How to create a teaching plan for your choir's new music

Embarking on a new piece with your choir can be a little daunting for all involved. Often you have gone from weeks of rehearsals leading to a performance where everyone is completely sure of their parts and harmonies, to suddenly being right back at the beginning of the learning process.

I love starting on new pieces and watching my choir as I introduce them, as the first harmonies start coming together and as my singers grow to love it (or if they don't love it at the very least grow to appreciate it!). However, the caveat is that I can only enjoy that process if I'm well-prepared. Here are some important lessons I've learned about introducing music to my choir.

Listen, listen, listen

A significant chunk of time has often passed between selecting a piece and teaching it. Make sure you listen to the arrangement a few times, whether you have rehearsal tracks, a recording or if you play the piano parts through. Don't assume you will recall everything because you listened to it thoroughly when you selected it.

Work on each part separately

Listen to each separate part, getting a feel for its structure and how it develops through the piece. Put yourself in your singer's shoes and note down areas which may need the most work. Perhaps there's a tricky interval or a passing of the melody from one section to another. Imagine yourself as a singer in each section and the part you must play in the piece.

Understand the story

Before you teach a piece to your choir, make sure you have an understanding of what it is about. What style of music is the piece and does this have any bearing on its story? For example, a country ballad may have a heartfelt narrative whereas an epic rock anthem may have a strong message about love or peace. Perhaps the repertoire has a historic message relevant to the composer at that time. Understanding the emotion intended for a song is really important in being able to lead your choir in a sympathetic rendition. It also shows your singers that you've done your homework and put thought and consideration into your repertoire choices.

Patterns and logistics

A new piece can seem daunting to singers so when planning your rehearsals look for patterns and repetition in the piece which will make it seem less so. If you're teaching contemporary music, you tend to find a verse/chorus structure with perhaps a middle eight, so there is lots of repetition. In a more classical setting you will often find repetition of motifs and sections. You can plan your teaching with this in mind as there is no rule saying you must start at the top and work your way down.

You may also find patterns when helping your singers to find notes. If you're using scores, this can be easier as singers can see the notes in front of them. If you're learning from lyric sheets, this can be more difficult so being able to identify note patterns can really help. For example, my tenors may come in on a C but are struggling to find it. If I point out that the altos sing a C on a certain word in the previous line, the tenors can pick it up from there.

Build the piece

Unless a piece is particularly straightforward, try not to cover it all in one session as this can leave your singers feeling overwhelmed. Far better to cover it in manageable pieces, allowing singers to become confident with the sections gradually. Remember to carefully manage your rehearsal calendar, thinking about how many sessions you have before the next performance as you don't want to leave the new learning stages to the last minute.
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