Every choir leader knows how important score preparation is. We can’t effectively rehearse and perform music with our choirs if we don’t understand it ourselves. But what should we do with our new-found knowledge? Here are my top three tips for putting theory into practice.
Create a teaching plan
Once you’ve picked apart a piece of music and really got to grips with it, create a teaching plan that sets out the order in which you’ll teach the various sections or movements of piece. This isn’t the same thing as your detailed rehearsal planning, which comes later. Instead, it’s an overview of what needs to be done and how to tackle it.
For example, let’s say I’m going to teach a pop song to my choir that comprises the following structure: verse 1, verse 2, bridge, chorus, verse 3, chorus, middle 8, chorus, chorus.
I could, of course, start teaching the song from the beginning and work through chronologically to the end. But that might not be the most effective approach. The choir might get a better and more immediate understanding of the song if we start with the chorus. And if I’m teaching this song in three or four parts, perhaps we should all learn the melody first before tackling the harmonies. If the altos have the melody in verse 1, and the tenors take it in verse 2, we could learn that tune together before adding the different lyrics.
You get the idea. My detailed score study would have shown me the patterns and repetitions that could save rehearsal time and enlighten my choir.
One thing you learn very quickly when you lead a choir is that you can’t know everything. You can guarantee that however diligently you study and prepare, someone will always ask a question that hasn’t crossed your mind before. But that doesn’t mean shouldn’t try to anticipate questions that are likely to come up.
For example, if you’re working on a piece where there may be a disagreement about the pronunciation of a word, decide in advance which pronuciation you prefer. A classic case is the word ‘excelsis’, which is pronounced as ‘ex-chell-sis’ or ‘eck-shell-sis’. In the pop world, you might want to avoid very ‘English’ vowel sounds and instead go for a more American sound on words like ‘dance’.
What you choose is to some extent less important than the fact that you make a choice, which will avoid debate in rehearsals and the risk that you’re rehearsal plan will be scuppered.
Focus your conducting practice
It may seem as though the best conductors are entirely spontaneous in their gestures, but it’s not the case. Their skill is the product of many, many hours of study and practice. Use your score study to inform your conducting practice for a piece. Are you confident about the opening tempo? If not, what will you do to remind yourself of it?
If there are changes in tempo during the piece, practise those transitions until they become unconscious. Decide whether and how much you will introduce your left hand to give dynamic changes. Are there any tricky, staggered entries where you need to be addressing different vocal parts in quick succession? All these things will need practice before you can do them with confidence and authority.
And the glorious result of all this practice? If you can work on your conducting of a particular piece until it feels natural and easy, your attention will be freed up in rehearsal to really listen to your choir.