Quick tips for tackling new music with your choir

Introducing new music to your choir is all about balance. You know there’s going to be a learning curve, but you want to make sure that all your rehearsals are enjoyable. Here are my quick tips for getting the balance right.

Do your homework

A successful introduction of new music will depend largely on how well prepared you are and how thoroughly you know the score. While we may put a great deal of importance on how we present the information in rehearsal, we have to be in command of that information in the first place, and the only way to do that is to put in the graft of score study. Even if you’re learning by ear and teaching by ear, the same principles apply. You have know the music inside out.

Don’t do too much at once

A quick bash through an entire song or piece can be fun, but it’s likely that if you’re learning anything substantial, you won’t conquer it in one session. It’s important for your singers to feel that they accomplish something tangible at a rehearsal, which is where your season planning comes in. Make sure you know how much you need to accomplish at each session, and don’t try to overload the choir with new learning at any single rehearsal.

Don’t necessarily start at the beginning

It’s always tempting to start at the top and work through a piece chronologically, but sometimes it can be helpful to think a little differently. Is there a passage of the music that sets up a theme? Is there a simple statement of a melody that could be learned by everyone before you work on the more complex sections? Personally, I often like to start at the end of a piece. Giving the choir a chance to see the end of the musical journey can really help them as they navigate the rest of the piece. It also means that as you continue learning and eventually running the whole piece, the end gets better and  better.

Look for patterns and repetitions

If one part establishes a melody which is then repeated by another, why not learn it together? If a chorus changes slightly with repetition, can you highlight the contrast? If you can flag up themes, motifs and patterns in a piece, you can help your choir to get a deeper understanding of the music and accelerate their learning.

Progress, not perfection

However much planning we do for our rehearsals, our leadership has to be reactive to a large degree. The choir will be more responsive to new learning on some days than others. We may plan to get a particular song or section up to scratch in a particular rehearsal, but if it’s just not happening, don’t keep slogging away at it. The choir will get demoralised and the law of diminishing returns will kick in.

Finish on a high

One of the most fundamental rules of choral rehearsal that I always try to live by is not to keep niggling away at things right to the end of rehearsal. Your singers want to sing. Whatever you’ve learned, whether it’s gone well or not, have a good old sing at the end of rehearsal. And if your new piece simply can’t be bashed through in that way, sing something else that the choir knows well. You want the choir to leave with smiles on their faces.

Comments on Quick tips for tackling new music with your choir

  1. Avatar Jill says:

    I love Total Resources! I run a U3A choir of a real mix of singers many of whom go into a spin at the thought of harmonising! Rounds, rounds and more rounds is a great way to help them feel more confident and they get a real kick from hearing the lovely sound they make. I find this site so accessible and encouraging, including the comments left by other choir leaders.

    One question, do you have any suggestions for backing tracks as we don’t have an accompanist except me? We do a lot of accapella material but I would live to liven it up a bit with some different accompaniments. The choir enjoy songs they know but I do introduce new material to them at regular intervals.

    Thank you so much for this fabulous resource.


    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Jill, thank you for your lovely message, it’s always great to hear from choir leaders and know the advice we are giving can be used in a practical way. I wish you every success as you develop your choir’s confidence for harmonising.

      There are lots of different companies online who offer backing tracks and these are usually very affordable. We often use Karaoke Version which is very user friendly and has a wide range of songs. Don’t forget to also check out our Total Choir Resources Digital Music Store which has some lovely, user friendly arrangements.

  2. Avatar Shelagh says:

    Thanks – that’s a brilliant summary for tackling new songs. I am doing some things right – sigh of relief – but there’s more here that I could do. Very glad you mentioned rounds – we have been singing all the ones I learned in the Girl Guides VERY MANY YEARS AGO, and also some old songs that go together – e.g. “This Old Man” with “Michael Finnegan” – and it has been fun, amongst the hard work.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your message Shelagh, so pleased you found the article useful.

  3. Avatar Jeanette says:

    Thanks for that ladies. I always research new music, so the group knows what they are singing about, lyrics explanations etc. Tackling one section at a time is always my aim, learn that well, then move on. Sometimes, learning a ‘chorus’ first of something familiar, is helpful. I usually begin and end each rehearsal with a favourite piece.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your message Jeanette, some great advice. I agree a favourite piece to start and finish a rehearsal always goes down well.

  4. Avatar Charles E Taylor says:

    Love the thoughts. I use most of your suggestions. I lead a church ensemble with such varied levels of music skills. I have also lost my accompanist to illness and injuries. Other capable keyboardists are engaged with their own activities. So managing rehearsals is a challenge. I have found a “ready to sing” series through Brentwood/Benson music company. These songs have parts rehearsal tracks so the members can rehearse at home and if we need a sectional review I can play the cd during rehearsal.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Charles, thanks for your message, so pleased to hear you find Total Choir Resources helpful. Sorry to hear you’ve found yourself without an accompanist but sounds like the ‘ready to sing’ series has been really helpful. If you need any further material you can also head to the Total Choir Resources store as our digital music arrangements come with backing tracks, rehearsal tracks and handy teaching notes. All the best with your choir.

  5. Avatar Cheron says:

    Thank you for your helpful tips. The last one ‘finishing on a high ‘rings true. Our church choir have just begun working on Stainer’s Crucifixion for Easter.They know and love ‘God so loved the world’ and have sung it before. Any tips for teaching non readers (tenors and basses) to sing harmony?

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Rounds, rounds and more rounds! Teach a round and mix everyone up so they get used to the feeling of singing something different to those around them.

  6. Great article! Thanks ladies! We also did. Choir crawl this year due to one of your blogs and it was absolutely fantastic! Keep up the good work! X

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks Nicki. Glad to hear your ‘choir crawl’ was a success.

      1. Avatar Lucy says:

        Great advice as ever! Glad to see that I’m doing st least some of those things already!
        I’m intrigued – what is a “choir crawl”? It sounds like fun

        1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

          Hi Lucy, Thanks for your message, really pleased you enjoyed the article. I think it’s always reassuring to read advice which includes things you already do! A choir crawl as we refer to is taking your choirs around your village, town, city or wherever you may be and performing several times in several locations. We have done them in our village visiting three local pubs and singing a set in each (pre-organised with the landlords of course)! I suppose a ‘choir crawl’ could also be a night out with your singers! :)

  7. Avatar Jenny says:

    Thank you for such a great information.I have been selected
    as a choir leader, so can I know how to start up my leadership.

  8. Avatar Jenny says:

    Thank you for such a great information.I have beenselevted as a choir leader, so can I know how to start up my leadership.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Jenny, good luck with your new choir venture and do get in touch if we can help.

  9. I would like to attend a course. Pleas let me know your fees.
    Jenny Peplow

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Jenny. As I said in my reply to your other comment here, Total Choir Resources doesn’t run any courses at present. We’d love to develop that in the future, though.

  10. Great tips, thanks Victoria. A couple of others I’d add would be to give the choir a good view of the bigger picture by playing them a version of the song all the way through first – not one wildly different from your own arrangement (sometimes I have a performance track of a piece I will do with a backing track eventually which they can just follow – either the lyrics or score depending on how I’m teaching it – and sing along to bits they are familiar with, and I also talk about the structure of the song eg verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus – explain a new song is like a map and we have to navigate it – especially if it’s a score which has repeats, go back to the sign etc.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Maddie, mapping out a song with your choir and highlighting repetition is a great tool. That way the learning process can become less daunting for them. I will often play the original version of a song when we begin learning it, it adds an element of excitement around the room and also I’ve found however popular a tune, many people will not have heard it before.

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