Choral conductors use various techniques to help their choristers achieve unity of tempo, rhythm, and pitch. One of my favorite techniques is count-singing, in which the pitches (without words) are sung on the note values and sub-divisions of the rhythm. For example, in 4/4 time, a series of eighth notes would be sung on pitch with the “words” being “one and two and three and four and” in place of the text underlay.
Count-singing is most effective when it is employed very early in the rehearsal-learning process, so that we learn the right music from the very beginning. It can also be helpful as a means of review later in the process.
The great Robert Shaw summarized* why count-singing works. Here is my paraphrase:
1. Count-singing removes all doubt about when sounds should begin and end.
2. It clarifies exactly which pitches should be sung and how long they should be sustained.
3. It ensures vertical alignment for all voice parts, regardless of the pitch or duration of individual notes in each part.
4. Because it clarifies vertical alignment, it reveals harmonic progressions and facilitates clarity in polyphonic passages.
5. It offers a means by which crescendo and diminuendo may be paced over time.
I will add, too, that the nature of count-singing, with short notes prevailing, precludes the use of vibrato; thus the overall intonation of the ensemble will be better, and learning will proceed more quickly. (You can read my three-essay series-rant on vibrato in the choral singer here: Part I, Part II, and Part III .)
Some singers despise count-singing, dismissing it as amateurish and suitable only for beginning learners. Nothing could be further from the truth! Professional musicians, and amateurs who aspire to professional standards, take every step necessary to ensure accuracy and precision in notes and rhythms, so that the music may emerge.
For me, count-singing is not a childish exercise; on the contrary, I find it liberating; it enables me to master pitch, rhythm, dynamic, and ensemble-thinking early on in the rehearsal process, freeing me to concentrate on vocal, textual, and interpretive issues. I also enjoy the quick mental work required to do count-singing accurately.
Last night in the weekly rehearsal of the Chancel Choir of historic South Church in New Britain, Connecticut, we began work on a new anthem. On the page, it looked straightforward, even simple, but some unexpected rhythmic passages within a 6/4 meter presented some potential challenges for many people in the choir. Mr. Coffey started our rehearsal of this selection with count-singing; immediately, we were able to identify (an important first step!!) and master the challenges of pitch and rhythm. Following the count-singing and subsequent corrections, we sang the anthem legato (on "loo") to develop vocal beauty, and then we spoke the text in rhythm, in parts, with all the dynamics. Only then did we sing the words and text together. We polished a few rough edges, then we performed the anthem for each other. (Yes, performed.) We found that we had made great progress in a very short time.
We’ll rehearse this anthem several more times before presenting it in worship, but the important thing is that in our first rehearsal, we learned it correctly. We won’t have to un-learn wrong notes and rhythms; we’ll be able to work primarily on interpretation and presentation.
Rick tells the story of an adult singer who walked out of a rehearsal of a very popular festival workshop, announcing that “she had not paid money to do count-singing!” Sheesh! She missed the point of a choral workshop, didn’t she? And she missed a great opportunity to really get inside some great choral music. (I think it that was the year we did Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus KV618, Schubert’s Mass in G Major, D.167, and Bach’s Cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden, BWV4.)
Count-singing is liberating. And fun!
To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Chorister
* Paraphrased from material reprinted in The Robert Shaw Reader, edited by Robert Blocker, Yale University Press, c2004.
POSTSCRIPT January 2013-- It's fascinating to me that this post still receives a lot of hits from people searching for information on count-singing - each week several new readers arrive here via this post. It's turned out to be the third most popular post on Quodlibet!
Here's a link to the blog of Paul Carey, a composer-turned-conductor who has foud count-singing useful, and kindly offered a link to this post. His insights on the value of count-singing in helping singers to achieve a "spinning" breath are very good and true.
Thanks for the link!
And here's another blogger, choral conductor Jeffrey Carter, who also directed his readers here:
More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Chorister