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?