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Vocal Placement in the Choir

Generous Colleagues,
My name is Rodger Guerrero, and I have been a high school choral conductor in California or 25 years.  I have also recently returned to the Univ. of Southern California doctoral choral program (part-time). 
In one of my current courses I am responsible for generating topics for two Roundtable-like discussions.  One topic concerns decisions choral conductors should make about placing voices in choral ensembles as well as positioning said ensembles in mixed, sectional, or other formations.  I have plenty of literature, and Choral School and Performance Practice documentation in which to frame the discussion.  However, I thought it might be cool to include your reflections and general practices on these two issues.  My plan is to have USC Choral Seminar class members log on to the Choral Net site (this Friday morning, Dec. 3), read your comments, and discuss your ideas.
Will you please help me with this communicative, interactive endeavor?  If you would like to contact me with questions or comments in private, you may reach me at: rguerrero(a)
Thank You So Much,
Rodger Guerrero
Replies (5): Threaded | Chronological
on November 30, 2010 5:24am
One of the best professional weekends I ever spent was with Weston Noble (a) the Qaurtz Mountain Choral retreat.  It is his method of vocal placement that I still use today.  Anton Armstrong uses a similar method as well.  Using an exercise such as: "I sigh to sing" - sol, do', sol, mi, do, I start with any voice section (say altos) and have them sing the exercise together a couple of times.  I select the two singers that are the sound quality I am listening for and have them sing together.  I have the singers trade places and sing again.  One by one, I add singers and have them sing on either side of the two original singers, as well as in-between.  You will be able to hear the best place for each singer and so does the rest of the ensemble.  I also don't hesitate to ask the singer, "Which spot feels better?"  Especially, if there are two positions that I like.  I will often ask the singers on either side of the person I am adding as well.  Once a full semi-circle is established, I place them into two rows.  We will reverse the rows as well as invert the rows to find the best sound.  After all four sections are finished we check out the end result, sometimes switching the sections to different placements to aquire the best sound.  If I want to use a mixed formation, I approach it the same way, only with quartets (SATB).  I use the same method with my women's and men's groups.  It truely makes a difference in the overall tone quality of the sound and the singers sing more confidently.
on November 30, 2010 3:18pm
Thanks so much for your fabulous response!  The "Lutheran School" method of voicing has always worked for me, although I do not use model voices in order to obtain blend.  I always find that allowing singers to be who they are vocally and tonally is much more beneficial to their progress.  For me, it's always about vowels and volume.
Tell me, do you find that your model pair more often possess a dark or bright timbre?  Or does this matter to you?  Do musicianship skills play a role in your decision-making?  Some directors consider the placement of strong musicians next to weaker ones when they voice.  How about placing voices from the inside to the outside of an ensemble?  There are many proponents of the "brighter-male-voices-and- darker-female-voices-in-the-center-of-a-choir" process.  Is this ever part of your thinking?
More issues: do your mixed choirs always perform in SATB quartet positions?  If they change positions, what is your thought process behind the changing placement?  Do your men's and women's groups perform in sectional positions or are they mixed as well?
I look forward to reading your thoughts.
All the Best,
on November 30, 2010 5:47am
Hi, Rodger.  I've found that almost always, people tend to jump right into the details of ANY question without ever looking at what lies behind it, so that's what I'd like to address.
Seems to me that before you can talk about voice placement, you have to decide HOW you are going to audition, HOW you are going to select the singers for your ensemble, and WHEN you are going to do voice placement.  The first choice is between an auditioned ensemble and one that's non-auditioned.  If you audition, if you have a decent audition procedure, and if you keep decent records of your auditions, you have already done your voice placement.  Assuming that you do rank the singers and assign them to voice parts based on their auditions, you take the top people on your list for each section.  (For your best ensemble, if you have more than one, of course, and then distribute the rest in the other ensembles.)
The second choice is whether you have callbacks to fine-tune your decisions.  Many conductors will do this.  I, for one, never did, for two reasons.  The main reason was that since my audition period covered several months (early May through late July), there was no way I COULD hold callbacks, so I kept good audition notes and assigned my sections before mailing out acceptance letters.  The second is that I've done this for enough years that I can judge the voices I hear, and almost always judge them correctly. 
In community musical theater there are often callbacks for lead roles, since it's necessary to guage the chemistry between pairs of actors.  But if I've done my triage properly during auditions, I KNOW how the voices will work together!  (And I know which voices will NOT work, because of poor intonation, range limitations, being too loud or too soft, or excessive vibrato.)
So as I see it, the only time you need to worry about voice placement is if you have not auditioned your singers and now, in essence, have to audition them after they've already been accepted!  (I am assuming old enough singers to have stable voices, of course.  When you talk about middle school or young high school students you will want to track the progress of the voices as they may be changing, stabilizing, or going through the voice changes.)
Of course many musical theater auditions are run by choreographers, who may not have the background to judge the voices they're hearing and have to rely on callbacks, just as I would not be able to judge how well different dancers would handle unison combinations--but the choreographers would.
Now I did know one conductor, of a huge "show" choir, who actually accepted amost everyone who auditioned, divided his women into 1st soprano, 2nd soprano, and alto, and then had ALL the 1st and 2nd sopranos sing soprano on SATB pieces.  That was never the kind of sound I preferred.  In fact when I selected a college women's show ensemble I used an inverted pyramid in 4 parts, with 3 1st sopranos, 4 2nd sopranos, 5 mezzos, and 6 altos.  And in my show ensemble here, I sent out a chart in advance detailing which parts each singer should take if their gender divided into 2, 3, or 4 parts.
Then there's the inevitable dichotomy between a voice teacher's ideal and a choral conductor's ideal.  If voice teachers had their way, every woman would be singing soprano, and voice placement in a choir would be based on what was best for the individual singers.  If choral conductors had their way, every section would have balance and blend, no voices would stick out, and all 4 (or 6 or 8) sections would balance each other.  In real life, at least on the college level, what really happens is a compromise since there's very little music written to be sung by a choir with nothing but sopranos and baritones!
I'll be looking forward to reading others' point of view.  Thanks for bringing this up.
All the best,
on November 30, 2010 3:08pm
Thanks so much for your thorough and thoughtful response.
Perhaps I should be more specific.  Perhaps I should have used the word "positioning" instead of "placement."  For example, many directors automatically position their singers in sections when performing Renaissance motets and or/ Baroque fugal music.  The traditional thought is that the polyphonic texture is benefitted by the rise and fall of individual melody lines being heard in specific places within a choir's position.  Another standard thought is that mixed positioning, i.e., SATB quartet placement, has a more positive effect upon a choir's intonation.  Additionally, many directors advocate the production of varied choral tones with respect to differing styles.  Choral positioning is often utilized to achieve tonal variety.
I have observed ACDA Convention choirs changing their position with every single piece they perform.  I have always been curious as to the reasoning behind such a malleable approach.  I have often found that it detracts from a choir's sense of musical security.  As a high school conductor, I have experienced that teenage voices continuously change throughout their years in choir.  An alto-tenor in July can become a baritone/bass by September!  Thus, voicing, re-voicing, and placement are continuous experiences for high school choral conductors.
As for "voicing" a choir, there are many different theories.  Linda gives a great example of one approach below.  Do you use a bright/dark timbre matching scheme?  Do you use a model voice in each section for blending purposes (Lutheran School)?  Do you consider musicianship skills when you place singers next to each other?  Does inherent vocal volume play a role in your choices?  As far as an overall schematic is concerned, I did undergraduate work with Paul Salamunovich at Loyola Marymount Univ. in Los Angeles.  He had specific ideas about overall choral sound, balance, and blend.  Think inverted pyramid with the women and with the men.  Think dark and warm for altos and basses, and bright but warm for sopranos and tenors.  However, Paul never changed choral positioning, no matter the style or era of the music to be performed.  For him, it was always A2/A1/S2/S1 from left to right in the Women's Choir and T1/T2/B1/B2 in the Men's Choir.  When the mixed Consort Singers or Combined Choirs performed, Paul always preferred that the men stand behind the women with basses positioned behind sopranos and tenors positioned behind altos.  We never performed in SATB quartet positions.
Thanks again for your great response.  I look forward to continuing this conversation with you and interested others.
Most Sincerely,
on November 30, 2010 9:35pm
Rodger:  Thanks so much for the followup.  Yes, you were asking about something completely different from what I assumed.  My apologies.
Your comment about Conference choirs changing position on each number is interesting.  A good many years ago, Simon Carrington was in this area at one of the nearby universities, and he spent a session coaching the high school madrigal ensemble my younger son was in.  It was fascinating to watch.  (And this was--and remains--an ensemble that sings real madrigals, costumes and all.)  Simon had them change positions for different numbers, sometimes mixed, sometimes in sections, and he drew his reasoning from the acual music of each song, although I can't recall any overall "rules" that he spoke about.  I assumed at the time that this was something the Kings Singers had done, but I have never seen them live so I don't know whether that's true.  I do know that when my older son sang with Chanticleer, they did change their formation, and that it was also based on what worked best for each song and was NOT simply arbitrary movement!
You also mentioned matching voices, and that brings up a significant question.  Matching voices in a traditional a cappella or accomapnied ensemble is one thing, but what about those situations in which it is either impossible or has to give 'way to other considerations.  The first example that comes to mind is musical theater--and I would generalize it to opera as well.  If there is a conflict between staging and voice matching, staging will win out every time!  If singers A-M have to be stage right and singers N-Z have to be stage left, so be it!!
And the second example is any situation in which sound amplification is used, which COULD also include musical theater, but definitely does include any kind of show, jazz, or swing choirs.  (And no, we can't ignore them any more than dedicated instrumental conductors can ignore jazz ensembles and marching bands:  they exist!)
The human voice through a sound system is no longer the same voice that it is without reinforcement.   Therefore voice matching for an amplified ensemble is an entirely different problem.  When I directed a women's show ensemble at one university, I pretty much ignored the problem, and placed the singers by voice parts--18 singers using 5 stand mics on the floor, nothing really fancy.  With my show ensemble at this university we used 22 singers on a built stage set that had 11 mic positions, and one of our first jobs at our pre-school workshop was to establish "regular partners"--couples whose basic position would always be the same no matter how much they moved around during a show.  And that involved more factors than you would think.  First was height.  A short girl sharing a mic with a tall guy creates an instant problem, because ideally their mouths should be equal distances from the business end of the mic.  Therefore we first lined them up and paired them strictly by height.  THEN I rematched them according to vocal projection (rather than anythinng picky about dark or bright timbre).  The requirement was that each couple have a similar amount of projection so they would balance together.  So yes, it was a serious consideration, but a different kind of consideration than one would have with a riser-bound traditional choir.  What we almost always ended up with was couples with the guy bending his neck down slightly as he sang, and his partner stretching hers up slightly as she sang, but with both mouths at the ideal distance from the front of the mic.  (Perfect vocal posture?  NO!  But what was needed.)
During the 20 years my quartet was together--from high school through college, 4 years in the US Air Force Band, and 10 years of professional touring--we basically sang grouped around a single mic, so we could always hear each other and balance became automatic.  That's what people DID in the '50s, and the only change we made was to carry a dingus that allowed us to place TWO mics on a single stand, about a foot apart, which still kept us close together.  And once we set the volume on the house amp, it stayed there.  Nowadays quartets (and other kinds of commercial vocal groups) automatically tend to use individual mics, which places them further apart physically (because of feedback concerns), and which leaves balance and blend in the hands of an audio mixist since the singers can't possibly balance themselves.  I'm not sure that's an improvement.  Even the Beattles (who got started 10 years after my quartet did) tended to use one mic, as did the Hi-Lo's and the Four Freshmen (although in their lounge act the Freshmen played rhythm section instruments that tended to pull them apart).
So if there's any point to all this, I guess it's that traditional choirs and choral ensemble are only one facet of vocal ensemble performance, and like any group of specialists we can tend to become just a little bit ingrown and focused on our own concerns.  The world of music is a bit wider than that.
All the best,
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