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On rehearsals 5

I will end this short series of blogs on rehearsals with some practical tips I notice I need to come back to year after year.

Speak little and avoid thinking aloud

Most choral conductors talk far too much in rehearsal. The singers have come to the rehearsal to sing and it is worth respecting that wish. The easiest way to make a short story long is to think aloud. Most often, it is not worthwhile to describe the problem if you have a remedy for it (‘fewer diagnoses, more prescriptions’). I suggest a short moment of silence in thought and then a very clear set of guidance. Keep it short and limit your demands to maximum three things (one demand is probably the very best option).

Be efficient from the beginning of the rehearsal process

Always act as if time were limited. Even when it seems there is plenty of it. If you do not, time will indeed be limited at the back end of the process.

Tell the singers where they should be starting and give them the notes & tempo

Even the very best tend to say ’from the same place’. This place is absolutely clear to the conductor, but not necessarily to the singer. Use bar numbers or page–system–bar if there are no bar numbers (it might be worth while adding bar numbers to these pieces). If the singers always know where they are supposed to be starting from and have the right notes, you will save hours of rehearsal time during a season. If you are conducting, prepare the entrance well, and if you are at the piano, systematically count two numbers (three-four; one-two). If the passage is begun by only part of the voices, still say ’everyone from bar 32’. If you mention only the voice parts that begin the passage, the other voice parts tend to assume they are not needed. A very simple trick worth remembering is counting bar numbers aloud. If you want to start from 18, count aloud from the previous visible bar number (if 15-> ‘start from bar 15, 16, 17, 18’). By the time you get there, most choristers will have arrived with you.

Keep singing as a tool

Using your voice as a model for the kind of singing or phrasing you want to hear, is one of the very best tools you have. Use it boldly, but also sparingly. Only sing the necessary amount and let the singers do most of the singing.  Singing along with the choir is great fun, but seldom of any use, especially considering that when you do, you mainly hear yourself and not the choir.

If you are at the piano, play only what is needed

Even if you are a very good pianist, playing it all is seldom beneficial. Support harmony, help with entrances and try to listen to what the choir is doing. Keep the tempo. Play in a fairly soft dynamic scale, but with a clear articulation.

Count long notes

Especially early on in the rehearsal process, it is worthwhile counting out long notes. The choir seems to lose its common pulse in the duration of three beats of a long note. You can keep the piece moving on and the tempo even by just counting beat numbers.

Concentrate on identifying and eliminating mistakes (insecurities)

Even if it sounds negative, our job early in the rehearsal process is to identify and eliminate mistakes. Forget the wonders of the music and listen intently. Mistakes learnt are notoriously difficult to eliminate later. If a voice part sounds iffy, it is. Stop and correct. Do not hope it will be fixed by itself. The rule is: if in doubt, do something.

Give reason for repeat

If you ask the choir to repeat a passage, tell the singers why you want to do it. Otherwise singers tend to take it as punishment and feel irritated. Even saying that you want to make sure everyone has got it will be a sufficient reason.

Give feedback or guidance while the choir is singing

Good choirs love not being stopped all the time. Just make sure you say what you need to say in a strong voice and in places where the singers can hear you. If you do this well, you can save a lot of time.

Speak in an audible, normal speaking voice

After you have interrupted the choir, speak in a normal speaking voice as far as possible. This will force the singers to quiet down and listen to you. Naturally, speaking too softly or mumbling are not what you want, but raising your voice tends to raise the general sound level. If it is really restless, be silent for a while and let the singers quiet down before you speak.

Avoid negative advice

When we hear ’do not’, we not only hear the not, we also hear do. Consider ’Do not think of a brown, shaggy dog with a bone in its mouth’. If at all possible, formulate your advice or demand in a positive way: ’a little bit sharper on the c’ is better than ’that c is flat’ or ’do not sing the c too flat’. The same goes for singing as a model: it is better to just offer the correct approach, not imitate the mistake and then show the correct way (unless you carefully explain what you are trying to demonstrate).

Be inspired

It is difficult to demand the choristers to be inspired by the music if the conductor shows no signs of being touched by the music. Enjoy every step of development, entice the singers to join you in enjoying the singing and the music. Be true to yourself, but remember, the singers need your energy and inspiration.


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