The Challenge of Balance in Choirs

Unequal balance of choral parts is probably the most common challenge conductors face. How does a conductor handle a choir comprised of 30 girls and four boys? What literature makes a group like that sound impressive so that performers and audience have a satisfying experience? What music would create a successful contest presentation?

“…the nature of the changing male voice creates special challenges for the teacher.”

Choir directors should take some comfort in knowing that this problem has been around forever. Some of the greatest people in our choral tradition faced such problems, and it is instructional to see how they handled it with the resources they had available. Below are a few ideas that directors might find useful.

First and foremost, it is imperative that the choir director look for voice-building exercises and activities that will develop the potential of each singer in a most healthy manner. Eventually, good voice-building exercises can solve many treble balance issues because females can often sing either soprano or alto parts that are not extreme in range. In fact, some choir directors routinely reassign their female singers to alto/soprano parts during the course of a semester.

While voice-building exercises are equally important for boys, the nature of the changing male voice creates special challenges for the teacher. The most important goal is to have each student always sing an appropriate line, one in which he feels he is contributing to the sound of the ensemble. In the case of middle-school boys, it might be soprano, alto, tenor, or bass (which is the reason some of the successful middle-school boy choirs sing SATB literature). Of course, the teacher must be vigilant and he or she will likely need to reassign voice parts as the young men mature. Three-part music (SAB, SAT, or SAC) may not automatically solve the problem of too few males because not all of the boys (when grouped together) easily sing bass, tenor, or cambiata parts. In particular, forcing all boys to sing a bass part in an attempt to fix a balance issue (or to try to make them all feel manly) can be counterproductive for boys singing out of range.

The conductor can consider two-part music in which the tenors can double sopranos and basses can double altos (in their own octaves), perhaps allowing the men to switch off with the women on occasion. Reworking SSA music is tricky, but not impossible. In this case, the best solution probably allows the boys to sing the soprano part down an octave. Doubling the alto part down an octave is rarely effective because the resulting voicing is often ungainly.

Conductors should consider secular music from the Renaissance (e.g.,“El Grillo” by Josquin des Prez or “Weep o mine eyes” by John Bennet) in which one or more instruments can (with historical authenticity) support or replace missing voice parts. When adding instruments to choral performances, conductors should keep in mind the sound the composer would have envisioned. Obviously, pianos and saxophones weren’t part of the Renaissance. However, trombones and string instruments were, and they would be appropriate for modern performance. Other instruments (e.g., flute, clarinet) can be used to good effect when handled judiciously.

Of course, instruments are useful for music from other eras, too. Mozart routinely augmented the alto, tenor, and bass choral parts with trombones. Bach often used a cornetto (a treble wind instrument) to reinforce the soprano line in the chorales of his cantatas.

There is no substitute for maintaining a constant search for good literature, and each director must accept the fact that this is a challenge to be faced throughout one’s career. So, it is most important to enjoy the singers of any voice part who join our groups. We get to sing music we choose with people we love. And we get paid to do it.

Dr. Anna Hamre, Director of Choral Activities, California State University, Fresno

Reprinted with permission of CMEA Magazine, the official publication of the California Association for Music Education.

Posted by Jeffrey Bauman, Young Harris College
Council for Choral Education.