by Dean Luethi, Chair, Collegiate Choral Music
If we conductors wish our students to sing with vitality and vigor within the scope of a focused rehearsal, we must be the epitome of energy in each rehearsal and plan rehearsals that maximize learning. The efficiency of your rehearsals will allow you to produce the best from your singers and keep them on task. This article addresses techniques for energetic and efficient choral rehearsals.
While all of these techniques cannot be used in every rehearsal, the aim is to keep your singers on their toes and ready for your instruction. Changing the configuration of the room based upon the particular focus of the day (note-learning, blend, intonation) can create an immediate buzz in the room and allow you to work more effectively. Seat the sections in a horseshoe with the section leader in the middle (for assessment and reinforcement). Have an aisle in the middle of your rows so you’re able to walk through the choir. Have them stand in a large circle facing outward then inward to demonstrate the need for listening across the choir.
Physical exercises throughout the rehearsal can center your singers, serve to remind them to work away tension, and sing with proper posture. These can be done within a span of 20 seconds and can reinvigorate the energy in your ensemble.
When I see my ensemble lose focus or look fatigued, I ask them to stand. This gives them a quick burst of energy. When they’ve been standing too long they likewise become fatigued. Asking them to take a short sitting break while you explain a concept or hear a section for 30 seconds is a welcome reprieve.
Those days when it’s difficult to get out of bed in the morning, I say to myself “get up” and my body follows. By asking your singers to speak cheers or calls (such as the points of posture or a choir’s creed) we can lead our singers’ bodies to follow their words. If they’re able to speak together, they’ll be better equipped to sing together. This can also serve as a way in which our students remember information we’ve taught them. By repeating a concert’s call time or asking them to speak the solfege of a particular passage, we can also quickly assess their learning. It may sound like camp, but these community calls can bring the students together.
Students can feel lost in a large choir. When my students begin to lose focus, I ask questions. If Johnny isn’t quite “on” that day I can ask him what the first pitch is at any given measure and he’ll perk up. The other students know that any one of them may be the next student who is called upon to contribute to the class. The culture of an ensemble can also be solidified by asking “what do you like about choir?” or their technical understanding can be enhanced by asking “how can we keep this line energized?”
In the same respect as asking questions, students know they can’t be inactive in rehearsal when they’re asked to form small groups to have short discussions based upon a problem or concept you would like them to ponder. This enables students who show leadership qualities to shine and those less outspoken students to rise to the occasion.
Short in-class competitions can focus students who value peer challenges. These short competitions can take many forms. Ask your sopranos to sing with their best tone. Have the altos comment on their performance and see how much they can improve. The sopranos can then challenge the altos to perform. You’ll find that the altos will be motivated to best the sopranos and the other sections can comment on why they did well. The same technique can be used between rows, columns, quartets, and section leaders vs. the entire choir.
A word of warning however, creating a culture of learning and understanding is more important than besting the competition. The aim is for “friendly” competition, with the eyes on group understanding resulting in overall improvement of the ensemble.
Whether you bring it to your student’s attention or not, you have an unspoken contract with them: “If you come to class focused, I will prepare you for performance.” We consistently ask focus from our students and our portion of the contract is to prepare an efficient rehearsal.
No matter your content for the day you must have a plan. While this should go without saying, we have all seen or been in choir rehearsals that are rudderless. There are four parts to an effective rehearsal plan: preparation, warm-up, lesson, rehearsal.
Preparation for your rehearsal is paramount. This could include score preparation, conducting practice, and uploading video/audio clips to your class webpage. It also includes configuring a warm-up plan, preparing the particular sight-reading/ear-training materials, and planning a line-up of repertoire in an order which will enhance learning and keep your singers focused. Writing down the materials needed for class, the room set-up, and announcements which need to be included will not allow a situation in which you’ve forgotten an item and must step away from class.
We all wish our students would sing with better technique. By assigning warm-ups that address particular technical deficiencies of the choir, we can steadily improve our choir’s skill level. This creates efficiency by concentrating on particular techniques rather than a general warm-up plan that is repeated day-to-day. Students will have a tendency to “space out” if we aren’t varying our warm-ups. Keep a library of warm-up books and pedagogical exercises. By using resources which have many examples, you will never allow your technical exercises to be hum-drum.
Following your warm-ups with a short lesson on sight-reading or rhythm training will allow your ensembles to progress as musicians. While your content may change from day to day, having a lesson immediately following warm-ups each day will give your students structure.
Your rehearsal plan will be based upon those pieces which need work. Knowing which pieces, how much time you wish to spend on a piece, and your specific plan for your repertoire will keep your rehearsal running smoothly and efficiently. The plan for each piece could include your particular shorthand which addresses where (measure numbers), who (sopranos, TB, S2), what (doo, bum, words), and how (often what you ask them to improve – support this, think higher, crescendo).
Once you have the particular pieces you would like to rehearse, take time to find an order that will enhance their learning. By placing the most difficult section or piece of repertoire near the golden mean (around two-thirds the way through your rehearsal), you will plan for the student’s natural tendencies to focus during the time that is of utmost importance.
Begin with a piece or section of a piece that is going well. This is a great time to concentrate on ensemble sound and build confidence. Likewise, if you’ve ever seen students leaving rehearsal singing you know it’s because they feel confident. Ending with a piece (or section of a piece) in which they find success will make them eager to return to the next rehearsal with energy.
When one discusses rehearsal efficiency one must also discuss pacing. It is imperative that your rehearsal is quickly paced. By keeping the momentum in the room you’re able to stave off classroom disruptions and will get through more material. Keeping the pace quick can only occur if you know your music well, have a plan, and can instruct based upon your assessment in the moment. One must also create calls (such as 4 beats of a rhythmic melody on “sh”) or short groups activities (think-pair-share) to keep them engaged during transition times. By keeping them active from bell-to-bell, you can ask more of students and they will expect more from themselves.
Once a piece has been learned you can assess and reinforce the singers’ ability to perform with good tone, phrasing, dynamics, vitality, good intonation, and good diction. But a rehearsal can quickly lose pace when too much is asked of students in the earlier stages of the learning process. By focusing on one overall concept a day (tone, intonation, diction), we can avoid overloading them. This also allows you the ability to reinforce one concept and demand that it be incorporated into their performance that day (and hopefully forever more…).
How much do you talk in your rehearsals? While it’s imperative that you lead them through difficult concepts and impart your knowledge, they are there to sing. When I finish with a rehearsal I always assess whether or not I could have said the same thing in two sentences instead of four. One can say “Sopranos, measure 44, crescendo” rather beginning a long description of their dynamic deficiencies. This only saves two seconds of time, but ask yourself how many directives you give your singers each rehearsal. By being direct, one is more efficient and students are not allowed to check out while the teacher is waxing poetic. Challenge yourself to have them speak, discuss, or sing 85% of class, while you only talk 15%.
By being prescriptive rather than descriptive, we can also cut out too much talking. Rather than describing what they sounded like, can you cut to the solution? Using a description as a teachable moment is warranted in some cases, but a direct prescription will often create success. For example, “tenors, that ‘F’ was a little flat, it’s difficult to tune the chord that way, and you’re giving me heartburn” could be “tenors, float light on the ‘F’.”
One of the most efficient ways to convey a concept is to model. Imagine singing a Baroque piece and describing all of the articulations you would like on the theme. Although you may have your students write it down, the quickest way to performance is by singing the articulation for them. One can also model opposites to underscore better technique. Singing with your soft palette lowered, then raised, gives your students a quick understanding of what you would like them to do.
One way in which you can challenge yourself to convey concepts without talking and be a wonderful model is to have a “monk day.” This is a day in which you nor the students talk. Both you and they only sing. Prepare this day by writing the numbers 0 through 9 on the board. Each time you wish for them to sing point to the numbers on the board to show them which measure to begin. If you want them to sing with better tone, sing a passage with great tone. If they don’t understand sing with poor tone (show a thumbs down) and good tone (thumbs up). The stakes can become high when you mention that if they talk they will lose their daily points, but if you talk you will bring them chocolate for the next rehearsal. You’ll find that they are motivated and you quickly learn to model correctly for them. By singing your intentions for them and using non-verbal communication, you’ll see how efficient your rehearsal can become.
By having clear, reasonable, and challenging expectations, and by having an efficient well thought out rehearsal plan, you will see that students will be motivated to meet your standards and you will be able to consistently raise the bar as students impose these standards upon themselves. By establishing an environment of excellence, students will consistently bring their “A-Game” to your rehearsals, and your younger singers will grow through the program expecting nothing less.