When we rehearse our choirs, we’re using many skills, but perhaps the most important one is listening. Even if we’re not conscious of it, we’re listening to our choirs all the time. It’s tempting to intervene every time we hear something that could be corrected or improved, but I want to counsel against that. Here are a few tips and ideas for keeping rehearsals focused.
The law of diminishing returns
If you try to change too much at once, it’s quite likely that you’ll get a negative effect overall, not to mention a negative atmosphere in the choir. People can only retain and act on so much information at a time. For example, if I say to my choir ‘that was great; let’s go from bar 24 again and enunciate the text a little more’, I’m giving them a single, clear instruction. When we sing the passage again, their focus will be on the enuciation of the text and it’s likely that they will improve it.
On the other hand, I could say ‘let’s go from bar 24 again. Tenors, you were a bit flat at bar 30; Altos, don’t rush the semi-quavers; everyone, let’s have a bit more dynamic contrast and also don’t forget to enunciate the text’. Sure, I’m still giving clear instructions, and I’ve mentioned some stuff that was bothering me before I forgot it, but what would be the effect on my choir? Most of them will probably forget all but one of those instructions, and everyone will be focusing on something different. The overall outcome will probably be no improvement at all.
So don’t overwhelm your choir. Give them the chance to implement what you ask of them before you move on to something else.
It’s okay to let things go
You don’t have to fix everything all at once. Rehearsals are a finite length and it’s important to finish on time. You can’t deal with every little point and it’s counter-productive to try. You’ll end up demoralising your choir and yourself. If you’ve planned your rehearsal properly, you’ll already have a good idea of what you want to achieve at a particular session. Perhaps it’s simply getting the notes secure. Perhaps you want to encourage the choir to sing with emotion and sensitivity.
If, for example, you’re focusing on bringing some dynamic colour to a song or section, let the choir absorb that without distraction. You might notice that one part is rushing, or the pitch is dodgy at a particular moment, but maybe it’s not the best time to leap in and point that out. You could sort that out next time, which leads me to:
It’s okay to take a moment
Choir leading can sometimes feel like that old circus act of spinning plates on sticks. If you’re too busy sorting out the plates over here, suddenly the ones over there are falling off and smashing. But don’t be drawn into thinking that you have to be conducting, demonstrating or instructing at every second of every rehearsal. It’s fine to take a moment to make notes. If you hear something that needs attention, but you don’t want to address it there and then, make a note and incorporate it into your next rehearsal plan.
Don’t forget the singer’s experience
Finally, try to keep in mind that your choir wants to sing. Of course, they want to learn and improve as well, but if a whole rehearsal is spent constantly stopping and starting, your singers will get restless and resentful. Make sure that you give everyone the chance to sing uninterrupted during a rehearsal, even if that means there are a few wobbles here and there.