Choir is a highly transformative singing environment that I got to enjoy in my formative years. From fourth grade through my second year of college I was involved in multiple choirs non-stop including a cappella (a format with no accompanist or conductor during performance). The reason choir is so common in religious worship is the blend of many voices does create a heavenly sound, and studies have even shown there is a lot of physiological and psychological benefits to singing in a group. However, with all the boons that a musician can garner from choir, there are equally consequential handicaps.
First, let us start with the good. When you sing in choir, you are learning more valuable skills as a musician than any other musical ensemble like “Band” or Orchestra. You learn what music schools call “aural skills” which are the abilities to hear something and replicate it with your voice while multi-tasking; sight reading, harmonizing, and following the dynamics of the conductor. The upper hand choir has over the other two ensembles mentioned, everything else being equal, is the combination of aural skills (not oral skills), and voice. At the collegiate level and as a musician overall, instrumentalists eventually realize how important their voice to their craft, but have to struggle to catch up because they never really used it. They have the same level of ear training, or sometimes even better, but the solfege/sight-singing that music conservatories will make them do after high school will drive them nuts. Choir musicians also get exposed to all the same dynamic and rhythmic skills as instrumentalists, and maybe only come up short on music theory. Choir musicians often get to explore a much larger spectrum of different composer’s works, not to mention the linguistic/phonetic skills they develop from singing songs from all over the world!
While choir is a fantastic platform for musicianship, it simultaneously teaches a lot of detrimental singing habits. At the core of choir is the idea of “blending” your voice with the others on the stage. We are all built differently. Our voices are fundamentally designed to stand out–no two voices will sound the same. When we try to blend, we take on bad habits and think they are appropriate habits because we use them in choir every day for long periods of time. Blending causes inappropriate or insufficient cord closure, and the manipulation of your voice to match whoever makes themselves the trend-setter of your section. In comedy, for instance, when you see a good impersonator, they have developed the ability to manipulate the muscles in their larynx to sound like someone who has an entirely different shaped head and throat, and different habits. Therefore, when one blends they are manipulating the larynx and then habit-forming that adjustment. Blending is also detrimental psychologically speaking, especially the axis of conformity and confidence, because you are learning to hold back and hide versus stand out and be seen. For those who want to be a singer in adult and professional contexts, the bad habits ingrained from the blending of conventional choir is a massive obstacle to overcome to be a successful solo vocalist. To explain the many terrible voice production habits learned in choir that effects a vocalist for life is too technical and dense for the purposes of this article, but it all comes from “blending.” If you are someone who is going to be in a choir, spend as much or more time singing solo and training with a balanced bridging/Mix specialist.
The blending problem is unique to the European historical choir format, whereas soul-style gospel choirs, for instance, are the polar opposite–often much more healthy for the voice. They blend their unique vocal individuality together as a group. In such a choir that encourages the individual voice, you can literally hear each and every singer if you focus in on them while getting the overall thrill of many voices singing together. Hallelujah, it is possible to have both!