To follow or not to follow – that is the question!


We’ve all done it – opened a score of music to find it littered with performance directions telling us to sing in a certain way, to be quiet here and loud there, to slow up here and speed up there. I know from speaking with lots of choirs around the world that some initial questions immediately come to the mind. Should we observe all these directions? If we ignore some of them, are we doing the piece a disservice? Can we change the key of the piece?

Well, in The King’s Singers we face the same issues and pose the same questions when we are faced with a new piece of music. Here are the three most common topics that arise from this discussion.

1) Tessitura

When choosing your repertoire don’t be afraid to transpose. We have been blessed to have David singing our first countertenor part for the last 25 years but even with his amazingly high range, we do in fact change the pitch of a number of pieces. This might be to benefit other voices in the group as well – for example, there are some Renaissance pieces with split Soprano parts, both equal in tessitura. In this case, the piece would certainly need to be transposed down, maybe a minor 3rd, to accommodate my lower countertenor range than David’s. In short, it’s always making the piece work for you or your ensemble. The audience want to feel that you are totally comfortable performing it, rather than struggling because it is too high, or for that matter, too low.

2) Tempo

It really is vital that you chose a tempo to suit your choir. We’ve heard many performances of choirs choosing an unsuitable tempo resulting in the choir really struggling to make the most of the piece. If you have a small choir, for example, and you are singing a large choral work which was intended to be sung by larger forces, you will have to adapt the tempo accordingly. In this instance, there is little benefit in going with the tempo mark printed in the score. This is there as a guide to the most suitable tempo for the piece. However, in this scenario with fewer voices than originally intended, you will need to take the piece at a slightly faster tempo in order for your singers to sustain the long phrases. Of course, in a larger choir, you will be able to adapt the slower, prescribed tempo marking as your singers can easily stagger their breathing and the audience will be none the wiser!

We’ve found that a good way of finding the most suitable tempo for a piece is to refer to the section with the slowest note values and conversely the section with the quickest ones. This will give you a good idea of the speed which is right for your ensemble, especially if it is one voice per part – it should not be too slow that the performers are constantly running out of breath and not too fast that the text/notes become garbled.

3) Dynamics

In the KS we try and use dynamics as vocal colours. We believe that there is not only one way to sing mf, for example. There is a vocal timbre full of tone and ‘edge’ which will sound mf and there is a vocal tone with lots of breath in the sound and hardly any tone at all, which will still come across to the audience as mf. We use a huge palette of vocal colours when we perform and this is for two main reasons. One of our main aims on stage is to keep the audience interested in our performance and we find that producing sounds in differing colours/vocal tones has the desired effect. For example, listening to a hard, ‘edgy’ tone for a 2 hours can be very tiring on the ear, resulting in the audience losing interest. Similarly, an entire concert full of breathy, ‘transparent’ tone would be equally as tedious. We therefore mix up our sounds and in each programme, aim to give the audience an array of contrasting vocal timbres.

When seeing a score for the first time, try and experiment with these different sounds and match them to the printed performance markings – work out, for example, what ‘type’ of mf the composer would like you to sing. Where is the pinnacle of the piece in terms of intensity and emotion, and what type of tone should you use to portray this. In short, don’t treat the printed dynamic markings as simply a hierarchy of volumes but really try to work out what types of colour the composer wants you to create.


These are the three main areas which we find that choirs are interested in when discussing this subject but there are, of course, many more. Performance markings are critical in giving the performer an insight into the world of the composer when he/she was writing the piece – the mood, the emotion behind writing it and the way in which they would like their music to be conveyed to the audience. However these markings, editorial or from the actual composer, can be taken simply as a guide to your final performance. Of course, try the suggested tempo, dynamics and tessitura of the piece but if these do not work for your choir, feel free to change them to a small extent. If you do find that you are having to change the piece to a large degree then I would suggest that this piece is not entirely suitable for your choir. Although you should feel free to depart slightly from the printed performance directions, the piece should always maintain its integrity and identity as the piece is was originally written to be.


Read more KS editorials on the Ensemble Hub Dropbox.


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