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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Start with Musicality--Redux

In my last post about rehearsing, I made the point to bring musicality, especially phrase shape, into the rehearsal process early. One reader responded (and thank you for responding--I enjoy feedback or additional comments, whether you agree or disagree!) that one has to be careful to balance the various elements of teaching--and that he'd seen young conductors, "spending too much time talking about wonderful phrasing ideas that the students completely miss because they are desperately trying to find the next note!"
I absolutely agree that balance is important. And while I've seen some examples such as he gives, I've also seen conductors spend lots of time teaching notes with no reference to phrase shape, resulting in very unmusical note-by-note singing. And this is what I'm saying is actually inefficient, since now (if the group is to sing musically) your choir has to un-learn they way they phrase and connect from note to note . . . which either takes time to do or your choir never really gets there.
So, a bit more about finding that balance--and I absolutely agree that's the challenge! And thanks to an alert reader to help me explain in more depth!
When I teach a new piece, I use all the teaching/rehearsal techniques that I can (none of these new to you, I'm sure!), given the reading level of my choir and the difficulty of the music. I'll slow down the tempo, take away text and sing on a neutral syllable, count-sing, isolate just the rhythm (or rhythm with text), play the underlying chord structure, etc. I may, for a difficult passage play or sing a part, or isolate a difficult interval or intervalic combination. If two parts have dissonances that confuse the singers, I may play those or isolate the two parts, stopping on the beat where the interval (major 7th or minor 2nd, let's say) occurs, so the singers have time to hear it correctly--and to hear if they are correct or not, etc.
Any of these activities call for repetition--in the repeated tries, essentially, you're shaping the singers' performance from an inability to sing the correct notes or to sing them at tempo with text, to the point where the choir is able to sing a passage correctly, in time, with excellent intonation, the correct vowels, etc. This may well be a process that continues over a number of rehearsals--the shaping may get them part-way there in one rehearsal, the work continuing later.
It's in the repetitions that I feel one has to begin to sing the lines with good musical shape (or as the quote from Ralph Kirkpatrick said, "The essential expressive quality of a melodic interval lies not in the notes themselves, but in the space between the notes, in the manner in which one gets from one note to another.").
So, as we repeat a passage (with the whole choir or just one part) several times, I'm going to start shaping the phrase as well. This isn't usually done by long verbal descriptions, but by demonstration (the old, "a picture is worth a thousand words" is true for musical demonstration as well), by gesture (if on a 3rd or 4th repetition they can now look up), or by a quick reminder to the choir of what I teach all the time as basic principles of musical singing and phrasing. This means that somewhere in the middle of the note-learning process, I start to shape musicality. Even one difficult interval can be shaped musically rather than not. What I don't want to do is to sing a passage or interval 5 times in a row in an unmusical manner--that simply teaches the choir to sing unmusically. Whether through demonstration or brief explanation, I want each repetition (as the choir gets closer and closer to correcting the pitches or rhythms) to be shaped more and more musically as well. And I know they can do that while learning the notes, as long as I feed it to them in a way and at the speed with which they can absorb both. And if I do this well, they'll be learning the music with the beginnings of musical shaping from the beginning--and not learning an unmusical way of singing that they'll have to unlearn later.
This is getting long, so I'll speak more about this in future posts.
But I can't let this go without mentioning a session that Pamela Elrod-Huffman will do in Dallas on the rehearsal techniques of Robert Shaw:
Thursday, March 14, 10:30 a.m. in the City Performance Hall
"In terms of rehearsal disciplines, Robert Shaw believed that attempting to teach “everything at once” led to a confused and imprecise artistic product. In Shaw’s rehearsals, skills were layered one element at a time—as each new element was added, the previously taught elements were further reinforced. Using examples from the standard choral repertory, this session will demonstrate how Shaw progressed from note-learning stages to the final product, utilizing rehearsal techniques that were beautifully efficient and pedagogically sound."
It may sound from the description that this is the opposite of what I'm saying, but I don't think so. What I describe above is the way I go back and forth (but rather quickly) from working on particular elements the choir is learning to another. I don't follow the same rehearsal process as Mr. Shaw, but certainly spend time focusing on individual elements one at a time. My layering simply happens in a different way and sequence.
I was never lucky enough to work with Mr. Shaw, but have had long conversations with others who've worked with him extensively (from those who sang with him in France to several who sang with him in Atlanta). I use some of his rehearsal techniques, but am always interested in learning more. I look forward to this session to add to what I know and do--and perhaps change some of my usual practices.
That's one of the joys of this "job" -- one never knows it all (or even a small part of it) and there's always more to learn!

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