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Rehearsing well -- Start with Musicality

For me, it's important to include musicality and expression, particularly that of phrase shape, from the very beginning of the learning/rehearsal process. The problem with ignoring the shaping of phrases (dynamic, agogic, stressed and unstressed syllables, etc.) is that the choir learns an unmusical shaping of the phrase which then has to be un-learned (and that can take much longer than learning it correctly to begin with).
Of course, we all isolate elements (pitches, rhythms, text, intonation, etc.) in rehearsal, and sometimes the writing is too difficult for our groups to do without some drill. But . . . while drilling pitches or rhythms (let's say text on rhythm only), one can still begin the process of shaping the phrases. Robert Shaw style countsinging can also have phrase shapes built in--this technique doesn't mean to sing without shape or sense of where each phrase is going (make sure you come to Pamela Elrod Huffman's session at ACDA in Dallas, where she'll focus on Shaw's rehearsal techniques).
Ultimately this is much more efficient and the choir will begin to sing music, not just notes, from day one.
The other part of this is that your singers become involved with the music more. Since I work on musicality and expression all the time, sometimes it only takes a reminder from me ("sing more musically") and the choir will know what to do. It's important to teach the whys and hows of this as well (part of teaching them to be better, more expressive musicians). What are the clues to musical phrasing? They need to listen for harmonic dissonance and release, think about text stress, become aware of the important words in a phrase, to be aware of musical contour (the rise and fall of the musical line). They need to know what the overall shape of a phrase is (where does it begin and end? we can sometimes disagree about that!) and how to determine the "goal" of each phrase (where is it going? what's the most important syllable or beat towards which one phrases?). . . and especially to remember that all notes are not equal in a phrase!
Some elements of expression may have to wait, but don't wait too long!
And finally, some of my favorite quotes about phrasing:
Harpsichordist and Pianist Ralph Kirkpatrick: "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."
Conductor Robert Fountain: "Not just the desire, but the passion to keep the line going."
Composer Virgil Thompson: "Is this music just a piece of clockwork, or does it also tell time? . . . have I been moved or merely impressed?"
on February 14, 2013 4:47am
Good point raised, it forces me to re-examine my approach, thank you.  I've been so focused on drilling pitch, diction and rhythm I've lost sight of the music!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 15, 2013 9:28pm
Thanks, Benjamin!
on February 14, 2013 10:12am
You are so very right Richard.  We must start out as we mean to go on.  I compare singing the music minus the details such as phrasing, dynamics and accent to letting a child be "cute" and behave without rules until the child is out in public, and all of a sudden correct behaviour is paramount and you start making corrections.  Waiting to make those changes to the music until before performance would have the same detrimental effect.  We would have a confused child and a confused choir.  We would have let the "wrong" way to act or sing become the norm and it would take that much more effort to change.  I am a great believer in as you suggest including your choir in the process and of course elucidate the gestalt of the pieces so that we all share the same vision first and then can fine turn the parts to achieve that end. 
The music "feels" better to sing when all the elements are taken into consideration from the beginning. 
Thanks for the reminder.
on February 15, 2013 9:29pm
Thank you, Kitty! I like your analogy
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 14, 2013 3:35pm
I do agree, but I think we have to be careful to balance things.  I have seen many young conductors spend too much time talking about wonderful phrasing ideas that the students completely miss because they are desparately trying to find the next note!  You mention that with the countsinging example, that other elements can be taken apart so that students aren't overwhelemed while trying to make a phrase, but I just want to emphasise that those with less experienced singers should weigh the balance of teaching the singers to find their note along with that musical shape.  Lack of attention on either side of that balance makes poor music, and the balance changes as the singers develop.
on February 15, 2013 9:40pm
Thanks, Kenneth. I certainly agree with you about balance. My point is that one can begin to do shaping early on, and that it's possible, even while working on rhythm, more accurate pitches, etc. to begin to shape phrase. Just talking about wonderful phrasing ideas isn't what I mean (and perhaps I wasn't clear), but one can demonstrate shape so that singers don't begin to learn an unmusical approach. In my rehearsals you'll certainly see a mix of lots of things, many ways to drill --all those things the singers have to lear-- but early on an emphasis on shape.
There's also a difference depending on the level of your singers, their reading ability, etc. and I realize that.
Thanks so much for responding and helping to clarify!
on February 20, 2013 10:16am

I support all these sentiments. In my own personal journey on this topic, I've come to a different place about expression.  None of these statements are absolutes of course, and the following is really only possible when the repertoire is at a level that is appropriate to the musical skills of the ensemble. (appropriate is a whole different topic....)


I'm trying to encourage the singers to consider the expression not as an "additive" but inherent in the composition already.  While micro-managing the construction materials (pitch, rhythm, intonation etc.) not only do we miss the music for it's expressive nature, but we also are less accurate with the materials themselves.  


It's in some ways similar to the approach (and well spotlighted by) the we take to sight-singing.  The focus seems to be to sing the actual notes and rhythms without looking for the (natural/expected/logical/common) of the melodic contour, resolution of non-chord tones, metrical stress of the phrase etc.   Unless we are sight-singing some random assortment of notes for an exercise - rarely if ever, it makes sense to trust one's training and make sense of the material for it's expectation or delayed/inhibited expectation of the notes and rhythms.  And even with singing by sight, encouraging the singers to find the musicality as well, leads to further success.  And even if it doesn't - lovely mistakes are so much nicer to hear than ugly mistakes.

on February 22, 2013 10:38pm
Thanks so much for adding to the discussion! I love what you said about sight-reading with a sense of musicality.