Knowing the score: study tips for choir leaders Part 3

Welcome to part 3 of our score study series. Last time, we looked in detail at the process of researching the structure of a piece and considering the make-up of each vocal part. This week we’ll discuss interpretation and conducting practice.

There are a few considerations we need to keep in mind when we’re working on our interpretation of a piece for our choirs. Firstly, and most importantly, how do we want the music to sound? This is where it’s helpful if we haven’t spent too much time listening to recordings of the piece. We don’t want to be distracted by existing interpretations.

What’s the story?

As a starting point, we can think about the emotional core of the piece. What do we want to communicate to the audience and how do we want the music to make them feel? What’s the emotional development or “story” of the piece?

Interpretive dance!

Next, we need to work out how we’re going to create gestures in our conducting that will draw a performance from the choir that communicates the emotional story of the piece. Now, you’re probably not going to want to share this next bit with anyone else, but a great way to start working on your gestural palette for a particular piece is to dance to it. Yes, I know it sounds a bit off the wall, but it really helps to internalise a piece so that you can discover how to physically communicate it to your choir, and by extension to the audience. Just shut yourself away somewhere so you don’t have to worry about being seen, then sing (either aloud or in your head) through the piece and try to physically represent it. Then translate that physical representation into conducting gestures. Okay, you might that’s a completely bonkers idea, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

The composer’s advocate

Whatever we think of a piece of music, and however we decide to interpret it, we must always bear in mind that we are an advocate for the composer. So a critical part of the process of interpreting a piece is thinking about what the composer intended and how we can best represent that. Sometimes that will necessitate some research into the period in which the music was written. Sometimes, we might need to think about how we can be that advocate when we know we’re performing a piece in a way never envisaged by the composer. For example, if we want to sing Palestrina with an SATB choir, we have to take into account that women’s voices were never part of the original picture. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it, but we ask ourselves how we can do service to the composer’s intentions.

Practice makes perfect

Once we’ve settled on our interpretation, it’s time to practise, practise, practise. As far as possible, we want to memorise the piece, and that takes time. We never really know how things are going to go until the choir sings a piece for the first time. Some revision and tweaking may be needed once you hear the choir, but that process is a whole lot easier when you’re working from a place of confidence and knowledge.

I hope you’ve found this series useful. Score study is one of the central planks of our work as choir leaders. I’d love to hear how you prepare a new piece for your choir.

Comments on Knowing the score: study tips for choir leaders Part 3

  1. Avatar Epilef says:

    Thanks for this information!! I couldn’t agree more whit this series, especially with your last point. A great conductor once told us in a summer course that we can start teaching a piece to our choir only if we have fully memorized it to the point of being able to write it down completely, all voices with all dynamics, articulations and so on. Truly inspiring ;)

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your comments Epilef. Really pleased you found the article helpful.

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