Choral seating : mixed or by voice section?
© Lloyd W. Hanson 1998
Here are some of my thoughts on choral seating. I base this on my 20 plus years as a choral director and my background of experience within the Lutheran choral tradition as presented by the St. Olaf Choir, Concordia Choir, Luther College Choir, Augsburg Choir, Dale Warland Singers, Lutheran National Choir, etc. It is balanced by my experience, professionally, as a singer in opera; my many years as a producer, conductor, stage director and music director in opera; and over 40 years as a successful studio voice teacher.
The placement of voices in a choir to obtain a blend of choral tone is, or was, a very common concern with choral groups in the United States until recently. It now appears that most choral directors prefer to arrange their groups in a mixed section arrangement, that is, in mixed quartets or some similar "shotgun" seating. The effect of this mixed seating is to create the illusion of a choral blend where little, if any, choral blend really exists.
May I use an analogy. If you observes closely a Seurat pointillism painting you will see that to create the color green, Seurat has placed a series of blue and yellow dots. Viewed from a distance the eye mixes these two colors together to obtain green. However, the two colors were not blended together but only mixed by the eye. If you study a Rembrandt painting you will see colors that have been blended prior to their being placed on the canvas. If you find the similar shade of green in the Rembrandt as in the Seurat, you will notice a large difference. The Rembrandt color is a blend, the Seurat is a mixture that gives the illusion of a blend.
A choral group in mixed formation cannot create a blend, only a mixture. Differences in vowel color, pitch, and even volume will be minimized by this mixed formation. The listener's ear will receive a varied series of signals which the listener must mix together to achieve the illusion of a blend.
A choral group standing in sections by voice part will find that vowel color, pitch and volume differences tend to be emphasized and each member of the section must accommodate to a defined, tonal, pitch and volume goal for the section. This requires compromise of tonal sound from each singer. The amount of compromise can be somewhat minimized by careful placement of the individual singer within the section giving consideration to the ability of each singer to blend with the singer on each side of him/her. Such placement takes considerable time and is only useful if the membership of the group is consistently stable. It does not work for many choral groups that have a fluctuation of membership such as church choirs and y'all-come choruses.
The mixed seating arrangement works well with music which tends to emphasize a spatial relationship of sound. Seating by voice section works well with music that emphasizes blocks of sound or is polyphonic. Most choral music fits into the latter category. Many choral groups today, however, use the former method of seating to performs works in this latter category.
Lloyd W. Hanson, DMA
Professor of Voice, Pedagogy
School of Performing Arts
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ 86011