The Choirmaster's Manual/Chapter 9



Light and shade are but two of many points that go to make up "expression" in music. Attack, rhythm, phrasing, color and tone, and balance, are essential factors of a good performance.

An author has described singing as the "interpretation of a text by means of musical tones produced by the human voice:"—interpretation!

Inspiration can do a great deal toward this happy result without elaborate technique, but technique without inspiration, that is, without some feeling of the words used, results only in "woodenness."

For expression, the singer's aim should be to sing a word rather than make a tone.

A great hindrance in educating the people to a recognition of the emotional in music, either harmonic or melodic, is the stupid habit of making one tune, because of its meter, "do" for various strikingly dissimiliar poems and subjects, a fault common to many hymnals.

A story is told of a certain person who insisted on singing "Nearer, My God, to Thee" to the tune associated with "Robin Adair."

For the initial expression of words, the choirmaster will do well to read aloud the text, and try to convey the intended expression.


Grave. Very slowly and solemnly.
Adagio. Slowly.
Lento. Slow, not so slow as Adagio.
Andante. Moving moderately.
Vivace. Quick and lively.
Presto. Very quickly.
Allegro. Cheerfully, rapidly.
Allegretto. Moderately quick.
Con moto. With movement.
Stringendo. Hurrying.
Ritardando. Holding back the pace.
Rallentando. Slackening the pace.
Accelerando. Hastening.
Forte. Loud, (f)
Piano. Soft, (p)
Crescendo. Increase sound gradually.
Decrescendo. Decrease sound gradually.
Sforzando. Forcing the sound. (sfz)

In the crescendo and diminuendo, take care that the whole chorus swell or diminish gradually:

Choirmaster's Manual p37.jpg

Exercise 25.

Increase sound by using abdominal muscles only.

\relative f' { \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f f1\p\< ~ f\f\> f4 r\p r2 | g1\p\< ~ g\f\> ~ g2 r\p \bar ".." } \addlyrics { Ah __ Ah __ }
and up.

Exercise 26.

\relative f' { \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 4/2 f2 g^\< a g f^\> r\! } \addlyrics { Ah __ }
and up.

The climax of any crescendo should be an accented note. Attack has already been dealt with in Chapter IV.

An accelerando should be an imperceptible quickening, as of a train moving out of a station; and a rallentando can be learned by watching the gradual ceasing of the drops of water when a tap is turned off.

Rhythm. The chief beat or accent in a measure is the first. Secondary accents occur on the odd beats afterwards. The first beat is always a down-stroke with the baton. The following diagram will show the more usual ways of beating times.

Choirmaster's Manual p38a.jpg

6/8 (in slow time, when the six beats are taken).

Choirmaster's Manual p38b.jpg
6/8 (in fast time, which is two dotted quarters to a measure ), only two beats are necessary, thus:

Other special accents, such as fz, ffz, fp must be taken in proportion to the loudness or softness of the passage in which they occur.

Phrasing. As a general rule, breath should never be taken during a phrase. The first note of a phrase takes an accent, and the last note is usually a trifle shorter than written; e.g.,

\relative f'' { \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \partial 4 \autoBeamOff f4\( | b,8 cis16[ dis] e8 f g[ dis e]\) f\( dis4. dis8 e4\) \bar "|" }
\addlyrics { Touch their im -- mor -- tal harps with gold -- en wire.}


\relative f'' { \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \partial 4 \autoBeamOff f4\( | b,8 cis16[ dis] e8 f g[ dis e16]\) r\breathe f8\( dis4. dis8 e4\) \bar "|" }
\addlyrics { Touch their im -- mor -- tal harps with gold -- en wire.}

Never allow the breath to be taken before accent in long passages; take it after the strong accent.

\relative e' { \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f
  e4^(^\( g8 f e4 a | g) \breathe f8^( g e4 g | e2)\) \breathe d | c1 \bar ".." }

Make either one or two phrases in such a case; to sing as follows would spoil the effect of such a phrase:

\relative e' { \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f
  e4^(^\( g8 f e4 a) \breathe | g^( f8 g e4 g)\) \breathe | e2 d | c1 \bar ".." }

The successful choirmaster will keep an eye on all the phrase-marks, which often occur differently in different parts; the observance of the preliminary accents, if not overdone, makes for crisp and bright entries of fugue-subjects and "imitative" passages, examples of which can be seen in most modern services.

Balance. The question of balance must be left to the taste of the choirmaster; but it is very necessary to give a general rule for those singing, to know when they individually are singing too loudly for the surrounding tone. The following will be found of some assistance:

Never sing so loud that you cannot hear the other parts.

Many well-known writers have given an ideally balanced choir in numbers, but it is practically impossible for anyone to lay down a hard and fast law, for the simple reason that in speaking of tenors, one has to know whether they are robusto or lyric, the former having a much more powerful effect in choral work than the latter. The same remark applies to high basses and the basso profundo; especially does this apply to trebles of a flute-like head-quality, and to those boys that have that big, hornlike voice. But, for what they may be worth, the following numbers are suggested.

Thirty-six voices, eighteen to twenty-four boys, twelve to fourteen men, light tenors on the Decani side, heavy on the Cantoris; and, having obtained these numbers, the question of balance is still one which every individual member must feel more or less intuitively. Dr. Coward suggests twenty-two trebles, twenty altos, nineteen tenors, twenty-one basses, which he calls a "bright sky and a firm foundation."

The question of color is determined a great deal by the use of the resonators, and must be studied privately. Nevertheless, if the right mental attitude is established, and the true sense of the words duly appreciated, a great deal of tone-color can be obtained by an appropriate shading of the voice—now bright, now sombre. The thing to be avoided is the "unemotional" quality of tone.