Choral Technique and Interpretation by Henry Coward

Webpage by composer William Copper . Listen to some choral music

Though perhaps archaic and imperial, this book contains nearly everything a choral conductor must remember to rehearse, train and develop singers. Links to additional chapters at the end of this web page.

Mus. Doc. Oxon.




This book has been written to assist Choral
Conductors and Choirmasters, though its scope is
not limited to these, as many of the principles
embodied in the text are applicable to Soloists as
well as to Orchestral and Military Conductors.

   There is no padding or mere theorizing in the
book.  Everything written is the outcome of living
experience, and has stood the test of many year's

   Other methods may be equally good, or better;
but because I have found what is herein stated to
be, in my judgment, the most effective, I have,
without reserve, placed my plans and experience at
the disposal of all who are seeking to develop
Choral music and Choral singing, either in the
small Choir or in the large Festival Chorus.

                                  H. C.

    2, Moorgate Avenue,


WHEN journeying round the world during 1911
with the Sheffield World Tour Choir, to realise
Dr. Charles Harriss's great imperial idea of musical
reciprocity in the British Empire, amongst my 
pleasantest experiences I count the meetings and
friendly discussions with the conductors of the 
numerous choral societies in Canada, America,
Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.  In
every case a spirit of enthusiasm for choral singing
was manifested, coupled with a keen desire to
reach a high standard.  Therefore it was only
natural that these conversations almost invariably
drifted into a series of inquiries as to the manage-
ment of the voice, the problem of maintaining the
pitch, how to secure piannissimo, the secret of clear
diction, and the other topics connected with Choral
Technique in its most modern development.
    All these points of inquiry, which are also exer-
cising the minds of hundreds of choral conductors
in the British Isles, I carefully noted, and I propose
in the following pages to give such hints, advice,
and instruction that no single problem connected
with choral singing, shall, if possible, remain

   This may seem a presumptuous remark, but to
vindicate the statement I propose to press into
service the crystallized essence of forty years'
experience as conductor of all sorts and conditions
of choirs, which I trust will enable me to justify
the assertion. 
   This extended practical knowledge has been 
gained from bodies of singers ranging from the raw,
rough material of village singers to the polished
select choir; from small bodies of twenty-four
voices to masses of over fifty thousand.
   From the above foreshadowing of the scheme
of the book, it will be gathered that its object is
intensely practical -- in fact, to assist in every possible
way the hosts of choral conductors and choir-
masters to become effective participators in that
tremendous and wonderful forward movement in 
choral singing, splendid examples of which are 
now to be heard at many of our Musical Festivals,
advanced choral societies' concerts, and choral
contests, whether known as Eisteddfodau or
Competitive Festivals. 


   To the question, What is the New Choral 
Technique?  the answer may be given that it 
embraces all the splendid qualities, grand, rich tone,
broad effects, and thrilling climaxes of the old style
of choral singing, as exemplified at the Leeds and
Birmingham Musical Festivals of the 'eighties and
'nineties, plus the more refined expression and greater
dramatic import demanded by the more advanced
and much more critical audiences of to-day.

   These added attributes of progressive choral
training may be briefly summarized as follows: --
  (a) Greater vocal control on the part of the
singers.  This must be shown in homogeneity of
tone, so that each vocal part, however numerous,
sounds like one huge voice and not like a congeries
of conflicting voices.
   Further, the voices must be able to produce
different qualities of tone.  No longer will one
tone-quality satisfy the claims of interpretation
of even such works as The Messiah and Elijah,
whilst in modern choral works variety of tone-
quality is absolutely necessary.  Therefore numerous
tone tints-- the white, the impersonal, the ethereal,
the dull and the dark, the breathy, and many other
colourings -- must be available.
   There must be also characterization of tone to
exemplify the sob, the exclamation,the snarl, the
laugh -- playful, mocking, derisive, or fiendish -- the
shout of triumph, &c.  In fact, the whole gamut
of dramatic emotion has now to be portrayed by
the subtle shadings of the tone-quality of the voices.
  (b) Expression of a more refined and artisitc
character must be shown.
   In addition to the sudden contrasts from pp to ff
and vice versa --dearly beloved of old -- the fine
cres. and dim., the melting and merging of one
phrase into another, the definite prominence or 
subordination of any part or parts, as in artistic
string quartets, and the due attention to contrasts
of force, all need incorporation in the modern
scheme of expression.
  (c) Words and their articulation call for supreme
attention.  The new technique predicates greater
care in securing correct vowel quantity and clear

definition of consonants, whether they be initial,
middle, or final.
   In addition to this technical perfection, vitalising
of the words and sentences by proper tone and 
emphasis is demanded, so that the dramatic sense
is never in doubt, the result being the attainment
of good diction -- that pearl of great price.
  (d) In phrasing, it exacts careful marking of the
breathing places so as to secure a natural grouping
of the words.  Further, the musical phrasing, when
not controlled by the text, is not left to haphazard
treatment, as has been to often the case.
  (e) Rhythm is exalted to a high position.  Means
are adopted to secure such a control of accents and
stresses -- regular and irregular -- that each distinc-
tive phrase maintains its individuality while not
interfering with the other parts, thus avoiding the
muddiness and jumble which one often hears, say, 
in Bach's music when badly rendered.
   The sense of the composition must be faithfully
reflected in the performance.  It will not suffice to
sing "He trusted in God" in the same manner as
"Glory to God"; or the "Wraith of Odin" 
(King Olaf) with the same atmosphere as the
succeeding chorus, "A little bird in the air"; or a 
madrigal in part-song fashion.  A recognition of
diversity of styles of composition and adaptation of
means to end is now exacted.
  (f) Breathing must be dealt with systematically,
not only to secure power to phrase, but to get
control of breath pressure, so as to produce those
extraordinary fortissimo effects which suggest
illimitable power of voice.
   The new training also demands a wider out-
look and a greater range of composition than

existed in the past.  It will not do to confine the
performances to a few well-known works, or even a
wider range of old works, to the exclusion of
modern compositions.  Up to a few years ago
there was a strong disposition on the part of both
conductors and societies to treat with scant courtesy
any work which presented anything out of the
current idiom, and which was therefore rather 
difficult to perform.  I am of the opinion that the
many failures in the rendering of works at our
leading Musical Festivals have been due to the
inertia of the performers rather than to the
demerits of the compositions.  The way difficulties
were shirked used to make my blood boil, because
many new, strange effects were never realised, and
the works were consequently damned.  A con-
spicuous example of putting new wine into old
bottles was the first performance of Gerontius.
We can now look back and smile at the fiasco,
because we properly attribute the failure to the
fact that the new spirit of progress -- so well
vindicated since at the same festival -- had not
entered into either the officials or the singers.  This
spirit of tackling and mastering difficulties for an
artistic purpose must be paramount in all who
wish to march under the banner of the newest
   The foregoing demands of modern choral
singing may seem appalling to many, but experience
has shown that they can all be met.  When, from
1875 to 1895, I attended all the chief festivals as
musical critic, the limitations of the old style of
choralism were often very evident to me.  Though
there were many things to praise -- and I never
had occasion to write an adverse criticism of the

choral singing-- the lack of delicacy, the absence of
clearness in the words, the few attempts (generally
failures) at characterization, the lack of spring and
alertness, &c., produced such a feeling of dis-
satisfaction in me that I had often to lecture
myself in some such manner as the following: "You
are unreasonable to expect a large body of singers
to be as smart and agile as a small select choir or
the principals.  Is it fair to expect four hundred
voices to give a real pianissimo; or to demand
perfection in chromatic chords; or to exact in-
dividuality in involved polyphony?  You might as
well expect an omnibus to go noiselessly along the
road, or railway engines to skip like rams, or an
elephant to say 'See me dance the polka.'  In the
nature of things it is impossible.  Be reasonable.
Praise the things that are worthy of praise, and
leave the irremediable faults alone."
   Happily I had a choral society -- the Sheffield
Musical Union -- which enabled me by frequent
experiment to put to practical test whether it
was possible for a large choir to equal a smaller
body in the matters of responsiveness, alertness,
quality of tone, expression, and diction.  The ever-
faithful singers enthusiastically pursued the ideal
of their leader, and fearlessly trod strange paths,
traversed many unknown vocal regions, and scaled
choral heights which had htherto not been
attempted.  The success and the great local
reputation of the Sheffield Musical Union chorus
led to the choir of the first Sheffield Festival being
placed under my sole control.
   It is not presumption to say that the singing of
these three hundred and twenty voices was a
genuine revelation to the visiting critics, and

proved that all the attributes of artistic singing --
good vocal tone, power without roughness, delicate
nuances without weakness, true intonation, perfect
chording and blend, clearness of atttack, clearness
of words together with perfection of mobility and
discipline -- could be attained as well by a large
body of vocalists as by a small select choir.
   The possibilities of higher achievements being
shown, the path thus opened out has been success-
fully followed by highly talented and enthusiastic
conductors, with the result that we hear to-day at
most Musical Festivals, Eisteddfodau, and other
competitive meetings, performances of compositions
which, in respect of their difficulty and the
excellence of their rendering, would have been
thought impossible a dozen years ago.
   Herein lies the reason for the writing of this book.
It is to set forth the underlying principles of artistic
choral attainment, so that the ordinary well-
informed enthusiastic choral conductor may
approximate in result to the excellent renderings
of the select souls to whose conducting reference
has been made above, and thus raise the artistic
standard of singing throughout the world.

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- 8 -     

                  THE REHEARSAL

   The choral society exists, or should exist,
primarily for the realisation of an ideal, the flower
and fruit of this being a performance, as perfect as
possible, of the work undertaken.
   In this ideal there should be faultless technique
and artistic expression -- the former to give 
intellectual satisfaction, the latter to stir the
emotions, -- the whole to transport the hearer to
that exaltation of spirit, free from baser passions,
which it is the glory of music to produce.
   While this end should always be kept in mind,
we must never lose sight of the means to the end.
Hence the importance of giving attention to the
supreme factor in musical achievement --  the
   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

   Therefore the subject How to conduct rehearsals is
of vital importance to the artistic, and incidentally
to the commercial success of the choral society.
   In the main there are three methods of taking
rehearsals.  These I name: --
        Ist.  The Conventional Generalizing;
        2nd.  The Critical (or hypercritical)--
                 Particularizing; and
        3rd.  The Compartmental Specializing.
   These methods may be used at both full and
sectional rehearsals.
   Generally all three varieties are used consciously
or unconsciously by all conductors, but as "Method
is the secret of success," if conductors are able to
realise the distinctive features and differences of
the three plans of conducting rehearsals, and also
know the best stage at which to use each style--
whether singly or in combination -- rehearsals will
be made much more effective and enjoyable.
The enjoyment aspect is to my mind of such
importance that it swallows up every other con-
sideration, for pleasurable choral rehearsals mean
profitable social reunions.
   I will now consider this trinity of plans, with a
view of obtaining unity of effects, namely, getting as
much good work done as possible in the limited
time for rehearsal.


   The Conventional Generalizing Method is the
one to be followed chiefly as the foundation of all
rehearsals.  It consists of going through the music
time after time until the general outline of it is 

mastered, and the spirit of the composition fully
grasped by the singers.  Theoretically this is quite
correct, and, as such, this useful and necessary
process is followed by the great majority of
conductors.  Most of them, however, fail to achieve
success, or at least distinction, because of the
limitations of the method.  It needs that element of
ideality which the Particularizing and Specializing
Methods presuppose.  At a recent Three Choirs
Festival an enthusiastic gentleman amateur asked
a very well-known composer -- who is generally
regarded as a great genius in composition--What is
genius?  He replied, "Two per cent. of inspiration,
and ninety-eight per cent. of perspiration."  In
artistic matters, as in the Sheffield high-grade steel,
it is the two per cent. of inspiration which makes
all the difference between the ordinary and the
really good.  Those who follow the Generalizing
Method exclusively, just miss this two per cent.
-- the "vital spark" -- and the oft-heard remark
of conductors, "That will do," when really the fine
edge of polish and attainment has never been
attempted or even thought of, shows that thousands
of choirmasters regard this conventional treatment
as a terminus, not merely a thoroughfare which
has to be traversed in the search for artistic


   The Particularizing Method consists in striving
for perfection in each detail -- music, words, expres-
sion, &c. -- to attain which the method is absolutely
necessary.  Strangely enough this method, as
carried out by some conductors, produces disastrous

results -- by exciting irritation instead of giving
irradiation or illumination, and thus killing all
pleasure in the rehearsals.
   Let us follow, in a matter-of-fact way, the
common usage of a conductor who adopts this
   Full of zeal, with a lofty ideal, and familiar with
the score, he begins the rehearsal with high hopes
and a firm determination to achieve something
good.  In the first few bars he hears some wrong
notes.  Instead of allowing these to pass and
"blundering through" somehow, he stops the
choir to try over, say, the bass and contralto
parts separately.  He starts again, and finds the
sopranos and tenors are wrong, therefore he stops
again to put them right.  If he let that suffice all
would be well, because choirs rather like short
explanatory stoppages; but presently  he stops
because a phrase has been sung forte instead of
piano, and says, with a growl, that it is surprising
that they should not observe expression marks, &c.
A harsh voice and a mispronounced word call for
stoppage and reproof; and by the end of the 
rehearsal one chorus, perhaps, has been got through.
The choir meanwhile are invariably annoyed and
"fretted" at being stopped so often -- like a spirited
horse that is being constantly "pulled" by a
tactless driver-- and sore at having to sit, for a
seemingly long part of the evening, listening to the
other "parts" correcting their mistakes.  The
feeling running through it all is "much cry and
little wool."  This kind of thing is repeated at
subsequent rehearsals, because of the avowed
determination of the conductor to "make everything
perfect as we go along," with the result that at the

concert the last chorus, or perhaps two choruses,
have to be sung practically at sight; and as the
earlier choruses are not sung too well through not
being heard frequently as a whole, the final
impression on the mind of the audience is one of
   This is not a fancy picture, as I know societies
which have undergone this treatment from well-
meaning, clever men for season after season, until a
rebellion of the long-suffering members has led to
a change of conductors.
   This mistake is to expect artistic results too soon.
They forget the old saw "Rome was not built in a
day."  Singers as a rule are aware of mistakes,
and when they have got a kind of subconscious
grasp of harmonies they master the errors privately.
In this matter of note-perfection, after pointing out
errors or very difficult phrases, it is good policy to
leave it to the members and "wait and see."  This
is better than doing as some conductors do, viz.,
keep three-quarters of the society doing nothing 
for half the night while one of the parts is mastering
a knotty point.
   Equally wasteful and unsatisfactory is it to try
to get a body of players or singers to render a 
phrase with expression before the phrase itself and
the words have become familiar, or rather burnt
into the mind.  Every artistic effect must have its
antecedent of preparatory work.  Taking it as a
whole, long experience of myself and others has
shown me that more harm is done by the too early
application of the Particularizing hypercritical
wanting-to-do-too-many-things-at-a-time Method,
than by the apparently slower -- even stodgy --
conventional "non-stop" manner, where at least

the choir does get a full night's singing and
thereby makes some progress, whereas the
"fretting" system irritates the singers. 


   The little known and little practised Compart-
mental Specializing Method consists in taking some
special point or topic, and concentrating all attention
on it, and, for the time being, ignoring everything
else.  For instance, if note-perfection of a difficult
phrase be the object sought, all faults of time-
quality, words, breathing, or expression are passed
over.  The same rule is observed if the topic of
study be the development of a fugal subject, or
obtaining fluency in runs, divisions, or roulades, as
in "His yoke is easy," or "For unto us."
   Amongst the many features that call for 
specialization we may include the working up to a
climax; the polishing of a pianissimo phrase; the
obtaining of perfect attack; the management of
the crescendo and the diminuendo; the realising of the
dynamic and emotional sforzandos and pressure
notes; the clarifying -- to the listener -- of close
imitations; the development of marked entries;
the perfecting of vowels and consonants; the
marking of breathing places; the unifying of tone-
quality; and the developing of characteristic tonal
effects, as in the "Demons' Chorus," "He trusted
in God," the "Amen" in Faust, &c.
   The above list is not exhaustive, as each
composition presents its own problems.  This
specializing method may be described as the
Napoleonic "Divide and Conquer" policy: or
perhaps it more nearly follows the plan of

Mr. Maskelyne and other famous jugglers and
plate-spinners, who get one plate spinning before
they attempt to set going the next.
   Of course care must be taken not to give too
large doses of this method at one time, or it would
become as wearisome as the Particularizing Method.
Fortunately experience has shown that it takes only
a seemingly short time to enforce one or two points
during an evening, because when the object aimed 
at is explained to the singers they generally enter
into the spirit of the quest, and when they become
interested the time is pleasurably and profitably


   It will be seen from the above that by no one of
the three methods alone can the highest results be
achieved, and as the success of the rehearsals
depends upon the conductor's mental grasp of the
three methods, and his power to blend the trinity
into a unity, it is necessary to consider how and
when to use the methods singly and in combination.
   First in order comes the General Conventional
Method.  This should be used almost exclusively
for the first two or three rehearsals, and, combined
with the other methods, should continue to the
final rehearsal.  When the music and the words have
been roughly but firmly outlined, and the "hang" 
of the piece fairly grasped, then Specializing or
Particularizing treatment should supplement the
general coaching.
   The specializing should be introduced at the 
very earliest moment, but in the early stages should
be applied in homeopathic doses.  It is the

opportunist's method.  It gives the smart conductor
the chance of putting right a particularly knotty 
point, and, while relieving for five minutes the
decorous general method, it also gives the conductor
credit for alertness.
   For instance, a good method of specializing is to
take one or two difficult intervals or phrases in a
piece, and, before the music is sung over, to pattern
the phrase by voice or pianoforte, showing how it 
should be sung.  By this means pitfalls are
made comparatively easy to circumvent, and
much time is saved.  As examples of the kind
of phrase here meant, I would refer to bar 11
of Elgar's "Go, song of mine," where the
sudden transition from B minor to E flat minor
is very disconcerting unless the mind of the 
singer has been prepared for it.  Similarly the
sopranos must be prepared for the high G natural,
bar 14, in F minor, which comes abruptly after
G flat in the bass and contralto parts in bar 13.
It will not be necessary to multiply examples to
which this principle can be applied, because almost
every modern piece contains one or more phrases
in which it is necessary.  This specializing should
not be undertaken without previous preparation on
the part of the conductor.  He should know what
he wants and how to go about getting it.
   During the early general rehearsals he should
notice any errors of notes, time, rhythm, attack,
release, phrasing and what not, marking in blue
pencil the places that want special attention.  He
is then able to form his plan of operations, and
having decided upon his special subject for the
next rehearsal, he should not be diverted from the
one point by the appearance of other errors, but

carry it through, while noting the faults which 
require attention at a future rehearsal.
   It is well known that in nearly every piece there
are certain parts which require much more rehearsal
than, say, the other nine-tenths, but owing to the
inconvenience of stopping a choir in full swing,
the difficulties are allowed to pass unnoticed.
By applying this method the desirable extra
rehearsal is met with conspicuous success and
usually in a pleasant form.  A feature of this
specializing is to keep all the choir engaged.  For
instance, in the mastering of a fugue -- especially
if the subject be difficult or unusual, as in Brahms's
Requiem-- I ask all the choir to sing both the
subject and the answer in unison until each is
practically learned by heart, the result being brilliant
attack in performance.  If the subject be florid, as
in "For unto us," or "Let Zion's children" (in
Bach's Motet, Sing ye), the whole choir sing each
part in unison softly, the object being to give
fluency to the runs, divisions, or roulades, and
agility to the voice, the emphasis in these cases
being placed on the improvement of the voice.
   It is said that the great artist Turner, the day
before the Royal Academy was open to the public,
used to touch up his pictures by means of a brush
at the end of a long stick.  This was done to
accommodate the picture to the distance from the
spectator and the surroundings.  This plan of
"final touching up" I strongly approve, and it
should be carried out whenever it happens that
the work is practically finished by the time of the
penultimate rehearsal.  At the final rehearsal I
find it a good plan to specialise, to impress upon
the minds of singers all those details over which 

great pains have been taken -- such as pianissimos,
the balancing of tone so that each entry is heard
and each inner melody is duly prominent, the
maintenance of pitch at critical points, &c., &c.
There is no doubt that this last effort produces
maximum results.
   When, with great saving of time and temper, the
choir has been prepared, by the Conventional and
Compartmental Methods, for the consummation of 
the rehearsals, then the Critical Particularizing
Method can be introduced with advantage both to
the conductor and the conducted.  It is easy to see
how it can now be successfully applied, because
each section -- voice, music, words, expression --
having been dealt with separately, all that is needed
is to combine the various constituents in a well-
balanced whole.   It is as though an artist had
made finished sketches of each object, figure and
background, and then had merely to harmonize 
them on a single canvas into an artistic whole -- the
   The conductor will find that the worry to himself
and the fretting to the choir have now disappeared,
because the singers, being in a state of preparedness,
can give full attention and practical effect to any
new demand of interpretation.  Further, at this
stage they become by their responsiveness fellow
helpers, almost anticipating every wish; and
furthermore, they enjoy the polishing process when
they feel that they can realise the conductor's
ideas.  There is now no irritation at being stopped
again and again; in fact they like it, because they
feel every interruption means improvement in one
point or another, and this makes them feel the joy
of successful conquest, and they leave the rehearsal

room shaking hands with themselves at what has
been attempted and accomplished. 
   As to the conductor, he will go home delighted,
and refreshed in spirit though perhaps tired in
body.  For has he not had the joy of seeing -- or 
rather hearing -- his ideals of beauty materialise?
Like another Aladdin, he has only had to call, and
lo! an artistic edifice has sprung to life at his
bidding -- happy man!
   In conclusion of this topic, I would strongly urge
highly-strung, anxious-souled conductors not to
"put the cart before the horse" --i.e., try to
force the pace by neglecting the so-called inartistic
preliminary grinding.  If they do, they will find, as
I have found, that it is a case of more haste less
speed.  I have small faith in the "make-perfect-
as you go along" plan, but prefer the system of
arriving at perfection concurrently with the grasping
of the atmosphere of the composition as a whole.
Like the man who said he knew honesty was the
best policy because he had tried both, I say I
have tried every method of conducting, and the
plans I recommend above are the best-- best for
the music, best for the choir, and best for the
conductor.  I may say that now I never go away
disappointed from a rehearsal, because I always
get from the choir as much as I expected.  The
first rehearsal gives satisfaction, the next more
satisfaction, and at each following rehearsal there
is generally a crescendo of pleasurable feeling till,
after a final hypercritical Particularizing rehearsal,
I feel jubilant at the splendid responsiveness of the
choir, and look forward with confidence to the
thrills which will be experienced at the concert by
the conductor, the performers, and the audience.

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