A Few Thoughts on Rehearsal Techniques

by Ronald A. Nelson

"I don't feel I should work my Church choir too hard. After all, most of them have worked hard all day."

How many of us have been guilty of this assumption? My singers may think they don't want to work hard, but while a dull and dragging session may leave us all exhausted, a stimulating, intensive rehearsal that accomplishes a lot with an infectious spirit of excitement will leave them (and me!) less tired when they leave than when they came - and looking forward to another hard-working session next week. This is especially true if none of their precious time is wasted.

And how might I avoid wasting time? For one thing, I must be prepared - not only knowing the music, but anticipating mistakes and dealing with them before they are "learned."

As an example - in studying the new anthem I plan to introduce this week, I notice that in measure 15 the tenors sing an E while the basses are supposed to sing F a major 7th below (SA notes above are A and C.) Aha! Knowing my basses, I'm pretty sure they will sing the octave E in that spot, because it will "sound right" - settling for an a minor 6/4 chord instead of an F major 7th. So at the very first rehearsal I will deal with that potential problem. How? Going over the bass part alone in that spot will seldom avoid the problem. They may still revert to the E when singing with the whole group. No, they must hear that F along with the tenor E and the upper voices as well, enough to get it in their ears and "make friends" with it.

That's one part of being sure I deal with the "whole problem." Getting into and out of that dissonance is also important. Too many directors will begin to deal with a wrong note right AT the note itself, not realizing that the real problem is getting there from the preceding notes. Robert Shaw used to test his summer festival choirs by asking them to approach the note or chord in question and then sing it staccato. (No time to "adjust!") If it comes off muddled or indistinct, it needs more work - and more listening.

What about mistakes that I have not anticipated? In this case, what if I have not noticed in the score that major 7th dissonance between bass and tenor - and what if the basses do sing the octave instead? Will I hear it? Or - because it "sounds right," will I let it go - or not notice it until it has become an ingrained habit? This brings up the whole question of ear training.

At a workshop a few years ago, the leader tested his group by playing several hymns while they followed the harmonizations in the hymnal provided. He warned them that in each hymn there would be just one wrong note in one of the four voice parts, and they were to try to detect it from looking at the notes in front of them while listening to what was played. In the first examples the mistake was obvious - and dissonant. But then the leader simply substituted one note that sounded right for another - finally just adding a 5th to a final chord that was printed with only roots and a third. That was the real stickler! No one in the group heard it.

How much is such a "sharp ear" inherited, and how much can it be developed? One thing is sure: we can improve our ears in this and other ways. Hearing what is actually happening may be the most important time saver of all! Many commonly-used anthems can be heard these days on the internet - some in several different renditions. Getting the correct sound firmly into my ears before presenting the piece to the choir will help these ears to "raise a red flag" at any wrong notes. Perhaps other directors can share ideas here about this important task of "ear development" - possibly the most common weakness among us.

How much do I talk vs. how much they sing? My first conducting teacher (in high school) would set a stopwatch going every time the music stopped and I began talking. At the end of the session I would always get scolded for too much talk. "They come to sing, not to hear you talk" was his constant reminder. So in correcting things such as dynamics, variations in tempo, etc. why not ask myself if it can be done entirely with my conducting gestures (and facial expressions?), without saying a word?

Of course, this assumes that the singers are watching! Since church choir singers can be notorious for keeping their eyes and noses in their (lowered) music, how can I train them to keep both eyes and music up? For one thing, by never letting them take my tempo for granted - changing it often without warning during rehearsals. After they are caught several times in this way, they may begin to pay better attention. Surprise changes in dynamics and mood may also be used to hold their eyes.

Pauses between singing while I stop to think what to do next can be another problem. Again recalling my old mentor's advice, my brain needs to be "multi-tasking" throughout the rehearsal. While listening for accuracy as the choir is singing, I am also deciding what to do next, so that when the singing stops I can immediately say (in his words), "Page 3, measure 17: tenors - SING!" (This happens before they can begin talking - and my accompanist must be quick to give them an instant pitch!)

"OK, let's just go through it again," may be an all-too-common weakness of the amateur choir director. Just going over an anthem a second (or third) time may correct a few things, but it also may simply reinforce mistakes. Why are we going through it again? What is the goal of this run-through? Have I prepared for this rehearsal on the basis of what happened last week?

Change of pace and change of approach for each piece being rehearsed is vital to keeping my rehearsals alive. If I am prepared, I won't begin every piece by running it through from beginning to end. Beginning with the toughest spots will earn their respect as well as save their time. Alternation of easy and challenging music as well as what needs to be done on each can be carefully planned ahead of time - with flexibility as needed, depending on what happens. And I need to alternate the more somber Advent and Lenten music with the joyful and rhythmic things I are preparing for Christmas and Easter.

Perhaps one of the rarest things among church choirs is a genuine and beautiful pianissimo. Being strict about pp where indicated in the score can work wonders in developing a lovely sound as well as critical listening among my singers. "Keeping it alive" while singing pianissimo must also be stressed; otherwise they will surely lose pitch. Shaw would have his chorus rehearse even the loudest passages pianissimo (to save the voices), and then switch to fortissimo, but "never louder than lovely!"

How often I have found myself getting so carried away with the notes - the music itself - that I have forgotten that choral music also involves words -words which indicate how the music should be sung, and should stimulate the singers' interpretation and imagination. More than one director facing singers proclaiming the resurrection with long faces has been moved to say, "I don't believe you." Instead of an "opening devotion" for a choir rehearsal, might our anthem texts become devotions within the rehearsal - even without much talking about them? But whether the deeper meaning of a sacred piece or the whimsy of a nonsense song - how can we make it believable?

The importance of effective rehearsal techniques cannot be over-emphasized. A former St. Olaf Choir member recently said that she enjoyed rehearsals even more than performances of that choir. Shouldn't that be the conductor's goal as well? When singers and director find themselves aspiring together toward a "higher good," wonderful, even life-changing things can happen!

Posted on Jun 18, 2012 9:02:16 AM
Filed Under: Choral Techniques and Repertoire, Filed Under: review-prelude,

Ronald A. Nelson

Written by Ronald A. Nelson

With degrees from St. Olaf College and the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Ronald A. Nelson served for 37 years as Director of Music at Westwood Lutheran Church in suburban Minneapolis, where he has been named Cantor Emeritus and now serves as a choir member. In 1999 he was one of 50 composers chosen to write music for the "Continental Harmony" project of the American Composers Forum and National Endowment for the Arts to celebrate the new millennium. He is the recipient of a Distinguished Alumnus Award from St. Olaf College, the F. Melius Christiansen Award from the Minnesota ACDA, and the Faithful Servant Award from the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians.