MAKING THE MOST OF PRACTICE BETWEEN REHEARSALS
by Special Contributor Dr. William O. Baker
What is the difference between rehearsal, the work accomplished corporately when the ensemble is gathered, and practice, the individual preparation each member engages between rehearsals. I believe the distinction to be a critically important one, especially in the world of excellent church choirs and high-achieving volunteer choruses.
Most choral organizations hold weekly rehearsals of 2-3 hours. For a 100-voice volunteer chorus to accomplish a work of the magnitude of the Brahms Requiem in, say, 10 weeks of rehearsals, it is incumbent upon every member to “practice” between rehearsals, and to do so in a productive way.
I propose a programmed method of 30-45 minutes each day to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of her practice. Let’s assume a Tuesday evening rehearsal for the sake of our discussion.
Wednesday… The Day for Review
STEP ONE: Find a comfortable and quiet place, perhaps with a cup of tea or glass of wine, to review instructions, notes and inspiration from the previous rehearsal. Review should not include any time at the piano, or listening to a recording or study tracks. All focus should be given to reading through the score silently to reinforce every marking given, perhaps to clarify written notes and instructions jotted in haste.
STEP TWO: Mark any places in the music that will need extra attention as the week of practicing progresses. If the director spoke at length about a certain issue, perhaps a troublesome interval or a German vowel needing special attention, some thought-time should be invested remembering and reinforcing the instruction. It bears repeating, this is not the day to approach the piano.
GOAL: Let instruction sink in to the memory.
Thursday… Rhythm and Text
STEP ONE: Returning to the quiet place with another cup of tea or glass of wine, spend a practice session devoted entirely to rhythm and text. Review any challenging rhythmic figures on nonsense syllables, then on staccato, then counting (1+ 2+ T+ Fa+… avoiding the clarity challenges of the words “three” and “four”).
STEP TWO: Speak the text in rhythm to work toward perfect placement of vowels and consonants in rhythmic figures, giving special attention to the placement and efficiency of releasing consonants.
STEP THREE: Careful and intentional consideration of inflection and the impact of vocal timbre to the goal of making the words come expressively alive.
GOAL: Secure structural rhythm.
Friday… Approaching the Piano
STEP ONE: Abandon the contemplative place and approach the piano. Having marked troublesome areas for pitches during the Wednesday review period, this is the time to tackle those pitch issues at the piano. Play the knotty passage on the piano without singing.
STEP TWO: Sing the passage on numbers or a nonsense syllable without playing. Then play again without singing to check your work, and then sing again without playing to confirm your progress. The pattern of singing without playing and playing without singing should continue with nonsense syllables, then with vowels alone, and finally with consonants and vowels together.
GOAL: Secure the correct part in the mind’s ear of the singer.
Saturday… Enjoying Recordings
STEP ONE: It is time to gain perspective by enjoying various recordings of the work. Most conductors will share a recommended recording with their singers and audiences. I believe it benefits singers to hear a work, from as many perspectives as possible. There is always great benefit to listening to a good reference recording repeatedly so the chorister might see how a particular nuance fits into the whole of the work.
GOAL: Listen to 10 different recordings, each one with its own array or strengths, weaknesses, and wonders.
Sunday… Giving Thanks
STEP ONE: Avoid contact with the work entirely. It is helpful to the progress of any endeavor to periodically apply a mental break. On the off-day spend the same amount of time in contemplation and thanksgiving that you have invested in practice during the other days of the week.
GOAL: Experience a renewed inspiration.
It is easy to forget the privileges we share as we participate in great choral music in the first quarter of the 21st century. Rehearsals are led be well-educated, well-experienced and highly dedicated leaders. Skilled accompanists assist with rehearsal on modern, well-tuned instruments. Heat and an air conditioning provide for our comfort during rehearsals. We travel to and from rehearsals in safe and reliable automobiles, trains or buses. Most of us possess a device that, though small as a deck of playing cards, can summon hundreds of versions of the music we are studying for our inspiration, enjoyment, and education. We live in a day where we have centuries of perspective, reference and access to comparative works through abundantly available scores and recordings, a blessing the people of Brahms’ time could not even have imagined. If we seek to pause and consider the wealth of blessings afforded us through the choral experience, we will easily fill an hour per week with renewed inspiration that will greatly enhance our enjoyment.
Monday… Final Preparation for Rehearsal
STEP ONE: The day before rehearsal, spend the first 20 minutes of your practice time addressing the single most urgent challenge the music holds for you. In any particular week that challenge may be a tough rhythmic passage, a reminder about a certain pronunciation, or a problematic tuning issue.
STEP TWO: Invest in researching something new and interesting about the work and/or about the composer. Spending a few minutes in the composer’s world as the last exercise before rehearsal is quite valuable.
GOAL: Seek to master your one issue and only one issue on the final day of practice before rehearsal.
A healthy person is always a healthy singer. Having completed a week of structured preparation and practice, having meditated well on the blessings of the experience, and having accomplished good habits of exercise, nutrition and rest, you will be fully prepared to make the most of your contribution to the Tuesday rehearsal.
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