When I’m chatting to other choral conductors, on and offline, one of the concerns that’s often raised is how to do the hard work of teaching, rehearsing and polishing a piece of music for performance while making sure that your choir is still having a good time and not feeling like choral singing is a big old chore. It’s a delicate balance and one that I’m sure I don’t always get right. However, these conversations inspired me to create a three-part series of articles looking at how to take your choir from picking up a piece for the first time right through to performing it in front of an audience. I hope you get some useful insights and I’d love to hear about your experiences and opinions in the comments.
Next time, we’ll look at keeping rehearsals fresh and productive during the middle phase of practice, and in part 3 we’ll discuss polishing a piece for performance. In this article, I want to cover the initial stages of tackling a new piece and keeping the choir engaged during the “notebashing” period.
Learning by ear or following the dots
Different choirs learn in different ways. If you’re leading a community or gospel choir, for example, you may never hand out written music. Conversely, a classical chamber choir would probably look at you askance if you suggested learning something without a score. The principle is the same, however, whether you’re using sheet music or not. Your choir is going to receive new information from you, process that information and sing the result. My chamber choir learns from scores, whereas the community choir that I help to lead with my business partner learns by ear, so I’m quite used to both.
Where to start
Whatever style of learning you’re using, you have to start somewhere, and that may not be the beginning of the piece. I like to think about the themes and structure of a piece during my score preparation, and work out the best progression of learning for my choir. If you’re learning a contemporary song, it might be most useful to start with the chorus. Perhaps there’s a theme that one part sings that’s picked up by another part later on. Could they learn that theme together? Is it helpful for everyone to learn the melody before some parts split off into harmony? If your choir is made up of confident sight-readers, it can be fun to busk through the whole piece and get a feel for its shape, but the same exercise can be a real downer if everyone just gets horribly lost and confused. Alternatively, you could ask your accompanist to play through the piece while the choir simply listens. I would counsel strongly against playing a recording of the piece to your choir. My view is that it fixes a particular interpretation in your singers’ minds, which can be hard to dispel later.
On that subject, if you’re tackling a well-known piece, you may need to take steps to help your choir get over any preconceptions they have about how it should sound. You could have some fun with singing at ridiculously fast or slow tempi, reversing the dynamics or singing in silly voices – anything that encourages your singers to look differently at a piece they think they know.
Focusing on musicianship right from the start
I’ve known many choir leaders over the years who view the initial phase of learning a new piece as an activity that’s completely separate and distinct from the interpretation of the music, by which I mean that they would never mention dynamics, enunciation, emotion etc until the notes were learned with some degree of confidence. I take the opposite view. I think it’s easier and more engaging for your singers to be thinking about the interpretation of the music at the same time as they’re working out what note goes where. That way, your vision for the piece is being baked in right from the start.
The caveat to that is that it’s also important not to be pedantic. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the quickest way to lose your choir’s attention and motivation is to focus on too much at once. What I’m advocating is keeping the meaning of the piece in mind right from the outset.
One of the most valuable things I learned during my training as a choral conductor was to keep the whole choir involved as much as possible in rehearsals. If there’s a particularly tricky passage for one part that needs a lot of work, get everyone to sing it. If I’m teaching part of a piece that involves only soprano and alto, I’ll have the tenors sing with the sops and the basses sing with the altos. It can only help their knowledge of the piece, their appreciation of their fellow singers and the ensemble of the choir. Of course, if you’re going to do that, you have to be very clear in your instructions and make sure that all your singers know when they are and are not expected to sing.
I also like to challenge my chamber choir singers to put their scores down occasionally, and often very early in the learning process. Firstly, I want them to remember that they’re supposed to be looking me, not the music. Secondly, it always shows them that they’ve absorbed much more of a piece than they thought they had. Okay, things occasionally dissolve into giggles when one part gets completely lost, but that’s no bad thing.
Keep it light
I use a lot of humour when I’m teaching my choir. I would never single anyone out for ridicule, but I’m lucky that there’s a great atmosphere and feeling of camaraderie among the singers, which means that if someone does sing something flamboyantly wrong, or a whole part loses the plot, we can have a laugh about it. Half the time, it’s me that’s wrong anyway, which gives the choir a good laugh. The important thing to remember is that we’re all there to have a good time. In the early stages of learning, things will go wrong. If you can facilitate a culture in your choir where people feel that they can have a go at something and it won’t matter if they muck it up, you’ll help to build your singers’ confidence and skill.
A word about accompanists
If your choir works with an accompanist, keep them in mind in the early stages of introducing a new piece. You may be asking them to repeat passages several times, hop about within the piece, play through vocal lines that don’t sit well under the hands and read several clefs at once. Make sure your instructions are clear and that your accompanist has time to respond to them. For other tips about keeping your accompanist happy, see this article.
So there you have it. Some ideas for tackling the early stages of learning. Next time, we’ll look at the tricky middle phase between learning and performing. And, as always, I’d love to hear your take on these issues.