Essentials for Effective Rehearsals
Aaron M. Rice, DMA (SWBTS)
Director of Choral Activities
Tenured Associate Professor of Music
What is the goal of the rehearsal?
- Learn notes and rhythms?
- Engage in musical phrases?
- Provide a time of edification and musical growth?
- Prepare for Sunday?
- Make something excellent?
Know your instrument
A conductor can make the most beautiful patterns that brim with musicality, but if there is no choir, music is not heard. The conductor’s instrument is the choir and all of the individuals that make up that ensemble. The famed violinist Joshua Bell knows every detail about the sound and composition of his 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius violin. In the same way, for the choral ensemble to function at its prime, the conductor must know the instrument (choir and each member) well.
- For the Minster of Music this comes a bit more naturally.
- Know what is going on in the lives of your choir members.
- Make time and take time to chat with them before and after rehearsal. Experiencing the choir’s joys and sorrows with them prepares the way for expressive singing.
- Pray with them and for them.
Create a culture
The church choir is a very specialized choral ensemble. This is a community of disciples that are all on the journey of sanctification with a weekly responsibility to serve the church through music. In order for this group to be efficient in achieving all of the goals both weekly and over an extended period, the ensemble must have a focused culture.
- Discipleship (does not necessarily mean that an extended devotional session be held)
- Worship leadership
- A external study of worship philosophy could be done
- Simple questions could be asked about each anthem (Is this work praise, prayer, or proclamation?)
- Balance of focus and humor/relaxation in rehearsal
- Teachability is founded on trust (conductor must know where the choir is going and how they will get there. Sometimes the “how they get there” will mean doing things in rehearsal that are very foreign to everyday life. The choir must be teachable and ready to do what it takes to attain the end product.)
- A culture of achievement and efficiency should be cultivated. – What is excellent for this ensemble?
- Create a desire to mark the score for quick learning. In the early days, you will have to teach them how to mark the score. If you keep members for years, this will be a helpful skill that will make them better musicians for life.
- The whole is greater than the sum parts. “When we take up the task of being the Shorter Chorale, we collectively say there is a mutual and high regard for the music we are performing and a mutual and high regard for all the people with whom it is being performed.” – taken from the Shorter Chorale syllabus and informed by the writings of Robert Shaw.
Plan your work
- Choose varied anthems (smooth, rhythmic, jubilant, virtuosic, and simple. Also choose anthems that serve varied purposes [praise, prayer, or proclamation])
- Know your varied selections (score study)
- One of the main goals of score study is error prediction. Know where they will likely falter so that you can effectively plan your rehearsal.
- Know all of the phrases, breathing, diction decisions, high points and low points, emotion ideas, and gestural directions.
- Be mindful of the upcoming requirements – special productions, major disruptions to your normal schedule.
- Rehearsal guide (as a young conductor or one who needs focus, this should be written)
- Make sure all materials are available prior to rehearsal (actual music, accompaniment [piano or track], pencils)
- Start and end on time
- Treat your choir members like professionals.
- Be methodical in your rehearsal pacing. Accomplish the necessities.
- Use 7 words or less as often as possible
- Don’t talk too much.
- Rehearsal is rarely the time for stories.
- Don’t let the choir talk too much. This is part of a culture building.
- The choir will follow what you model. Model what you want in the area of behavior and vocal tone.
- Be consistent with what you expect in behavior.
- Learning pitches and rhythms
- If your ensemble is willing, consider using neutral syllables for teaching, this creates vowel uniformity and allows the mind to concentrate solely on the notes, rhythms, and anything else you may want to include. Consider “nooh” “noh” “neeh.”
- Slowing the tempo initially will aid in acquisition of the notes and rhythms.
- One cannot correct errors if the errors are not identified.
- “Let’s go back and give it another try!”
- Always know why you are stopping and what can be done to make the next pass better. Never “let’s give it another try;” be specific in what they need to fix.
- Truly listen to the choir as they sing. Is everyone getting every note and rhythm? How is the tone? Are the phrases correct? Is the emotional connection there? If you are having trouble hearing all of this, listen for one particular thing.
- Isolate each error and fix it. Use the whole-part-whole method. Peel each layer back until you find the problem and then add each part back until it is perfect.
- Correcting rhythm
- Rhythm is key. When difficult rhythmic passages arise, often in contemporary music, slowing the tempo will often produce significant improvement.
- Chanting the rhythm apart from the notes and rhythms aids syllabic connection
- Correcting Pitches
- Be sure that you have score studied to know where difficult intervals are and troubling passages await.
- Listen to the choir carefully to hear the sections that you know will be problems and those places of which you were unaware.
- Developing Tone
- No matter the style, tone is key.
- Use warm-ups to develop strong tonal expectations.
- Be sure that tone is bright and buoyant.
- Both pressed and under-supported tone can lead to intonation challenges.
- Securing true intonation
- Ideal tone
- Vowel alignment
- The ideal key (not F or C)
- Small half steps going down and large ones going up
- Plenty of breath energy
- Ideal environment (comfortable temp, humidity, and adequate reverberation
- Empower the choir
- Use a process of self-evaluation for the choir to encourage them to listen and constantly evaluate how the whole and the individual is performing each moment in rehearsal.
- “Let’s go back and give it another try!”
- Pacing of any rehearsal is crucial to maintain commitment to the rehearsal and to the longevity of the ministry.
- The rehearsal must move as quickly as possible without being rushed or frantic.
- Make sure you are efficient (talk less, sing more).
- When the going gets tough, don’t beat a dead horse.
- Have them stand and sit and various points in the rehearsal.
- Use varying seat configurations.
- Make sure to order the pieces in such a way that there is not an extended section on a very difficult couple of pieces. Be mindful of range and musical demands.
Being efficient in rehearsal requires planning, score preparation, discipline, humor, a love for the music, and a love for God’s people.