Book Review: Prescriptions for Choral Excellence

Prescriptions for Choral Excellence

Shirlee Emmons

Constance Chase

Oxford, 2006


I bought this book in 2011 and it was first published in 2006. It has been my companion since then, a bit like this friend that is a little intense, with whom you have great discussions, but you would not like to hang out with he or she every day, because of his intensity and lack of lighteness. Nevertheless, the friendship is worthwile, because rich, deep, meaningful, bringing you in a new place with your art.


The book strives to cover many aspects of the work of a choral conductor, dealing with vocal technique applied to choirs, (Breath, diction, colour, to summarize), leadership theories, goal setting for the ensemble and the conductor, mental skills (memorization, self-talk, imagery, planning) and then  smaller general topics, as vocal health for singers, accompanist, relationship to individual singers.


The book, that could have a light and more welcoming style, is organized systematically and somehow playfully around a doctor’s diagnosis : The complaint, the diagnosis and the treatment plan. It is heavily backed by scientific evidence, which gives creedance to the endeavor but makes the overall approach a bit heavy. I usually go to the book with a concern and choose only a few pages to muster. And I then figure out a plan for myself to  adapt to my environment. It is an opiniated book, what they propose is uncompromising and it doesn’t deliver options. It’s not as strong as thinking that they own the truth, but almost. The fact that they back their treatment plans with science makes this approach acceptable. This is something that I like for the most part as the proposals are direct and straightforward, but it takes a little distance for the proposal not to become a dogma.


I find the book most helpful in how it treats vowel modification and issues about colour,breathing and diction. It was an eye opener for me, especially in how I deal with high register music to give a break to the singers and to maximize efficiency and beauty. That’s for me a must read. I come back to it once in a while to refresh or deepen concepts.


My biggest complaint is the density of the style and concepts. I often find myself avoiding jumping in the book because its rather inherent thickness in format. I also think that sometimes the concepts are a bit manichean and zealous (especially on how they deal with passaggio with voice types—it would make your audition process arduous and is unpractical to choir reality-or at least that is my experience).


Good information, eye-opener ; thick read-be prepared.


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