Season Beginnings, Part Three

Boy, I bet you wondered when I was going to talk about music, didn't you?

Yep, in and among all our meetings, introductions, social media, and break times: my choirs learn some music.

Like every conductor, my approach to learning music is wildly different depending on circumstances. Some seasons, we are running headlong into a concert program in a matter of weeks, and it's survival mode: we drill notes, do lots of sectionals, and demand plenty of home rehearsal to get the job done when it comes to memorization. Other years (like this one!) we have the luxury of a few months' worth of rehearsal before we need to be on stage with music in our heads rather than in our hands.

It varies by choir, too. My young adult choir is what we call a "high-octane" group: we learn a high volume of challenging music at a quick pace. That drives our young adult singers; they relish the challenge. And in my adult choir, we have an explicit policy of "taking the scenic route": we take longer to learn a little less music that may or may not be very challenging to us. The rehearsal journey is a big part of the choir experience, here.

No matter what approach we're taking, or how much music we're cramming, I do like to take the first several rehearsals to establish a few music-learning habits that I hope (but don't always manage) to keep going all season:

1 - Don't Panic.

I have to credit two sources for this one. Most famously, this is the text on the front of the eponymous travel book in the comic sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And more personally, this was the first rule in my undergraduate theory classes, set by our much-beloved prof, Dr. Robert Pritchard. Dr. Bob, as we called him, gave us this rule as a reassurance as we sometimes felt overwhelmed with the amount of information we had to learn, or the amount of work involved in an assignment. "Don't panic," he said.

It's the same for my choirs. There are a lot of levels of ability in my choir. Some people haven't sung since elementary school and don't immediately know what I mean when I announce "starting at measure 23". Don't panic; look at your neighbour, they will help you. Other singers are more experienced but have never sung this particular voice part before. Don't panic; have faith that I know what you can do, and let your voice get used to its new place in the group. And yet others are faced with music that's outside their experience, like a Bach motet that's very different from a 16-part Whitacre chord they could find with ease. Don't panic; it will come to you with time just like Whitacre once did.

 You have to read the book to get the towel reference.

You have to read the book to get the towel reference.

2 - You, too, can PRACTICE AT HOME.

There was a great article going around the choral Facebook circle this season and last: Practicing choral music for the singer who doesn't think they can practice on their own, by Doreen Fryling. My singers who are less skilled in musicianship often struggle with this idea. Unlike those who grew up on a diet of "practice makes perfect", they don't have a framework for how one even goes about rehearsing alone. I love this article for suggesting ways my singers can all do their homework.

One other tool I've used with some success in the past is to scan/annotate a score (you can use an app like ForScore) or annotate and then scan. I slap a watermark on the score using Adobe Acrobat saying "for study only - do not copy" (again, you can pencil this in yourself if you want to go low-tech, then erase on your copy after you scan). Finally, I upload the score to share with my choir. Providing your singers are mostly diligent enough to look at this information between rehearsals, it can be a very helpful way to quickly transmit score markings.

 A little snippet of my ForScore-annotated score for Brahms'  Schicksalslied . 

A little snippet of my ForScore-annotated score for Brahms' Schicksalslied

3 - SPOON-FEEd SPARINGLY

Wow, this was (and is) a hard one for me. I don't know about other choral conductors (cough, cough) but I'm a liiiiittle bit of a control freak. I like to know exactly how and when information is transmitted to my singers. I like to hear each line sung, one part at a time, and make sure everyone knows every last note and rhythm, and agrees on every last vowel. Then I went through a series of deservedly humbling choral clinics where adjudicators showed me just how controlling I was really being, as evidenced by my conducting: giving every last consonant and upbeat and cut-off to my skilled and experienced choir like I really thought they would fall apart if I didn't. 

Turns out: they don't need my help as much as I thought. (Duh, Katy.)

Since then, and with continuous self-reminders, I've done my best to put my spoken and unspoken faith in my choristers. I let them self-confess fudged notes, and self-report a confused vowel shape. There are certainly times that I hear things that they don't, and of course I leap in to correct egregiously wrong notes and rhythms. But overall, I try to trust. And in the trusting, I hope my singers improve their reading and confidence too.

But, ooof: it can be scary. Which brings me right back to good ol' rule number one: don't panic.

That's a wrap on this little "season beginnings" series, which is good because it's nearly November! But I'm very curious about what you do in your choral rehearsals to start the year off right. Let me know!