Work backwards: learning music quickly

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.Conducting

Let’s face it, with over twenty pieces to learn this year and rehearsals occurring once a week during terms that aren’t all that long, getting through all the repertoire is going to be something of a challenge. I’ve felt it important, in these early rehearsals, to move through repertoire quickly, in order to give the choir a sense of the overall landscape of the music for the year, in particular for the February concert in the Cathedral Crypt. It’s also a useful method of helping the choir members find something they like; in an ideal world, everyone in the group likes all of the repertoire the conductor has chosen for them, but those rose-tinted spectacles were broken long ago. By working through a large chunk of all the music for the year, hopefully everyone will find something that they like and will enjoy singing.

The danger with this approach, particularly during the formative stages of early rehearsals, is that the singers will feel totally bewildered. Working at such pace through repertoire means they have to pick the music up very quickly – we’re not, at least at this stage, dwelling too much on note-bashing or building key chords or phrases. This is deliberate: it’s important to keep the pace of rehearsals moving, so that experienced singers don’t get bored with repeated note-bashing for less able singers, or that so much time is taken on a single piece that people start to lose interest.

That said, it’s also important not to leave them feeling all at sea, carried away by the whirlwind of covering a lot of ground in a very short time, bewildered perhaps by not having got all the notes exactly right and where on earth did that phrase go, I got completely lost ?! As a conductor, it’s a delicate balance that has to be struck in rehearsal between covering repertoire and learning music but not turning people off at this early stage. A treacherous tightrope indeed…

One trick I’ve found, that particularly helps me learn pieces as a pianist, is to start towards the end, or perhaps somewhere in the middle. You learn the final section, or a key section in the middle, and then work backwards; the idea is that, each time you move backwards, you learn a new section and then carry on to play (or sing) through the section you learned previously. Psychologically, it works wonders; you feel you know a large part of the piece already each time you work through,and you don’t have that often dispiriting sense of turning the page, to find the music is still going on and on and on… Plus the end is the section you then know best, which gives a really good finale to the piece, and often covers a multitude of errors that may have occurred in the middle…

Try it with a new piece next time: learn it from the middle first, or learn a key phrase or passage that recurs throughout, and then work backwards. You might be surprised at how it works.

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  1. Pingback: The agony and the ecstasy; madrigals, Tippett and Jackson – Cantus Firmus

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