We have all done it. Step 1: We pass out new music to the choir. Step 2: Plow through the piece at performance tempo and play parts so loudly that they will have to hear how it is supposed to go. Step 3: Repeat Step 2 until is sounds good enough. Sound familiar? What if we did not have to pound out the notes? What if we could increase a choir’s reading abilities with every piece we sing?
I offer the following suggestions of ways to introduce new music to your choirs.
1. Use the hymnal. This tremendous resource is sitting right in front of us and we sometimes forget to use it. As part of your warm-up, have the choir sing through a hymn verse or two – preferably a hymn that the congregation will be singing in the weeks to come. Start by singing the melody line. This is a great way to encourage good tone and ensure that vowels and consonants are unified. As your group becomes familiar with this new aspect of rehearsal, have them sing a familiar hymn in parts. This will be a logical stepping-stone to reading the octavos that come their way every week.
2. Know the score. The key to helping our choirs increase their literacy is to be literate ourselves. If we are not fully prepared it is not fair to the choir, the accompanist (if you are lucky enough to have one), or to the music. This means that we should be able to sing each voice part without the help of the keyboard (see #3), know how we will introduce parts, and know which spots will need extra attention.
3. Do not use the keyboard. If we allow the keyboard to teach everything to the choir we miss the opportunity to strengthen our reading skills. Challenge yourself with a cappella singing. It allows choir members to utilize their music reading abilities and helps the conductor to identify troublesome passages with greater ease.
4. Embrace moments to teach. People will sing wrong notes. They are supposed to sing wrong notes. That’s why they are at rehearsal! We must find ways to teach them what the right notes are without just giving them the answer by singing or playing it for them. When a passage is incorrect, first point out the location of what is wrong. Isolate the problem – find exactly what note/rhythm is misplaced and offer a suggestion as to how to fix the problem. Show how they could find that note from another voice part, or where in their music they already had a similar pattern. Perhaps you could make reference to a hymn tune with the same melodic characteristic. Your choir will be infinitely more satisfied to learn they can read without prior hearing.
5. When deserved, shower them with praise. We must remember that the volunteers in our choirs have most likely not had the same training as the church musician (that is why you are standing in front of them!). When the choir sings without being spoon-fed, even if it was not “perfect”, it is the job of the teacher to acknowledge their successes.
Incorporating these ideas will take gradual implementation. There will be some who find this method very challenging, even upsetting! Integrating these techniques, however, build a choir’s ability to read music and not simply regurgitating what they have heard a few times will begin to increase the efficiency and quality of rehearsal.