Saturday, November 7, 2009

Desk Work

Last week I wrote:

This morning I indulged in some “desk work” with my Brahms Requiem score, in preparation for The Hartford Chorale’s upcoming performances with The Hartford Symphony. “Desk work” entails sitting and staring silently at the score. Well, there’s more to it than that, of course; what I’m actually doing is thinking, working over the music in my inner ear, embedding words and rhythms in my memory, analyzing the forms and structures of the music, and taking time to understand how my part fits into the entire work. “Desk work” is entirely separate from practicing, which is vocal work done at the piano or (sometimes) with a recording. Sometimes during desk work I go to the piano to work out an intellectually challenging vocal line or to unravel some knotty counterpoint, but most of the “desk work” actually takes place at the island in the kitchen, laptop at the ready, so that I can enrich my thinking with research and supplemental information. (Read the whole essay HERE)

The “desk work” part of performance preparation is so important (to me, anyway) that I thought I’d expand on it a bit.

Composer and conductor Paul Halley (under whom I sang in Gaudeamus a few years ago) always stressed the importance of “desk study,” the term he used for working silently with a score, not playing or singing aloud, just hearing it internally and mastering it intellectually. Silent score study is especially helpful for sorting out rhythmic and textual issues. In fact, Paul’s advice had been in reference to his own preparation for Gaudeamus’ thrilling performance of Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, which is rich with complex rhythms and dense text, all in Russian.

Silent study of melodic and harmonic aspects works best for people who can actually hear the music in their “inner ear” when they look at the dots and squiggles on the page. I am lucky to be able to do this quite easily, so I find silent score study effective in learning all aspects of the musical score. (Sometimes I have the opposite experience: often when I hear music, it “writes” itself across my inner eye, even appearing on multiple staves for orchestral works. This is why I can’t hold conversation easily when there’s music going on. If you want to beat me at Scrabble©, put on some music while we play.)

Here’s what my personal “desk work” covers:

Prepare the Score. First – and this must take place well in advance of the first rehearsal, and certainly before any personal study can begin – I edit and prepare my score according to the director's instructions, if any have been given. (Read more about that HERE.) I love this process! 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. If no instructions have been given, then I do my own prep, erasing marks from used scores and adding any notes or cues I might need. This is also a time to note errors or other areas in the score that need to be checked with the director or one's section leader (or, when I am serving as section leader, to pass on to my section).

Prepare the Texts. Next – and this is essential for any vocal music – I study the texts so I can understand what I’m singing about. If the text is not in English, I must find and read a translation, and write the English translation into my score if it is not already present. I can’t emphasize how important this is. If you don’t know what you’re singing about, you might as well be playing an instrument instead of singing.

Listen. It’s always nice to listen to recordings, score in hand, in order to develop an understanding of the work as a whole. Get the big picture. Listen and watch the score, but do not sing. Look at parts other than your own. Listen for how the orchestra or other instruments interact with the choral parts. Mark your score with cues or other notes to identify entering pitches, rhythms, etc. Recently, I’ve listened to two different recordings of the Brahms Requiem; they are very different. One was vocally ravishing (Shaw); the other (Klemperer) offered more insights into Brahms’ orchestration and how the vocal and instrumental parts complement each other (important to understand prior to orchestra rehearsals and performances next week).

Internalize. During silent “desk work” practice, I concentrate mostly on texts and rhythms, as described in the opening paragraph of this essay. This sort of study can’t be done during rehearsals or even during vocal practice; it must be done prior to joining with the other singers.

Analyze. In order to sing in a meaningful way, one must (in my opinion) have a basic understanding of the form and structure of the music. For example, a chorus may be asked to differentiate (by varying dynamics, vocal color, articulation, etc.) the subjects and countersubjects of a fugue. (Fugues are very common in large choral works, especially those with sacred topics and texts.) How will one be able to do this if one does not know where (or what) the subjects and countersubjects are? And some understanding of fugal structure is helpful in understanding (and executing) the subtle melodic differences that can occur in restatements of fugal subjects. In our Chorale rehearsals, there’s one spot in the Brahms Requiem that is confusing for many sopranos – that F/F# confusion in the sixth movement! (m. 226) Perhaps they do not understand the reason for the use to F-sharp where F-natural had been used in the previous iterations (it has to do with the harmonic movement in the fugal episode) so they continue to sing “by ear” and continue with the F-natural. Ouch.

Read. I should add here that by this point, especially for a large work, I will have already done a fair amount of background reading on the composer and the music, particularly when I am preparing a large work, as is the case now as The Hartford Chorale prepares to present the Brahms Requiem next week. This reading will often include a scholarly biography, the best program notes I can find (and there are some lousy ones out there!), musical and textual analyses, and other relevant materials. Many of my discoveries, questions, and musings end up in essays on this blog. Click HERE to read my preview essays on the Chorale’s upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem.

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

Don’t miss what promises to be a magical performance of Brahms' wonderful Requiem. Call for your tickets today!

The Hartford Chorale
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford

To purchase tickets, contact:
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra

PHONE 860.244.2999
or online at
Discounted tickets may be available via for some concerts.

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