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So-so Pianist Directing a Choir

Hello all,
 
My name's Robert Neeb and I'm a music education student studying at the University of Southern Maine. I will be graduationg in two years and I'm not the greatest pianist, so I'm quite worried about efficiently running a choir rehearsal (because the piano is VERY essential in effectivey teaching a choir). 
 
Obviously practice is the ideal solution to this problem, but in some instances I will more than likely encounter a piece that I won't be able to play. Any suggestions based off of experience? Are there any pianist-organizations in Maine that I could contact? Thank you!
 
Best,
 
Robert Neeb
 
 
on April 22, 2014 3:23pm
Robert,
The piano is a tool, but you would be surprised how much better the kids will do if they learn to sing without a piano plunking out every note.
That being said, depending on how much of a purist you are, there a ways around this. One is to use pre recorded accompaniments. Another is to hire an accompanist. Often in a school there will be some faculty member that may be able to accompany you. I was a piano major so obviously this is not a problem for me, but I actually do much more acappella these days or use pre recorded accompaniments that can be purchased   because the results I get when conducting are so much better. I spent the first half of my career accompanying my students and I believe my results are so much more musical now. I have been teaching for 35 years. My associate has very little piano experience and she has managed just fine  for the past fifteen years and has never played anything but vocal parts in class.
 
Again, I firmly believe the kids will do better once they get used to hearing their own voices without a piano in the background.
 
All the best,
Gayle Rubinstein
 
Applauded by an audience of 6
on April 22, 2014 3:36pm
Hello Robert,
I would suggest picking up as many things you can, pretaining to the piano, while still in school around many faculty and peer students who could teach you small things that might really come in handy down the road in your journey to become an educator of music. Lessons and practice are always an option as you have mentioned however lessons can be expensive once out of school with loans to pay off so make the most of your time in music school surrounded by a plethora of musicans. I agree that piano is a very effective meathod for teaching choir and if teaching a choir you will want to be confident in your skill. Depending on the level of choir you are teaching the skill needed ranges, so as I have mentioned prior, never pass up the opertunity to learn from peers and faculty, take lessons if needed and keep practicing! Hope you keep up with your studies and best of luck.
Susan
on April 22, 2014 5:57pm
I'll second Gayle's comment about not relying so much on piano in rehearsals. Singers need to listen to themselves and to others more than they need to listen to a percussive instrument that doesn't approximate their timbre. Advanced and beginning choirs need to build their ear-training skills and encourage them to be confident in their singing.
 
When I started with my new church choir about 4 years ago, they had a very difficult time staying in tune, a capella, for more than 3-4 measures at a time, even in unison. My predecessors seemed to rely too much on keyboard for anthems, and even if the piece was a cappella, it was accompanied anyway. Getting them to really listen to themselves, focus on the breath process and good vowel formation, they have eventually come around to doing a wider variety of literature, in tune, with and without accompaniment.
 
So get in front of a choir, be VERY sure of what your looking for in the score in terms of every detail, and give the choir a starting pitch, and let them go as long as you can without stepping foot behind the piano. The MOST effective way to run a rehearsal is knowing your score backward and forward and, if you don't know it as well as you should, never let on that you have less than 100% knowledge of what you want. 
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 23, 2014 4:07am
Robert,
 
In the field of music education you will certainly find many calls upon your assumed talent as a pianist.  As Susan said, grab every opportunity while in school to improve those skills; they are pretty fundamental to the field you pursue.  
 
OTOH, as a choral singer I strongly applaud Gayle's response.  The best choruses I have sung with use the piano sparingly at best in rehearsal.  Singers do better when we hear for ourselves, mostly a cappella.  One chorale I sing with is an older community choir of very mixed musical experience; it has an extremely fine pianist/organist as director.  Typically he gives the starting pitches and we work for 5-10 minutes without hearing the piano again, stopping, re-starting, separate parts, etc., and we rarely lose pitch.  The point is that he has ear trained that chorus, remembering pitch is simply an expectation.  I my area we have annual festival concerts featuring a handful of high school or college choruses, it seems almost a rule that the less piano the better the choir.  Too often, it seems, the pianist takes the role of church organist who must play all the parts and drag the congregation/choir through the singing, if that has been the rehearsal technique, the chorus will have no musical legs of its own to stand upon.  
 
Don't forget the other tool you have for teaching parts, your own voice.  I find that when a director sings the phrase for us we learn it better.  The voice carries pronunciation, expression, interpretation atop the pitches and note values.  
Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 23, 2014 5:26am
Work on your falsetto, too: it's very helpful to sing an example in the right octave. 
Applauded by an audience of 2
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