REHEARSAL TUTORIAL PART 2: Navigating the tricky middle phase

This is the second of a three-part series of articles about rehearsing a new piece with your choir. In the first part, we looked at introducing a piece to a choir for the first time. In this article, we’ll look at the phase of rehearsals where you’re putting in the bulk of the work on interpretation before polishing the piece for performance.

The middle phase of work on a piece can be tricky. The initial novelty of the new music has worn off and the adrenaline of imminent performance won’t kick in for a while. How do you keep rehearsals fresh and productive so that you can stay on target for a fantastic performance?

1. Focus on specific passages & characteristics

Once you’ve done the initial “note-bashing” work on a new piece and everyones knows basically which notes go where, you’ll want to start building on that foundation. There will, of course, be awkward passages and transitions that need more work than others. The worst thing you can do in this phase is keep rehearsing a piece from the beginning. In my experience, the choir finds this de-motivating after a while. You’ll likely end up spending more time than you need to on passages that the choir sings confidently, and neglecting other areas. When I’m planning my rehearsals, I like to think about which issues need the most work and cover those in isolation first. Then I might consolidate that work with a run-through of all or part of the piece. The most common areas that need this kind of attention are transitions in dynamics and tempi. This kind of approach keeps the choir on its toes and helps to keep your singers motivated and concentrating.

2. Mix up the choir

Since I started conducting, I’ve become a huge fan of moving my singers around within the choir. Most of my singing experience has been in large choirs, where it was logistically unrealistic to reshuffle people very often. In a small choir, it’s relatively easy and well worth doing. Singers suddenly find themselves surrounded by new stimuli (and might have to face the fact that they were relying too much on their usual neighbour) and have to adjust accordingly. In my experience, everyone gets a little shock to the system and works with renewed concentration. The musical result may be a bit ropey initially, as everyone re-finds their feet, but the gain in vigour and motivation far outweighs any temporary wobbles.

3. Try different interpretations

If your choir will be led by someone other than you in performance, it can be helpful to keep your singers guessing a bit during rehearsals, so that you can avoid them feeling completely at sea when someone else stands up in front of them.

You could try conducting a passage at a new tempo without making any announcement, or reversing the dynamics. It will serve, firstly, to remind your singers that they should be watching you and, secondly, that they shouldn’t be relying on a version of the piece that they’re carrying around in their heads. This is live music and anything can happen!

4. Throw in something familiar for a sing-through

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I often advocate giving your singers the chance to let rip without interruption or criticism. This is particularly the case in the middle phase of rehearsal, when the detailed work is done, and when the atmosphere is in danger of sagging a little. Your choir wants to sing, so make sure they get the chance to bash through a whole piece or section, whatever shape it’s in. If that isn’t possible, have a romp through something well known by the choir as an antidote to the hard graft of the rest of the rehearsal.

Ultimately, the middle phase of rehearsal is about keeping the atmosphere buoyant and encouraging your singers to maintain their concentration and motivation.  If you have any great tips for handling this part of the rehearsal process, I’d love to here them.

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