Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Talk Less, Sing More

A member of ChoralNet, a choir director, posted an interesting question, paraphrased here: “What can I do to minimize how much talking I need to do during rehearsal?” His concern was in using (wasting) valuable rehearsal time on talking instead of singing.

I posted a response to the form, but it seemed to have been lost in the ether between my laptop and ChoralNet. I had saved it before I hit “send,” so here it is, lightly edited for clarity.

A few other forum members had suggested using email to provide information to the ensemble. I picked up on that idea and added some more detail:

By all means use email to keep in touch with your choir between rehearsals. The director of the church choir in which I sing sends a message to the choir every Wednesday, prior to our Thursday rehearsal. The message always begins with thanks for Sunday's singing, and he often passes on to us comments and praise from members of the congregation. The message also includes any logistical information, special news about choir members (illnesses, etc.). He sends a separate message to the professional section leaders with advance notice of his rehearsal plan and any particular issues he anticipates where they should be listening and helping the singers in their sections.

The same conductor is head of our region's premier symphonic chorale (Hartford Chorale, 170 voices); he sends a weekly message to this group, too, with feedback about the last rehearsal, what to look at for next rehearsal, and any other information we need to prepare ourselves. This weekly message is sent from the chorale office, and also includes information as needed about concert logistics and attire, fundraising activities, auditions, membership matters, etc., etc., so that rehearsal time is never used to impart this information. During each rehearsal, before we take our break (it's a 3-hour rehearsal), the director makes any announcements or comments he wishes (often nothing, or simply words of praise and encouragement for the work done thus far that evening), then he calls on the board president (happens to be a singer) to share any critical information. Often this consists of directing people to that weekly message and highlighting critical matters. Occasionally, another board member or committee chair will speak for a minute or two on an important topic, such as ticket sales for an upcoming concert. A condition of membership is that everyone receive and read that weekly message. The whole organization is very well organized and managed, and information is provided in advance, via email and web, for everything we need to know, so that rehearsals can be devoted almost entirely to music-making.

The most important time-saver, though, is this -- the music director prepares edit masters -- scores with all his marks (breaths, dynamics, divisi, etc.) and these are posted as PDFs in a password-protected portion of the Chorale web site. Singers are required to copy the marks into their own scores/parts before the first rehearsal, so that he need never take valuable rehearsal time to impart this information to 170 people at the same time. Section leaders are supposed to check to make sure that each singer has marked his or her score. I cannot emphasize enough what a great idea this is, not only for saving time, but for ensuring that everyone gets all the marks, and has a single source of information for this important information. (BTW, singers are not permitted to print and sing from these edit masters; everyone must have and use a purchased score.) (I'm rather obsessive about editing my scores.)

Another time-saver in this large chorale: No questions* are taken "from the floor" during rehearsals. If a singer has a musical or vocal question, we are to check with our section leaders (they are all professionals); if they cannot answer the question, they will take it to the music director at the break or via email, in which case it is probably something that the whole section or chorale needs to hear, so he handles it from the podium, so that everyone gets the same message. The "no questions" policy is a great one in a group this large.

* This includes things like "Where are you starting?" or 'What did you say about measure 12?" People are expected to pay attention. It sounds dictatorial (and I suppose it is), but it's how we do things, and everyone is fine with it, and actually, our rehearsals are great fun and very productive. We have a nice 15-minute break with snacks every week for those who like to socialize.

This music director also has a plan for every rehearsal, with time blocks assigned for each selection, movement, etc. And he sticks to it! He keeps a small digital clock within his sight. I expect that this alone — the awareness of time passing and the need to keep to his plan — helps him not to talk unless he needs to. He is a superb rehearsal manager.

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I wish I had thought to add this to my ChoralNet post: Aside from the practical benefits of getting critical information to the ensemble in a timely and efficient manner, those weekly email messages function as an important social cue. They remind us week by week of our commitment to the ensemble, and that’s important. I sing in many ensembles, and the two led by this director are the most cohesive socially and musically – we are connected not only as singers but as members of a special community. I think it makes a difference.


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

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