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When musical notation gets in the way

I conduct an unauditioned choral society in England. It consists mainly of older people; some members can read music very well, while others can barely do so. Our repertoire is broad and demanding, from Beatles arrangements to Bach's Mass in B Minor (which we're rehearsing at the moment). I suppose this is old hat to many of you, but I find myself in a permanent quandry, and was wondering what advice there might be - if any is indeed possible. 
The quandry is that we want to continue with repertoire that challenges the choir musically and that they enjoy. However, this means complex notation, which to those who can't read music very well (or at all) is like a monolingual English speaker trying to read Mandarin. Choir members in this position have to go through a process of visual translation before they can produce the vocal sounds represented by those notational symbols. I can see two ways out of this impasse. 
  1. Get all the choir members up to the same reading level. Realistically, this ain't gonna happen, not without turing the town's choral society into a chamber choir as members who can't hack the pressure or who can't be bothered leave. 
  2. Get the choir to sing from memory. While being a huge challenge, I can just see this as a very distant possibility, but it will be a major cultural shift. We do try the occasional easy thing from memory, but even that meets resistance from many who regard the score (whether they can read it well or not) as a kind of Linus blanket.
What do people think?
on October 10, 2013 3:14am
Hi Anselm,
Do you provide 'teach' tracks for the members to listen to? Many choirs and choruses now do this and have found it an invaluable way for people to learn their parts - whether they read music or not. I know There are many ways to produce teach tracks either yourself (or members of your choir) using electronic software or even by using the section leaders to record their parts (with piano accompaniment or without) which you then distribute on CD (with a mechanical licence). This also aids the choir in easing their way to memorising all or sections of the piece as many will find that they are singing along in the car/bus/etc when they are listening/singing without using the music.
Hope this helps,
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on October 10, 2013 3:48am
This is something I blogged about a while back:
It is a problem that many if not most amateur choirs face, and pragmatically it's usually a case of finding a course to steer between the two poles you outline. I think your comparison with foreign languages is overly pessimistic - my observation in practice is that people who self-identify as 'non-readers' nonethless do, if given notation to work from, use it as an aid to hang their aural memory on. Even if in practice it is just the text and the visual geography of the page they are using.

I'd also encourage people to listen to recordings of the big works, so they get a feel for the overall musical thrust of the piece to guide them as they learn the detail of their parts in rehearsal. It may be worth investigating your local library's online services - in mine (Birmingham, England), we have access to the Naxos library of recordings, which includes multiple versions of most major choral works.
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on October 10, 2013 5:15am
I do both....who ever is more comfortable with reading notation...I encourage the sheet music.  Those who have a good ear but notation is a problem....I have the words written out.  Then, ideally, if you have a second or third person....teach each part separately...having singer carry whatever is most comfortable for them...sheet music, or written word, or sometimes both.  The aural learners will get it ...especially if they are along side 'readers'...because their ear is good.  
Granted it takes some extra effort...but everyone benefits...and all the singers are accomplished in the end.
I have been doing this for is not as great as having all readers...but it works.  
Darleen Herriman 
on October 10, 2013 6:07am
Another solution is to create or find recorded practice tracks--one for each part.  There are companies that do this for certain works already.  You could also add 30 min. to each rehearsal to teach basic concepts and sight-singing skills to those who can't read music.  Maybe you could make those sessions voluntary, but highly encouraged, and see what happens.  Perhaps you have someone else in the choir who could teach that?
Best wishes,
Eloise Porter
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on October 10, 2013 6:28am
Have you thought of offering a music reading class?  There's lots of resource material for adults and the non-readers may surprise you at their learning speed.  I did it once with a choir full of non-readers and they were very grateful.  I told them I wasn't doing it for them, but for me!  I hate teaching by rote and the readers can get impatient fast.  Make it fun and give "gold stars" or some such reward and remind them they are never too old to learn.
Good luck!
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on October 10, 2013 7:27am
When you say "complex notation," how complex is complex?  I wouldn't worry about trying to get everyone up to the same reading level OR forcing memorization on everyone.  I'd suggest letting individual members play to their own strengths and do a bit of both, but in a "challenge by choice" format.  If the person sitting next to me has the music down, I won't get lost in rehearsal, and my own understanding of the music will steadily improve.  You just need to achieve critical mass, not have everyone read perfectly.  I'd suggest:  
1.  Send around regular emails with links to recordings of the more difficult pieces you will be performing.  These could be youtube videos of other groups' performances or cyberbass or cpdl files.  The more different recordings you can find, the more likely they are to give your singers a good sense of the notes and rhythms without trapping them in the idea of a certain stylistic interpretation.  Make these available as soon as you have decided on a piece, so that those who need to, and want to, can work ahead of the rehearsal schedule.  Remind everyone that they are available regularly.  That will be a huge help to those who don't read music well, and aren't comfortable improving their reading on their own.  AND! singing along to the recording while looking at their scores will actually help improve their reading.  They will soak up the connection between the notation and the sound of the music without even realising they are doing it.  
2.  For those who are a little more scholarly in their approach, send around regular quicky music reading help.  If you know you want to work page 30 to 40 during a rehearsal, email a list of definitions of any musical terms that may be unfamiliar before rehearsal.  The definition of con brio, what a fermata looks like and what that means.  Key them to the page and measure number.  Give out suggested homework.  "We'll be working pages 30 through 40 next week.  If you have time, tenors, please tap out the rhythms for measures 115 to 125 before you come to rehearsal.  Altos, work pitches for the same measures.    If any of you want to show up 10 minutes before rehearsal, we can have a quick sectional on those parts."
Not everyone will listen to the recordings, or do their homework, and that's fine.  Don't make it a stressful required thing, just make it available.  If enough people take advantage of it, that will give you critical mass to keep rehearsal moving, and their section mates will improve by listening to them.  
This also teaches people how to practice and that it is okay to practice.  (!)  A concept, I know, but it does sometimes seem like those who are reading the music well just have magical powers, unattainable by mere mortals.  There may be singers in your group who know they need to improve, but are a little overwhelmed by the prospect.  They may not have access to a keyboard or a piano to pound out notes.  They may not want to ask for help in rehearsal for fear of slowing down the group.  They may not want to ask for help privately before or after rehearsal for fear that you will be so appalled at their sight reading skills that you will want them out of the group.  
You can also appoint some section leaders if you don't have them already.  They can be a less intimidating person to ask for help.  Encourage them to make a habit of arriving a little early to help people plunk notes.  They can be the designated person who puts a hand up in rehearsal to announce that the sopranos need help at measure...
Good luck!
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on October 10, 2013 7:40am
What about using practice recordings? Your readers will not need them so they won't need to change the way they operate, and your non-readers may find them helpful. This is what I do with the choirs I direct (community college level, so the musical backgrounds vary wildly, but most of my students are non-readers, at least to begin with). 
There are many resources for practice recordings, one of my favorites being Cyberbass has midi files posted online for many of the major choral works. The Choral Public Domain Library is also a fabulous resource, as many of the contributors post their files in midi format, and sometimes in Finale and other music notation formats.
When I cannot find midi or Finale files already created, I create my own within Finale (this is just what I happen to use - any notation software would be fine). I actually hand my students a disc with all of their repertoire at the beginning of the semester. In addition, I have the repertoire posted to my website, where they can practice online. The website also gives them instructions on how they can make the files even more useful, directing them to software that can help them change tempi and isolate their own part. Here is the link to my website if you are interested: - click the tab for "Help Pages" and then "Practice Files". 
I also try to compile youtube playlists so that my students have the opportunity to hear live choirs sing the repertoire.
I think that music literacy is extremely important, but I agree with your assessment that you may not be able to get all of your members to the same reading level. Providing practice files might just be a solution.
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