PROCEDURE & STEWARDSHIP IN THE CHORAL REHEARSAL
We all know a fine choral ensemble when we hear one. What is not always clear is exactly how the ensemble got to that point? Do they simply have better singers in their ensemble? Does their conductor know something I don’t? Why don’t my ensembles sound like that? At the heart of every good choral performance is an ensemble of singers committed to working for the common goal of creating a well-coordinated and inspired representation of the composer’s intentions. But it is during the rehearsal process where the true foundations of fine performances are established.
As choral conductors it is our responsibility to achieve the best results, in the least amount of time, with the least amount of vocal strain. It is also our responsibility to promote the aesthetic and personal growth of everyone in the room through increasing musical awareness and skill. We must be aware that the singers in our ensembles are not there only for the conductor (or even only for the music). Rather, they are there for a multitude of reasons and without the singers, the choral conductor no longer exists or is necessary. Choirs can (and do!) exist without conductors. The converse is not true. In his book, Chorus Confidential: Decoding the Secrets of the Choral Art, Dr. William Dehning encourages us to remember, “The human responsibilities of the conductor are to remain human even in light of our position or title. We should be excited about what we do, we should seek to teach as well as conduct, and we should always keep in mind the musical, intellectual, personal, and social needs of the ensemble.” 1
WHY DO WE REHEARSE?
According to Dr. Dehning, the objectives of rehearsal are: 1) to achieve the best results in the shortest time with the least strain, vocally and generally; 2) to promote the aesthetic and personal growth of everyone in the room through increasing musical awareness and skill.2 The second objective (and perhaps the more important) refers to the process and not the product. Good performances are built upon good rehearsals. Good rehearsals are built upon the passion, skill, organization, gesture, and empathy of the conductor. With my own ensembles, I am quick to dispense congratulatory accolades to the signers when a performance goes well, or when the intangible elevation and inspiration are achieved. However, when things do not go so well and there are apparent problems with vocal production, intonation, balance, blend, vowel unification, or even the lack of emotional content from the performance, I am even quicker to blame myself. It is at this point when I am forced to reevaluate where in the rehearsal process I was ineffective.
HOW DO WE REHEARSE?
PRIOR TO THE FIRST REHEARSAL
Once we have selected the repertoire, learned the score, and made interpretive decisions, we must then develop a rehearsal strategy that enables the ensemble to realize those objectives. The rehearsal strategy we develop will address the following eight parameters of choral music: 1. Correct notes; 2. Precision & Rhythm; 3. Correct pronunciation & text clarity; 4. Dynamics; 5. Balance; 6. Blend; 7. Articulation; and 8. Intonation. In developing an effective rehearsal strategy it is imperative that the conductor never loses sight of the capabilities and educational needs of the ensemble or how much rehearsal time you may or may not have. Specifically, we must take into account how these parameters impact the decisions we make in the planning and pacing of each rehearsal.
It goes without saying that singing correct notes in the choral rehearsal is very important. As conductors, we can expedite the process of teaching correct notes if we anticipate where the challenges lie. We must then be able to provide our singers with pre-determined strategies that enable them to correctly sing the notes on the page.
PRECISION & RHYTHM
It is the conductor’s responsibility to ensure that all members of the ensemble have a clear understanding of the tempo or rate of the song, the pulse or the beat, the meter or number of pulses, and the coordination of the breath with the onset of the voice (i.e. Inhalation, Aspiration, Phonation, and Exhalation)
CORRECT PRONUNCIATION AND TEXT CLARITY
Since the vast majority of choral music is the marriage of music and text, it stands to reason that the rules of good diction should apply. The rules of good diction are: Pronunciation (standardized ways in which something is spoken), Enunciation (clarity and purity of vowel production), and Articulation (how the lips and tongue engage to produce consonants). On the rare occasion that a choral composition is primarily made up of nonsense syllables, there should still be consensus as to how the various sounds are produced by the members of the ensemble. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) has long stood as the fortress of standards and practices for how to produce sounds in most languages. These include but are not limited to primary and secondary vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs, as well as voiced and unvoiced consonants.
Too often the dynamic markings in a score are interpreted by ensembles and their directors precisely as they are indicated without consideration for the reasons for them.
Most choral conductors struggle to bridge the gap between the numbers of male singers versus the number of female singers. Unfortunately, it is not always possible or preferable to simply use fewer female voices and the conductor must find a way to balance the quantity of sound in and among the sections to achieve a balanced choral tone. Balance, or quantity of sound, is not the same thing as blend, or quality of sound. To achieve balance, it is not always a matter of just singing louder or softer. It is also our responsibility to teach the singers how to: 1) listen for one another; and 2) to understand how their part contributes to what the rest of the ensemble is doing.
Choral Blend relies on correct and unified enunciation or vowel unification for the purpose of bringing clarity to the text set by the composer and can assist in conveying emotional and poetic intent.
Prior to the first rehearsal the choral conductor must also become familiar with the various articulatory markings the composer has indicated. Markings such as legato, staccato, marcato, etc. should be faithfully adhered to in the rehearsal process and it is our responsibility to know how each should sound, but we also must know how to teach the singers to achieve the desired articulation.
Intonation problems fall into two larger categories: Extrinsic and Intrinsic Causes. Extrinsic Causes are those related to temperature, poor rehearsal time (early morning or late afternoon), acoustic, and fatigue (physical, vocal, and psychological). Intrinsic Causes are those problems related to the voice such as posture, inadequate breath support, constriction of the jaw, wasted breath, incorrect part designation, and too much forte or piano singing. Additional Intrinsic Causes are those related to challenges in the score. These can be related to the key of a song, vocal tension, repeated tones, descending half steps, sustained tones, releases, and psychological tension.
THE REHEARSAL PROCESS
Now that we have done all of the preliminary work towards preparing for the rehearsal, it is finally time to rehearse! First, it is important to re-establish the fact that I usually do not include warm-ups during the choral rehearsal. If you are wondering why, please read on! Second, I will not attempt to dictate how rehearsal time should be spent. Instead, I will maintain a narrow focus on the rehearsal process in order to investigate the role of the choral conductor as rehearsal technician.
In Lawrence McQuerrey’s book, When the Music Stops, the author describes in detail the year he spent on sabbatical observing the rehearsals of the finest choirs in the country. His intention was to discern how each conductor rehearsed in order to understand why their choirs were so good. What he observed was that each conductor followed the same basic procedural steps during the rehearsal, which enabled their ensembles to progress efficiently and consistently. McQuerrey termed the process he observed Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. Simply put, each conductor would introduce a song or a section from a larger work (Thesis), they would then focus on a small portion to rehearse (Antithesis), and finally they would put the whole work or section back together again to reestablish context (Synthesis). However, it was during the Antithesis portion of the rehearsal process that McQuerrey noticed a highly specific and consistent approach utilized by each conductor that I will refer to in this article as Set Theory.
SET THEORY: SET – FOLLOW THROUGH – RESPONSE
Simply put, during the Antithesis stage of the rehearsal process, Set Theory occurs in three stages. The first stage is the Set or the task to be performed. The second stage is the Follow Through or the act of making the ensemble perform the Set or task. The third stage is the Response stage where the conductor lets the ensemble know if the task performed was good, bad, ok, etc. If the Response is “yes”, or “good”, then the Set is technically closed and the conductor can move on. If the Response is “no”, or “bad” The conductor address the same Set with a new solution for the ensemble to perform. If the Response is “almost” it is ok to leave the Set open and move on. McQuerrey also observed that every conductor limited the number of simultaneous Sets to three at a time.
Finally, as conductors we must always acknowledge our human responsibilities to the ensemble. The conductor-singer relationship is very special and we are obligated to approach every rehearsal with zest, vigor and purpose. Rehearsal demeanor should be an ingenious mix of non-compromising intensity, humor and patience. As teachers we are tasked with setting the goal, mediating the experience, and then accurately assessing the quality of our singers’ work. As conductors we strive to make good music and inspire our students. Being an effective rehearsal technician is not just a part of our job as teachers, but it is the first step towards engaging every single member of your choir and unlocking the potential they have to become that fine choral ensemble.
I have been a choral conductor for seventeen years and for most of that time, I have diligently incorporated traditional choral warm-ups at the beginning of each rehearsal. What is the traditional choral warm-up? Strictly speaking there are very few variables that make up the traditional choral warm-up and unless they are carefully constructed to address the music at hand, they serve very few purposes.
There are four actual Vocal Exercises that make up the traditional choral warm-up:
1) The sustained tone;
2) The scale;
3) The arpeggio;
4) A combination of the three.
From these four exercises, choir directors can make Three Choices of how to perform the exercises:
1) We can choose the vowel;
2) We can choose the attack;
3) We can choose the melodic form.
Finally, there are Three Purposes for the vocal exercises:
1) To warm-up;
2) For vocal development;
3) To sing.
The idea that traditional choral warm-ups may not be as effective as I had always thought first came to me as a member of the California State University, Northridge – Northridge Singers and then again as a member of the University of Southern California Chamber Choir. Both award-winning ensembles rehearsed twice a week and traditional choral warm-ups were noticeably absent from all rehearsals. This led me to reconsider the inherent value of the traditional choral warm-up and whether or not the individuals in my ensembles might be better off without them.
The traditional choral warm-up can become deathly sterile in vocal development beyond a certain point. Students do not often see the reason for them and/or find them boring. They accomplish very little towards the music (unless we deliberately construct them to do so). Some or most voice teachers would just as soon we did not incorporate the traditional choral warm-up into our rehearsals. As someone who has studied private voice for ten years, I have always struggled to reconcile what I learned in private studio as a vocal soloist and what my choral conductors asked for in rehearsals.
In his Journal of Singing article Choir Warm-ups: How Effective Are They? Dr. Ingo R. Titze concluded that the “traditional choral warm-up disregards the individual nature of vocal development, human physiology and psychology. The vocal warm-up is a very personal dialogue between the individual and their voice. It is imperative that we understand that the rate at which an individual proceeds in the vocal warm-up process is different from day to day, hour to hour.”3 Choral singers, like vocal soloists should be taught enough about their instrument to learn how to gauge its’ condition but in the choral rehearsal, it is virtually impossible for a choral conductor to effectively gauge each individual.
We must consider the following questions:
1) Is our role as choral conductor to be a vocal coach or a faithful steward of healthy vocal production?
2) Can we provide the same level of individualized attention and care during a choir rehearsal as an applied teacher can in a private lesson?
3) What if the student is already studying privately?
What is the purpose of the choral rehearsal? While there is most definitely a social component, as choral conductors we must think carefully about how we choose to spend our singers’ time. Why do we rehearse? In his book, Chorus Confidential, Dr. William Dehning outlines the reasons for the choral rehearsal as a means to 1) prepare for performance, 2) for musical and aesthetic growth in our choir members and audiences, 3) to teach, and 4) to achieve the best results in the least amount of time with the least amount of vocal strain.4 Even a generation ago, choral ensembles at all levels were afforded much more rehearsal time and latitude as to when those rehearsals could occur. It was not uncommon for a high school or collegiate choir to rehearse from eight to ten hours a week for a single academic credit. In this culture, it was necessary to create inventive ways in which to utilize the vast amounts of rehearsal time and thus the traditional choral warm-up developed, evolved and became an integral part of the choral rehearsal. Presently, the reasons Dr. Dehning lists for the choral rehearsal have not changed, however the amount of time set aside for the choral rehearsal has decreased significantly. Do we still insist upon twenty minutes of traditional choral warm-ups per rehearsal if we only have four hours of rehearsal time per week? Can we find more effective ways to spend our singers’ time?
Traditional choral warm-ups can be replaced with carefully constructed vocalizes that pertain directly to the music being prepared for performance. These specific vocal exercises will originate from the study of the score and provide applicable technical/conceptual immediacy for the singers. Additionally, we should consider strategic placement of vocalizes we develop to occur throughout the course of a choir rehearsal. Instead of frontloading a rehearsal with carefully constructed exercises, carefully space them out over the course of a rehearsal and use the appropriate exercise when the specific challenge or teachable moment occurs in the music. Of course, if a rehearsal begins at 7:00am as many high school directors must deal with, then physical warm-ups to wake up the body are quite necessary. However, perhaps we should limit the amount of time we spend on these as well!!
T. J. Harper, DMA
Director, Choral Activities/Music Education
Sources of Information:
William Dehning, Chorus Confidential: Decoding the Secrets of the Choral Art, Pavanne Publishing, 2003.
Ingo R. Titze, The Journal of Singing, “Choir Warm-Ups: How Effective Are They?”, May/June 2000.
Posted by Jeffrey Bauman
Director of Choral and Vocal Activities
Young Harris College
Chair-elect, National Council for Choral Education