Gospel choirs don’t read music; they read the director!
When you’re conducting a choir performance, the main way you communicate with the choir is with your hands.
Effective use of hand signals is a vital skill for any choir director.
Here are some of the things you communicate with hand signals while conducting a choir
Since gospel choirs don't sing from sheet music, they don't always sing a song exactly the same way every time. They may do a different number of repeats, or do the parts of the song in a different order from one performance to another. Because of this, the director's hand signals are important for telling:
- Which passage in the song the choir is about to sing (the verse, chorus, bridge, etc.)
- Which section of the choir should sing right now (sopranos, altos, tenors, or basses)
- When you want to end a particular passage
- When you want them to repeat something
- When a key change or an inversion is coming.
Hand signals can also remind the choir of things they already learned in rehearsal, but it doesn't hurt to refresh their memories. Things like:
- What words are coming up next
- The shape of the melody they're singing
- When to sing unison and when to sing in harmony
Showing the choir which portion of the song you want them to sing next
The first level of signals you’ll give to your choir are the ones telling them which passage of the song they are about to sing:
1: For the “top” or opening section of the song — Pat the top of your head, or your forehead.
2: For a lead verse — Point at the lead singer. If there are two or more verses, point to the lead singer first, then hold a number to indicate which verse you want them to sing.
3: For a chorus — Form a letter “C” with your hand.
4: For the bridge (the middle section of the song) — I form something that looks like a letter “T” with my two hands. It reminds me of a bridge.
5: For the vamp (repeating chorus) — Hold up your hand with your fingers crossed.
6: For the end of the song (or the end of a certain passage) — Hold up a closed fist.
To help you picture these, the video below demonstrates the hand gestures. (Except the signal for a chorus, I forgot to put that one in. Sorry.)
With hand signals, your timing is important!
Any signals you give to your choir should be given with plenty of advance time. Signal the next passage of the song, the key change, the ending, several beats before it's actually going to happen. Everyone will know to keep on singing whatever they're on right now, but they will be ready for what's coming next.
A good choir director needs to be thinking a little bit ahead of the singers and the musicians to keep everything going smoothly.
Hand signals for more details in the song sequence
The next level of signals deals with the smaller details that happen within one section of the song, like little repeats and things like that. Some gestures you can use for giving those details are:
7: For repeats — Cycle your hands around each other like a wheel turning.
8: To come out of a section after you’ve been repeating — Point behind you (over your shoulders) with your thumbs.
9: Counting down to come out of a repeating section — Indicate the numbers with your fingers and count down . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .
10: When you want the choir to be silent — Hold your closed fists tight against your chest. You can also lower your head slightly.
11: To repeat just the final line of a song (this is a common way to end songs; it’s called a deceptive cadence) — This is a sign that I made up. I form an “L” with the thumb and index finger of one hand, then with my other hand do a circular motion around it (like a “repeat” signal).
All of these gestures are shown in this video:
How to make your signals most effective
- You want to make sure that your signals are clear and each signal that you use is different from the others. If you signal a letter "V" to mean "verse", will the choir know that it's a V, or will they think it's the number 2? I recommend not using signals that look like numbers
- Make sure that you position yourself so that everyone in the choir and all of the musicians can see your hands.
Hand signals that tell the choir HOW to sing a passage
These are signals for taking the choir through key changes, inversions, changes in volume, and giving other guidance:
12: “Sing quietly” — Use hand motions that are close to your body and keep them small.
13: “Sing loudly” — Use broad gestures, open your arms out wide.
14: If you only want one section of the choir to sing — Point at that one section, just like you would point at a lead singer.
15: Unison vs. Harmony — If the choir has been singing in unison and it’s time to switch to 3-part harmony, hold out three fingers on your hands, with the fingers pointing toward the choir, and extend your hands out to the sides a little bit.
16: Modulation (key change) — Motion “up” with your index finger.
17: Inversion — Form “L” shapes with both hands, with your thumbs pointing toward each other. Then, with a slight upward movement, flip your hands so that your thumbs are pointing toward the ceiling.
18: If one section of the choir isn’t singing loud enough — Point to that section, then point to your ear.
All of these signals are demonstrated in this video:
Hand signals that help put the polish on the choir’s performance
One of the things a choir director wants is for the choir to sing with precision, and there are some signals you can give with your hands that will help bring that about:
19: Sometimes when I’m directing I’ll use hand movements to follow the shape of the melody the choir is singing (moving my hand(s) up when the notes goes up and down when the notes go down). This reminds the choir of how the melody goes, but more importantly (I think), it keeps everyone in sync with each other. Your hand motions can be a visual guide that keeps everyone on the rhythm of the song together.
20: Another way to make the choir’s singing more precise is to make sure that everyone begins and ends their notes at the same time. On a long note, keep your hand(s) open for as long as the note is being sustained, and then close your hand(s) when the note should be ending.
You can see both of these hand movements (and some of the other movements we’ve discussed) in this video of a live performance. At the 0:20 mark, there is a phrase with a long note at the end, and you can see the signal of closing the hands so that everyone ends the note together. And there is a lot of using the hands to follow the shape of the melody throughout the song. Using very pronounced gestures with this helps keep everyone together on the rhythm. In the final passage of the song, you can also see me do the signal for an inversion (look for it at 2:49 and 3:01).
Try using real sign language sometimes!
I've found real sign language (ASL) to be very useful sometimes during directing. More than anything, it can be a helpful reminder for the choir at those places in a song where it's easy to forget what lyrics come next.
For example, one of the choirs I direct sings "King Of Love" by Hillsong. On the first verse, some of the singers have trouble remembering which word comes first -- "marvelous" or "wonderful". When we sing that part, I do the ASL sign for the letter "M" first, to remind them that the first thing they say is "You're marvelous". Then, at the next section, I sign the letter "W" for them to sing "You're wonderful".
Other signs that have come in handy during some of our songs include the signs for "love", "heal", "and", "yes", and others. It's a very good alternative to mouthing words to them to tell them what's coming next.
Even if the members of the choir don't know sign language, during rehearsal you can teach them the couple of signs that you plan to use during a particular song.
If you want to learn a few signs, there are sign language books that are written specifically for church ministry.
Practice makes perfect!
You know what? When I was younger and just getting into choir directing, I spent hours of time by myself doing "thin-air conducting". I would listen to my choir recordings and practice doing all the hand motions, just the way I would if I were really in front of a choir. I recommend it highly!
The most important thing is for you and your choir to understand each other
You don't necessarily have to use the same signals as any other director. What matters most is that the choir you work with understands whatever signals you use and is able to go wherever you're trying to take them.
Poll on Hand Signals
More info about the fundamentals of choir directing
Before you’re ready to stand in front of your choir and conduct them there’s a lot of planning and preparation that goes on. My “Guide to Directing a Gospel Choir” page covers the most important skills that a choir director needs to develop.
Questions & Answers
Question: How do you communicate a swap in parts through choir direction hand signals?
Answer: Do you mean when the tenors go up to the alto part and the altos go up to the soprano part? That's called an "inversion". Video #3 shows the signal I use for an inversion.
Question: To keep time in choir singing, is it appropriate to pop your finger as a director?
Answer: Yes, I do it all the time in rehearsals!
Question: How do you signal for the choir to sing A Capella?
Answer: If I want the musicians to stop playing, I turn in their direction and give them a "closing my fist" signal. This tells them to "Stop".
Then, when I want them to start again, I give a gesture that is like the way you would motion your hand toward yourself to tell someone to enter a room -- "Come in".
During rehearsals it is important to tell the musicians to remember to keep their eyes on you so that they notice signals that you make toward them.
Question: What do I do if I want the choir to sing louder?
Answer: If the choir is singing too softly, I will sometimes point to my ear which means, "I can't hear you". On the other hand, if they have been singing fine so far, but we're going into a different part of the song that is supposed to be louder than what came before, then I will just use "bigger" body language (bring my arms out wider and higher when I'm directing) to show that it's time to go big with their singing.
We're happy to get your comments
john hall on January 21, 2020:
im a chior director at gods throne baptist church, stocton, ca. these hand signals helped me and my chior so well! thank you-joan hall!
Josh on August 13, 2019:
What is the sign for swapping
Abi on February 10, 2019:
As a self taught musician I always wanted to learn how to conduct a choir. I have never sang with choirs n not even seen any live choir performance till today. But guess what I’m leading a choir today n I was searching this for so long! This was so helpful!! Thank you so much!!
Krista on April 13, 2018:
Thanks so much for posting this. What great support for our group begining here in Spain!
Mary on October 15, 2016:
Repeating the last line of a song has nothing to do with what a deceptive cadence is.
Daniel on August 09, 2016:
Really it's informative.
Jay on February 05, 2016:
Coming from a background of conducting grounded in the tradition of Western Music, your article was quite a refreshing read. As a church choir conductor, I work with music lovers who usually don't understand beat patterns and traditional choral cues. This article underlines the necessity for developing a conducting vocabulary easily accessible to all, and I have to give you credit for more than a few new ideas that I will bring to my next rehearsal. My only issue is that I didn't really see any gestures or discussion of body language that would lead to grounded, supported, and free use of the singing voice. This, I admit, is a very advanced problem of conducting in general and may not be appropriate to discuss in detail here.
Bravo! Thank you for a wonderful article.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on July 29, 2015:
I had always wondered how the hand signals worked in a choir.
Joan Hall (author) from Los Angeles on January 01, 2015:
Thank you for your question! What I do is turn in the direction of the band and give them the "END" signal (the fist), but with my arm extended sideways toward them, not extended upward the way I would if I were ending the entire song.
Cole on December 09, 2014:
What hand signal do you use if you want the band to stop playing & want to hear the voices only?
anonymous on July 15, 2013:
I had just bn drafted to head d choir of my church; based on d fact that I can sing well and I have a good management skill. i lack many choir leader skills. Your site is a prayer answered. God bleeeeeeeeeeessss u for this piece.
anonymous on March 28, 2013:
thank u so much and may God bless you. i really needed to know all this .yes you have strength my confidedence. To God be the Glory.
Fay Favored from USA on April 12, 2012:
Such a good lesson you provided. I enjoyed the videos and learned from them. You have done a nice job getting your point across so that we can carry this through. Love to be a part of your choir. God is surely using you. May the Lord continue to bless the work of your hands. (Ps. 90:17 NIV) Blessed.
anonymous on April 11, 2012:
Very excellent lens.
Joan Hall (author) from Los Angeles on November 30, 2011:
@anonymous: Thank you so much!
anonymous on November 30, 2011:
Thank you so much. It is a challenge to be called outside of my typical ministry, however your guidebook is clear, concise and direct. I appreciate it! My God bless you and keep you for being such a blessing to others!
kougar lm on November 01, 2011:
Wonderful lens. So much valuable info.
anonymous on September 20, 2011:
@joanhall: Thanks!! GREAT articles, all very helpful. May God continue to bless your music ministry :)
Joan Hall from Los Angeles on September 03, 2011:
@anonymous: By the way, Terri, there was some kind of technical glitch on my other page, and the comment you left there vanished. But I remember the question you asked. I'll be thinking about it, and maybe I'll post the question on my blog and ask people to contribute suggestions.
Joan Hall from Los Angeles on September 03, 2011:
@anonymous: Directing from the piano is definitely more difficult. If the piano is positioned so that the choir members can see you very well, you can quickly flash a sign at them telling them what section to go to next without losing too much time from your playing the instrument. You can also communicate somewhat with the choir through head motions and facial expressions.
But it is definitely more difficult to direct from an instrument than it is do it from in front of the choir. You might want to decide beforehand exactly what sequence you're going to do for the song (how many times you'll sing each verse, chorus, etc., and the order you'll do them in). Tell the choir during rehearsal that this is exactly the sequence you're going to do, so that when you sing in the service, they won't need as much directing.
anonymous on September 03, 2011:
Any advice on directing while sitting at the piano? Thanks!!
Dee Gallemore on September 03, 2011:
Another most-excellent work, Joan. Well-deserved purple star and should be LOTD, too.
anonymous on August 31, 2011:
Very great informative and powerful hand signals lens dear lady. Another wonderful work of you. Congratulations on your beautiful purple star. Have a wonderful time.. always.. dear Joan :)
Katherine89135 on August 08, 2011:
You have a lot of great information here. I'm in the choir at my church and I really enjoy it!