We often talk in our articles and podcasts about the benefits of involving your choir in the rehearsal process by asking questions rather than just giving orders. For example, rather than just saying 'the blend isn't right', we can ask 'was the blend right in that section? If not, what needs to be adjusted?' This approach helps the choir to listen to what's going on around them and think about what goes into making an excellent performance. It also helps to hold their attention.
Recently I embarked on a new piece with my community choir. Many of the singers in my choir have no formal musical training and we learn by ear. Most of the songs we perform are in 4/4 time and a lot of the time, the choir comes in on a downbeat or an upbeat. With this new song, the choir comes in halfway through the second beat of a 4/4 bar. As I practised conducting the song at home, I started thinking about how I could avoid lots of confused faces and achieve a tidy, clean entrance to the song from the start. Here's what I did:
What is a beat?
In my warm-up I asked the choir to consider what a time signature is and how I communicate this to them as a conductor with my beat patterns. We all stood and I showed them a four-beat pattern which they copied. As they did this pattern we counted one two three four, two two three four etc. Although some were better at it than others, everyone started to understand the concept of the timing for themselves and what it is I do when I wave my arms around! Of course, within any choir you will have a range of musical ability but it never hurts to go back to basics. For some the most fundamental things like time signatures will be new.
Everyone loves a quiz
Once we had this under our belt, I played excerpts from four different songs. I asked my singers to identify which beat of the bar the vocals came in on. I also offered bonus points for anyone who could tell me the artist and title of the song simply because this created a bit of fun competition. The songs I showed demonstrated first, second, third and fouth beat entries so they got to experience counting each one. One of the songs was in three, again a bonus for those identifying this, which most did.
Tackling the piece
Now with my singers feeling like rhythm experts, I introduced the new piece. After playing the original through once, I re-played the start and asked them to identify the beat of the bar the vocals came in on. Rather wonderfully, many of them identified that it was two-and-a-half beats, with the rest not sure whether it was two or three. To make things easier I began by asking them to ignore the first word which was a quick half beat. Once we were comfortable with this third beat entry, we simply added the faster pick-up word at the beginning. Hey presto they did this with ease and I could see they felt very satisfied with their efforts.
What I noticed about this method for tackling rhythms in a new piece when learning by ear, was how engaged the choir was in the process. They wanted to get things right and indentify the entries for themselves and when it all came together there was a real feeling of team effort. It seems to me that the more we involve our choirs in the music we ask them to sing, the more they will get out of it and the better they will sound.