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Need a Fresh Look

Have you ever thought your group was doing really well but then reality smacks you in the face? Maybe in the form of a choral contest or an MPA (in Florida).  Then you ask yourself "How did I not hear this before? Where was I during rehearsal? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!?!?!" (Especially after you get the CD's of your live performance and you hear that the tenors don't know their notes, the altos are belting, the sopranos are screaming, and the basses are an easy quarter step flat.)
So, my confidence is shaken in my ability to move forward. I believe if I heard another choir sing like this I would know how to help, but I am lost with my own group. Currently, I can only see their limitations, not their possibilities, so I make excuses for their bad technique rather than fix the problems.
My question then is: how does a choral conductor of several years step back and re-evaluate rehearsals and performances and everything in between - hearing with unclogged ears.
Replies (4): Threaded | Chronological
on March 13, 2013 3:42am
I've had this experience and the first step is to recover from the initial paralysis.  Make a list of the problems - and exhaustive one.  Then wait a day or two.  Then make another list of what you want to hear. See how the problems stand in the way of the sound, the performance you want.  Then work on each item in a very small, specific way.  And know that it won't be perfect any time soon.
 
Most importantly, stop beating yourself up.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 13, 2013 6:32am
Gotta agree with Mary Jane.  Without knowing the composition of your group (amateurs, semi-pro, pro), there is still a fundamental common element to all groups of this nature - this is a TEAM effort, not just the director's.  Sure, you had a part to play in how you got there and how you get out of there, but your group needs a wakeup call as well.  Play the CD for them, but be ready with questions ("What do you hear?  Altos, what's your blend?  Sopranos, your dynamics?", etc.) and have a range of "how to's" ready - and be ready to be more upbeat than you've ever been - not stupidly so, but effectively so.  Remember, if they care for what's happening, they'll be just as devastated as you were when you heard the playback.  And don't EVER get into "why" issues - those are emotional; so easy when you're emotionally "attacked" (no one did, but it feels that way!), but this is something that DOES respond to a rational effort, and must do so.  And, as a student of history, what you're describing is history - because the past is where the journey occurred to get you where you are NOW in this point of time.  The point of any history lesson is to learn what happened and, if possible, avoid it in the future.  And I have to agree that, under certain circumstances, David's right:  a rehearsal recording is a good way to hear yourself.  I have to caution, though, as a person familiar with recording groups in all sorts of places, that the hall has to be taken into account with your recording - you may in fact have a great sound but not in a great place!  If you're going to do that, do it in a room that you know will be sonically productive, resonant.  I don't know, again, the nature of your group (church, barbershop, whatever), but we usually rehearse in the lousiest spaces (and unfortunately, in our case, sing in a pretty lousy one - a military chapel that's more of a padded auditorium than even a church building!) possible - tight, no resonance, over- or under-heated - I could go on....  Hang in there, though; this is only a moment in time; you can and will get them through, because you're already heading in a good direction with a cry for help.
 
Chantez bien!
 
Ron
on March 13, 2013 5:32am
Aubrey:
 
Record, record, record! When preparing for an upcoming concert or contest, I start recording rehearsals every couple of weeks once my choir is reasonably comfortable with the notes. That allows you to pull back and listen to the group as a whole rather than focusing on a single part or two. I know when I am conducting through a piece, I often focus on single parts that I know need to be heard by an audience (countermelodies, etc.) rather than hearing the whole piece. A recording allows you to listen to differently and pick out those places that are an issue. Small digital recorders have come down in price (many are $100 or less) and are quite good at recording in a rehearsal setting. I use a Zoom H-1 recorder in my classroom, though there are many different brands on the market. Good luck!
 
David Headings
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 13, 2013 9:20am
 
Is it possible that they actually sang better in class for you? Some students become quite nervous when adjudicated, and this affects their brain functions/performance.
I began conducting a H. S. class a few years ago. One of the more vocal tenors expressed, "I hope you don't become crazy-ballistic before a concert like Mr. ___did!" (Part of that comment stems from the student's personality, and probably most of the remainder is due the former director's frustration with the general lack of discipline at that time in that particular school.) So, in no way, do I mean to imply that you reacted as Mr. ___. :) But the tenor's comment did remind my brain to work to get the musical, technical, and expressive matters in place well before the performances. My goal was to be able to rehearse/review in a mode of peaceful relaxation, combined with excitement and energy, so they would not get "stale" - very tricky to do with today's teens!  But not impossible.
I imagine that you are well-aware of all this, and that your students are more-than-adequately prepared weeks before the event(s).
Still, is it possible that they picked up subliminally on the fact that you care passionately about it, and they worried about not being all the judges expected, thus dissapointing you?
What if we think of every time we sing a song in rehearsal as a performance? (In a sense that's true; in a sense, it is not true, since we do stop and correct things.) Perhaps that will have an "equalizing factor" - so that they will see the contest/evaluation as another rendition among many - we are doing our best always.
In our system, we changed the name - no longer "Contest", or "Festival" - becaause all we're really competing with/against is a standard of well-prepared, musical expressiveness.  To put it in the realm of football tournaments is to alter it's purpose, character, feeling, and possibly what the students gain from it.  It is Large Group Performance Evaluation.
I think we choral folks can learn a valuable procedure from our theatre brothers and sisters. Near performance time, they allow the entire play to flow uninterrupted. Notes are taken, and addressed at the end, or during the next day's rehearsal/class. This is tricky for choral music, especially if you are playing and conducting! ;) The good suggestion of "record, record" helps there, as you can simply speak one quick word during the passage that needs addressing, as a reminder.
Many systems have "mock evaluation/festivals" where several schools get together about 2 weeks beforehand and sing their songs for each other. The teachers become the judges (for the other schools). If it is done in an attitude of fostering growth in kindness and mutually-supportive cooperation, it can be quite effective.   I think it's important to get it at least a week before the event - I don't recommend stressing students by having them try to assimilate all that advice near the performance - can be counter-productive.  If you are in a private school setting, perhaps you can engage other private schools - makes a nice field trip, especially if you add pizza/ice cream/whatever motivates them.  Another alternative is to invite a local college choral prof - they will likely be glad to do that in exchange for promoting the college - or you could all gather at the college and sing in their space!
Best Wishes, and I agree with the responder who said, "Don't beat up on yourself!"  Sometimes it's just an unlucky year... ;)
-Lucy
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