We were meant to remain on our feet during the tenor aria and wait for the next chorus. We stood quietly and dutifully held our folders at the right angle – a picture of choral professionalism. Our musical director was dealing with a lot of stuff – the orchestra, choir, soloists, tricky acoustics and the score. Maybe there was a sit we had failed to record or maybe he just thought we were looking a bit tired. Anyway, he gave a clear downward wave. There was a split-second of indecision before we all obeyed. The aria was beautiful but short and there was a growing sense of tension among the singers. This was clear from the tightening of shoulders and stiffening of jaws. Where were we going to stand? Then, at exactly the right moment, the choir rose to their feet to perform the chorus. We had made a silent but collective decision and I have never felt prouder.
There is an art involved in getting your choir to sit down and stand up again at the right time during a performance. It seems such an easy thing to the layperson but it is a complex process. Good conductors plan out appropriate sits and stands and ensure that all singers have marked them in. There are times, however, when performers drift off into the beauty of the music and lose their place in the score. When this happens their neighbours need to be alert and ready to pull them up or drag them down at the correct point. It is wise to be courteous about this though. There is nothing worse than seeing a fist-fight breaking out amongst the sopranos during a performance.
A first-class choir demonstrates their choral chops if they master the discipline of good sits and stands. The audience feels confident that here is a choir that knows what they are doing. Messy sits and stands are horrible to watch. If someone gets it wrong it is immediately obvious and can be hilarious. Standing up on your own is worse than sitting but both are bad. There is no way to carry it off with panache as everything you do will attract attention. Giggling, mouthing ‘Sorry!’ at the conductor or slapping a hand to your forehead will all make it worse. It is best to sink slowly back onto your seat with a blank expression.
Sits and stands are fraught with risk and you have to learn how to deal with them. We have experienced staging that swayed from side to side if anyone moved a muscle. We were singing the Sea Symphony and the motion sickness did not add to the performance. The sits and stands in that performance were executed very carefully. Some staging creaks and bangs when you step on it. This means the entrance of the choir is accompanied by pistol shots and cannon fire. On this kind of staging you have to be careful not to move during the performance in case you spoil the quiet bits. And, if you don’t have the luxury of chairs you can experience the very painful ‘bottom pinch’ from where boards join. There is nothing worse than hearing singers, spaced at regular intervals, cry out when sitting down.
There are times when a sit in the wrong place is involuntary. Fainting is relatively uncommon but you need to know how to deal with it. It can be hot up there under the lights, and some of us have experienced the sudden drop of an adjacent singer. The first thing to check is that the person has just fainted and it isn’t more serious. The second thing to take into account is that the show must go on. You could administer first aid with your feet as you keep powering on through Carmina Burana but it is tricky. I’ve seen singers tucked up in the recovery position under the seats waiting to be rescued in the interval. It seems harsh but there is nothing more embarrassing than being stretchered off the stage in the middle of a performance.
To sum up, then, sits and stands are important to any choral performance. Choirs that raise and lower themselves quietly as a single entity look great. Getting it wrong can spoil a performance for the audience, no matter how beautifully you sing. Getting it right demonstrates your professionalism and sets the scene for a glorious experience.