This is the final instalment 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 the second, we covered the middle phase of rehearsals. In this final part, we’ll look at polishing a piece for performance.
The final phase before your choir performs a piece takes some delicate balancing. Too little rehearsal and the performance could be panicky and riddled with mistakes; too much and the choir may become complacent and even bored. Think of an athlete tapering for a race – it’s about making sure that you hit the sweet spot of optimum readiness at just the right time.
Here are a few of the issues I’ve encountered when polishing pieces for performance.
1. Get some excitement going
If you have a long lead time between starting work on a piece and performing it, your singers can start to feel that it’s a bit of a slog. They may not appreciate your rehearsal plan unless you set it out explicitly. Tell your singers that you have “x” number of rehearsals until the performance and that you are now in the final stages of your work on the piece. Remind them how far they’ve come since they started the piece and how fantastic the performance will be. If you’re going to perform the piece from memory, be explicit about when you expect the choir to put down their scores or lyric sheets. You might have to be ruthless about this – you’re asking your singers to give up their security blanket! Talk about what the performance will be about. Are you performing in a prestigious venue? Are you raising money for something specific and worthwhile? Will the performance take the choir to a new level musically?
2. Focus on emotion
When you’re working on the nuts and bolts of a piece, it’s easy to forget about the meaning and emotion of the music (although I always advise combining meaning with mechanics right from the beginning). Of course you want to iron out any little wrinkles in the choir’s knowledge and presentation of the piece, but in the run-up to a performance your singers really need to tap into the emotional heart of the music because, ultimately, that’s where their enjoyment and fulfilment lie. Make sure you give them that opportunity by allowing them the luxury of singing the whole piece, or whole sections, without interruption. If you need to correct any little glitches, either wait until after the piece or section is finished or explain to your choir that you are going to devote part of the rehearsal to “stop/start” corrections, then have a good long sing. Constantly interrupting your singers with alterations dilutes their emotional experience of the piece which, in turn, makes it less likely that their performance will convey that emotion to the audience.
3. Keep them guessing
In my experience, choirs of all styles and abilities develop a collective consciousness of a piece during the rehearsal period. The tempo, dynamics and expression can become set in a way that can threaten to undermine the leadership of the conductor in performance. The choir should be following the conductor in the present, not following their memory of how the piece was sung last time and the time before that. This is particularly the case when the performance is conducted by someone other than the choir’s usual leader. The singers need to be ready to respond in the moment to the person leading them. The performance venue could be very different acoustically to the rehearsal room, requiring a last-minute re-think of tempo and dynamics.
One way to remind your singers of this is to be a little capricious occasionally and change something in rehearsal just for the sake of it. Changing the choir’s formation also keeps everyone on their toes, as does putting down their scores, singing a different part or reversing the dynamics of a section – anything that re-focuses the attention and wakes everyone up.
4. Accentuate the positive
In the final phase of work on a piece, don’t forget to compliment your choir on its achievement. As well as picking up on final corrections, make sure your singers know how much you appreciate all the things that don’t need correcting. They’re not telepathic so your praise needs to be explicit. Is the ensemble and intonation of a section spot-on? Have they enunciated a tricky passage beautifully? Tell them!
5. Keep a lid on the stress!
Everyone can get a bit tense in the run-up to a performance. It’s absolutely natural and largely unavoidable. However, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by allowing your stress to spill over and affect your relationship with your choir. Even if you’re terrified that the performance is going to be an absolute disaster, you have to find a way to remain courteous and friendly in rehearsals. The situation will not improve if you get angry and bark at your singers. In fact, it will likely get worse. Your choir’s performance will only improve with encouragement, never with browbeating.
Stress can also lead us to labour a point too much in rehearsal – just one more run-through, just five more minutes. This can be counter-productive. Many times in my singing career, I’ve been in a tutti rehearsal that should have finished half an hour ago, with singers, orchestra and soloists who are tired and hungry and who are only going to get an hour’s break before the concert. There is no productive work to be done at this stage, but some conductors will still go on and on, trying to correct tiny corners of the piece while all the performers’ goodwill ebbs away. Don’t be that person! Be the person who compliments everyone on a great rehearsal, assures them the performance will be wonderful and lets them go and get some dinner.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rehearsal tutorial series. Are there any issues that you’d like to cover in more depth? Or things I’ve missed? Please leave a comment or get in touch.