Tag Archives: rehearsing

It’s oh so quiet…

The Chamber Choir resumed rehearsals earlier this week, having had a break over Easter; the choir is preparing for two performances in June as part of Summer Music Week, the Music department’s annual festival which bids a musical farewell to the academic year. It’s a busy time for the singers, with revision and examinations and dissertations all exerting pressure – and with only five rehearsals left, rehearsal time is at a premium.

The first concert is a revisiting of the programme the Choir performed in the Cathedral Crypt back in March, which includes Fauré’s richly-hued Requiem and several tricky contemporary pieces. With so little rehearsal time this term, and members missing rehearsals as they prepare for exams, it’s an opportunity to rehearse and to perform without having the additional stress of trying to learn new repertoire. But – and this is where the magic begins – returning to pieces that you’ve already learned and delivered in the glare of the public eye is a fascinating experience; you know the pieces really well, and are confident in them because you’ve already aired them in public, and so the level of performance improves from the previous concert. There’s a new-found freedom in revisiting them, a surety that comes from trusting that you can deliver them, which leads to increased confidence, which leads to greater freedom – and so it continues. At this point in the academic year, the choir is really flying; a rich, assured ensemble sound, a tremendous pleasure in knowing the pieces will come off the page successfully.

And yet…there’s always something new, some new direction the choir takes, some undiscovered aspect to its performing that emerges. And this week was no exception; as we picked started our first piece, the dynamic level reached new depths of piano and pianissimo that were entirely unpremeditated; we hadn’t elected to explore singing much more quietly than before, but there was an empathetic, collective response that found us singing much more intimately than we ever had before; and it worked. As the rehearsal unfolded, this contrast appeared in other pieces, and was particularly exciting. Where had it come from ? As the conductor, I certainly hadn’t asked for it; instead, it emerged as a result of the choir’s renewed confidence and trust in one another and in the music; the singers know the pieces extremely well, and can afford to take more risks, broaden the dynamic scope, push with greater energy, bolstered by their confidence in the unity of ensemble sound. The effect of reaching a much quieter sound served also to heighten the contrast with forte passages, which felt much louder (and more exciting) without our having to exaggerate them.

That’s the best and worst thing about this point in the year; having worked so hard together since those first early steps in October, the choir has become a fully integrated musical unit, and is at its apex; in a few weeks’ time, the group will disintegrate as members graduate or go on a year abroad, and that will be that. I’m reminded of that line from Blade Runner: ‘The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.’ This choir is burning very brightly now – we have only a few short weeks left in which to enjoy it, but enjoy it we shall; next month’s revitalised programme will be quite something.

The Chamber Choir performs at St Peter’s Methodist Church, Canterbury on Friday 9 June and in Colyer-Fergusson Hall on Saturday 10 June; details here.

Images: Molly Hollman

Circle time: in rehearsal

At last night’s rehearsal, we spent a large part of the time with our backs to one another, not looking at each other, not watching the conductor.

Before you ask, no, we hadn’t had a row; we were working on singing as an ensemble, listening to one another, keeping an internal pulse so that we all moved together, and not waiting for others. That shared, indrawn breath that anticpates the start of a phrase; that sense of not waiting for your neighbour to sing, but taking the lead; last night was largely about developing an ensemble instinct.

When you’re all facing outwards, standing in a circle, there’s no eye-contact, no conductor to watch, no ability to wait for someone else; you have to take charge of your own line, count strictly, enter with confidence; there’s also a need, at pauses or at the end of a verse, to breathe together. Listening becomes crucial: there’s no other way to establish contact with anyone else, and the need for everyone to count rather than rely on a conductor to lead the beats of the bar is critical to keeping the music flowing.

img_0960There were moments where this worked very well; there were also moments when words ended at slightly different times amongst the voices, consonants tripped early and peppered the sound, and some entries were rather hesitant. The more we do of this, though, the better we will be as an ensemble.

Assistant conductor Doug worked with the Choir on establishing consistent vowel-shapes in works by Hassler and Purcell, on using the right sounds and avoiding diphthongs.

img_0962It’s four weeks until we sing in the glorious Nave of Canterbury Cathedral for the University Carol Service, and so last night we drew out that seasonal favourite, ‘Carols for Choirs,’ to look at the second verse of, you’ve guessed it, ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’ The Carol Service is such a fantastic occasion, I’m definitely not taking that night off…

Final rehearsal before Studio 3 concert this Friday

There was an increased sense of expectancy about last night’s rehearsal, as it was the final one before Minerva Voices performs in the rich acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery on Friday.

We always undertake our final pre-performance rehearsal in concert-mode, and last night was no exception; performance folders deployed, running orders given out and music organised, and the singers all wore their performance scarves to add to the sense of formal delivery. The chairs were removed, as was the piano normally used in rehearsals, and concert-lighting was set; it creates a mind-set that puts the singers on the spot as though performing, and focuses concentration.

WP_20160209_001 webHaving spent the first half of the rehearsal working on Vivaldi’s Gloria for the Crypt concert in two weeks, the tone of the rehearsal rose in the second half with our practice run-through. What it taught us was that the level of sustained concentration is very demanding, even in a mock situation. And working through the pieces in order allowed us, afterwards, to reflect on the pacing of the programme as a whole, and how we might improve it. Assistant conductor Joe moved the pace of Holst’s O Swallow, Swallow on slightly, and produced a much freer interpretation; the same also for Tartini’s setting of the Stabat Mater, which needs to avoid luxurious wallowing if the piece isn’t to feel too unwieldy. Of course, you always pace a performance according to the nature of the acoustic in which you are singing, and Studio 3 Gallery has a rich, resonant acoustic that could lure us into really dwelling on chords and the ends of phrases, so we will have to be alert to any tendancy to dawdle!

WP_20160209_002 webSo, the next time Minerva Voices meets, it’ll be in the gallery, warming up for the performance on Friday lunchtime (details here). Come and experience both the music and the exhibition at 1.10pm, admission is free – and let us know if we got the pacing right…

A rehearsal of two halves: removing the variables

With the annual Crypt Concert looming this Friday, last night’s rehearsal was a full performance-mode run-through of the entire programme in concert-dress.


There are several reasons for doing this: it focuses the performers, makes them step up and deliver the programme in full, and gives them an idea of the emotional geography of the running order, as well as of the stamina required to deliver it. It makes sure everyone has the right dress, has their performance folders organised, and practices the levels of concentration required to deliver each half of the concert. Granted, it’s not the same as delivering the programme in the white-heat of a public concert in front of an attentive audience, when the adrenalin is flowing and you’re alive to every nuance of the occasion – the length of the acoustics, the emotional temperature to which you respond dynamically, and so forth – but it does throw into sharp relief the commitment required in bringing the music off the page.

The first half of the rehearsal, the first half of the programme, came to a conclusion. We took a ten-minute break, reconvened, and then ran through the second half of the programme; and there was a remarkable difference between the two halves. The first had been somewhat hesitant, functional but not emotional; the second really came alive, had an emotional energy and was much more successful. Why was that, we asked ourselves ?

It became apparent that there had been a lot of nervousness when the rehearsal began with the programme’s opening piece – people had genuinely felt they were performing. That sense of needing to step up to the mark and deliver, so often talked about in rehearsal, was suddenly being asked of them; and they’d felt nervous. Attired in concert-dress, standing beneath dimmed lighting, folders at the ready, had really brought home the need to perform, rather than simply rehearse.

Once the first half was over, though, people began to feel confident in what they were doing, and re-grouping after the break, the singers were much more relaxed, and hence could perform the second half confidently, with a greater sense of musicality.

Rehearsal and practice are, of course, in part about removing uncertainties, about limiting the variables, cutting down on the unknown quantities such that you reach a level of technical and musical proficiency that allows you to concentrate instead on the nuance of in-the-moment performance. After last night’s rehearsal, we’ve removed another few. There will still be nerves on the night, but on one level we can have a new confidence in that fact that we’ve now delivered the programme; not publically, but we’ve mapped the levels of commitment, concentration and stamina required.

Here’s to Friday…

All aboard! No passengers

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingOne of the aspects of singing with an ensemble that less experienced performers can sometimes forget is actually being responsible for making your individual contribution to the ensemble.

Each member of the choir has to contribute to a collective responsibility for delivering the musical line, and not just wait to follow rest of their section as, by definition, they will then be behind the beat.

Where quaver up-beats are used to begin a phrase, this is especially important; think of the opening of I Saw Three Ships; in 6/8, the conductor gives the first and fourth beats, leaving the fifth and sixth undirected – the choir enter on the sixth, the upbeat. That’s two undirected beats to leave up to a group of singers to count and then come in, in the right place.

What members of the choir need to grasp is the fact that they each need to be responsible for entering in the right place; this means everyone counting the rests and coming in confidently on the sixth quaver, the up-beat with which the phrase begins. Rather than waiting for everyone else to enter and then follow them, which means they will necessarily be fractionally late, they need to sing as though they are taking the lead, or indeed are singing on their own – everyone will then sing together, and the ensemble sound will begin at the start of the phrase rather than emerging a few notes into the phrase when everyone else joins in.

The overall effect is to improve the ensemble throughout; if the phrase starts confidently and with everyone together, the rest of the phrase will similarly be strong. Less experienced choir-members can tend to wait for stronger members of the section to lead, and then follow slightly after; this means the overall togetherness of the ensemble never quite comes, and entries can be ragged and lacking in confidence.

Make sure, as a conductor, that you rehearse the beginnings of phrases such that everyone is confident enough to come in for themselves, and the overall ensemble will be much more positive as a result.

No passengers.

Read the other articles in the series here.

Getting into performance mindset and ordering pizza

An intense week of rehearsals last week – the usual Tuesday night session augmented with a Wednesday lunchtime slot – culminated in a Saturday all-day workshop. With a wary eye on the four o’clock rugby kick-off, we gathered in the usual rehearsal room on a frosty-bright Saturday morning at ten, with a full day of working ahead of us.

Chamber Choir: before...

The morning was given over to addressing particular pieces where notes are still not entirely sure;  I’ve found it a useful exercise to help voice-parts approach lines by playing the soprano and bass lines together, followed by the alto and tenor parts. This serves two purposes: when checking notes, the sopranos can relate their melody to the underlying bass notes, and then the alto and tenor parts can see where their harmonies lie; it also means that you don’t leave one voice-part languishing until the other three have worked through theirs, a sure way of losing concentration and focus.

This worked well, and as the morning developed, we began to become more sure-footed. At the mid-morning break, there was a general sense that we’d moved on. At this point, one of the altos rang out for pizza after checking what everyone would like. It’s become a tradition that everyone brings food and drink to share at lunchtime – organised earlier in the week by the choral-rep-cum-nutritional-officer, Matt – however, Lucy had been working so hard during the week (I’m sure that’s what she said, anyway) that there hadn’t been the time to go shopping; so at the break, an order was placed with the local pizza delivery service, and everyone could relax in the second part of the morning.

At lunchtime, I’d noticed that Eliot College Hall was free – usually in use by student societies or alive with drama rehearsals, Eliot Hall lay unusually quiet. As anyone who has been in the Choir before will recall, the usual rehearsal venue is small and has no acoustics whatsoever, and the opportunity to sing in a more resonant space was too good to miss. After lunch (pizzas successfully delivered, and with some very fine chocolate brownies from the kitchen of Choir Cakes and Confectionery Officer Emma), we therefore decamped to Eliot for the afternoon rehearsal, and here is where the day began to gather momentum.

This year, we’ve decided to adopt a more formal mode of concert dress: the ladies have chosen floor-length, formal black to match the all-black suits of the chaps, whilst everyone will be wearing purple scarves or ties. This stems from a sense that, the more formal and organised the group appears, the more the audience will trust it. Look the part, and even before you’ve sung a note, you’ve won the audience over. With this in mind, all the ladies elected to bring in their dresses and try them on, to check the uniformity. It struck me that this would be an excellent opportunity for the chaps to do the same (with suits, not dresses…) and we could run the entire programme in concert-mode.  I’ve noticed before that as soon as you dress for a performance, you stand and sing very differently. The afternoon therefore represented an opportunity to run the concert in the mindset of full performance: dressed, standing, and singing in higher gear – and, thanks to the hall being empty, a chance to do so in an acoustic more similar to that of the Cathedral Crypt.

We’re running the first two items in the programme without a break – plainchant for Matins into Barnum’s Dawn. As soon as the plainchant died away in the hall, and the first colours of dawn began to emerge, the effect was immediate. A change came over the group – we were in full performance gear, and the new acoustics meant we could really feel the music taking flight. A new vigour came over the group, a real sense of relishing the sound we were making.

Over lunch, Paris, one of the sopranos had suggested members of the choir should take turns individually in coming out of the group to stand in the middle of the hall, to hear the sound. (As Dan in the tenors wryly observed, ”that’ll be everyone out for Sleep, then!”). As they did so across the afternoon, most of them commented afterwards that they had noticed the sound was blending superbly; singing amongst the group, you could hear individual voices more easily, but halfway down the hall, the group sounded like a single entity. With Steph leading a finely-crafted run-through of the Sullivan, it was a highly useful opportunity for us all to really adopt the mindset of delivering a performance.

We finished dead on four o’clock – over at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, the whistle was blowing for the match to start, but also to signal the end for us of a very productive day. Driving home in the late winter afternoon towards the setting sun, I felt as though a minor landmark had been achieved. Well done, team: it all bodes well for the concert at the end of next week.

And after...

All planned out: using your rehearsals

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingIt’s a useful practice to tell the choir what they will be doing in the session, at the start of the rehearsal.

Some learning styles indicate that some people learn best when they know what they will be doing, and what the expected outcomes are. Telling the group at the start of the session what they’re going to be doing establishes a clear timescale for the rehearsal, so they can see how they will be using the time, and also lets them know that you’ve done your planning and have thought ahead. They don’t begin slogging through a piece with no idea of how long they will be working for, or when they will finish. (Additionally, anyone who doesn’t like one of the pieces will know that they’re only going to be working on it for a certain length of time, rather than for a whole rehearsal: this quietens their dissent somewhat!)

It’s also useful, at the end of the rehearsal, to tell them what they will be doing next time: this allows the more zealous members to practice next week’s repertoire in advance, or at least to have listened to it before the next rehearsal.

I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all of the repertoire in the year, logging when each piece was rehearsed over the weeks. Obsessive ? Perhaps. Useful ? Definitely. There’s at least twenty-eight pieces to learn this year, with only one of the choirs. At a glance, I can see which pieces have been covered, which pieces have yet to be looked at, and also how recently pieces were rehearsed. Nearer a concert, you don’t what to be scratching your head, thinking ‘Now, how many times have we looked at this piece, and when did we last sing it through ?’ When you only meet once a week and are working through October to March, say, it’s easy to lose track of what you rehearsed and when.

Finally, there’s post-rehearsal reflection. As with good teaching practice, take time after the rehearsal to assess what went well (both for the choir and for you), what didn’t go as well as you’d planned, and what needs further work. This allows you to pick up on key elements to take forward into future sessions; things you did with the choir that worked well that should be used again, things that you thought you were being clear about but which the choir didn’t seem to pick up on so readily that need revising, and particular areas that will need further rehearsal.

Use your rehearsals effectively, plan ahead, and reflect on how they went. Good for the classroom, and good for rehearsals too.

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.