In August, we featured an article by Dick Price, an accompanist who found himself leading a choir quite inadvertantly. He wrote about the challenges of moving from the piano to the podium. In this follow-up article, he fills us in on how he has progressed as a choir leader in his first rehearsals.
Well, as with all best laid plans, things changed all of a sudden, when domestic circumstances intervened and I was not able to be at the first rehearsal. Fortunately I had had a feeling that this might happen and had managed to secure the services of one of the best young professional conductors in the area. The potential danger of doing this is the inevitable comparison when I turn up a week later as the normal stand-in. The choir members are very kind and supportive, and although they thoroughly enjoyed the first week, some of them felt the pace was somewhat brisk, to put it lightly! They also said that all conductors bring something different to the rehearsals, including myself, which was most encouraging.
It is difficult to remember, but it seems to generally hold, that audiences want you to succeed and will help you to do that. I like to think that we are fairly democratic with a touch of benign despotism thrown in.
So, weeks two and three have now been done and dusted, and how have we fared in that time?
The Mozart Kv167 has gone down well, on the whole. No-one this time has said they are tired of “religious” music, which has happened in the past. My normal response to this, is that Mozart basically wrote what was needed to earn a living, so I see it as commercial music at the end of the day. My approach with new music, rightly or wrongly, is to see how far we get sight-reading, and then break down part by part. The suggestion on this website of asking “all to sing all” was accepted without demur, and seems to work well. I let them choose their pitch (octave level) and don’t get upset if some opt out.
The Elgar piece, “False Love”, no 2 in the “From the Bavarian Highlands” set, also seems to have gone down well. This is pure choral music with its own accompaniment which is wonderful, rather than an orchestral reduction like the Mozart.
We had sung some pieces from the Kings Singers collection in the summer concert, so I re-ran one of those at the end of the second rehearsal, to provide a little light relief. One is always conscious of the fact that we have four or five new members, to whom even recent music will be totally new, but that’s life.
To me, the most stressful part of any rehearsal. The Little Book of Choir Warm-ups from this website, has been invaluable, not only for helping to select options, but also for providing an explanation of why specific warm-ups are important and what they achieve.
I made the mistake of preparing three from each of the first four sections, and one round. This of course took about 20 minutes, which was twice as long as I had wanted. An additional complexity was that on the night before the first of my rehearsals, a member kindly sent me a note about www.onedayonechoir.org which was all about singing a song for world peace on the actual day of the rehearsal – seemed like a good idea, so we sang Dona Nobis Pacem instead of my planned Bele Mama.
As I was tense on my first night, any delays on the part of the choir started to niggle away, but by being focussed on relaxed enjoyment in week 2, that all changed. I did have to point out that the session was meant to be a recreational and enjoyable evening, and that the more they put in, the more they would get from it – wonderful how true some of the old platitudes are!
I found that I had prepared far too much, but that was partly because I was enjoying analysing how the parts related to each other – which phrases were mimicked or referenced in the different parts, what dynamics would feel right – the Mozart movement we are working on is almost all marked forte, with a little bit of piano, so, on the basis that every phrase needs to go somewhere, I think some additional dynamics are needed. Interestingly enough, the choir seem to sense the rise and fall of the music and are creating their own dynamic – this is probably a legacy from 5 years of professional conducting.
How wonderful to have a good accompanist with good sight-reading (and mind-reading!) capability. This makes such a difference from taking the whole thing by oneself. So that’s another worry out of the way.
So, in summary, the choir seem to have enjoyed my first two rehearsals (if the applause was anything to go by!) and I feel that we have worked well on some totally new music. I would have liked to do more, but that’s always the way!
I have also learned that warm-ups are important, explaining what I am doing and why goes down well, over-conducting is very easy to do and needs to be avoided through relaxing. I wanted to change the position of the choir in the hall, and also experiment with moving parts around, but with three conductor auditions coming up, I decided that they would be too much change all at once.
So we have survived!