S CHURCH MUSICIANS, it seems we are always in preparation mode. From planning music for an entire season to setting up chairs for rehearsals—and dozens of things in between—it seems we are always ‘getting ready’ for something. Fortunate is the musician who, like me, has some fantastic people who help with many of these tasks. But even then, the catalyst for all of this and more is the music director.
With all that there is to do, and with so much on our minds, who has time to prepare for a choir rehearsal? I mean really prepare. Not just play through each piece once, or give a familiar motet or chant a quick glance, but really prepare? What does thorough preparation look like anyway?
Last time I talked about listening to different choirs to get an idea of what a great choral sound really is. What I am not advocating is actually learning a piece of music, or preparing to teach a piece, simply by listening to it over and over. That leads nowhere. With all that there is to do, it is important to carve out the time to sit with the music and really learn it. Only by knowing a piece inside and out can we then teach it effectively and efficiently.
Here are some of the ways a good conductor (not just a choral conductor) learns a piece of music:
1. Sing every part. Be sure you can sing each part without errors in pitch or rhythm. Sing it with all the dynamics, vowel color, and inflection that you want your choir to have. Master the most difficult parts so that you can demonstrate them to the choir at a moment’s notice.
2. Work at the piano. At the piano, sing one part while playing the rest, working through each part until the piece is almost memorized. Isolate points of dissonance or interesting chords and sing them from the bottom up. Sing in tune!
3. Use your inner ear. In complete silence, try to hear the whole piece in your head. Can you hear two parts at once? Three parts? Listen, in your mind, to the vowels, dynamics, and phrasing. This is an advanced skill but one that everyone should try.
4. Sing and conduct. Imagine the choir in front of you. Conduct your imaginary choir while singing one part. After a few measures switch to another part. Can you easily find the starting note? Are your conducting gestures clear and musical? Is your tempo steady?
5. Mark your music. This can be something as simple as adding in breath marks, reinforcing dynamics, or marking in who sings different verses. It can also mean analyzing every chord, marking phrase structure, and penciling in the overall form of the piece. 1
Learning our music well makes choir rehearsals efficient and informative. If we know every part fluently, and if we know exactly what we want to hear, then we can easily recognize errors as they occur and fix them. We can teach our singers how to sing each phrase because we’ve sung them ourselves. We can hear balances and bring out important themes because we’ve already heard them with our inner ear. We will have the ability to make contact with our singers because, knowing the music so well, our heads will not be buried in the score.
IN ADDITION TO PREPARING OUR EARS and our scores, we should prepare our rehearsals. I know in those times that I have failed to adequately plan a rehearsal, I inevitably spend too much time on one piece, only to realize that there is no time left to get to some other important music. As a remedy, each week I create a rehearsal schedule that is based on the kind that Robert Shaw created for his rehearsals, especially his orchestra rehearsals. By planning the rehearsal down to the minute, the schedule keeps me on task and allows me to rehearse everything that needs to be accomplished that week. If you do this, try to account for every minute, including non-musical items such as prayers or announcements. Decide which pieces or sections of pieces need the most time and which ones can wait for a few weeks. It can be a bit of a jig-saw puzzle, but this type of planning will also force you to think about upcoming rehearsals.
If these things can be addressed efficiently, then we have more time to get to some other really fun stuff. We can spend some time talking about the theology of the text or the composer’s biography. There might be a few extra minutes to explain certain aspects of the Mass, talk about the Collect for the upcoming Sunday, or how the motet we’re singing is actually based on the Proper text of the day. Both you and your choir will feel the power of the plan. This kind of detailed preparation allows one to feel organized and confident. Singers will appreciate your command of the material, and they will be grateful that you’re making the most of their valuable time. There is no substitute for thorough preparation. It is a crucial component in forming and fashioning a great choir.
Next time: Passion!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 This kind of analysis is not only for music by the masters. In fact, I find that just a brief time analyzing simpler music for children’s choirs is valuable time, because this music is often repetitive. Pointing out the number of times a phrase repeats is a great way to teach children a new piece. Have them sing it once, then find it throughout the piece and let them sing it every time it occurs. Suddenly, they’ve learned fifty percent of a piece in about five minutes. They also realize that music has a formal structure. But unless you have studied this yourself, you can’t teach it.