OUR CHOIR MADE SOME MISTAKES last Sunday. And the Sunday before that. There will be mistakes at your next sung Mass, too. (And at mine.) Should we carry this around with us and let it affect our daily lives?
Mistakes often seem to be a bigger deal than they really are. They make singers feel as if they’ve let down the choir, and can even undermine their confidence.
Due to human frailty, mistakes are inevitable. But they’re not all created equal. By analyzing the reasons for mistakes, we can eliminate many of them. What about the rest? We can learn to deal with them like Catholics.
Why Singers Make Mistakes
To explore this topic thoroughly would require a textbook. Let me instead offer a few quick tips on how to minimize choir mistakes.
Many mistakes happen because a singer isn’t up to the task. He lacks the vocal or audiation skills to sing this music correctly, or he didn’t get enough rehearsal time on it. Here are some rehearsal techniques you can use to reduce these mistakes:
- Use solfege. Solfege may seem like a hassle, but it’s worth the work. Try one of the many scores here at Corpus Christi Watershed that provides letters to represent the solfege syllables. If your choir recoils at first, be persistent. My singers now prefer to learn pieces on solfege and feel uncomfortable if I rush through this step. And once they’ve learned a piece, it’s learned forever.
- Don’t overlook rhythm. Nobody wants to sing off key, so most of us focus on pitch and neglect rhythmic precision. Rhythm seems easier because it’s just math. If the tenors come in one beat early, you might assume it’s as correctable as a typo. But maybe they’re getting distracted because the basses enter before them, or because the altos have a busy moving line above them. Tricky rhythms need attention.
Count-singing and pulse-singing are two handy ways of drilling rhythm. In count-singing, everyone sings through their part on “one-and-two-and-tee-and-four-and.” It helps everyone sing in time and makes for cleaner phrase endings.
In pulse-singing, everyone sings their part on text but pulses each note, staccato, on a small note value. For example, if you’re singing Sicut Cervus by Palestrina, the tenors will pulse four times while holding the initial whole note. Pulse-singing not only reinforces subdivision but also forces singers to hit each pitch dead-on because they have only a split second to sing it.
- Don’t play too much piano in rehearsals. As I recently told a musician friend, I’m glad I’m not much of a pianist. It spares me the temptation to accompany my choir on every note they sing. I believe excessive piano playing becomes a crutch for a choir. Piano is great for letting the choir listen to what they’re about to sing. But if you play with them all the time, you’ll weaken their audiation.
- Don’t sing with them, at least not always. Singing along with your choir can be a crutch, too. I’ll sing along at first to teach a section their notes, but I don’t want them to lean on me. Of course, like many church choir directors, I’m both director and choir member. We’re always short on tenors, so I sing tenor while I conduct. (I must admit I should ask my tenors to sing without me more often to see how well they’re learning the music.)
- Build listening skills. Encourage your singers to listen to everything but themselves. Consider rehearsing polyphony in pairs of parts—but not always soprano-alto and tenor-bass. On some pieces, it may make sense to pair up soprano and bass, or the two inner voices. By giving singers at least one other part to listen to, you help increase their musical awareness.
Two Other Species of Mistakes
Some mistakes happen because distractions arise. If, like me, you’re blessed to work in a parish with many families that are open to life, you’ll often hear a baby start crying just as you’re beginning a complex motet. Perhaps the sopranos don’t quite hear their first interval, and it throws off the altos for their entrance. During these challenges, all you can do is concentrate harder.
Other mistakes happen because we let our minds wander. A sung traditional Mass can take 90 minutes or longer, depending on the length of the homily and number of communicants. Some chants or motets require several minutes of intense concentration to sing (try explaining this to a non-musician who thinks we’re merely “doing what we love” like beer league softball players). With 30 or 40 singers in the loft at a large parish, someone will space out eventually.
There’s no easy fix for mental lapses. But we can make sure our singers know why they’re in choir. Provide them with translations for all the Latin they’re singing so they can sing prayerfully rather than just in tune. Reinforce their sense of purpose by reminding them there should be no conversation during Mass. And stress the need for frequent eye contact with you while singing. Remember: eye contact isn’t just about staying in tempo—it’s about directing our attention and energy in the same direction so that we can sound like a choir rather than a random collection of beautiful solo voices.
Developing the Right Mindset Towards Mistakes
We can’t eliminate mistakes. While one choir member may sometimes sing an entire Mass without missing a note or mispronouncing a word, it’s unlikely an entire choir will do it on the same day. So we must cultivate a healthy attitude towards mistakes, both in our singers and in ourselves as choir directors. I’ll address that topic in my next article.