• Feb 8, 2011

About Choirs

by Gabriela Schneider

A choir is an ensemble of singers. The term choir typically refers to singing groups with a religious affiliation, while a secular group is more likely to be called a chorus, but otherwise the two terms are synonymous. Choirs can have many different structures, but the most common is four-part harmony. In a mixed choir of male and female voices, the four sections would be soprano, alto, tenor and bass, from highest vocal range to lowest. An all-male choir—like that of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys—typically consists of high and low tenor parts, baritone, and bass. Choirs may be accompanied by a piano, organ, or any combination of instruments, even a full orchestra. They may also sing a capella, or unaccompanied, which is Italian for “in the manner of the chapel” and refers to the religious origins of this style.

Each section of a choir has its own function within the whole, and all the parts fit together to build a harmony. The highest part is traditionally the melody, conventional wisdom being that this makes it easiest for the audience to hear. Bass parts are often quite simple on their own, but provide a crucial foundation for the whole song, while the middle parts fill out the chords and bring complexity and richness to the overall sound.

To create perfect harmony, each singer must carefully match their pitch to the others in their section and stay in tune with the other parts, but to achieve the ideal of making the whole choir sound like one voice, they must also learn to blend. Blending means synchronizing all the singers’ vowel pronunciations, dynamics, and phrasing—they must sing the same sounds with the same tone, grow louder or softer together, and pause for breath together. A good blend and perfect harmonies create a rich background for a solo, ensuring that the soloist’s voice is the only sound standing out in contrast to the group. With the rest of the choir supporting them, soloists are free to show off their individual skills with expressive interpretations of their parts.

In a small choir like the one depicted in Choir Boy, precise harmony and blending are even more important than in a large choir with many singers in each section. A small group can also provide more opportunities for every member to perform solos. As you watch the show, you might consider how the Drew choir members harmonize and blend with each other, and how they express their individuality — both in and out of choir rehearsal.