5 super-quick rehearsal planning tips for the disorganised

We all want to do the best for our choirs and make rehearsals worthwhile and enjoyable. Effective planning is essential, both for individual rehearsals and entire seasons.

However, even the most conscientious of us will slip up occasionally. We may have every intention of making notes on the last rehearsal and planning the next one with time to spare, but life gets in the way. Suddenly it's rehearsal day again (can a week really be that short?) and we are planless and in a panic. So here are my 'quick and dirty' tips for getting things back on track.

What do you need to accomplish

Are you performing next week? Next month? What needs to be better? How quickly?

Are you still note-bashing, or are you at the finessing stage? Hone in on the sections that need the most attention and make those the central work of the rehearsal. Don't attempt to cover everything, particularly if time is tight. I have been to far too many choir rehearsals where each piece is started from the beginning, every week. The beginning gets really polished (great) while later sections are still very sketchy (not so great).

What would you like to accomplish

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received about leading singers is this: conduct the choir in front of you, not the choir in your head (the choir in my head is the Montiverdi, in case you were wondering). Think about your choir's strengths and weaknesses. If you could improve only one thing what would it be? Tone? Ensemble? Intonation?

Settle on one aspect and use that as the focus for the rehearsal. Be strong enough to let other issues go this time; don't haul the choir up for every little thing. They'll get overwhelmed and switch off.

Start with singing, not talking

Kick off the session with a brief warm-up. If possible, use something that ties in with your focus, so if you're concentrating on diction, maybe you could use some tongue-twisters. If you're concentrating on intonation, you could call out some chord names and have the choir sing them back to you (if you've never tried it, it's a fantastic challenge. Give the choir a middle C only, then ask them to sing, say, an E major chord.  It really gets them thinking about intervals).

You're welcome to disagree with me (and I'd love to hear from you if you do) but I don't recommend beginning rehearsals with talk (usually in the form of notices about concerts, events etc). I like to get the room buzzing with something fun and challenging and save the monologue for after the mid-rehearsal break.

Create a "sacrificial" section

The best-laid schemes of mice and conductors ... you know the rest. I'm not the world's greatest at timing. Sometimes I feel like a rehearsal has lasted five minutes, other times I'm wondering what we're going to do for the last twenty minutes because I've already covered my rehearsal plan.

I deal with this using a tip from my murky past as a public speaker in the legal profession. Always have a section of your talk (or in our case rehearsal) towards the end of the session that you can ditch if time runs away with you. Maybe there's a piece or section that is already in pretty good shape, but could do with a polish if time allows, keeping your rehearsal focus in mind.

Finish on a high

From experience, I think there's little worse for choral singers than having a panic-stricken conductor hammering away at a tricky section right up to the wire, then declaring that time has run out and finishing the rehearsal with a plea for everyone to do their homework.

Hammer away at the tricky section by all means, but always leave a bit of time at the end of rehearsal to (a) run something that you've worked on in the rehearsal, or (b) have an sing of something in the repertoire. Don't be tempted to interrupt and correct anything at this stage (yes, you will have to be strong). The choir won't remember the correction and you'll spoil their buzz.

So, to re-cap:-
  1. Think about what pieces and sections you need to cover, and make those the main work of the rehearsal.
  2. Think of one aspect of the choir that you would like to improve, and make that the focus.
  3. Start the session with something challenging and fun. Don't waste time talking.
  4. Have a "sacrificial" section that you can ditch if time runs away with you.
  5. Finish with a big sing.
What do you think? How do you cope with rehearsal planning on the fly? Or are you always impressively organised?
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10 comments

Victoria Hopkins Staff

Thanks so much for your comment, Liz. I hadn't thought about what I was writing in terms of importance vs urgency, but that's really helpful.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Stella Thanks for commenting. How exciting to be appointed as a choir director. I don't envy you conducting auditions. I find them really tricky because I hate having to turn people down, which I've had to do occasionally. I think that if you're honest and constructive in any criticism you give, you won't go far wrong.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Lizzie. How exciting to be starting your own choir. What style of music are you intending to sing?
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Karyn, thanks for getting in touch. I'm so sorry to hear that your choir is lacking a leader. Options that occur to me off the top of my head are: 1. Contact other local choirs and see if any of their leaders would step in temporarily to help you along until you appoint someone permanently. 2. Merge with another choir (temporarily or permanently). 3. Invite a variety of guest leaders to do workshops for you instead of rehearsals until you can find a permanent leader. 4. Accept that you can't continue at the moment and agree a hiatus until you can appoint a replacement. If you all want to continue to make music together, I'm sure you'll find a way, and I wish you the very best of luck. Keep in touch.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Richard. Recruitment is a challenge for many choirs. Have a look at this article, in which we discuss some useful recruitment techniques.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Caleb. If you mean you're leading your church choir, you'll find lots of resources and help on this site. If you mean that you sing in the choir, this website isn't really aimed at you because it's for choir leaders, not singers. There's lots of stuff out there on the web if you have a look around. Good luck.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Meg. Welcome to Total Choir Resources. I hope you get lots of help and inspiration from the site.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Olaniyi. Thank you for commenting. As you've probably already worked out, we're not church choir leaders, so I'm not sure where you'd get those kind of resources. However, I'm sure there are lots of church music websites out there if you spend a bit of time googling. I'd be wary of completely changing the style of a choir (as you say, from 'contemporary' to 'classical') without a lot of thought, planning and plenty of consultation with the singers. Best of luck in your new role.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Obatalye. I'd start with getting some fun warm-ups together to break the ice at the first session and get everyone using their voices. Search 'warm-ups' on the blog page for inspiration.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

You're absolutely entitled to that view Tracey, but personally I like the term. It's affectionate and slightly comic - not to be taken too seriously.
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