With our contemporary and chamber choirs, we spend a lot of time learning our repertoire thoroughly. We also spend a lot of time focusing on the physical aspects of technique – posture, diction, facial expression, breathing. Occasionally, I think that with all the focus on the detail of rehearsal and performance, we can lose the essential, emotional core of the music. We must never forget that the point of performing music is to communicate an emotional message to an audience. Everything else we do should feed into that core purpose.
Identifying the need to focus on the emotion of the music doesn’t get us very far, though. How do we persuade and encourage our singers, be they highly-trained or happy amateurs, to find the emotional centre of the music and impart that to an audience?
Talk about it – but not too much
The unique characteristic of singing over other forms of music-making is that singers perform both music and text. A starting point for rehearsing any piece has to be the text. It’s vital that as choir leaders, we’ve done our preparation and we understand what the songwriter, poet or librettist is trying to say. Then we have to encourage our singers to reach their own understanding. Here’s where the balance can get a bit tricky. We don’t want to lecture our choirs (they’re there to sing, not listen to us droning on), but we need to get them thinking and engaging with the material. I find it helpful to simply ask questions, the central one being “what is this piece about?”. We don’t need to have a huge discussion during rehearsal, although it can be useful to allow choir members to offer opinions. We just need to get the thought processes going.
During the rehearsal process, I like to repeatedly draw the choir’s attention to the text, both in terms of enunciation and meaning. We might be working closely on the detail of a passage, but when we step back to apply that detailed work to a run-through, that’s a great time to remind the choir that the nuts-and-bolts work we’ve been doing feeds into a more important whole – the meaning of the piece. Again, it’s not about giving a lecture, just a “heads-up” to bring the choir’s attention back to the core of the music.
It’s not just about the words
So far I’ve only mentioned the text of a piece and of course that’s not the whole story. Music is essentially an emotional journey whether it has text or not. Part of our score study process should be about how the music and text work together to create that emotional journey. We can then help our singers to discover the meaning of the piece themselves.
Create the right culture
Singers’ natural inhibitions can get in the way of them putting emotion into a performance. Part of our role as choir leader is to create a culture in which choir members feel that they can relax and open up in a way that allows them to give their best performance. Sometimes, when I feel that my choir is being a little too reticent, I ask them to deliberately “ham it up” and go way over the top in how they perform a piece or section. It always gets a laugh and helps everyone to relax, but the surprising thing is that, often, the “over the top” version is exactly what I’m looking for. What my singers feel is too much is actually just right.