Right, so last time I claimed we do not pay enough attention to rehearsals, at least not from a more philosophical point of view. The practical side is often discussed, but there are things bigger at stake here.
I would love to dive into the deep waters right away, but I feel I need to build a context first. I will do this by reflecting on what one does at rehearsals. Remember that this is not a chronology of the rehearsal process, but should rather be seen as different and often intertwining elements.
Firstly, as everyone knows, you learn the music. At first, this means ensuring that everyone knows all the intervals, rhythms, harmonies, phrases etc. I want to emphasise that this phase is not separate from music-making on a deeper level. The conductor wants to create an idea of the piece as early as possible, but in this phase time and space needs to be given to the singers to grow into the work. Remember that you have already spent quite some time with the music and the choristers are only being introduced to it now. A good rule is to be quite objective and even a little detached in this phase. Lots of singing, very little talk.
After this initial phase (often from the second rehearsal on), the focus changes. In short, the process from the surface to the depths of the work begins. The wonderful thing about this is that the conductor is also a voyager on this journey. The end result can be quite different to what we assume it will be. I think the best description of this phase is a spiral in which the chain is: singing -> analysis (quietly in the head of the conductor!) -> guidance (keep it short!) -> singing -> analysis etc. I have found that it is best to keep the feedback or guidance very short and concentrated on only one or two things. There will be time for the next step – and surprisingly often changing the most important thing will fix the less central problems. This is also the phase where the relation of the whole and its parts starts taking form. It requires time, but is often incredibly rewarding.
Thirdly, rehearsals include an element of striving for perfection. This means that all pitches, harmonies, rhythms, phrases, consonants and vowel colours are fine-tuned. I believe it is this element that often separates the best conductors and choirs from the rest. This phase is often no great fun, but it does pay off. There is an odd rule to human behaviour: we often begin by giving less than is our best. It is the task of the conductor to push the singers into the area where excellence lives. The odd thing is that singers also want to go into this area and are ultimately grateful to a conductor who makes them go there, even if the journey is not always enjoyable.
The fourth area is compatible to progressing as a solo singer. This naturally happens in part through vocalising, but the main route is through repertoire. With each mastered song or aria, another piece of technical prowess is gained. Choral repertoire works the same way: if a piece is technically (vocally) mastered, it will radiate into the coming repertoire. Through systematic work on how each passage is sung, the result will be an improved sound (culture). In this phase there is much voice teaching. There is no need to be afraid of this and you do not need to be singing teacher to do this – all we do is give feedback based on how it sounds to us (and what we want it to ultimately sound like). The means will come if the will and an open mind is there.
The fifth phase of the rehearsal process is understanding the text and its emotional content and balancing this with the music and what we feel is the intention of the composer. This is a process in which it is good to involve the singers. They have so many things to master in the music that the poem can easily be forgotten altogether. When this happens, the emotional strength of the piece is most often diminished. I believe it is important to work on the emotional expression of the piece in the safety of a rehearsal – some of it will always stick and be present in the performances, while the excitement of the performance may also bring new ones to the fore.
The last area I would like to mention is the creation of a systematic, idiosyncratic way the choir always acts. I call it a game plan. The choristers know how fifths or thirds are tuned in this choir, they know where to place ending consonants, they know they way they are expected to use their voices and listen to the other singers. If a game plan is established, so much will come by itself. Feedback also becomes easier – you can always refer to the basic methods used in the choir.
And now that I have clarified what I think happens in rehearsal, the next steps will take us even deeper into a single rehearsal and the strong forces at work in them. But that will be the topic of installments three and four.