Choral conducting first aid kit - instant tips to improve rehearsals

However confident and prepared we are when we lead our choirs in rehearsal, there will always be times when things just don't go well. It can be hard to put a finger on exactly what's not working, but we know it when it happens. The vibe in the room is flat, the choir's concentration flags, their responses to our gestures aren't what we think they should be and progress is painfully slow. What can we do in those situations to get back on track? Here's what I do.

1. Don't panic - breathe

When we feel that things are getting out of our control, it's tempting to simply work harder - employing larger and larger gestures as if we were trying to drag the music from the choir. That won't work, and we'll be exhausted. Imagine yourself in the choir. If you were faced with a conductor who was grimacing and flailing their arms madly at you, would you be inspired to sing well? Probably not. If you display tension to the choir, they will mirror it right back to you.

If you feel yourself leaning towards overly-aggressive conducting, stop. Take a breath or two and start again. You could even ask the choir to join you in some deep breaths and shoulder shrugs to reset the tension level in the room.

2. Check your form

A rehearsal that's not going well can create a sort of vicious circle of communication between choir and conductor. The singers pick up on the conductor's concern and their confidence is dented. They become more timid and worried about making mistakes. The choir's reticence increases the conductor's worries, and so on.

We can interrupt that cycle by checking and improving our form. It needn't take more than a few moments. Firstly - smile! As you prepare to bring the choir in, look around, make eye contact and smile. Check that you are balanced and that your posture is lifted and open and that your shoulders are relaxed.

3. Try a different approach

It's a great idea to mix things up occasionally just to keep your choir on its toes, but it can also be just what you need when a rehearsal isn't going well. If the choir is dragging the tempo, for example, you could try singing a passage at half speed, then double speed, then a variable tempo before returning to your desired speed.

Physically mixing up your singers can also be instantly beneficial. We are all creatures of habit and tend to gravitate towards the familiar. Standing next to different singers different sections can really rev up the energy in the room.

4. Drop it

However carefully we plan our rehearsals, we have to be willing to respond to what's happening in the moment. If, despite repeated rehearsal, a piece or section just isn't coming together, drop it and move on. After a while, the law of diminishing returns kicks in and more rehearsal will only result in tired, grumpy singers. You can always try again next week.

5. Keep things in perspective

If, like me, you have a tendency to catastrophise, take heart. A bad choir rehearsal doesn't mean that you're a bad choir leader. You just had a bad rehearsal. Let it go, and commit to making the next one better.
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