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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Ensemble Concert at PLU—One-on-a-Part Singing

Around 1989 or so I decided I needed a way to get the singers in my choir to be more independent musicians. At the same time I felt there were gaps in the repertoire the students experienced. Given two mixed choirs of 45-50 voices each, plus a men’s and women’s choir, we never did any madrigals. We also didn’t have a vocal jazz ensemble at the time, and in the Northwest, jazz was big in the high schools, so lots of my students missed this. It also filled a gap for my music education students, who would then know some repertoire they’d need.

With those problems in mind, I created an Ensemble Concert: my choir was divided up into (usually) 10 or 11 one-on-a-part ensembles (most SATB, some SSATB and occasionally SSATBB), I gave them some time from our regular choir rehearsals (usually half rehearsals until the last few before the concert), and each ensemble prepared one madrigal and one lighter number (most vocal jazz ballads, but occasional other pieces, too). All had to be a cappella and true one-on-a-part (no doubling allowed). We didn’t use microphones, since going back and forth from amplified to un-amplified in concert wouldn’t work acoustically, and too many students didn’t have experience with microphones (also a huge extra hassle). Most ensembles arranged their own rehearsals outside of choir time, too.

The concert was a big success, was done every year after that, and I believe it’s still a part of what the Choir of the West does every year.

Things evolved over time. Students got creative in all sorts of ways, from costuming to choreography. Some students wrote or arranged their own pieces. One year two quartets asked if they could collaborate and did a very good version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (complete with choreography from the music video and me doing the Vincent Price bit from the organ loft). The Ensemble Concert was tremendous fun for the students and the audience, and I also think the students learned a lot from the process.

How was it organized?

First, I figured out how many ensembles there would be and chose “leaders” for each ensemble. “Leaders” is in quotes because they weren’t the “boss” of their ensemble, although they would help with organization and organize rehearsals. However, other members of the ensemble were expected to take part in evaluating, giving interpretive ideas, etc. I tried to get as many of my music ed students in leadership spots as possible to give them valuable experience, but it was more important to have leaders the other singers would respect. I also tried to have fairly equal numbers of male and female leaders.

Next was choosing the members of each ensemble, which was done by the leaders choosing the members (privately, in my office), much like choosing sides in sports. There were rules, however:
- no discussions of what happened inside the room (no one should know they were the last chosen)
- they drew to see who got first choice, so that was random. For the next round, those who chose last got first choice on the next round. If there was an SSATB ensemble, I tried to give someone who needed two sopranos an early choice. We worked one part at a time, sopranos, then altos, etc.)
- if several people wanted the same singer, I’d decide who prevailed. Then whoever “lost” would get the nod the next time
- they sometimes needed advice, since they might not know each singer’s voice. I provided this and singers sometimes chimed in, too
- I was always cognizant of keeping ensembles well-balanced in terms of size of voice: in a one-on-a-part ensemble, three big voices and one small one would only lead to frustration in trying to balance

This process worked well and there were remarkably few disagreements.

Next was choosing repertoire: we had a collection of madrigal books in the library and the vocal jazz library was available (later, when we had a vocal jazz ensemble again, the vocal jazz director would help as well). Leaders presented possibilities to their ensemble, then the ensemble voted on what they wanted to do. They had to bring choices to me and if two ensembles picked the same piece, first to me got the nod—this helped keep them from procrastinating.

I supplied them with a handout about how to work in rehearsal, the importance of getting notes learned quickly (practice outside!) so they could work on musical/expressive issues right away and not at the last minute. The importance of doing a one-on-a-part ensemble is that everyone is totally responsible for his or her own part—no one else can cover for you! (We very occasionally had someone ill enough that they couldn’t sing—on at least one occasion I jumped in to cover a part, but this was rare).

When they began rehearsing, I’d rotate around (they were usually in practice rooms) to see how they were doing. I told them I wouldn’t interrupt their rehearsal, but just observe, unless they wanted help with something. It was great fun for me to watch and see my students in a different light.

I also had to begin working on the program order at this time. I knew the pieces they were doing, the mood, and what keys they were in. Each ensemble sang once piece on each half, their vocal jazz piece on one half and the madrigal on the other. On each half I always alternated jazz with a madrigal. Essentially, I tried to create a concert that would flow, and not have too many pieces in a row with the same mood or key. I also knew which ensembles were doing particularly well, so tried to get them towards the ends of each half to make sure the final few pieces were strong.

Finally I also made it a rule that they had to be in the concert hall listening to the other ensembles, leaving to get ready only one ensemble before they were to go on. That meant they got to hear one another, which was the point, too (early on some ensembles wanted to wait backstage to warm-up more or rehearse—uh-uh!).

This was a fun and creative way to solve what I perceived as weaknesses in our program.

Who’s done something similar or used other ways to broaden their singers’ experience in choir?

4 comments:

Celeste Winant said...

Wow- what a cool idea!

I can relate my experience from the point of view of a chorus member back when I was in my University's chamber chorus. My director also felt the need to assign certain rep. to one-voice-on-a-part ensembles. We had tried one season to sing Monteverdi madrigals with the 30+ voice ensemble and it wasn't the most satisfying experience!

But, her experiments didn't work as well as yours, but perhaps because she wasn't trying to be as systematic. First, only a small fraction of the group (less than 20%) ever got this chance, and these people were the same hand-picked bunch that got to do solos (I was lucky enough to be in this batch of people by the end of my tenure with the group).

(I guess that her handpicking alleviated the need for the complex "draft" that you instigated for your chorus- on the other hand, it was inevitable that some people's feelings got hurt! I guess that this is a lesson in real life...).

I don't think that she felt like she had the time to give everyone the experience of one voice on a part singing. I think that she was driven more out of a desire to occasionally program solo-ensemble music, in order to make concerts more varied and interesting, rather than a desire to give all of her students a broader experience.

...but having said that, I got to sing some cool stuff- the coolest of which was Luciano Berio's "Cries of London".

Richard said...

Celeste, glad you like the idea. We certainly had fun with it.

On the other hand, giving opportunities for your most talented singers to do special repertoire (and the Berio certainly qualifies! great piece) is a great idea, too.

I understand the morale problems it can create, as well, though. When I conducted the Seattle Symphony Chorale for four years, we sometimes needed smaller choruses, and I didn't anticipate how much angst it would create for those not chosen for a particular project. It was tricky.

With my PLU choirs it was more often hurt feelings about choice of soloists--but you simply can't make everyone happy. And the job as conductor is still to present excellent concerts (even given the educational needs of school ensembles).

crista said...

Mr Sparks,

I greatly admire this method you have taken to build dependency within your choir. I have certainly experienced similar methods. My former director would assign a either a smaller piece we were performing or a sectin of a larger work and ask for that in quartets or octets, depending on the voicing. We would have sing in front of the whole choir in rehearsal. It was always a very comfortable environment because of the history of her and her singers. I have never ecxperienced this 'assignment' in performance. I think it is a great idea. At my new University, our director had assigned only a section of a piece to be sung 2 on a part. we had time to prepare it, and only a handful of us did. The results were terrifying. Sitting there watching so many students stand up to sing and not have a clue as to what their part was. The most horrifying part was singing next to some of them and having the most difficult time holding your own part. What do you say or do for a choir who just does not care about coming prepared. I am a student of choral conducting and will have the opportunity to conduct a piece for that same choir this Spring. I am sort of known for mebing this ambitious choral nut around campus, and I would like to use tactics like part singing, but do not feel I will get the respect to do so, nor will anyone follow through. Hard to 'punish' or be dissapointed in a choir when they are your peers.
Any advice?

Richard said...

Hi Crista!

"My former director would assign a either a smaller piece we were performing or a section of a larger work and ask for that in quartets or octets, depending on the voicing. We would have sing in front of the whole choir in rehearsal. It was always a very comfortable environment because of the history of her and her singers."

Yes, I did similar things with my University choir as well, more often for checking memorization, but also part-checking (and singers knowing they had to be responsible for their part!). I think we had a generally comfortable atmosphere around this--but a few of my singers might disagree!

My choir also sat in quartets in rehearsal 60% to 75% of the time (somewhat dependent on repertoire), often from the first rehearsal, so they also knew they had to be independent all the time. Of course, this was an advanced college choir at the "top of the pyramid" at our school, so they also knew expectations going in.

To your next comment:
"At my new University, our director had assigned only a section of a piece to be sung 2 on a part. we had time to prepare it, and only a handful of us did. The results were terrifying. Sitting there watching so many students stand up to sing and not have a clue as to what their part was. The most horrifying part was singing next to some of them and having the most difficult time holding your own part. What do you say or do for a choir who just does not care about coming prepared."

This has everything to do with expectations. Had the director ever done this before? If it was a new assignment, were resources provided to help (sectionals, pairing with students with strong musical/piano skills, part-recordings)? I don't think people LIKE to fail--so we have to find ways to help them succeed.

If I became choral conductor at a school where expectations were low (and skill, too), I'd have to find ways to set reasonable expectations (not easy, but achievable), get the choir to meet those, then gradually raise the bar.

If they truly "don't care," that's another question! That goes into an area I won't take the time with now (maybe later in a new blog), but you have to find ways to build pride in what your ensemble does (and, of course, the individual choir members' pride in their own performance).

As to your being student conductor later, I have to say it's always difficult for a peer to set new standards if their teacher has not. I used to deal with this with my student teachers: it was difficult for them to ask for a higher level of classroom discipline than their supervising teacher demanded.

This didn't mean they couldn't do some things: if they paced rehearsal well, kept great eye contact, gave "the eye" to those not keeping on task (without stopping rehearsal), and used a few good classroom control techniques, they could make a big difference (and sometimes have better control than their supervising teacher!). But they could NOT give out punishments for behavior that the supervising teacher let go. And the students knew, of course, that this teacher was only temporary.

Back to your situation: I think you need to think of choosing repertoire (assuming your teacher gives you a choice) that you're passionate about; that you feel will be interesting to your peers; that is challenging, but possible for them; etc. If you can get them excited about the music, it's much easier to motivate them to work.

You can also create ways to help them learn their parts (record parts for them--post them as mp3s, perhaps, for download); offer sectionals outside of choir (voluntary, I'd think) where you'll help with parts; just for a couple examples.

I don't know if any of this helps, but let me know how it goes!