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How many singers does it take to change a funeral?

We know that when a client asks for live music at a funeral service a funeral director’s head might start to spin. Where do you start? How many singers is enough – or too many? Can there be too many? What about amplification, and will it need accompaniment? We’re used to advising FDs and clients on exactly what they’ll need to make the music sing on the day. 

How big is a choir?

When you think of a choir at a funeral you might imagine a typical church choir, perhaps upwards of twenty or thirty people. The practicality and cost of this for a funeral is a little mind-boggling, especially in a small space, not to mention finding 30 people who are all available on a weekday morning. But a choir doesn’t need to be this big if it’s made up of classically trained professionals. It’s rare that we send a choir of larger than 12, because our professional singers are trained to produce a sound strong enough to fill a large venue just as well as a church choir, so you might need fewer than you think. 

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Most music is written in four parts, two male (bass and tenor) and two female (mezzo and soprano). So as a rule of thumb it’s best to book choirs in multiples of four to balance everything and to make sure you really hear all the glorious harmonies. There are exceptions to this however, which we will always advise our clients about. Below is a guide to some popular funeral songs and how many singers works best for each:

  • Schubert’s Ave Maria: originally written for a solo voice (and this is how it is usually performed), but there are also lovely versions written in four-part harmony. 
  • Dido’s Lament: also written for one female voice, particularly beautiful with a string quartet to accompany. 
  • Time To Say Goodbye: can be sung as a solo, but was made famous as a duet by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. 
  • Panis Angelicus: We like this best as a duet for soprano and tenor, and it will need piano or organ accompaniment.
  • Ave Verum Corpus: four or eight singers works well, but with a larger choir than this you may lose some of the complexity of the gorgeous harmonies.
  • Sanctus and Paradisum from Faure’s Requiem: these pieces benefit from a six-voice choir, as there are extra harmony lines that weave through the piece on top of the usual four. 

The venue

When deciding on the size of your choir, after looking at the music the next thing to consider is your venue. A choir of 16 will probably be overkill for a tiny crematorium chapel room, but you may need all the help you can get to fill a huge church space. However the acoustics can make a huge difference too – carpeted crematorium spaces can absorb sound, where large echoey churches with flagstone floors are designed to carry sound right to the back. 

The hymns

Many of our clients come to us because they’re worried about the congregational hymn singing. Hymns can become an arduous slog if the congregation is small, especially nowadays when people are less comfortable with singing in public. If you’re concerned about this issue and your venue will take it we always say the more the merrier when it comes to the choir – a lovely big sound will give the congregation all the cover they need to sing out to their hearts’ content and to feel the wonderful benefits of singing in a group. However if the congregation and space are small it’s better not to overwhelm them with sound, and a smaller number of singers might be best. 

We deliberately audition our singers in a small but echoey room in order to test their sensitivity to how their voice fills a space, so we know that they’ll take it into consideration when they arrive at a venue. All of our classical performers have the training to fill a large space if necessary, but the real test of their training comes in when they have to pull it back and control their volume to suit a more intimate performance. We also test their ability to blend their voices together with other singers in a choir, so that we know they can come together to produce a balanced harmony. 

Amplification

We prefer to use the venue’s natural acoustics wherever possible, and as mentioned above, our classical singers’ big voices don’t need amplification. However when it comes to pop and folk singers, who are trained to provide a softer and more fluid or dextrous sound, we will sometimes use a microphone in a larger space. This takes the pressure off the singer to fill the venue, so they can concentrate on connecting with the music, and especially helps if the singer is performing to a backing track. If the space is small we prefer not to use a microphone, and to let the natural sound of the singer’s voice speak for itself. 

Accompaniment

Speaking of backing tracks, another thing to consider is accompaniment. Live instruments are always preferable for accompanying classical songs – usually the piano or organ, as you need instruments capable of playing several notes at once (rather than a violin or flute for example). A backing track is sometimes best for a well known pop song, but we also love sending singers who accompany themselves on guitars, or paring down a popular song to an acoustic version with piano accompaniment when we can. If there will be congregational hymn singing we always advise booking one of our organists – or an accompanist with a portable keyboard if there is no organ. Accompaniment really is vital to getting everyone singing confidently, and smaller instruments won’t be strong enough to lead everyone in the hymns. 

If in doubt – we’ll help out

Whether it’s a huge cathedral, a tiny crematorium or even a woodland burial, live music will always add something special, and we’re here to make sure you have everything you need to make the music sing. 

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