Recently I had major surgery that dictated I have a minimum of four weeks recovery. During that time I was to stay out of the office and do no rehearsing of the choir. In preparation for the time away, I met with four of the gifted choir members who also happen to be conductors. Since the time I would be away included October and November, it meant an especially pressured rehearsal time as we prepared for Christmas. (Did you ever notice that sometimes a major inconvenience is perhaps meant to teach us a larger lesson?)
As part of our preparation, the four directors asked if I would go over exactly what I wanted them to accomplish. As I thought about those things that needed to be covered, I found myself broadening our discussion to including some tips on running the actual rehearsal. Having conducted for over thirty years and having sung under some of the best conductors and others who help give context to “best,” I have written down some of these rehearsal guidelines I shared with my four colleagues. I have tried to limit our discussion to the rehearsal technique itself. I offer these thoughts in the hope that there may be something useful. I am reminded again that “rehearsing” is really “re” – “hear” – “sing”.
This is also a reminder that the “sing” part only applies to the singers, not the director. Our rehearsal time is spent in listening.
Planning for Rehearsal
The most effective use of rehearsal time happens hours prior to the actual rehearsal. Our weekly rehearsals are two and one half-hours long. (This rehearsal length was not inherited in any church I served. Their previous rehearsals were one and a half to two hours in length. After a couple of rehearsals, everyone understood why we needed the new rehearsal length.)
We work 10-12 pieces of music during rehearsal. I plan the rehearsal to the minute. I write out each week specifically what part of each piece we are going to work on. I.e.; Anthem A, p.5-9, (balanced entries, two page crescendo, etc.) What we work on is dependent upon where we are in the learning process. This way we can be sure we accomplish exactly what we are after. Sometimes, something else needs more work and what I planned to work on comes together in minutes!
Those pieces whose performance dates are more immediate, are scheduled earlier in the rehearsal. In other words if something takes longer to accomplish than I have allowed and we don’t get to piece number twelve in the rehearsal, we will still have accomplished our main goals. By having a detailed time schedule written out prior to rehearsal, we can relax more as a choir and conductor and not have this fear that “we overlooked something important.” Though the choir knows the rehearsal order, I am the only one with the actual time schedule. That also allows me the opportunity to edit as we go along. Depending on the piece, we can work it six to eight weeks prior to its use in the service.
Major works are integrated into the weekly rehearsals. When we recently sang Elijah, we planned in detail each part of the five months of the rehearsals before we had the first rehearsal. That rehearsal schedule was published for the choir. That enabled us to know that everything would be covered and we’d be prepared for the performance. It also communicated to the choir that we were prepared and had expectations for each rehearsal.
As a result of this kind of planning, we have a Rehearsal Order sheet which choir members pick up as they arrive each week. In addition to having all of the music listed in rehearsal order and the date it will be sung, it contains: choir member’s birthdays, thank you’s to those who did solo work the previous week, Announcements (listed), Break time, Devotional time, and the coming Sunday services details. The singers put their music in order during the opening minutes of rehearsal. This saves time by eliminating the need to announce each piece we work on. (Every singer has their own folder with their own music to mark in pencil. This music may go home with them. They are responsible for replacing lost music.)
Finally, start on time—to the minute—and stop on time—to the minute! Your singers will appreciate your honoring their time in this way. It also helps them get to rehearsal on time. Yes, I have stopped in the middle of a measure because it was time to go. Over the years, this factor has been a great help in recruiting.
For maximum effectiveness in rehearsal, warming up the choir is essential. Can you imagine a pitcher coming into a baseball game without warming up, or a concert pianist coming on stage without having warmed up? There is the old expression “you can’t get there from here.” That is never truer than when it comes to choirs. If we don’t warm the choir up, how can we possibly accomplish what we are after musically? Here are some reasons why we warm up and what we hope to accomplish in our warm-ups.
Make the transition from the experiences, pressures, joys, and frustrations of the day into the community of singers who have committed to working together. Our minds have been scattered on various things and now we need to get focused on the same thing. This doesn’t happen instantaneously. I will often ask the choir how they would “rate their day on a scale of 1-10.” Not only is it fun, it helps them hear what frame of mind others are in and also tells me where the people are emotionally. Additionally, it tells the choir members I am aware they have a life apart from choir and I care about that life. All of this information tells me the most effective way to communicate in rehearsal. If it has been a generally great day for all, I can work a certain way. On the other hand, if it has been a tough day, I will work a little more empathetically and will need greater patience. It may also take a little longer to get us to gel and to get into the working mode.
A word of prayer reminds us of purpose, vision, context, and helps in the transition from the various worlds we have all been in. At the very front of rehearsal we are reminded why we have gathered and acknowledge the presence of Christ in whose name we have gathered. We need to be reminded of what is real and what is true. We need an eternal perspective not only on rehearsal but also on life.
(3) Share the Plan
We then share the plan for the evening with the choir. It is so important that we all know what we want to accomplish as a choir. “Tonight we need to accomplish this….and this… and we’ll conclude with this…” It is important to me to have everyone know what we are all aiming at. It helps all of us stay focused and puts a little pressure on us to work together. Before we take a trip across the country, we get out a map so we all know how to get there. The same thing applies with a rehearsal.
(4) Carefully Warm-Up
We want to begin warming up the vocal chords in a careful manner. During the warm-up we do not seek the extreme ranges of the voice. We are interested in the lower to mid-range tessitura. We sing p mostly, never louder than mf. We always begin with long notes and the vowel that has the greatest potential to make the sound we are after. For us it is usually “oo”.
(5) Shift in Listening
We want to help the singer’s ear begin to move from the normal shutting out of every day sounds (traffic noise, musak, restaurant conversations, mall noise and so forth) to defined listening-listening to ensemble as well as to their own voice. If the conductor is the only one who hears anything, the choir is in trouble! (Here is another reminder to conductors not to sing in rehearsal.) Again, this transition doesn’t happen in a matter of seconds. Here we do a variety of things: unison middle C and spreading chords from there-sometimes men ascending and women descending; ½ note ascent over 16 beats-both together and with men and women moving opposite directions coming to a unison on ¼ step interval. This singing is always p. We also do some dexterity exercises, things with breathing, and so forth. This time lasts about ten minutes. There is some variation week to week in specific exercises but the substance remains the same. This is a primary teaching time. It also makes being at the first part of rehearsal very important.
Pacing (Here we have rules!)
Rule One: Watch the time!
I have a small digital clock right in front of my nose on the music stand the entire rehearsal. For each ten seconds of time I waste in rehearsal, I have frittered fifteen minutes of singer’s time. (Ten seconds x ninety plus singers.) As conductors we need to honor the people, the music, and the ministry by using people’s time wisely. I once had a businessman tell me, “I never sang in the choir before because I heard they did lots of talking and just kind of goofed around. I go to meetings all day where we get things done. I heard we get things done in choir now. I’d like to be a part of that.” He was a faithful singer who took his music with him on business trips. Using people’s time wisely is a wonderful recruiting tool!
Rule Two: Shortest Possible Intervals
The shortest time in rehearsal MUST BE from the time you stop a piece to fix something until you begin singing again. I told my four substitute directors, “this time should be measured in nano seconds!” Don’t stop until you know exactly where you want to start again. If you spend time looking for a place to start, YOU WILL LOSE THE CHOIR and you lose the discipline. Singers will fill the time with their own conversations. How do I know? That’s what I do when I sing for a director who is a little slow. You must be thinking four and five steps ahead of where you are at any time. The fastest and clearest directions I’ve found are: “page 5, 3rd system, 2nd measure, altos ..2..3..1 “and the glory…” It happens literally that fast. The number one comment of new singers joining the choir is, “Boy, you really have to pay attention to keep up! It moves!” Don’t give the singers the option of not staying with you. I have never had difficulty with discipline in a choir rehearsal from working with first graders through seniors in high school to various and sundry other kinds of choirs. A pace that moves doesn’t give singers time to get into trouble! As the director, that is our responsibility. There is a key point here. The pace can move along with purpose without being frantic. This is what we are after.
Rule Three: Vary the speed and pitch level of your voice
Don’t get caught in a monotone monologue. You won’t inspire and it will make the rehearsal seem long. Vary the speed of speech as well. Go ahead and get excited, especially when things are working. (Hint: Tape a rehearsal and see if you would put yourself to sleep.)
Rule Four: Vary how hard you push the choir in rehearsal.
The most effective rehearsals need ebb and flow, albeit at a very high level. After working with great intensity on an intricate passage, we need to move in a little different direction in order not to burn the singers out. Require different things vocally and mentally. Humor is a wonderful asset in rehearsal. Don’t make up humor. Funny things happen. Notice them. Make yourself the brunt of the humor. At times I have used illustrations that turned out to be pathetic. We all had a good laugh, relaxed, and were then ready to dive back to work. This also keeps you from taking yourself too seriously.
Rule Five: Vary difficulty and style
Vary the degree of difficulty and style of the music. I seldom plan four difficult pieces in a row. I will rehearse each of the pieces just as hard, but they don’t all present the same kind of challenge. One may have difficult rhythms, another difficult tonality, with another the challenge may be in sustained phrasing, another in maintaining emotional intensity. Each piece pulls something a little different from the singers. Rarely do we sing a piece straight through beginning to end. The exception would be the first time we pull out a piece. I’d like the choir to have some idea of where the piece goes. But, most weeks we work portions of pieces. Having said this, another way we vary pacing is to rehearse different lengths of different pieces. I.e. two pages of one, five pages of another, and maybe one piece in rehearsal gets sung all the way through…in addition to the pieces for this Sunday!
Rule Six: Edit yourself!
In my years of conducting and observing, this is the most frequently neglected rule. We must always be able to stand by the outside wall of our rehearsal room and observe ourselves in action. We can be as passionate as ever, but we need to be able to realize when we are chasing “rabbits”. Going on tangents absolutely kills rehearsals. We need to realize excessive talking by the director is perhaps the greatest single de-motivator to any singer. Say what you have to say in as few words as possible. Then get back to singing. They didn’t come to rehearsal to hear you talk. They came to SING! The more time we spend doing this, the better.
Rule Seven: Tell them when they did well
Whenever something doesn’t go right and there is a mistake or foul up, I always refer to it as “we goofed”. It is always my fault-regardless. As Robert Shaw said once when we were working on a Bach Cantata, as a director, when you get mad in rehearsal it is for one of two reasons: 1) either there was a problem and you didn’t know how to fix it or 2) you don’t love the people enough. Good words. I claim the choir failures as mine. When the choir does well, I refer to them as “you folks were tremendous.” I find it very easy to hand out praise for their hard work. In a profession where most of the time we are fixing things that aren’t right or could be improved, we need to be sure to affirm those things that we can honestly affirm. Self-esteem comes from accomplishment and hard work, not from telling people they are wonderful and special when they haven’t done anything. When they have, however small a success, tell them so!
Learning Notes as a Choir
The rehearsal techniques for learning notes vary with the kind of composition; that is, the nature of the piece itself suggests the best way to teach notes. Of course the skill of the choir is paramount. However, whether it is an exceptional choir working on a difficult piece, or an average church choir learning the three and four part anthem for Sunday, some of the same principles apply.
Generally speaking, we work the entire choir slowly in short sections. Take the rhythm away and rehearse ad lib. This keeps everyone engaged and listening to the entire ensemble. Occasionally, it is necessary to isolate an individual section to teach notes as the last resort. However, when it is necessary to focus on a single line, work short sections (a few measures) very quickly adding additional section(s) one at a time. The harmonic structure determines which sections get added and in what order. This also gives the choir an opportunity to hear the harmony develop. Never let one section sit more than thirty seconds at a time. You may also have all the sections sing the difficult passage in a comfortable octave. This is good sight reading practice.
As a rule, MINIMIZE the playing of individual parts on the piano. We will try to sing the piece slowly together—a short section. If we miss some things, we’ll try the same section again, still unaccompanied and see if we can fix our problems ourselves. If there is still a problem, we will isolate the portion, having the accompanist play it once. We try to use the piano as little as possible in rehearsal. Renaissance pieces and a cappella pieces are always rehearsed a cappella start to finish. When we stop, we pick up the pitches from memory rather than getting them from the piano. Not surprisingly, seldom is intonation a problem. There is no better ear training, sight-reading practice than this.
We have found both short term and long term, the singers become better and better listeners and better and better readers. The “ensemble” gets tighter and tighter in balance, blend, pitch, diction…all those things we strive after. (I figure it takes about six to seven years to develop the basics in a singer in the average church choir.)
Robert Shaw has stated on more than one occasion “forte singing obliterates detail.” Among other things, it covers the choir’s ability to hear one another when creating a piece of music. Most of our rehearsal is sung at the piano level. (We do have to remind ourselves frequently!) The weakest section of the choir will give us our overall dynamic possibilities. Dynamics are always in the context of the whole ensemble.
So many problematic things happen when learning a piece at a forte level:
- Vowels are very likely to have great variety among the singers.
- As a result, the sectional and choir blend will be suspect.
- As a result, the pitch and tuning will be something of an awkward compromise.
- The singers will further have great difficulty in hearing themselves and will be tempted to sing louder still in a valiant futile effort to hear themselves.
- Forget rhythmic accuracy all together because precision in diction is lost. The “hear” and “sing” part of “re-hear-sing” is gone.
Piano singing saves the voice. We frequently encourage singers, sopranos and tenors especially, to sing an octave lower when learning a new part, but also whenever convenient. Upper triads at a forte dynamic can easily (and safely!) be learned and rehearsed an octave lower at a piano dynamic.
Piano singing is the best way for singers to hear themselves individually within the section. It is also the dynamic level that makes it easiest to hear what other sections are doing vocally and harmonically. Blend, pitch, diction, and balance are all infinitely more achievable at the soft dynamic.
Piano singing also helps the singers and the director hear what is happening. Then when detail begins to immerge, the entire choir can move dynamically together, always keeping in the same context so the balance, blend, pitch, diction, and rhythm stay focused, whether singing at a pianissimo or a fortissimo level. Always keep in mind it is the choir who needs to hear what is happening with the ensemble. Whatever we can do in rehearsal to help that happen is to all of our advantage.
An equally significant aspect of rehearsal has to do with the spiritual development of the singers individually and our development as a part of the community of faith. We have frequently been called the “largest small group” in the church. That does not happen by chance. It is part of our commitment to ministry and to one another as a choir. Whenever we are not able to be at rehearsal or for Sunday, we call our section leader. The prayer line and email system is active as people share requests and pray for one another. We dedicate a portion of each rehearsal to prayer for choir member concerns. A group of choir members meet each week for prayer during the half-hour prior to the start of rehearsal. We offer a choir members and spouses Sunday School class each week taught by the director. We have studied various devotional books as a choir, using short portions as devotionals during rehearsal (6-8 minutes in length) such as: Screwtape Letters, Imitation of Christ, My Utmost for His Highest, or The Pursuit of God by A.W.Tozer.
We talk about the texts we sing giving biblical background where appropriate. We spend time talking about the context of the music we sing in worship. At times we look at the hymn texts and talk about why the hymn was chosen for this particular Sunday. We sing Happy Birthday virtually every week. We take food when there is illness or births. When there has been a need, people have cleaned a choir member’s home or taken care of the yard. We have taken offerings to help fellow choir members undergoing financial stress.
Of course I visit those members when a hospital visit is called for.
It is my commitment to the choir that being a member of the choir will be one of the primary influences for spiritual growth in the singers’ lives. As the director, that is part of my responsibility.
At the end of every rehearsal I save my rehearsal notes. I write on my rehearsal time sheet what we did and didn’t get to. I use that sheet in planning the next rehearsal. I make mental note of what worked well and what didn’t. I evaluate how I did. Did I talk too much? Did I spend too much time on some specific part of rehearsal? How did the singers leave rehearsal? (This is perhaps the single greatest indicator to me.) Did they rush out? Did they have a spring in their step? Where they happy? Were they rejuvenated? Did they talk to one another? Did they hang around? Was it a fun, healthy time? I have to be honest about myself if we are going to grow as a choir. What can I learn from this rehearsal? What can I take away from this rehearsal that will make me a better pastor/conductor to these people? How are they growing? How am I helping?
These are some of the things I think about after a rehearsal.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to be involved with singers in Christian community; to create beautiful music together and grow as musicians; to share in times of worship and to grow in faith as individuals and as a part of the Body of Christ. It is a rich call and significant responsibility to be leaders in worship. Wise and fruitful use of rehearsal time is key to accomplishing this call. To be sure, there are many ways to rehearse. We have sought to offer one person’s approach with the hope that there may be one or two ideas that will be useful in each of our unique situations as we seek to fulfill our various calls to lead in ministry and in helping to build the Kingdom.