Some of my conducting textbooks spend numerous pages on how to structure the choir rehearsal, covering a host of factors to consider. Personally, I don’t bother putting that much thought into it. It’s already all I can do to spend time getting to know the music and make musical decisions about it, let alone think about a detailed rehearsal structure. So I’ve resigned myself to simply what seems to work, which, for me, is this:
First, housekeeping. Thanking the choir for their music-making the previous Sunday, miscellaneous announcements, changes to the choir schedule, etc. I get this out of the way first so I can move immediately from warm-ups to the anthems we’ll be working on.
Second, warm-ups. Warm-ups are essential—they prepare the voice and body for singing and help relieve accumulated tension from the choir members’ work days.
Third, the music itself. In a 60-minute rehearsal (not counting warm-up time), I find I can get through 4-5 upcoming pieces. I almost always start with the piece coming up next on the schedule. Because we have worked on it the most by this point, it’s familiar and the most performance-ready—any rehearsing is simply clean-up of details. After this first piece, the other pieces will usually be rehearsed in the order they appear in the schedule, except when level of difficulty needs to be considered. If a piece is significantly harder and requires more rehearsal time, I’ll rehearse it next regardless of where it falls in the schedule. With more than one challenging piece, I will try to break them up with one of the easier pieces to give the choir a bit of a break in between.
After rehearsing all the other pieces, I will often do a final run-through of the piece for the upcoming Sunday so that it stays as fresh as possible in the choir’s minds. Then we close with a sung benediction and depart.
In all of this, efficiency is essential, and that means spending time studying the score because it informs how I teach the piece. If the piece has very tricky sections, I may focus on those first to make the most use of our rehearsal time—easier sections can be learned later. On the other hand, if the piece has repeated themes and sections, those can be taught first and all at once since when one section is learned, all the sections are learned; rehearsing what the choir already knows wastes their time and mine. And because we have limited time and much to accomplish, I live by this rule of thumb as a conductor: talk as much as necessary and as little as possible.
The flip side to all of this is that choir should be fun. In my opinion, church choirs are primarily small group ministry and therefore choir members need to be nurtured. Efficiency, musicianship, and learning are important but not if they come at the expense of fellowship and community. So when it comes to music excellence, I will take “good enough” over “perfect” any day if it means that, week after week, my choir simply loves making music together. If together we can both love the music-making and learn and grow, that’s a bonus. If the music sounds perfect but the choir merely shows up to rehearsals because that’s their job as a choir, then something is broken and needs to be fixed.
Or, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, if the choir can sing like angels but does not have love, it might as well be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal—and no amount of rehearsing can fix that.