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Directing Vocal Groups

Freeing the song – an approach to directing vocal groups (École de Fromage 2010; 80 pages, B5)

This book is for anyone who runs a community choir, chorus, vocal ensemble or quartet, for music teachers or for anyone who finds themselves teaching a song or running a workshop. It’s also for anyone who sings in a group or chorus or choir. The music examples I’ve chosen are all a cappella, and I refer to choirs a lot, but the ideas apply to any kind of vocal group. This book reflects my fairly informal notion of doing things (a notion I don’t always follow myself in the heat of the moment), and doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. It reflects my influences: gospel choirs and quartets, early polyphony, South African gospel, Tamla Motown, funk, pop.

Contents include:
   Warmups- freeing the voice
   Group technique
   Teaching the song
   Creating the performance
   Freeing the group - workshops and improvisation
and an appendix on Choir organisation

A sample page:

Freeing the song is available from the Australian Music Centre from Tony.
Price: NZ$25 + NZ$5 postage & handling anywhere in New Zealand.
AU$ 22 + AU$8 postage & handling anywhere in Australia.
GBP£ 13 + airmail postage and handling £12.60 by air (3-5 days) or £10.75 economy (5-10 days) to the UK

Elsewhere, contact Tony and we'll work it out. Payment can be made via Paypal
(Please enter 'FTS' as the order number.)

This page will contain further brainwaves, hypnotic gesticulations, additions and revisions to the book.
(A cappella - Rehearsing For Heaven also contains a few tips on working with a cappella groups and improvisation on pp 6-14.)

Tony is available for consultations on choral directing, vocal arranging, songwriting and
related a cappella questions via Skype.
So if you have burning questions  and would like a half-hour face-to-face with him online,
contact us
and we'll book you in. $30 per half hour, payable via PayPal or PayMate.  

"Imagine Tony Backhouse making a personal visit to your home. The two of you have an intimate conversation about the nuances of your singing, including specific feedback on how you can improve your technique, with demonstrations by the master himself. This dream is now both possible and affordable via a video call. Try it. I was amazed."
 - John Graves, Bass, Heaven Bent Gospel Choir, Auckland.


Henry Coward’s 1914 book Choral Technique and Interpretation can hardly be bettered. The archaic, imperialistic language aside, the book is still a good practical guide for a choirmaster. You have to love the no-nonsense, yet fruity writing like the following: ‘There is a hoary fiction that a final bad rehearsal ensures a good performance. It may be granted that a poor final effort may have its value by making the performers careful at the concert, but it is a mistake to think that a poor or bad rehearsal is anything but a calamity to a society of amateurs. Artistic ideality soon droops in the chilly atmosphere of incompetent dulness; shrivels up in the air of strenuous misdirection of effort; withers and expires in the sultry blasts of querulous irritability.’
    Or on the topic of competitions (Battle of the Choirs, eisteddfods, etc.): 'The primary fact which should be burned into the mind of every competitor, from the conductor to the humblest member of the choir, is that trouble is inevitable. This trouble may be taken before or after the event.  If taken before, it assumes the form of hard work and self-sacrifice. If competitors refuse to take it in this form they get trouble all the same, only it comes after the event in the shape of disappointment and chagrin which may rankle for years. Therefore, let each competitor be prepared to take just the kind of trouble which he or she is called upon to bear, and not begin the slacker's whine that if it had only been some other kind of burden or pinch they would have borne it without a murmur.'

Go, Henry! À propos nothing, Coward in 1926 condemned jazz as "atavistic, lowering, degrading and a racial question ... composed of jingly tunes, jerky rhythms, unquestionably grotesque forms".

You can find Choral Technique and Interpretation online, weirdly formatted, at :

No talking in rehearsal?
Check this out:

Vocal groups and choirs I'm inspired by:

Addicts Rehabilitation Centre Choir (ARC Choir)                   
Camp Meeting Choir - an obscure but charming choir who recorded in the 1940s
Pentecostal Choir of Detroit (1960s)
                                      Golden Age Gospel Choirs
A Sei Voci            
The Song Company
Lavender Light: The Black and People of All Colors Lesbian and Gay Gospel Choir             
The Philippine Madrigal singers    
Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir   
Barorisi Ba Morena - great South African gospel choir
Taverner Choir and Consort         
Pilgrim Travellers  
Swan Silvertones


Ponder on these:

My friend Yani Mills claims the secret of her success as a choir leader is having a rehearsal venue where there's plenty of parking for the members. One less cause for stress for everyone.

"If I don't practice for one day, I know it; if I don't practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don't practice for three days, the audience knows it." — Paderewski

Michael Tilson Thomas talking to James Brown: “Being a conductor means you're trying to get a lot of people to agree where now is”
James Brown:“Now is earlier than anything you can think of ...”

“The great conductors I have observed in my life.....all accept minimal responsibility for the sound of the music and its rhythmic and tonal details. Their responsibilities lie within the realm of being in a constant state of awareness about both the music and themselves, as well as adherence to a rehearsal plan that respects the learning process and understands how people learn music.”
— James Jordan - Evoking Sound - The Choral Rehearsal

"If there did not exist the technique of conducting, and you wanted to lead something, what would you do?  And that brings into the whole idea of conducting a natural inflection, dance movements, facial expressions, gestures that have more to do about sculpting and shaping than they do about time patterns and all the things you can read in the textbooks. as much about your ability to induce those people to want to go with you over the cliff as it is technique - and to do that in my view you need conviction, know the tune, BE the music."
— Larry Livingston, Professor of Conducting and Music USC Thornton

A capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community.
That's one of the great feelings -- to stop being me for a little while, and to become us.”
— Brian Eno

“When we start listening, the world changes.”
— Dr. John Hooper (choir director, Canada)

“Life is ever unexplored. The secret is to make life swing.”
— Ralph Ellison