Giving your choir printed scores from which to learn has distinct advantages over teaching by ear, not least that the choir can read the music in front of them and save a lot of time in rehearsal. However, there are challenges as well, the most obvious being that the choir can be tempted to look at the score instead of you! Here are some tips for working with scores and still getting the best from your singers.
Put the scores down regularly
When we use a score, most of us learn new music through a combination of reading and listening. Each time we repeat a piece, we rely more on what we’re hearing and less on what we’re reading. Singers often don’t realise how much information they’ve already retained and they think they need to look at the score more than they actually do.
It’s a useful exercise to ask the choir to put down their scores (you might have to insist – scores are like security blankets!) and sing through something, even if you’re still in the early stages of learning. When I do this with my choir, I tell them that if they can’t remember the notes, make something up, and if they can’t remember the words, sing ‘la’. When I started doing this, I scared them all silly, and it’s taken quite a while to gently persuade my choir that it’s okay to make mistakes. Of course, it’s laudable that choirs want to sing something well, right from the off, but risking mistakes is an important part of developing as an independent singer.
Gently insist that everyone put their scores down. Stress that the point of the exercise isn’t to test them, it’s part of the learning process and part of understanding the music. After all, the music isn’t the dots printed on the page, it’s the sound the choir creates.
Practise holding scores correctly
Many singers will unconsciously hold their scores in ways that preclude them reading the music and watching you at the same time. This is particularly common when the choir is singing while sitting down. Some people will even put their score on their lap. There is an optimum position for holding a score. It should be held quite high and sufficiently flat that the singer can look at the conductor while glancing down at the music, and so that even when the singer is reading, they can still see the conductor in their peripheral vision.
Again, you’re probably going to have to gently insist on what you want; some people in your choir will probably think you’re being pedantic. The more you encourage good use of scores in rehearsal the more likely it is that that habit will extend to performance.
Sing things from memory as well
Even if you routinely use scores with your choir, it’s a good idea to learn things by ear and sing them from memory from time to time. One way to do this is in your warm-ups. Teach simple rounds and songs by ear and don’t over-labour your instructions. Just demonstrate and invite the choir to repeat what they’ve heard, line by line, then putting the lines together into a whole. You’ll probably find that the choir will get the easy bits and make mistakes on the trickier bits, but that’s fine – just repeat the bit that needs attention. The choir’s skills will develop over time.
You can also programme occasional repertoire to perform from memory. A beneficial side-effect of this is that the choir experiences what it’s like to perform when they’re looking at you throughout a piece, and not dividing their attention. With luck, they’ll appreciate how much more rewarding it is to perform when the choir/conductor/audience connection is maintained throughout.
Use a little tough love
If you have an enduring problem with your singers burying their heads in their scores, in rehearsal and performance, you could consider demonstrating the problem to the choir by asking them to watch a video of themselves. This might seem like a drastic measure, but many singers simply don’t realise that they’re doing it. They’re following the rest of the choir by ear and they don’t know that they’re not looking at you. In those circumstances, reminding them to look at you will have no effect because they don’t appreciate the problem. Seeing undeniable proof that the audience will be seeing the top of their head and not their face may give them the jolt they need to improve.