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a choir is only as good as its weakest member -- what if that's you?

I'm a relatively new member of an (adult, auditioned) choir, and I'm pretty sure I don't deserve to be. I sang in choir in high school and college, but rarely the advanced choirs, and I took voice lessons but I was never the strongest singer or a candidate for a major. Once I graduated I stopped singing entirely until the audition, which was much later, and completely spontaneous on my part, kind of an "early midlife crisis" thing. Obviously I passed the audition, but I was a midseason replacement and, realistically speaking, it's possible they were just desperate for someone, anyone, who could fill the part. Almost everyone here is much better than me. Many of them are professional vocalists or teachers. They all seem to have known each other for years, and every other new member seems to have assimilated great, socially and vocally, except for me.
 
I know some choirs have their members do self-assessments, and mine would be pretty scathing: I was never great at sight reading and almost a decade of never having to do it has not improved my skill, and it awes me how the rest of the choir can just pick up a piece of music and sing it near-perfectly. My voice is loud and historically I have had problems blending. My breath control is awful and I always run out of air well before the marked breaths, almost without fail. I'm not great at emoting or phrasing. I do not have the years or sometimes decades/lifetime of classical music experience the majority of the choir does, and when they talk about repertoire or advanced technique I rarely know what they're talking about. I've struggled all my life with being disorganized, which manifests here as forgetting to bring my music or making stupid and usually audible mistakes with notes/rhythms, sometimes during the concert, which is awful. I live with several roommates so outside practice is rarely practical, and I'm not in a place financially where I can afford voice lessons again. A decade of not having to worry about vocal health or lifestyle is starting to take its toll, and frequently at the end of rehearsals or concerts my voice is hoarse, my throat hurts and sometimes I completely lose my voice. (My older sister had vocal nodules that effectively ended her singing career, so this one worries me especially.)
 
In short, I feel like I'm close to the nightmare-scenario choir member, and I hate it. All of this said, I haven't received any individual negative feedback or criticism, either privately or during rehearsal, but I also don't know my director well enough to know if that means anything. Some people just prefer to leave it all until the "yearly performance review" so to speak, and I've read enough threads here about directors not knowing what to do with "that one person." Part of me thinks I'm stressing myself out way too much over what is, in the end, a volunteer activity I'm supposed to be doing because it's enjoyable. But I wake up every morning waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the email to arrive letting me know I can't continue.
 
The question part of this question: if you were a choir director (or if you ARE a choir director), what would you want this person to do? It's totally okay if the answer is "quit for your own sake and everyone else's."
on December 20, 2015 3:53am
Hi Sara:
 
I'm glad- as I'm sure your director and your choir members are glad- that you are singing with your choir. But can you do me a favor? If you know anyone else who has sung in high school or college choir before, who values singing enough to take an occaisional voice lesson, and who knows that their choir doesn't begin and end with them, please send them my way or to some other church/school/community choir director. You are our lifeblood. You are why we go to work. You let us have a good time waving our arms around making the music we love that we hope someone else will also love.
 
Yeah, you're probably that "one person." If you feel the need to do some penance for that, I know what it should be: Bring a dozen more of you to your choir's next open rehearsal. Or better yet, enjoy what you're doing and know that the people sitting next to you and the people you chat with at break time and- yes- your choir director are really glad you're there.
 
Happy singing!
 
Tom Seniow
Applauded by an audience of 9
on December 20, 2015 5:03am
Dear Sara,  
 
The fact that you took the time to find this forum and read some previous posts says a lot about you and how much you care.  Here's a little secret... everyone misses notes and rhythms, stupidly, audibly, and in concert.  Because you are still new to your group, and concentrating hard to learn new music, you are accutely aware of your own mistakes, and less likely to notice those of others.  But trust me, they are making them too!  
 
If you passed the audition, it's because your group needed you.  You may fill a particular vocal range that they needed.  Or have a particular tone quality that they liked (even if you feel like you don't blend).  Though you are worried about your sound and sight reading experience, it's really hard to fluke your way past an audition.  You passed for a reason and the people auditioning you knew what you sound like when they offered you a place in the group.  Which means you shouldn't worry too much.  They knew you hadn't been singing in a while, and they decided they wanted you anyway.  They aren't going to be expecting you to be perfect right away.  Having been on the other side of the audition table, sometimes a director takes a singer who they expect to watch grow.  That's just fine.  Trust the people who decided you are what they need.  
 
As for having roommates and finding time to practice, I know EXACTLY what you mean.  Ask your director or section leader if they have any resources to help you practice without making a lot of noise.  Other people in the group may have already founds some resources that will help you.  People without roommates generally have napping kids to worry about, or spouses who are trying to study for accounting exams, etc.  It's a common problem!  A few common strategies:  find a recording of the piece you want to practice and play it through your head phones while you check email or do the dishes.  Even really obscure music is often available on youtube these days.  Just getting the general feel for the piece will help you use your time in rehearsal more productively.  Find recordings of just your part of a piece.  There are websites devoted to this for major choral works:  cyberbass.org and choralia.net.  For shorter pieces, a lot of choir directors take the time to make part learning videos for their choirs and post them on youtube.  You'll be surprised what's out there.  Do you have a piano?  It's often less intrusive to practice by quietly plunking out notes than by singing them.  Do you have a keyboard?  They usually have a headphone jack so you can practice silently.  Got neither?  There are websites with piano keyboards that you can click from note to note with your mouse, again, with your headphones in.  I find it very helpful to mark up my music before I get singing.  I put a mark next to my alto line, so that when I turn a page, my eye goes right to the correct line.  If your words are written really far from your line in a particular piece, it can help a lot to write them in again, closer.  I also like to write the first word of each new page on the page before, so that I know where I'm going if I get two pages stuck together and fumble a page turn.  When you are learning a new piece of music, read through all the words a few times first at home, so you don't have to keep your eye dashing back and forth from words to music.  Then start reciting them in rhythm, or tapping your foot in rhythm.  Worry about pitches last.  Those are the easiest part to pick up in rehearsal from the other people singing around you.  But if you have the rhythm solid, or at least the words in your head, that will give you one less thing for your brain to be worrying about.  Find a friendly person to sit next to who sight reads well.  It's common for people who are insecure about their sight reading to try to hide in the back so no one will notice them.  Unfortunately, that doesn't help you learn your part.  Sit next to the most experience person you can find, and you'll start picking up notes faster.  Good sight readers are used to being used as a crutch, so just thank them for their help in advance and then don't worry that you're bothering them.  You aren't likely to throw them off, but they will help you learn the music much faster.  
 
I am a bit worried that you are feeling hoarse, but singing when you are tense will do that to a person.  Don't feel like you need to sing loudly.  Keep at a comfortable volume for you.  If it continues to be a problem, talk to your director.  If your director is asking you for more sound and you feel like you are straining, talk to your director.  They may be able to give you a little one on one coaching that can help, or they may suggest that you don't sing the lowest or highest notes that aren't actually in your range.  (That's not cheating.  We all do it.  Not every piece fits ever person's voice.  Mouth the words and look enthusiastic!)  
 
Hang in there girl!
-Maggie
Applauded by an audience of 5
on December 20, 2015 7:22am
You're being too hard on yourself, kiddo.  MUCH too hard.  Why?  Well, those of us who have been harshly parented, and/or are perfectionists, and/or have had more than our fair share of failures in life can incessantly question our worthiness in all sorts of ways.  I sure do.  So, is your feeling of "not being good enough" restricted to your current choral experience, or does it pervade your entire life, cause you much anxiety, and negatively affect your job, relationships, etc.?  If the latter, then you have an issue that is beyond any of our abilities to help you with here, unfortunately. 
 
If the issue only involves singing in a choir, and you're just fine otherwise, okay.  First, it's very unlikely that you were the only singer who auditioned for the open spot, and the director chose you over others.  This should relieve your mind a bit.  Second, singing in a choir obviously meets a need in your life that isn't met in other ways, so it would be very sad if you were to quit.  Third, you have listed many specific ways in which you feel inadequate as a singer, and if you think about all of them at once it will be overwhelming.  Why not make a list of them, in order of importance (to you), and then work on one at a time, maybe one per month?  If it's singing too loudly, before each rehearsal ask the singers on each side of you to give you a gentle nudge whenever they think you need to back off a bit.  If it's being disorganized, make a special place in your home where your music and related items will live, put a stickie note on your door to remind you to take it to rehearsals, and threaten your roommates with fire and brimstone if they mess with your stuff. 
 
Maggie has offered some great advice for learning your music well under challenging circumstances.  You might also approach the oldest singer in your section, perhaps a retired person who might have more time than others who are still working, and ask if you could get together between rehearsals (at the other person's home or elsewhere) and practice your music together.  You might make a new friend, feel more "included" in the group overall, and build your confidence more quickly.  If the first person you approach can't help you, keep asking until you find someone who can. 
 
Now think about all of the things that you are really good at and feel proud of.  Make a big, long list of them, and don't restrict your list to "the big stuff."  How many of them required a lot of practice for you to be able to feel confident in your ability in each particular area?  Probably most of them!  You're out of practice--you've recognized that.  How will you improve?  With practice.  You are your harshest critic.  Whenever the "voice in your head" starts telling you that you aren't good enough, tell it to shut up and let you practice!
 
Applauded by an audience of 6
on December 20, 2015 11:25am
Dear Sara,  
 
BREATHE!  Just stop and take a breath.  Ok?  Now take another.
 
I disagree with your initial premise that "a choir is only as good as its weakest member".  As a professional classical singer I have been a member of internationally recognized fully professional choirs as well as a section leader in church choirs and every thing in between.  It is not true that a chorus is only as good as it's weakest member.  The wonderful thing about an ensemble is that as you perform together you get to subconsciously know your colleagues, their strength and weaknesses and they yours.  The voice being what it is some days one person's breath or tone can be better or worse than usual due to illness or exhaustion!  It's about all the talents in the room merging together to make the most moving sound possible.  Music is not about perfection, it's about emotion, touching your audience.  No one, even the best muscian is perfect or thinks they are.  I've seen world class singers back stage visably upset about what I thought was a flawless performance.

I have had many students come to me with various issues and would be happy to offer a free online session to you.  I can help you figure out ways to work on your music and do some exercises that will not disturb your roomates any more than the television would.  Free free to reach me via my facebook page.  "Singing by Susan".

Whether you contact me or not I would encourage you to not focus so much on yourself and your foibles.  Do the best you can, put in the time you need on the music and relax.  Enjoy your music making and the rest will improve, the more you enjoy it the better everything gets.  When you get upset just stop for a second and breathe.  The jump back in rehearsal.  Cut yourself a break my freind.  And have a very merry holiday!  Susan 
Applauded by an audience of 3
on December 20, 2015 12:57pm
Dear Sara, 
 
You sound very discouraged right now!  But don't lose heart.  All the things you mention can be improved by practice, especially if you are guided by a knowlegeable and patient teacher.  I'd suggest you go looking for a voice teacher, preferably someone who is interested in building good, basic vocal technique. 
 
I would suggest that with each teacher you speak to, you say you have these goals:
     - Reduce vocal tension so you can sing without hoarseness or pain
     - Improve breath control (this may also improve the tension problem)
     - Improve sight reading (once you get more skills, it will help you to be more comfortable in the group)
Improving these things will likely cause many other things to improve as well, and if you tell the teacher what you are interested in right away, then they can respond with "Yes, I can help you with that," or perhaps "That isn't my specialty, but let me suggest someone."  Good luck!
 
Jay Lane
McClosky Institute of Voice
on December 21, 2015 7:27am
My key to choral singing is studying your music.  You need to make the time of only 1 hour per week.
A great tool is using a computer-based music file like Sibelius or Noteworthy Composer. (Go to their websites.) The files are created by the management of the choral group and given to the choristers to use in their study. 
You basically sing a long with the highlighted notes, and can go back to measures that you don't feel compfortable with.
Another tool would be the CD of your voice part.  This too would be ceatred by the management of the choral group.
Until these tools are created, I suggest thatyou concentrate your self-study to the librettos so that the words flow easily from your lips.
Marty Edelman
Amateur singer for 65 years.
on December 21, 2015 8:14am
Good advice from everyone. I especially second what Susan said about the "weakest member" adage being false. Don't buy into that one. One problem I frequently see is singers trying too hard. It can take several different forms -- muscle tensions, exaggerated mouth and jaw movements, overstraining to reach higher notes, to mention just a few. The fact that you're worried about it can actually make the problem worse. Breath control is particularly susceptible for that. Assume that the breath marks are reasonably placed and that you can sing the phrase on one breath ("I can't" is the original self-fulfilling prophecy). Don't worry about volume. if you can get through a phrase at mf level (even if it's marked ff), that's fine. You're part of a section  and you're still contributing. And if you do run out of breath occasionally, just let it happen. Don't try to force the last bit of air out; that will only cramp your exhalation muscles and you won't be able fill your lungs again as quickly. Relax and be a part of your section's sound. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 22, 2015 12:18am
Sara,
 
The core reaction from everybody to your "question part of this question" is: Don't you dare quit, especially for your sake. I'm for that, all the way. AND...ain't no other shoe gonna drop, so sleep-in comfortably from now on.  Lots of good suggestions have come your way from caring choral conductors and singing teachers on ChoralNet, as usual. I'd like to add some info and a few suggestions related to one item in your post: "frequently at the end of rehearsals or concerts my voice is hoarse, my throat hurts and sometimes I completely lose my voice. (My older sister had vocal nodules that effectively ended her singing career, so this one worries me especially.)"
 
In your 1st paragraph, you wrote: "Once I graduated I stopped singing entirely until the audition, which was much later, and completely spontaneous on my part, kind of an 'early midlife crisis' thing." I 'spect you hadn't sung regularly for around 10 years, give or take. During that time, several things happened to the parts of you that produce your ear-brain-voice coordinations:
 
(1) The synapse connections in some of the neural networks in your brain that produced singing in the past got weaker and less responsive. As a result, when you started singing again, they were reactivated and you noticed that your voice wasn't "working the way it used to," certainly during sight-singing. That awareness produces emotional distress in singers, and singers usually work their ear-brain-voice coordinations harder than necessary to try to overcome the "not as good as they once were" vocal coordinations. In addition, your concern about how you would be perceived by the other singers and the conductor enhanced your emotional distress (as it does in anybody in those circumstances) and that added to the "harder work" of singing.
 
(2) The motor nerves and muscles that operate your singing-breathing, and those that operate your larynx and its vocal cords during singing, became waaaay underconditioned and your breath capacity was reduced. When you resumed singing in hours-long rehearsals, under the conditions of #(1), those nerves and muscles fatigued down pretty quickly (say, 10 minutes or less), but like nearly all human beings in those situations, your "job" was to keep on singing. Most choirs rehearse once per week, so if you had opportunities to rest your voice between rehearsals (comparatively minimal talking and singing), those nerves and muscles most likely recovered after a few days. I don't know how you use your voice between rehearsals, of course, but a schedule of vigorous-extensive singing on one day and fairly minimal singing/talking for six days would be like taking one giant step forward and six steps backward in terms of voice conditioning.
 
(3) The non-muscle cover tissues of your vocal cords became "soft" during those years of little or no singing, so they lost a lot of their resilience for extended and vigorous singing. When we human beings make vocal sounds, we send a flow of breath-air from our lungs up between our two closed vocal cords and that flowing air picks up "ridges" of vocal cord tissues and moves them up and over the vocal cords (each ridge is followed by a tissue "valley"). That's what vocal cord vibration is; it's a kind of ripple-waving motion. When we're making clear, non-breathy vocal sounds, the ridges of the two vocal cords collide onto each other (impact stress) and the waving motions create a shear stress on those tissues. Here's the kicker: When any of us vocally sustain the pitch middle-C, the vocal cords impact and shear aproximately 260 times per second! Sustain it for four seconds and they will have done that 1,120 times. Sing the C above middle-C, and it's about 520 impacts and shears per second; four seconds would be 2,240 of them. Sing the A in between the two Cs and about 440 of them happen in one second. The good news: Our vocal cords are very tough structures. They are capable of taking many thousands, even millions, of impacts and shears per day, BUT...they are living tissues, they are subject to variations of tissue resiliance (conditioning), and they have variable limits before they have to start defending themselves. When they are used beyond their current level of conditioning (resilience), their first defense is inflammation--activated by our immune systems--and that includes vocal cord swelling--an enlargement of the vocal cord tissues and a relative "stiffening" of their tissue surfaces. That means that we will have to "work harder" to get them into vibration and the irregularly stiffened surfaces will allow tiny packets of air to pass between them when we speak or sing. That's what we call "hoarseness." Also, the greater the swelling, the more they will not be able to vibrate on high pitches. Temporary "loss of voice" means that the swelling is quite severe and they are so enlarged and stiff that they cannot vibrate at all.
 
What you can do:
1. Keep your body hydrated throughout every day. Water is best. Three advantages: (1) vocal cord tissues are optimally compliant for vibrating, (2) tissue surfaces are covered with thin mucus to "cushion" and "lubricate" the impact and shear stresses, and (3) a well-watered body provides optimum conditions for immune system functions. Hydration can be overdone and underdone. The common recommendation is 6-8, 8-oz. glasses of water per day, but anything that is liquid has water in it and veggies and fruits have water in them; they all figure into the 6-8 glasses per day.
2. When you sing, experiment with ways to sing that feel relatively effortless in your neck-throat area. Let your breathflow "do the work" of creating your vocal soundflow.
3. If your voice feels tired or achey during rehearsals, start mouthing the words for a while for some recovery time.
4. If your voice feels tired or achey after rehearsals, it's begging for silence, so be very quiet, get a good night's sleep, and monitor how it feels for a day or two--minimize all voice use when you can, including when you are at your "day job."
5. When your voice feels like it has recovered, say the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th day after a rehearsal, find a way to do some warmup pitch patterns and sing your choir music 2 or 3 times each day, spread over your day, for about 15 minutes each time for a total of 45 minutes. That will help the reconditioning process.
[These recommendations can greatly reduce the chances of developing vocal cord nodules, too.]
 
Sara!  Eventually, your vocal conditioning will get to the point where you can sing full rehearsals and feel vocally fine! BUT, singing nearly every day between rehearsals will still be important.
 
Just so you know, Sara, detailed knowledge and practice regarding voice conditioning, underconditioning, and reconditioning is not very widely dispersed among choral conductors and singing teachers--even ear-nose-throat doctors.
Be well and be courageous!
Leon
 
 
Applauded by an audience of 4
on December 22, 2015 6:07am
Bless you for your courage and your willingness to self assess and work to build your strengths. Keep up the good work. You are a vital part of this community!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 22, 2015 10:45am
Dear Sara,
Many of the responses you have received have excellent suggestions. Having read and re-read your letter several times,  there seem to be several things unsaid. Clarification on those missing bits would help in giving you a more meaningful answer. 
 
First: I get no sense that you are experiencing any pleasure from your membership in the ensemble. That in it self is a red flag as I see it. If, in fact, you are as unhappy and self conscious as it seems, why so you stay? Joy should be one of the primary reasons one sings, which you know.  Some social benefit is a strong secondary reason: camaraderie and sharing in the common goal of a good performance and learning how to achieve that goal. Are you experiencing those things? I am not suggesting you simply quit. I am suggesting you look deeper into the reasons you chose to participate and continue to do so.
 
Second: of the many things you say you lack, have these shortcomings been confirmed by anyone else? Have you beèn asked to sing softer? Or is it your self-diagnosis only?
 
Third: have you asked anyone around you to give you feedback, rather than waiting for someone's input ? If many are teachers, it seems likely that if asked in a way that makes it clear you want true feedback, they would give it. Rather than asking "Am I too loud?", or "is my lack of experience a problem?", you might say "I have not sung in quite a while, and am feeling somewhat uncomfortable. Could you please give me some ideas about how to improve, or what I need to concentrate on to be a better member?" Those people will have a much better idea what what your situation is, rather than those of us in a forum who have no actual knowledge of the ensemble or how you sing.
 
You do not state the size of the choir. If it is relatively small, it can be awkward fitting in mid-season. How long a period is it since you joined? Are you feeling increasingly comfortable or uncomfortable? If the choir is fairly small, you might gain some of the skills you lack by participating in a larger community chorus, until you feel less self conscious.
 
I am a choir director of very long standing, with choruses and choirs of all shapes and sizes. You ask what I, as a director, would want you to do. The above suggestions come from that perspective. In addition, I would have to say that your being admittedly organization-challenged is a problem, but one that has solutions. There are no lack of readily available resources, as it is a common issue. But, forgetting your music is not acceptable more than once. Mistakes? Well, we all make them. Repeatedly making the same mistake, or frequent noticeable mistakes, that is a more serious concern. Practicing is expected, so think a bit harder about how to find ways to do it. Again, there is no shortage of information if you look for it.
I think it would not go amiss for you to contact your director. Sometimes immediately following a rehearsal is not the best time for that sort of conversation, but asking when you might have such a conversation would be welcome. In my opinion and experience, an email would be a reasonable way to approach your director with your questions. BUT, asking how you can improve, rather than something like "am I your worst nightmare? "  would be more likely to get a helpful answer.
 
Best at wishes for a good outcome!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
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