or unbroken boys voices) will usually take, or sing, the melody.

  • Harmony - rather like a second tune, except it rarely follows the same pattern. The pitch is usually lower than the melody. If it is higher, it is called a 'descant'. The altos (low female voices), tenors (higher adult male voices) and basses (lower adult male voices) all sing harmonies. Some settings include a 'second soprano' part. This is a harmony typically sung by sopranos, but only slightly lower than the melody, and may in places be higher.

  • Musical director - the person in charge of what you sing and how you sing it. Just like a film director, in fact, only with music.

  • Score - the notes and lyrics of a song written out in musical notation.

  • Move - change notes.

  • Chord - a collection of notes that blend to produce a harmonious whole.

  • Dissonance - a collection, or more usually a pair, of notes that do not blend in quite the same way. Dissonances sound out of tune or jarring, and are used by composers to lend interest to a piece or to emphasise unpleasant emotion in the lyrics.

  • Phrase - a small section of tune. 'In the bleak midwinter' is a phrase, 'In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan' is two phrases, although grammatically speaking it isn't.

  • Conductor - the person who stands facing the choir and directs you. They beat the time using either a baton or their hands, give you your cues (bring you in) and indicate when to finish notes (bring you off). They also indicate dynamics.

  • Set - a group of songs during a concert. Usually made up of three or four pieces, often with a common theme.

  • Staging - the way the stage is set up or, alternatively, the blocks you stand on.

Basic Technique

To sing well you will need to pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in from your belly first. Then, as you exhale, concentrate on producing a steady, even flow of air. There are many exercises to improve your breathing technique. A simple one is to place a hand flat on your stomach. As you breathe in, your stomach should expand and your shoulders should hardly move at all. This is the same as the way you instinctively breathe when you lie flat on your back. A second exercise is called 'ten-twenty-ten'. Take a deep breath. Then give ten short sharp hisses, followed by one sustained hiss for a count of twenty, and finally another ten short hisses, all in the same breath. You may have to work your way up to that one!

Before a rehearsal or concert you need to warm up. Just as you will injure your limbs if you play sport without warming up, so you will damage your voice if you sing without warming up. Scales, nonsense sounds and words, and physical exercise are all helpful. Try singing scales to nonsense words. This focuses your attention on the sound you are making as well as the note and improves your enunciation. Some phrases are particularly helpful - try 'bogapillar', 'ralerina', 'giggly goggles', 'fluffy floppy puppy' (that one's difficult even to say) and that golden oldie, 'the tip of the tongue and the teeth and the lips'.

Pre-concert Slog

Before you do a concert you must know the music inside out and upside down. You need to be able to sing the songs backwards and not get confused. Burn the music into your brain.

If you are singing in harmony, then obviously you must memorise your own part, but it is also very helpful to know what the other parts are doing3. For instance, if you sing second soprano, you need to know roughly what the melody is and what the alto's harmony is. Without this knowledge, you are likely to get confused when the other parts move between notes. Confusion is not good. It sounds messy and makes you forget your words.

This work of memorising and practising can admittedly be boring, although with a halfway decent musical director it should be bearable, and with a good one it can be great fun. Either way, it is vital. Until you can sing your pieces competently, you can't concentrate on polishing, and your concert will not be all it could and should be.


This is a 'sorting out' process. Clarifying difficult timings, perfecting chords and dissonances, tidying up beginnings and endings of phrases4, etc. All the things that make a piece, and therefore the choir, sound good.

This is also the time to 'colour' a piece by changing the dynamics, or how loud and soft it is in different places. It's a twofold problem - firstly you must know roughly how loudly to sing at any given point, and secondly you must follow the directions of the conductor. A flat hand held palm up moving upwards means you should sing louder, while a hand held palm down moving downwards tells you to sing more quietly. Varied dynamics make a piece more interesting and emphasise the words and emotions.

This process is, of course, easier with a good conductor and experienced singers, but even rank amateurs can manage to start on time and finish together.

Pre-concert Tension

It takes different forms in different people. Some get acute stage fright and refuse to go on, while others just get excited. The latter reaction becomes more likely with experience, and also with confidence in your ability. The harder you've worked, the calmer you're likely to feel.

Last-minute Preparation

This is the time to put on your uniform, brush your hair, clean your teeth and polish your shoes. If you have music to hold, make sure it's all there and put it in the right order. This is also the time to warm up, and the conductor will often give some sort of pep talk.

It's probably a bad idea to eat a large meal prior to the concert, because a full stomach will reduce your lung capacity, but it's equally bad to faint from hunger. Water is another balancing act - you don't want to be thirsty, but neither do you want a full bladder. You will also feel more confident if you can be sure that your voice will work properly, so toward this end don't eat or drink any dairy products for a couple of hours before the performance. Milk gives you phlegm. You may find that a small amount of alcohol will relax you before a concert. More than a little, however, and you won't sing so well because you start losing control over your muscles, including your vocal chords.

The Concert

There are two approaches to audience interaction. One says you don't do it. The other says you make eye contact to engage the audience and make them feel welcome. Your musical director will tell you which school they subscribe to.

Whichever approach you take, you need to pay attention to the conductor. This is where all that hard work pays off - you know the pieces so well you can devote your attention to the difficult and complex business of being perfect. And you can't do that without watching the conductor all the way through. If you have words or the score during the concert, hold it high enough that you don't need to move your head to look between it and the conductor.

Never look bored. Never, ever, even if you are. Emotion is infectious, and you don't want the audience to be bored.

If you get the chance to sit down, don't talk. Watch the soloist or speaker. It's polite and it looks good.


This will very probably be a repeat of the pre-concert tension, but it's also a good opportunity to refresh your memory about the difficult points in the second half.

Second Half

Like the first half, concentrate on what you're doing. When you get to the applause, try not to sigh with relief. It looks sloppy. Savour the applause, you've earned it - but keep up that nice, ordered, professional appearance until you've left the view and hearing of the audience.

Post-concert High

The applause echoes in your ears as you walk, head held high, past your adoring public at the end of a flawless performance. It's a rush. All the adrenaline in your system is suddenly redundant and the joy and triumph threaten to overwhelm you.

Enjoy it. Just don't get conceited about it.

Post-concert Depression

The event you've worked towards and worried about for months is over, and the next concert seems a long way off. Life doesn't seem nearly as fun without a massive dose of adrenaline to look forward to.

Alleviation of this problem really does rest in the hands of the conductor or musical director. Their job is to get you all focusing on the next performance.

The first rehearsal after the concert could be spent, at least in part, tearing the concert to shreds. With hindsight, perhaps the third set was in the wrong order. Perhaps the staging was poorly used, or you were late coming in on the third verse of 'Heavenly Aeroplane'. All these problems need to be identified now, so that they can be sorted out for the next performance. Alternatively, the musical director may prefer to work out specific exercises to improve the faults of the concert without explicitly sharing them with the choir.

If you've an easygoing choir boss, suggest some pieces for next time. If you are the choir boss, listen to your underlings. Songs always sound better when the singers enjoy them.

Basically, concerts are for fun. If following the advice in this entry makes your concerts more fun, then follow it. If it doesn't, then ignore it and do things your way. If you've been inspired to start your musical career, send us a ticket.

1There doesn't seem to be a word for 'recovery' beginning with 'p'. Shame.2This is written from the point of view of a choral singer. It may or may not be relevant for actors.3You can usually pick this up in rehearsals just by paying attention to what people are singing. If you have the score, even better, but not everyone is so lucky.4This matters. A phrase that tails off into a drawn out series of hisses as people finish a word does not sound good.

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