Knowing the score: study tips for choir leaders Part 1

One of the slightly frustrating aspects of leading a choir is that people often don’t realise just how much preparation goes into the role. Our singers see us at rehearsals and performances, gliding like a swan (we hope) through the music. What they don’t see is the frantic flapping of feet beneath the surface: the hours of preparation.

Score study is something that we all have to do (even if we don’t use scores, the same principles apply) and it can require a lot of time and effort. We are the “tour guide”, leading our performers (who in turn lead the audience) on a musical tour. At the end, we want them to feel satisfied and nourished by the experience, so we have to know our stuff. We could “wing it” in rehearsals, but we’d be wasting valuable time. Good preparation leads to good rehearsals.

There are two main reasons for studying a score that we intend to introduce to our choirs: to understand what the music means, and to make interpretive decisions. In Part 1 of this series, we’ll look at how to gain a general understanding of the music. Next time, we’ll consider how to get a more detailed knowledge of the score, and finally we’ll delve into the subject of interpretation.

Understanding the music

Getting an overview

First, we need to get an overview of the piece. Who wrote it and when? Does it fit into a recognised genre? Was it written with a particular purpose, ensemble or venue in mind? Does the score tell us anything in general about how the piece should be performed?

If you don’t know anything about the composer, a bit of time spent on Wikipedia might help you to set the piece in a historical context. We don’t need to become experts in the composer or the period; we just need a starting point from which to develop our ideas about the music.

It’s also worthwhile to consider whether the score you have in front of you is definitive. With modern pieces, you can be fairly confident that if you’ve purchased a score from a mainstream music publisher, the dots you see in front of you were written by the composer. The further you go back in musical history, the less that’s true. If you’re dealing with baroque or classical music, it’s likely to have been edited multiple times. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – editors can clarify ambiguities and performance practices. The more you can discover about the score, the more you can be an advocate for the composer in your interpretation of the music.

Hearing the music for the first time

If you’re tackling a piece that’s entirely new to you, how do you find out what it sounds like? If you’re a good pianist, you can play it to yourself. I’m just not competent enough on the piano to do that. I can muddle through, but when I’m looking at SATB scores, while I might be able to play the soprano and alto in the right hand, reading two different clefs (usually) in the left is totally beyond me. I’m filled with admiration for people who can do that!

If you’re a good sight-singer, you might be able to sing through each vocal part and put the harmonies together in your head. Or perhaps you can do the same using whatever instrument you play.

An obvious way to find out how the piece sounds is to listen to a recording of it, which is incredibly easy these days with the wealth of music available online. This has advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, it’s a fast-track way to hear the whole piece. However, it’s someone else’s interpretation that could become fixed in your mind and prevent you from working independently. If you’re going to listen to a recording before you do your score study, it might be preferable to listen only once or twice, and to listen to more than one interpretation before you work on your own. We want to gain an overview of the music without cluttering our minds with other people’s performances.

In Part 2, we’ll dive a little deeper into the musical understanding of a new piece.

Comments on Knowing the score: study tips for choir leaders Part 1

  1. Avatar Beatrice says:

    This is a very good article! Many thanks! Just wanted to say that although I’m quite a skilled pianist, playing all parts from an open score (vocal score) is almost impossible for me either! They’re just too apart from each other! :-) So playing the soprano line first and then the rest of them (usually in pairs of various combinations) works well for me.

    I also usually like previewing the new songs online to get the feel but I always crate my own idea and version in my head afterwards. We also sometimes use the violin and guitar so we work out with musicians how we make up the instrumental lines. Every choir is different so I always like to put our own stamp on it! :)

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks Beatrice. I like your idea of playing different combinations of two vocal lines – that’s a great way to show up the relationships between the parts.

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