We all have “performance imperatives” with our choirs and usually limited time to achieve them. However, with a choir in an educational setting, there’s also a need to think about the development of musical skills in your individual singers. A pure focus on performance may result in singers who’ve been a part of some great concerts (which is important), but few skills to carry them on to the next phases of their musical lives.
We also have to accept that in many cases, we’re the primary teachers of these skills. Even with a high-level university ensemble (such as the choir I conducted at PLU), not all my singers were music majors (and therefore not taking classes in theory/ear training). And even for my music majors, those courses may not develop the kinds of skills they may need most in the real world after graduation.
So, how do you do this?
I’ve tried lots of things, but much can be accomplished in the normal flow of rehearsals. First, I believe you learn to read by reading (this doesn’t mean that various systems of solfege aren’t effective, just that sight-reading regularly—even without any system— makes you a better sight-reader). So consequently, I want my singers to read through the music we’re going to do the very first time. This means, whenever possible, to keep going, using as little (or much) support that is necessary from the keyboard. But don’t spoon-feed or teach by rote! This can’t happen in all situations (different for every choir), but if they can’t read all parts at once, have the whole choir read just one at a time. Do it at a slower tempo. Take away text and sing on a neutral syllable. Just do rhythm and chant text. If your singers never get a chance to try to read music, how will they ever learn? The point is, let them read! Make them read!
I’ve also used different materials with my choirs specific to sight-reading—Bach chorales (we bought a set of chorale books), Nancy Telfer’s books (we also bought a set of those), and I’ve sometimes just taken music out of our library that we were not going to perform, simply to read. It doesn’t take much time to do this within the rehearsal—just a few minutes. Taking music out of the library took more time (getting music out then collecting it, whereas the other books were always in their folders)—but most of that time was administrative (choosing music, getting it out of the library, organized and back into the library)—but was a great way to give the singers not only reading experience, chosen for their current abilities, but to expose my future conductors to more repertoire.
On a personal level, I didn’t begin my university studies as a good sight-reader (or much of one at all). But I sang in virtually every choral grad recital I could—usually with little rehearsal time. I went to workshops, like the ones I mentioned at Western Washington University, or at ACDA conferences, where I sight-read. With a group of friends, we set up a madrigal-reading group (combined with dinner), which was great fun. While my ear training courses helped, most of my abilities came from . . . lots of sight-reading (what a concept!).
A different area than pure sight-reading ability is the question of how quickly an ensemble can get a program ready for performance. Years ago, when I was conducting my first community choir with Seattle Pro Musica, I was part of a study group organized by Bob Scandrett (of WWU) to England—this was an amazing trip (I’ll write about it in another blog)—but one of the things that astounded me was how quickly the British choirs worked and how few rehearsals they had for a given program. Sight-reading ability is a part of this, of course, but other musical skills (ensemble skills, ability with different languages, etc.) as well as expectations also play a part. I was inspired to push my choir harder and, when I got back, put together a very ambitious season. I’m not at home, so don’t have the particulars at hand, but did more programs than usual, cutting the number of rehearsals per program, and didn’t do easy repertoire (I remember the first program was C.P.E. Bach’s Magnificat and Handel’s Dixit Dominus). This had some success, although I (in my youthful enthusiasm) over-shot the mark. However, I did learn that if I normally scheduled, let’s say 9 rehearsals for a program, and now did 7, it didn’t make any difference in the ultimate performance. If they had more rehearsals, they simply worked more slowly. We’d still reach the same preparation point with two rehearsals to go, for example, with 7 rehearsals versus 9. There are limits to this, of course, but you might be surprised by how much more quickly your singers can work if they have to, and get used to it.
With this in mind, at PLU I also tried different things to deal with these issues. I certainly pushed my choirs to sing lots of repertoire (and music that would really challenge them), but added other things as well. On an occasional basis, since we had chapel services at PLU and the choirs would sing several times a semester, I’d simply hand out something as an anthem the day before and we’d learn it (other times, of course, we’d do music from our current repertoire). Richard Nance, my choral colleague, and I also started an evensong series, doing evensong services in conjunction with campus ministry, two times in the fall term, three times in the spring, rotating in the various choirs (but primarily the two mixed choirs). We used the evening prayer service in the Lutheran Book of Worship (which is beautiful) but on a musical level, frankly, were very Anglican! We did a nice variety of “Mags and Nuncs,” from Stanford’s Bb, A, and G settings, Howells’ Coll Reg, Rutter’s lovely homage to Stanford, etc. We also chanted the Psalms, primarily in Peter Hallock’s beautiful settings. Again, we didn’t use a lot of rehearsal time for this—the point was to do it as service music and to prepare quickly. I will repeat again as well—this also gave my students exposure to a great repertoire, something important for them either as singers or as future conductors.
Another project to push them to work quickly was challenging them to learn a mass in one week (4 rehearsals, Mon-Thurs, our usual schedule) and sing it in Friday’s chapel service. We did this two years in a row, one year the Schubert Mass in G, then next Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D Minor (K. 197, if I remember correctly). For both of these we also used student instrumentalists. Were these ready-to-record performances? Of course not, but you’d be surprised (and so were they) at what they could do. The following year we were doing the Fauré Requiem in conjunction with another choir and the Tacoma Symphony in the fall. So we also did it (in Rutter’s edition/small orchestration) in our All Saints chapel service, using a mix of faculty and student instrumentalists. The following two years we did first the Rutter Requiem (chamber version) and then the Howells Requiem. We took more than a week for this, of course! The Rutter was only done on that one occasion, whereas the Howells ended up on our tour program.
These are just a few ideas of how to approach training better musicians in your choir—feel free to add your own ideas and experiences—or argue with me—in the comments section (don’t be shy!). But I think the over-riding message is: get your singers to read regularly and challenge them to prepare/learn more quickly. These things all take time and in the short term may slow down your preparations for your own “performance imperatives,” but in the long term you’ll be able to do much more with your choirs—and you’ll also have singers who walk away from their experience with you with musical skills that they’ll use throughout their lifetime.