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New Ways of Working: Teaching Choirs Online

Kerry Boyle, an experienced singing teacher and choral director, talks us through her personal experience of moving to online teaching with the choirs she works with, and the lessons she’s learnt along the way.

Published: 29 May 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:30 PM
Photo of a conductors baton resting across a set of scores
Rehearsals provide real, physical and emotional benefits for the participants through the act of breathing deeply, singing, connecting with each other and engaging in shared activities.

In January 2020 I was busy planning for concert performances and trips scheduled for the Spring and Summer. Months of planning and preparation, venues, hotels and transport booked and paid for, programmes and logistics all sorted…. how quickly life can change!

In addition to working as a singing teacher and choral director in various institutions, I manage and direct three all-female choirs – a community ladies’ choir, a girls’ choir and a semi-professional chamber choir.

By mid-March the concerts were all cancelled and the trips were postponed. The rapid succession of cancellations and postponements was followed by a sort of limbo as all sense of momentum was lost. Schools were closed and choir rehearsals cancelled and it became clear that new ways of working and communicating would be necessary.

Instrumental teaching on Skype and Teams

To begin with I finished off the Spring Term singing tuition on Skype and Teams. Having never taught online before this was quite an adventure and it took time to adjust, finding ways to support students and provide effective lessons in this unfamiliar format.

Having quickly realised that the lag involved in online communication would mean that I couldn’t accompany students in lessons, I found that planning and preparation were essential, and sent out recordings of warm ups, piano accompaniments and vocal lines for students to use in the lessons.

I also found that my voice suffered in the early stages and this, along with poor sound quality, persuaded me to invest in a conference style microphone / speaker which helped with both issues. At this point the choirs were on an Easter break.

Chatting and planning through Zoom meetings

Once lockdown started, I started to receive messages from choir members asking whether we would be able to continue with rehearsals in some way. The majority of these messages came from members of the ladies’ choir who were missing the social interaction offered by the group.

To support members of the ladies’ choir I established a WhatsApp group and recorded piano accompaniments for the current repertoire and sent these out, encouraging the ladies to practice at home. I also sent accompaniment tracks and recent recordings out to the girls’ choir members to encourage them to keep singing the material at home. At this stage we thought we would be able to meet again, perhaps in June or July at the latest.

I started to look at ways to engage with the chamber choir and arranged to meet using Zoom as this seemed the most appropriate platform for a group of 13 individuals. The chamber choir members are all experienced musicians, some of them teachers, and so on the whole our rehearsal sessions are focussed around musical details including balance, style, phrasing and articulation. We had these same conversations about pieces of repertoire but without actually singing.

I supported these sessions by sending out tracks for each part on WhatsApp – the choir members already have scores. On the third session we began singing and working through the new repertoire to see whether this might be useful.

I kept my mic on but the members muted themselves and I ran the rehearsal in the usual way, going through individual parts, covering phrasing, articulation and breathing for each voice part and checking for any insecurities. This approach meant that each member sang as usual but they could only hear themselves (and me) and as a result, they were forced to identify insecurities and problem areas without the support or reassurance of others singing on the same voice part.

Having worked this way with the chamber choir, I could see that this approach might benefit the other two groups. I had received messages from parents and members of the ladies choir asking whether we could arrange online sessions and realised that having established this community of singers, I had a responsibility to provide an opportunity for them to carry on singing together during social distancing and lockdown.

Rehearsing as a choir through zoom

To begin with, I sent out messages to the choirs to let them know that we would be rehearsing at the usual time each week on Zoom and providing a meeting link. Before the rehearsals I specified the repertoire and sent out individual voice parts and piano accompaniment for each piece so that members could practice. The choirs already had the scores for the pieces at this stage as this was repertoire we were preparing for concerts and trips.

The first sessions were great…watching members seeing each other again after weeks apart and laughing as we all worked out how to negotiate this new way of working was a real tonic for all involved.

Re-connecting with each other through rehearsals

I start the sessions on Zoom ten minutes before the official rehearsal time to allow the choirs to ‘arrive’ and chat before we start - the same people seem to arrive early and the usual late comers are also late!

After the initial chat the members mute themselves to begin the warm up and the rehearsals run as usual. I sit at my piano with my laptop, sheet music and microphone speaker in front of me. I play through each voice part and then play the accompaniment to pieces and choir members unmute to let me know if there are any problems. The girls’ choir enjoy using the ‘reactions’ tool on Zoom and some have created emoji signs which they use as responses.

It has become clear that singing without others on the same part means that members are more aware of insecurities and so the rehearsals were proving useful. The girls’ choir were already singing lots of repertoire from memory by the time lockdown started and the Zoom sessions have helped to highlight areas where some members were waiting for others on their part to sing and weren’t completely secure themselves.

Challenges along the way

There are obvious challenges involved in rehearsing this way – there are members who have chosen not to participate in these sessions at all, which is fine, and others who are desperate to be involved but don’t have adequate internet or a suitable device.

Some girls’ choir members were initially uncomfortable about using the camera on their computers and so these members simply participate using audio. Technical glitches so far include problems with my microphone and internet, a whole day where Zoom wasn’t working and we had to cancel completely, and individual issues with audio and camera function.

After the first couple of rehearsals I paid to upgrade on Zoom in order to avoid having to restart each session after around 40 minutes. I reasoned that this would be a worthwhile investment and so far, it has made life much easier and I think it is the right move given that this situation doesn’t look like it will change for the coming weeks and months. Rehearsals run more smoothly as a result and we can rehearse for as long as feels necessary without interruption.

The obvious downside is that we can’t hear each other singing and I think that everyone involved misses being able to sing as part of a group. Also, the familiar but often overlooked activities that happen during any rehearsal – individual conversations, members sitting in their usual seats, catching up on the week or checking something through with a neighbour on the same part...

These things are all missing in online sessions and seeing each other is a real and valuable reminder of how important and central these features are to our enjoyment of singing and the rehearsal process.

Ways we’ve benefited from online rehearsals

The benefits to the online sessions are also increasingly clear as members are developing in confidence in their own voice part across all repertoire and really listening to themselves singing, in some cases, for the first time.

Also, the rehearsals provide real, physical and emotional benefits for the participants through the act of breathing deeply, singing, connecting with each other and engaging in shared activities with others.

Recording a distance performance

After the first few chamber choir rehearsals, one of the members suggested that we try to put together a ‘distance’ performance to share on social media. We decided on a piece with a piano accompaniment to begin with (though the choir usually sing acapella) and I recorded the piano part and sent it out to everyone.

Each individual recorded a video of themselves singing their voice part while listening to the piano accompaniment on headphones, and sent these recordings through to so that they could be combined into one video. Using Logic Pro and We Video, we created a video which we shared with musical friends in the UK, France and Kenya. As a result, the choirs are now creating ‘distance’ performances with choirs and ensembles in the UK and Kenya.

These recordings and collaborations would not have occurred to us in normal circumstances and this new approach has allowed us to perhaps explore unexpected ways to communicate and connect with other musical communities.

Each group is successfully adapting both to a new way of rehearsing, and new ways of sharing what we do, and as a result we are able to remain positive, optimistic and productive in the current situation. As a community of choirs, we continue to work towards shared goals and I feel sure that as we eventually emerge from the current situation, we will be stronger as a result of online rehearsals and the range of new experiences and collaborations during this period.

A summary of what we have learnt

Rehearsal room

  • At the beginning and end of rehearsals allow the members time to chat, just as they would usually.
  • Make sure that the singers are in a space where they feel comfortable singing

Manage Expectations – Make sure that members understand that they won’t be able to hear each other at the moment, but do stress the positives – they can sing out as much as they like without anyone listening! As ever, the more they sing, the more they will get from the session.

Take it slowly – this in an opportunity for each individual to really make sure they know their part, so take it slowly and go over everything quite carefully.

Repertoire – start with repertoire which the choirs are familiar with already. This is a great opportunity to really improve part work and make sure every individual is super secure. For new repertoire, consider online sheet music providers (such as as members will be able to download the repertoire themselves.

Accompaniments if necessary – if you don’t play the piano, consider having an accompanist in the rehearsal too to support part work and play the accompaniment. Be aware that you will each need to mute when the other is either playing or speaking as the sound quality suffers if more than one person is ‘unmuted’. It might also be a good idea to send out recordings of parts and accompaniments to support practice between sessions.

Zoom link – make sure that members treat this securely and don’t share the link with others (see further Zoom security advice on the MU advice page).

Children and Youth Choirs

  • In all cases, obtain parental consent in order for choir members to participate in online rehearsals.
  • For younger choir members especially, participation should be supervised by parents or carers, especially at the beginning and end of sessions and all practice materials should be sent via parents.
  • Young people should be reminded that they should dress appropriately and be in a suitable space (preferably not bedrooms).

About the author

Kerry Boyle works as a singing teacher and choral director in a range of institutions and is the director of Canterbury Vocals, an independent initiative offering various singing opportunities including three female choirs. Kerry manages and directs all three choirs along with the Canterbury Vocals Scholarship Fund for young female musicians.

In addition to her teaching work, Kerry coordinates a range of international partnership projects and initiatives and is a sessional lecturer, researcher and vocal tutor at Canterbury Christ Church University.

For more advice on moving to online teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic, see our teaching during the outbreak guidance pages.

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