How to avoid becoming overwhelmed when teaching your choir tricky repertoire

As I start writing this article, I’m chuckling to myself hoping that I too might take the advice I offer here on tackling tricky repertoire!

As choir leaders, we’ve all had those moments when we embark on a ‘project’. Whether that be in response to a performance opportunity to cover a specific work, a desire to take our singers to the next level, or just something that seemed like an easy option at the time but turns out to be a lot more complicated once you start teaching it.

Fundamentally, I think that it is good to develop your singers and in turn yourself as choir leader. Covering the same type of repertoire at the same level for years on end might be an easier option but it will get pretty boring for all involved.

Offering our singers a wide range of musical experience will broaden their skills and keep them interested. They may not like everything we do but the variety will mean they are always keen to find out what’s coming next.

So, if you are faced with a fresh musical challenge, how can you make it manageable for you to teach and your choir to learn? Here are some top tips:


I cannot stress enough the need for thorough score preparation when tackling tricky repertoire. Just as with performance, the only way you will feel confident about teaching it is if you feel you have a solid understanding of what’s going on. I confess I’ve been guilty in the past of ‘winging it’. I soon learnt my lesson when standing in front of the choir and not being able to answer their queries! Not a nice feeling!

Nowadays I aim to be much more sensible by dedicating enough time beforehand to make sure I understand a piece and have a clear plan for teaching it.

Break it down

When tackling a new piece, it can seem very overwhelming at first. If you feel overwhelmed then your singers are likely to as well.

After a listen through, start to pull it apart. Look for repetition, similar themes, perhaps there are repeated lyrics or sections? When teaching it you don’t necessarily need to start at the beginning and work your way through. You could focus in the first rehearsal on just learning a small section.

Once the choir have got this under their belts, you can point out where this section repeats in the piece. This way you are already making your choir feel like they are starting to get on top of things rather than the other way around. This will also make the teaching much more manageable for you.

Realistic expectations

Always think about your singers when embarking on a new piece. You know their experience, their strengths and areas which need work. Take all this into consideration when you plan how to teach the piece.

For example, you may know it takes time for your choir to learn how to pitch their start notes. If you just launch in and expect them to pick them up instantly, then they may feel immediately that they can’t do it.

Some elements of a piece may take your choir longer to learn than others but by understanding this and having realistic expectations, the whole process will run more smoothly.

Other examples

If you are covering a well known works or arrangement of a song, it can really help your choir to hear it in full to appreciate what the finished effect will be. There are videos online of choirs singing all kinds of works which you could refer your singers to.

You may also want to go a bit further and arrange a theatre or concert trip to see a choir perform the pieces you are working on for inspiration.

Balanced rehearsals

Spending a whole rehearsal working on a new piece may be counter-productive leaving singers feeling tired and overloaded by information.

Shorter bursts of learning mixed in with some old favourites which your choir can belt out or some technique exercises will add more variety and keep them focused.

Creating this balance requires planning from you to make sure that all the repertoire can be covered in good time for a performance without any cramming or last minute panics.

Comments on How to avoid becoming overwhelmed when teaching your choir tricky repertoire

  1. Avatar Elaine Kirkham says:

    Thanks for this Christine. I have recently begun breaking down the structure of each piece and it certainly helps me in being prepared and in my planning of rehearsals. I also provide the structure breakdown on our website so that choir members can access it. They have said it is really valuable to them in understanding pieces and in knowing where repeats and challenging parts are.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Elaine,
      Thanks for your message, so pleased to hear you found the article helpful. it sounds like you’ve got a great system going for tackling repertoire. :)

  2. @Carol Zeven… thank you for the tip. I will obey (?) it when I am going to prepare our next rehearsal. We just started to learn two new Christmas Carols and therefore the idea to use the warm up for learning little pieces of the songs will be very useful. I am responsible for teaching music in our ( German) Barbershop Quartett and I have no education in teaching. So I am grateful for tips I can use immediately like this. All the best to you…Martina

  3. Avatar Carol Zeven says:

    When preparing a particularly tricky new piece, I often prepare the difficult parts during the warm-up. I might do a fun rhythm exercise based on difficult bars or make an exercise of a difficult passage on solfège. I might use the text on one tone to work on vowels or consonants. Then when we arrive at that particular place during the rehearsal, the choir gets an “A Ha I recognise this” moment, and it goes much easier. Also they pay attention during warm-up as they never know which exercise will pop up later in the rehearsal.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Carol. That’s a great approach to take and I’m sure your choir appreciates it. A great example of how good rehearsal planning can really help a choir to develop.

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