Creating the Chemistry

It is obvious from the downbeat. The eyes of the choir light up, they sing with sincere emotion and musicality, and there is an intense synergy that connects all the singers. The conductor barely has to conduct; she simply smiles at the singers and conducts more with her eyes than her hands. The music is electric, the singers completely draw in the audience and the entire experience is overwhelming. The chemistry is apparent.

We have all experienced this in some fashion, whether it has been as a conductor, a singer, an audience member, or all three! For many, it is life changing. It is the reason we chose this career, it is the reason our singers joined the choir. We all want to experience the magic of making great music. But how does it happen? Obviously, choirs that sing with great “chemistry” don’t just magically appear on the concert stage. Something takes place within the preparation, rehearsals and performance that allow for a critical connection to take place. So how do we create this chemistry within our ensembles?

In Kennon L. Callahan’s article “The New Reality in Motivation,” he outlines five “motivational fuels” that energize and connect people.

  1. Compassion: sharing, caring, giving loving, serving
  2. Community: roots, place, belonging, family, friends
  3. Challenge: attain, accomplish, achieve
  4. Reasonability: data, logic, analysis, good sense
  5. Commitment: loyalty, duty, obligation

I believe these “motivational fuels” are the major components of creating an enduring chemistry within our choirs.


Compassion is an essential element in our interaction with students. We must show them sincere respect, care and love (as difficult as that can be at times!) When students sense compassion from you, they begin to trust and respect you. This mutual respect fosters an environment that nurtures great rehearsals and even greater performances. When students feel as though they can trust you, they allow themselves to open their hearts and mind to the music. In his book The Perfect Rehearsal, Timothy Seelig states:

They trust you to teach them, direct them, protect them and lead them in doing something they could never do on their own. They trust that you will respect them and the gift of their time and talent and use it wisely. They trust that you will not embarrass, humiliate or abuse them when they open themselves up to you.

If our students don’t feel as though they are cared for and respected, they will never allow themselves to be open to the music. They will connect at a very superficial level and just “sing the notes.” The music will be lifeless. If we model this openness in our rehearsals, it will be reflected in the singers. I know many great conductors who share personal stories and experiences with their choirs. When this happens, the singers begin to see themselves in the conductor. The students think, “I’ve felt that way! That same thing happened to me!” and they begin to feel connected to the conductor and to the music. They gain a greater understanding of the music and they develop a personal connection to it’s meaning. When conductors give of themselves and the student’s reciprocate, a mutual respect, trust and compassion develops and manifests itself into the music, creating incredible musical experiences.


How many of us refer to our choirs as a musical family? Most of us! The singers look to and interact with each other as siblings in a family, and we are the parent. When our singers sense this relationship, they are more likely to give of their time and energy. They will feel as though they are an integral part of the ensemble and without them, the choir would be incomplete. Great conductors foster this attitude into their program and the students respond accordingly. The students come to rehearsals at 6:30 am to get ready for the madrigal dinner. They stay until 11:00 pm after the concert to take down the risers and come to the dress rehearsal the Saturday morning after prom. If the students feel a sense of belonging, they will do anything for the music and for the program. It is a place where they feel deeply rooted with their friends, their mentors and the music. Sadly, there are many students for which choir is the only place they receive this “fuel.” The choir family keeps them going. It changes their life.


“The singers have seen a mountaintop, and from there, they see the next one to climb and go forth renewed and empowered by the experience.”

I have a dear friend who frequently tells his choir “It’s more fun to be good!” How true! Our students WANT to work hard (even if some don’t admit it!) They want to be pushed beyond their limit. They want to achieve something they thought they never could. They want you to be honest with them. If they sing a passage sub-par and you tell them “great work”, they will not trust you. They want you to have high expectations and follow through with the consequences if they are not upholding them. Successfully accomplishing a challenge is very rewarding and empowering to the singers and the conductor! Everyone has more fun when they know they have individually and collectively given 100% to accomplish the requisite task. The singers have seen a mountaintop, and from there, they see the next one to climb and go forth renewed and empowered by the experience. The attitude becomes contagious. They press each other to work even harder, dedicate themselves even more, and to open up their minds and hearts to music they never thought they could perform. All of a sudden, attendance and classroom management isn’t a problem. Their learning and music making jumps to the next level. Challenge them. It IS more fun to be good!


Reasonability needs to guide our decisions in all aspects of teaching. It keeps our “challenges” attainable. We want and need to have high standards for our choirs but we also need to make sure we have provided students with the tools they need to accomplish them. We have all over programmed for our choirs and have suffered the consequences. Be logical and systematic with your curriculum. Know what your students are capable of and what needs to be covered next to further their musical education. Be well prepared for each rehearsal. We quickly become at ease with “winging it” in rehearsals but we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to our students. Plan ahead, use good sense and the challenges we give to our students will be successfully achieved.


We ask our students to give 110% everyday, so we must do the same. Our students must know that we are committed to them and their education. If we are not committed to the ensemble and their musical journey, the students will never be fully committed. We must also be fully committed to the music, including the preparation of it. If the choir witnesses the conductor coming to rehearsals well prepared, enjoying the music and passionate about teaching it, the singers will enjoy it and be passionate too. In many ways, the choir is simply a reflection of the conductor. Rodney Eichenberger coined the phrase, “What THEY see is what YOU get!” If we instill loyalty and commitment within our students, they will begin to take ownership of the whole experience and all of the other “motivational fuels” will become even stronger. You can tell when an entire choir has committed to the learning process. It is evident in how they carry themselves in the classroom and out. They have a sense of confidence, pride, and self-confidence. They show respect and compassion toward others. Their performances are filled with a magical chemistry that overwhelms the performers and the audience. They have committed to excellence.

We have chosen a wonderful career that holds great responsibility. There are few other jobs that impact people the way music education does. Singing in a good choir is a tremendously formative experience and we have the good fortune of being the tour guide. If we are compassionate, we will build community among the singers. This community will want to be challenged as long as they trust we are being reasonable about our expectations and are committed to the entire experience. When we carefully measure and balance out these elements, we create an intense chemistry within our choirs and all are changed for the better.

Dr. Lee Nelson,
Director of Choral Activities, Wartburg College
Member, NAfME Choral Education Council,
Used by permission of the author, having previously appeared in Melisma, the North Central publication of American Choral Directors Association.
Wartburg College
100 Wartburg Blvd
Waverly, IA 50677

Posted by Jeff Bauman, Choral Education Council
Director of Choral and Vocal Activities, Young Harris College