Beginning conductors: Teaching long pieces
I'd like to hear from experienced directors about how you go about
rehearsing pieces which are relatively long and difficult,
particularly when many singers can't make every rehearsal. I'm
thinking about two approaches:
1. At each rehearsal, learn a small section of the piece and get it
down solid. At the next rehearsal, learn a different section. The
problem with this approach is that singers who are absent will miss
learning that section.
2. At each rehearsal, go over a large section of the piece. The same
section will be rehearsed at 2 or 3 rehearsals before going on to
| Edward L. Stauff http://www.mewsic.com/Ed |
| Musician, software engineer, dad, bibliophile, cohouser, husband, |
| microferroequinologist, woodworker, author (order varies). |
| "Specialization is for insects." Lazarus Long (R. A. Heinlein) |
At 8:25 AM -0500 11/11/04, Edward L. Stauff wrote:
>I'd like to hear from experienced directors about how you go about
>rehearsing pieces which are relatively long and difficult,
>particularly when many singers can't make every rehearsal. I'm
>thinking about two approaches:
Exactly my situation at present. I decided long ago that for my
present ensemble I want to encourage more people to participate, even
if they have schedule conflicts. (With other ensembles in the past I
have done exactly the opposite. Every situation is different.)
>1. At each rehearsal, learn a small section of the piece and get it
>down solid. At the next rehearsal, learn a different section. The
>problem with this approach is that singers who are absent will miss
>learning that section.
Yes, so you can't rely on a single rehearsal, but getting a smaller
section solidly learned helps the missing singers when they can come,
and a lot of review helps make this work.
>2. At each rehearsal, go over a large section of the piece. The same
>section will be rehearsed at 2 or 3 rehearsals before going on to
I find myself working from the small to the whole, rather than the
other way around. I know that isn't good learning based on Gestalt
psychology, but in my present situation it works better than
rehearsing larger sections superficially and allowing mistakes to
become embedded. Practice doesn't always make perfect, but it always
John & Susie Howell
Virginia Tech Department of Music
Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A 24061-0240
Vox (540) 231-8411 Fax (540) 231-5034
"Choraltalk Gateway" wrote in message
> I'd like to hear from experienced directors about how you go about
> rehearsing pieces which are relatively long and difficult,
> particularly when many singers can't make every rehearsal. I'm
> thinking about two approaches:
> 1. At each rehearsal, learn a small section of the piece and get it
> down solid. At the next rehearsal, learn a different section. The
> problem with this approach is that singers who are absent will miss
> learning that section.
> 2. At each rehearsal, go over a large section of the piece. The same
> section will be rehearsed at 2 or 3 rehearsals before going on to
> another section.
I'm an experienced singer, rather than director, in a choir that does a lot
of repertoire fitting into the long and difficult category. (1) seems like a
bad idea, for the reasons you've identified and (2) would be a recipe for
boredom. Usual procedure is:
The first rehearsal sessions will probably be sectionals - usually SA or TB,
but this can depend on repertoire e.g. Stravinsky Persephone has a lot of
work for SAT alone, so giving the Basses a night or two off (or just sending
them home early) is A Good Thing. Sometimes the sectionals are planned for
the first half of the rehearsal (assistant directors and, if necessary,
accompanists are deployed here) where each section does note-bashing on
their parts in seperate studios. After the coffee break the sections combine
and put together the work they did earlier with the chief director. The
later rehearsals will usually be for everyone, but this doesn't preclude
having further sectionals if a particularly tricky section warrants it.
The important thing is to make the most productive use of the time
available, and not go over stuff just for the sake of it.
D A Stocks
>>1. At each rehearsal, learn a small section of the piece and get it down
solid. At the next rehearsal, learn a different section. The problem with
this approach is that singers who are absent will miss learning that
In general, I favor a combination of the two approaches, leaning towards the
first, but it does depend upon the situation. With professional groups or
with choirs who have lots of good readers, one has the luxury of working
with larger sections of the music, but with the "average" church choir, I
think one must break it into small, more easily "digested" bites. There
really isn't a problem with this approach. Sure, there will always be some
singers absent, but if one allows adequate rehearsal time, then choir
members who attend most rehearsals should get at least a couple, if not
several, opportunities to learn each section. For longer, more difficult
anthems, in my present situation I allow at least 8 if not more rehearsals,
not including sectionals. Generally, we'll read through the whole work as
best we can and perhaps listen to a recording of the whole, then we'll work
on a section. The following week we'll review that section. Depending upon
how that review goes, we'll either work on an additional section if all goes
well, or just focus on insuring that that first section is solid, if they
struggle with it during the review. I generally start with the trickiest
section, so that it gets the most rehearsal and the group feels the most
confident and comfortable with it by the time we perform it. Particularly
with amateurs, they need to feel comfortable, confident and relaxed in order
to do their best, and have any chance at making the "music" come alive in a
dramatic, powerful fashion. Sometimes, I'll start with an easier section to
give them an immediate sense of satisfaction and confidence, however.
Any time one has to rehearse a particular section or work a lot, there's the
danger of one's better readers/ musicians becoming bored, particularly if
they don't like the piece anyway, but I believe there's no excuse for that.
There's always something new they can learn, something different they can
find in the music, and something they can do better vocally or musically.
One just has to instill that attitude in one's charges. Too, they need to
learn that they won't like every piece, but that their neighbor or the
congregation might love this piece, while disliking a piece that they like.
If we as a choir have the attitude of being a team and servants, then this
should go a long way in helping to ameliorate griping, but there will always
be a few attitude problems.
Craig D. Collins
Director of Music Ministries
Mt. Zion United Methodist Church
19600 Zion Street
Cornelius, NC 28031
(704) 892-3143 FAX
Here's another idea: stagger the breaks-work on a men's section that is
particularly difficult while the women are taking a break, then do the reverse
when the women are back. Sometimes, 10 minutes working on a section can work
wonders, and those on the break aren't grousing and talking among themselves
while you are working.
Steven L. Schaffner
Great question. I will spend quite a bit of prep time before rehearsal
analyzing the music and looking for the same melodic material throughout the piece.
Once I know which sections are A, B, or C I will pick the one that is the
climax of the piece and/or the ending. This serves me well as there will be more
review on that section as I come back to it each week. If you have a confident
beginning, an exciting climax, and a great finish, small mistakes elsewhere
will not be as evident to the audience. Each week of rehearsal add another chunk
of thematic material (if you did B then work on A or C, etc.) and continuing
working on the previous weeks material until the choir is confident and all
the music sounds great. Correcting mistakes and creating the desired musical
interpretation should occur as each section of music is learned so that mistakes
do not become habit.
Jean Clark Caudill
Minister of Music and Worship Arts
First United Methodist Church
New Brighton, PA
I am tempted to respond to your inquiry since it relates to my own scene.
However, none of us is an island, and I suspect the problems of absentee
choristers not knowing their msuic affects us all.
My choir's repertoire is of "many small jewels" - we don't tackle longer
works, though much of what we do is quite demanding. I use 'difficult'
passages (without comment) as vocal exercises, using solfege or numbers or
letter names or vocalese to address the problems themselves - and this can
happen over a month or so, so that most of the erratic attenders get some
I have found that with the over-view approach the whole choir ends up
knowing nothing particularly well, but that learning small sections very
well - especially beginnings and codas - is much more effective in
bringing about performance standard efficiently.
I guess everyone's experience is different, but this works for me in my
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
I've been a member of a amateur choral society for some 10 years now, so
maybe a view from this perspective may be helpful.
Since I've joined the choir we've had 4 different directors with quite
Our current director combines the 2 approaches you've described. Initially
he leant towards the first of them, which mostly resulted in a certain
amount of disguntlement among the choir. My experience of it was that I knew
each small section very well but had no feel for how it all hung together,
consequently by the time of the concert I had no notion of the flow of the
whole piece. Also many of our members quietly complained of being very bored
& frustrated by rehearsals and I think we probably lost a couple of members
as a result.
Now, we work on particular sections in detail but also run through larger
sections, and towards the end of the term run through the whole piece more
frequently. If there are any problem areas then he may take one section
through their part during the coffee break. There was a time when extra
rehearsals were called for towards the week of the concert, but thankfully
that has now passed, mostly due to the conductor & choir knowing what to
expect from each other and the rehearsals being efficiently planned. We are
also given a rehearsal schedule at the beggining of the term listing what
will be rehearsed each week (very helpful for non-attendees to do some
Very early in the learning process I like to spend a fair amount of time on
the last section of the piece. Then, at subsequent rehearsals we can work
on a new section and jump to the end, or learn a section and stumble through
parts we haven't perfected yet, and finish with the already learned ending.
There is something satisfying about working on a piece with a goal of
connecting everything else to an ending that you already know and no
chance of the ending being neglected or underrehearsed.
Charles Q. Sullivan
On Fri, 12 Nov 2004 04:42:36 +0000 (UTC), firstname.lastname@example.org
(Choraltalk Gateway) wrote:
>Here's another idea: stagger the breaks-work on a men's section that is
>particularly difficult while the women are taking a break, then do the reverse
>when the women are back. Sometimes, 10 minutes working on a section can work
>wonders, and those on the break aren't grousing and talking among themselves
>while you are working.
>Steven L. Schaffner
That's a very good idea, and here are a few of my own:
- Lots of sectionals and then putting it all together to get beyond
the boring wrote work.
- When you bring sections together pray you have a GREAT accompanist.
My accompanists had a very good ear, and I would instruct the person
to just add elements of the accompaniment but if they noticed a
section falling apart bring out their notes. This allowed me to keep
the section flowing at tempo and gave the choir a sense of the whole.
Of course, each work is different, and rehearsal techniques change. If
it's a standard work like the Mozart Requiem, its a good idea to have
choir members buy a recording so they are familiar with it.
Thanks for all the great feedback! Some of it isn't relevant to my
group, but that's my fault for not explaining: I direct an Episcopal
church choir of at most 18 singers, usually 12-14 on a given
rehearsal or Sunday. We have the typical one 90 minute rehearsal per
week, plus a 20-minute warmup before the service. My own philosophy
(for this group) is to take anyone regardless of ability or
scheduling conflicts, and (not surprisingly) I have a number of non-
readers. Still, this week we got the notes down for Handel's "O Thou
That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" (less the solo) in about 40
minutes, though it certainly helped that we did it last year.
The piece I'd most like to do that I'm scared to do is Randall
Thompson's "Alleluia", which I adore. What scares me is the
extremely high Soprano part and the extremely low bass part near the
end. I guess I'll just have to start with that section and see if
there's any chance of it working at all.
The most effective extracurricular aid I've tried so far is to create
a set of five MP3's (not MIDI files, though I do provide them as
well), one with each of the four parts prominent, and a fifth with
the parts balanced. I produce these with Hauptwerk, a wonderful
shareware virtual pipe organ software that has the ability to record
directly to .wav files. The files don't have the words, but they're
only slightly more work than creating MIDI files, and much more
accessible to non-technical folks.
I'm also fond of learning a piece "backwards": starting with the
final phrase, then the next-to-last, and ending with the first phrase.
| Edward L. Stauff; Minister of Music, St. Stephen's Episcopal |
| Church, Middlebury, Vermont, USA; president, Institute for |
| Pipe Organ Research & Education (www.ipore.org); author, |
| Encyclopedia of Organ Stops (www.organstops.org). |