The top 5 most used choir director hand signals

When you’re learning how to be a good choir director, job one is learning how to give clear directions to your choir. To be effective though, you need to do two things. You need to learn how to give them early enough so your choir has time to understand what you want and be prepared to execute it. Secondly, you need to use gestures and/or hand signals that they can clearly understand. While every choir director develops his own style of giving direction over time, there are certain basic commands you need to learn right away to move your choir through a song. In Gospel music these commands have over time developed hand signals that are almost universally used in black churches.

Today I’ll reveal the top five Gospel choir hand signals:

1. Go back to the top!

This tells your choir to go back to the beginning of the song.
The hand signal: Place one hand over the top of your head, palm facing down

2. Sing that again!

This tells your choir to repeat something that was just sang. It’s most commonly used when you first take the choir into the vamp, but it can be used anywhere you want something repeated.
The hand signal:  Repeatedly make a circular motion with one arm, index finger extended.

3. Sing the verse here!  

Use this to let your choir know a verse is about to happen; whether it’s your leader or the choir that has it.
The hand signal:  Hold up the” Peace” sign nice and high so everyone can see it.

4. Let’s go to the vamp!

This tells your choir it’s time to” take it home”, as they say.
The hand signal:  With your thumb, do the hitch-hiking move over your shoulder.

5. Let’s end the song now! 

This tells the choir we’re about to do the big finale and end the song.

The hand signal:  Hold up one or both hands, arm(s) straight up. You can use clinched fists or open hands.


There ya go! Now, this is no means an all inclusive list of everything you’ll ever need. For example, you’ll need to learn how and when to ask them to clap, move from side to side, etc. For more reading on the subject you may also like 4 Things Every Good Choir Director Must Do.



4 things every good choir director must do

If you’ve never walked down to the front of the church, centered yourself on that choir and felt the pressure of every person in the audience at your back and every member of that choir hanging on your every movement, you might think directing a choir is much easier than it really is. And yet, in churches all over the nation and even abroad, people are finding themselves being thrust into that position without really being prepared for what it takes to really be effective at it.

Being a great choir director is much more than just waving your arms to the beat and mouthing the words, as many first-time directors find out the hard way at that first rehearsal. However, there are a few things every great choir director has in common. These are things that will make almost anyone a powerful, confident, effective choir director if they simply take the time to learn and master them. In today’s article I’ll take a look at them one by one, in detail. Every great choir director must do the following:

1. Know The Material

As choir director, when you have a new song to direct with the choir, it’s imperative that you know that song inside and out. If you don’t, you can’t give clear direction. Now, the more you know the more effective you are. But at the very least the choir director absolutely HAS to know:

A) The format of the song. This is how the song flows. What happens first. What happens after that. How many repetitions is that sang? Where do we go after that? We’re speaking of course of the various parts of a song and how they are arranged. The most effective way to learn this is to sit down with the song and write it out. Make notes of the various parts of the song as they happen, and label them. Use notes or brackets or asterisks- whatever you relate to the most – to help you remember what happens when and how many times it happens before going to the next thing.

b) The choir’s lyrics. As the choir director you absolutely MUST know everything the choir has to say and exactly when they need to say it. If you can also know what the leader says, that’s great. But generally just knowing when the leader comes in and when the choir comes in is enough. The leader usually understands that learning his/her verses is his responsibility and as such, isn’t often looking at the director for words.

2. Communicate Clearly And Early

The choir director is called by that name because that’s exactly what that person is doing. Giving directions. It’s no different than when you ask someone to drive you some place they’ve never been. You must communicate ahead of time and in a clear manner when you want them to turn left or right, and where. In other words, you don’t wait unti the driver’s bumper is approaching the street you want and then yell “TURN HERE!!” . This is a common mistake most new directors make.

To be effective in leading your choir you must do with them the same thing you do when you’re giving someone directions in a car. You must think “down the road” a little musically. Just like you say to the driver “ok not this street, but the next street, turn right”. Or “get in the left lane, we’re going to be turning at that next light”. You can only do that because you’re thinking ahead of the car. In a similar way, effective directors think ahead of the music and give signals or gestures that clearly communicate to everyone what’s coming up next.

A good director makes sure he has the attention of everyone involved before he makes the gesture to start that next thing, whether it’s another verse or simply to come out of the vamp. He quickly scans the choir, the band and the leader looking for eye contact so he knows everyone is aware. His gestures and/or facial expressions tell everyone “we’re about to do something different, watch me”.

3. Understand How Music Is Measured, Or “Counted”

This one confuses a lot of new choir directors. Have you ever seen a choir director who clearly gave the direction to go to the next thing, gave it early enough, did everything right, but somehow it just didn’t happen right? It felt awkward, like you knew what to do but couldn’t do it right there? That happens a lot when a choir director gives the right command at the wrong time. Music is very repetitive. It repeats, usually in cycles or multiples of 2. For example if something is being repeated, it will repeat twice, 4, 6 or 8 times. Sometimes if you give the command to do something on an “odd beat” your musicians and choir will have a hard time carrying it out for you simply because the rhythm was thrown off.

Gaining a better understanding of this “count” or rhythmic flow and how it works can be as simple as listening to the song, counting and tapping your foot along with the beat. This could get pretty deep so I won’t go into much detail here. But a good director either has that sense of timing naturally or needs to learn it by learning just a little music notation. You don’t have to learn how to read music, just how to count it. Look up how to count “bars” or “measures” on the internet. In fact maybe I’ll do a YouTube video on that soon.

4. Be Consistent; Use The Same Gestures All The Time

The word “gestures” here refers to the actual hand and/or arm movements you use to tell the choir what you want them to do. Every director is different and has their own style. However I always recommend that directors use as much as possible, gestures that have become somewhat “universal” among Gospel Choir directors. Placing your hand over the top of your head to signify “Go back to the top of the song”, or pointing your thumb over your shoulder to signify “Go to the vamp” are just two examples I can think of.

The most important thing is to make your gestures easy to understand and as obvious as possible. If you find at rehearsal that people are constantly missing the cue even when you give the direction in plenty of time, you may need to explain to everyone what is expected when you use a certain gesture. For example “when I make this circular motion with my finger it means I want you to repeat”. Just holding up a peace sign could mean “go to the verse” or it could mean “two repetitions left”. See what I mean? So don’t be afraid to explain what your gestures mean. Your choir will appreciate this because it helps them understand and execute what you want.

The most important thing you can do though, is be consistent. Use the same gestures for the same things all the time. This way everyone in the music department becomes familiar with them and knows exactly what you want when they see one of them.

There are so many things we could discuss about being a great choir director. This is by no means meant to be a complete study of the subject. These 4 steps however, will take you a long way towards becoming an effective choir director. If you’re new to the position of choir director and would like some one-on-one coaching/mentoring, you can either book Ron Cross or Book Shena Crane for private coaching any time. We can help you get ready for your first song or just become a better director in general.

Be blessed!

One simple mental adjustment that can change your whole attitude about singing

One simple mental adjustment that can change your whole attitude about singing

Most singers make a very distinct difference between what they do and what a piano player, saxophonist or guitarist does. ” I’m a singer, he’s a musician”. “I don’t play any instruments, I just sing”. However, the two are very much the same.

Let’s say I had two pieces of sheet music for “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. One is written for a saxophonist to play the melody line, the other for a vocalist to sing the melody. What would be the difference between the two pieces of music? Only one. The singer’s sheet music would have the words below the notes. Everything else would be exactly the same. The notes on the sax player’s music would look the same as the singer’s sheet music.
The difference is the instrument being used to create the notes. Why is that important for singers to understand? Very simple. If you as a vocalist can begin to really see your voice as a musical instrument, then it begins to change the way you think about what you do. Many singers are very passive about their craft. I suspect it’s because most singers are born with most of their talent. “I know how to sing, that’s all I need to know”.

A musician wasn’t born playing his instrument. Once he chooses one he likes he must begin studying his instrument. Soon he knows all of it’s parts and how they work. He knows how it produces tones and how to manipulate those tones. He knows how to take care of it, clean it, even take it apart and reassemble it in many cases.

He hones his craft constantly. The musicians who excel on their instruments ( over others who play the same instrument) are those who know the most about their instruments and have learned to master them by getting to know them inside and out. That and of course, lots of lessons and lots and lots of practice.

It should be the same with you if you’re a serious vocalist or hope to be someday. For example, you may be a soprano who leads that Yolanda Adams song with the church choir. But you really have to scream that high note to hit it, and once you’re done you’re wiped out. You’re hoarse for the rest of the day; sometimes several days.

Yet when Yolanda sings the same song she’s smiling the whole time. Then she goes on to sing for another 45 minutes straight after that! And that’s just that night. She has engagements every day for months lined up. Years for some artists when they’re out on tour.

How is this possible?! After all, you were both born with the gift to sing, right? There’s no denying different singers have different levels of God-given ability and range. And there are some people out there that defy logic. Some people are just flat-out anointed. But there is usually a much simpler explanation.

The simple answer is usually that these singers have learned some things about her voice, how it works and how to use it properly, that you don’t know. Recording artists are faced with a very stark reality once they get signed. They must either learn everything there is to know about their voice, how to master it, get the most out of it and most of all, protect it so it lasts them for many years- or be faced with a very short career.

So the big secret in the recording industry is that almost everybody takes lessons. Many don’t want the general public to know that, so you won’t often see the names of vocal coaches in the liner notes among the “thank-you’s”. But I digress (he says pouting).

So my “homework” for this week is to start thinking of yourself as a musician. You play an instrument, the instrument is your voice. Every musician should learn as much as they can about their instrument. Unless of course, your instrument is simply a hobby or something you do to relax.

If it’s more than that to you, stop accepting your limitations and start asking some questions about how to overcome them. You’ve seen people sing high notes effortlessly. You’ve seen recording artists sing for an hour straight. You know something’s going on, what is it? What do they know about their instrument that you don’t know about yours? What have they done to be able to do what they do, that you haven’t done?

As a singer, you are a musician. Every musician needs to study their instrument. My home study vocal training course will teach you how to use your voice properly. Get started free by signing up for my 5 day vocal training course below.