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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Building Skills 12

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #16 - Each Day, Try to Build One Perfect Chunk
Coyle notes, "In our busy lives, it's sometimes tempting to regard merely practicing as success. . . But the real goal isn't practice, it's progress. As John Wooden put it, 'Never mistake mere activity for accomplishment.'"

He then goes on, "One method is to set a daily SAP: smallest achievable perfection. In this technique, you choose a single chunk that you can perfect—not just improve, not just "work on," but get 100% consistently correct.

I think that's a useful thing to remember in our rehearsals. Find something in the music that you can get the choir to do as you want to hear it in the concert. It doesn't have to be much, but something that gives them a vision of what they can (and should) sound like. By perfection, I'm not talking about making your high school choir sound like whatever university choir you love, or making your university choir sound like the Swedish Radio Choir . . . but in terms of what they're capable of doing, get them there, even if it's for a chord or a phrase.

This serves two purposes: it gives them an idea of what the goal is and it builds a skill they haven't yet achieved. 

We've had classes for less than a week at UNT (classes started Tuesday last week, after MLK Day) and my University Singers rehearse MW from 2-3:20 and Th from 2-2:50. So we're in the early stages, just two rehearsals. Thursday, among other things, I was working on Javier Busto's Ave Maria and the first short section is gorgeous with beautiful harmonies and asking for a pianissimo dynamic. So Thursday I spent time on just that opening section, working for the sound I wanted, for the balances in the chords, on tuning, and on beautiful phrasing. We spent most of that time at about a mezzo piano level—when they're learning, I don't want them trying to sing too soft and get off the voice—and near the end of that part of the rehearsal I asked the sopranos to sing senza vibrato (which they can do quite well). Then I asked the whole choir to sing a true pianissimo, but to try to stay on the voice. It took several tries, but they did it beautifully. I think this is important because it does give them a sense of how they can sing the whole piece, and it also builds a skill (which will need more practice and reinforcement) of how to sing a beautiful pianissimo. That can be transferred to other music, most particularly for the women, who will sing the offstage chorus for the Neptune movement of Holst's Planets in less than two weeks on Feb. 4 with our Symphony Orchestra.

We have lots of music to learn this semester: besides the Holst, my TA, Robert Ward, is preparing the choir for Mozart's Coronation Mass for a performance with the Concert Orchestra, our 2nd orchestra at UNT, under their conductor Clay Couturiaux. Robert will not only prepare it, but will get to conduct a 2nd performance with the orchestra himself as well, with soloists from the choir (for the other performance it will be faculty soloists). Later we have a concert, shared with the Concert Choir (so we only have half a program to learn) with three contemporary motets: James MacMillan's Sedebit Dominus Rex, Busto's Ave Maria, and a Crucifixus setting by one of our undergraduate composers, Ronald Harris, who sings in the choir; Jan Sandström's Biegga Luothe, a wonderful piece based on a Sami Yoik (the Sami are the indigenous people near the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia—when I grew up I knew of this as Lappland); then, for the 50th Anniversary of Professor Peter Schickele's "rediscovery" of P.D.Q. Bach, the Liebeslieder Polkas. If that isn't enough, we also combine with all three mixed choirs at the end of the year as the "Grand Chorus" to sing Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs and Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

So it's important for us to know that in every rehearsal that we're singing something at concert level, no matter how small. Most of our rehearsals will deal with lots of note-learning, but as I've stated before, even at that stage we need to start making music very early. And I'll try to remember Coyle's tip to make sure every rehearsal sees something that we perfect.

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