Choral voicing is a technique with long-standing history used by choral directors to seat singers based on characteristics of the voice - color, tone, timbre, placement, and vibrato. Contrary to popular belief, this technique is not just for college and professional choirs. Try it at home with your church choir, community choir, and even children's choirs! It will be well worth your time.
Each voice has a unique series of overtones, which contributes to timbre (source). The ideal choral sound is based on overtone series that complement each other rather than clashing. Having singers with like, complementary voices stand next to each other creates a natural "blend" that does not require singers to compromise their vocal technique. Did I mention it fosters the best intonation? It's a win-win, really.
Here are some of the best-kept secrets of choral voicing:
Begin by seating the choir by section. Ask members of one section to stand in a line. Listen to each singer sing (solo) the first few phrases of "My Country 'Tis of Thee." James Jordan recommends the following keys for each voice:
Soprano 1: A-flat
Soprano 2: G-flat
Alto 1: D-flat
Alto 2: B-flat
Tenor 1: G
Tenor 2: G-flat
Think of it as a transposing challenge... or download a free printable of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" in all the keys listed! :-)
Take mental note of the following for each voice: (1) color (dark, bright), (2) placement (forward, nasal, back), (3) size of the voice, and (4) vibrato range/rate.
Voicing each section
Begin again, at one end of the row, and listen to the first two singers sing together. Encourage them to sing with a "healthy, supported, free, and vibrant sound" and not try to blend with the person next to them (source). Rearrange singers so that you hear the first person in combination with others in the section until you find a good match (in terms of tone and timbre).
Once you have two singers whose voices work well together, have them trade places and sing again. Choose the order that sounds best (you'll be able to tell and so will others in the room!). Have them sing in combination with others in the section (on either side or in between) until you find a third voice that matches well (and an order that works for these three voices). Continue adding and rearranging singers until everyone has been placed.
Once you have placed everyone in the section (and they are all standing in a row), try moving the last singer to the beginning of the row and having everyone move down one, as this may improve the sound even more. Reverse or invert the row for a different color (brighter vs. darker). Repeat this process with each section.
Want your choir to stand in mixed formation? Trying voicing SATB quartets!
Making a seating chart
Assign everyone a number, based on their position in the line and use this for seating charts in the future. The numerical line can be broken, but singers must return to the center for each new row (do not zig-zag across rows). For example, two rows of sopranos should look like this:
8 7 6 5
4 3 2 1
And three rows might look like this:
9 8 7
6 5 4
3 2 1
There are lots of opinions out there about choral seating and where to put each section (for instance, opinion 1 and opinion 2). Some directors prefer to have strong, "core" voices in the center of the choir, with weaker voices on the outside. Similarly, some prefer darker, richer voices in the back and lighter voices in the front (or vice versa). Try it different ways and decide what works best for your choir (in a given space and with given repertoire - it might change).
I hope this information is helpful! Any other best-kept secrets out there? Share them in the comments below!