Friday, November 21, 2008

Confessions of an Obsessive Score-Keeper

As you may have discerned from previous writings, I’m obsessive about the care and management of my choral scores. I don’t try to figure out why I do all this; I just enjoy it. As a music theorist and historian, I take a rather technical approach to editing and marking my music, and I invest a fair amount of time in score preparation and study.

One of my favorite “jobs” is editing my scores prior to a first rehearsal. My favorite choral director prepares “master scores” from which the singers are expected to copy into their own scores his instructions for breathing, interpretive dynamics, divisi assignments, etc. These advance markings and annotations must be entered into one’s score before the first rehearsal. Really, though, this must be completed before one can begin any serious personal practice.

My score editing usually takes place very early in the morning, while the rest of the family is still asleep. I gather my new scores, copies of the edit masters, my favorite mechanical pencil, and the first of several cups of strong tea. 

The editing process requires that I examine each master score, looking at each measure of music, for each voice part, then transfer all marks or instructions to my own score. This sounds tedious, but I love it! It gives me a chance to study the score as a whole, not just my own part; it provides an opportunity to see how the director intends for the voice parts to interact; and helps me to understand that my part is just one of many threads that make up the whole work. Context is essential! (I often prepare program notes for concerts in which I sing, so this editing-thinking process informs that process, as well.)

When I’m working with brand-new scores, the transcription goes pretty quickly. Editing scores that have been used by other singers is entirely different. I usually start by erasing most or all of the previous markings. (I have a big pink eraser for the purpose – as I said, I’m obsessive!) The older markings are usually messy (ugh), often inexact, and typically include reminders and notes pertinent only to the previous singer’s thinking. These can be distracting and even misleading, and of course they may not fit in at all with the director’s current interpretation.

Not all older marks can be removed, of course. This morning I tried in vain to erase big bold marks made in red pencil. But worst of all is trying to deal with scores which the previous singer has marked in ink.

The act of erasing the older marks can be somewhat disconcerting, psychologically. The first time I did this for an entire set of concert scores, I ended up with a substantial pile of rubber crumbs which, I realized guiltily, represented the hard work and once-important thoughts of the prior singer. The erasures sat there on the kitchen counter for a while before I mustered the nerve to gather them up and…into the trash they went!

As a poet-linguist-writer, I am also deeply interested in textual matters, so for texts and translations which I do not already have committed to memory (e.g., the Latin Mass), I often transcribe the literal (and sometimes poetic) translations into my scores During rehearsals, I often jot down the director’s comments and observations about texts, history, composer, etc.; these notes are often interesting and always meaningful, and become part of my overall experience.

During rehearsals, I take down every instruction for every voice part (and the accompanist or orchestra); this helps me understand and assimilate the director’s intent and better execute his vision. (I like to use “sticky notes” to record logistical instructions that pertain only to a specific performance, such as sit-stand cues or notes about performance-specific cuts. These can be discarded later.)

Despite my technical obsessions, I’m also rather sentimental in my approach to music-making. Ultimately, my scores – marked with pre-rehearsal notes, embellished with notes taken during rehearsals, and filed with programs, reviews, emails, notes, and other memorabilia – are preserved as tangible records of my musical experiences. It can be deeply moving to page through a score, years later, and re-live those musical memories.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Surviving Dress Rehearsal

“Do we need to wear our concert dresses at the dress rehearsal?”

I’m always surprised that any adult singer poses that question, but it did get me to thinking about dress rehearsals and how they differ from regular rehearsals, and in particular, why we need to prepare for dress rehearsals differently, both mentally and musically.

What is a “dress rehearsal,” anyway? It's the final rehearsal before a performance, usually held in the performance venue. The rehearsal gives the ensemble a chance to go over the logistics of standing and seating arrangements, processing in and out of our places, working with instrumentalists, soloists, etc.

Most important, the dress rehearsal offers us an opportunity to sing in the performance space, and make any adjustments (seating and standing arrangements, dynamics, tempi, etc.) that may be needed to make the music come alive in that space.

Thus, a dress rehearsal is not just a run-through; it’s an opportunity for fine-tuning and, when necessary, for doing things differently to optimize our performance. To accomplish all this efficiently requires that we be on time, know where to go and what to do, remain attentive, and be receptive to the many small adjustments that are required. Here are some tips I’ve developed for myself over the years.

Before You Leave Home
♪ Have your music ready in performance order, and in an appropriate folder, if required.
♪ If you have been given instructions about when and where to sit, stand, walk, etc., be sure that these are marked into your music or folder at the right places. I like to stick blank Post-It® notes in my scores at the right places so I can record last-minute instructions on them instead of on my scores. After the performance, I just pull off the notes and discard them.
♪ Prepare your music with paper clips or other means so you can skip over sections (such as solo passages) in which you do not sing. If you have to close your folder during the concert (such as during a performance by a guest ensemble), insert a Post-It® note to flag the place to which you want to open your folder when it’s your turn to sing. Minimize fumbling.
♪ Bring water, two sharpened pencils, tissues, cough drops, and anything else you customarily need during rehearsal.
♪ Consider tucking a book, magazine or other quiet work into your bag so you have something to keep you occupied quietly if you must sit and wait while others are working.

Know Where to Go and What to Do
♪ Allow time to arrive early, especially if you are not familiar with the travel directions, parking, building arrangement, etc.
♪ As soon as you enter the rehearsal space, look for handouts, instructions, seating charts, or other information, and take care of getting this information into your folder or score.
♪ Turn off any noise-making devices. If you must receive a phone call during rehearsal, let the Director know ahead of time. Set your device to vibrate only, leave the room discreetly when you must, and return as soon as you can.

Plan Ahead for Your Comfort
♪ You do not need to wear concert attire to “dress” rehearsal. Wear comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes. Dress in layers, in case the performance venue is warm or cool.
♪ Dress rehearsals can last considerably longer than regular rehearsals. Be prepared to work, often on your feet, for an extended period, perhaps without a break.
♪ Bearing in mind that you will probably not be able to bring your “gig bag” or briefcase to your assigned seat or riser spot, be sure that you have everything you need for the rehearsal tucked into your pockets or your folder. I always slip a crossword puzzle into my folder; the single sheet weighs nothing, and I already have a pencil handy. I love having a puzzle to work on while waiting to go onstage or during intermissions. It prevents me from talking, too!
♪ Consider bringing a light snack that you can eat quickly during a break and with a minimum of mess. (No strong-smelling foods, please.) Adhere to any guidelines for introduction of food or beverages in the performance space. Be sure to clean up after yourself.

Consider Others’ Comfort, Too
♪ Be clean; practice good physical and dental hygiene.
As always, never wear any scented products to a rehearsal or performance.
♪ Stay quiet. Listen to instructions and follow directions without talking. Your chatter prevents others from hearing.
♪ Be mindful of the people around you, especially if you are standing or sitting close together on risers or in pews. Keep track of your elbows, folders, etc., to minimize bumping. During a recent rehearsal, I was nearly knocked off a riser by a riser-mate who turned away from me and bent from the waist to pick up a water bottle; her rear end bumped into me and knocked me off balance. Yikes!

Remember Riser Etiquette
♪ If you are on a riser, stand toward the front of your riser step, with your toes at or over the front edge, to allow as much room as possible for the folder of the person behind you. If you are getting bumped in the head, move forward. Remind the person in front of you to move forward, too. Do it with a smile.
♪ If you are standing on the floor in front of the risers, move forward to make room for those behind you.
♪ Stay still. Do not tap your feet, sway, or wiggle; your movements will make the entire riser jiggle, making life miserable for your riser mates, especially those on the upper rows.

Be Attentive and Ready To Work
♪ Be ready to sing. Warm up at home before coming to rehearsal. There may not be any vocal warm-ups at the dress rehearsal.
♪ Stay quiet so you can hear instructions and directions from those leading the rehearsal. Give your full attention to the Director or to other rehearsal leaders, even when your part isn’t being rehearsed. Learn from what is being taught to others. Respect others’ desire to listen and learn.
♪ When you receive instruction about sitting, standing, processing, etc., write it down (on those handy Post-It® notes!). Don’t rely on your memory.
♪ Be flexible and willing to adapt to new standing or seating arrangements, etc., as required for varying performance venues and programs.
♪ If you cannot see the Director well, make adjustments. Negotiate with your neighbors so that everyone can see. It is the responsibility of the singers in the back rows to position themselves to see around the front row singers.
♪ If there is a break during rehearsal, keep track of the time allotted and return to your place as soon as the Director signals that rehearsal is about to resume.

A dress rehearsal can be a time of high energy and excitement!

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here: