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The interior of Avery Fisher Hall
Image via Wikipedia

Update!  This is a link to an anecdote by a former Carnegie Hall usher.  He writes about how music students who are ushers use their time during the concerts.  The point is, use your time well.

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original post:

How do you handle rehearsal time?

This post will be mostly about choral rehearsals, but is certainly applicable to other situations as well.

Recently, in various choral rehearsals, I have encountered a wide-spread lack of awareness about what could be.  If everyone were participating to the max, the results would be so much better.

Choral singers have said the following:

“I don’t want to know too much about music.  I just want to know what I need to know to sing this concert.”

A singer who has been involved in choruses for more than 1o years:  “Oh, I can’t read music.”

Often, people in rehearsal miss the conductor’s instructions due to their own conversations, forcing the conductor to repeat him/herself and slowing down the rehearsal.

Students, especially, slump and lean on the back legs of the chair, cross one leg under the other, and generally expect to be fed everything.

Where is the curiosity?  The sense of personal responsibility for the outcome?

Do you have a pencil?  So easy, and such a waste of people’s time if you need to borrow one.

OK, now that you have a pencil, what do you use it for?  You can map out your route.  A few suggestions:

circle spots your eyes need to focus on ~ especially useful in a dense score

circle traps, such as a change in a musical pattern, an unusual word, a sudden dynamic change, or that fermata that keeps eluding you

when an upcoming pitch is difficult to find, moving from staff to staff or page to page, write in the note at the end of the line, either as a pitch on the staff or as a large capital letter

if there are a large number of parts on a page, or if the number of parts changes from page to page or line to line, draw an arrow in the left margin next to your part

OK, now for the “posture” word.  Not helpful.  How about “active body?”  When sitting, you should be on the edge of your chair, feet on the floor.  Your entire body is your instrument.  The better your alignment, the better you will sing.  And giving your lungs the room they need is crucial to producing your best sound.

When you are standing, balance on the balls of your feet, knees slightly bent, and lean slightly forward, as if you are about to be in motion.

The music is held about 1/2 way between your face and waist.  You don’t want it covering your face.  The audience wants to see you, and you need to see the conductor.

With the music in this position, you can look at both the music and the conductor just by moving your eyes.  When the music is too low, i.e. waist level, your head will be down and your sound goes into the floor.

Here is something I discovered by chance in 2nd grade that has served me very well.  Since I was taking piano lessons, I was assigned to the alto part in the children’s choir.  I could learn my part quickly, so there was ample time to become bored.

Instead of feeling bored, I found myself learning the other parts.

Turns out, that was great ear training.  I tested out of ear training in college until a week before the final.  And the graduate entrance exam was a snap!

In dictation tests, where someone plays 4 parts and everyone is required to notate what is played, I had trouble hearing the tenor part at first.  So I started going to church and sang tenor on all the hymns.  It worked!

When you use your down time well, you can discover how other vocal ranges work, what other parts do, learn the other parts, find how they work together, and soon acquire the ability to hear a score in your head.

I recently heard an interview with a conductor who is a former orchestra double bass player.  When asked how she learned conducting, she replied that, when playing “plunk, plunk” once every ten minutes in orchestra rehearsals, there is lots of time to figure out how the rest of the orchestra works.

When I was a student at Aspen, the Juilliard Quartet held open rehearsals.  Sam Rhodes, the violist, always rehearses from full score, with proven stunning results.

Knowing all the parts is crucial when you are asked to lead a sectional rehearsal.  You could be rehearsing the basses when you actually sing soprano!

You can often get your pitch from another voice part that sings just before your entrance.  I circle the note I need in the other part, along with the first note of my entrance, then sing that pitch loudly in my head (during other music or through rests) until I need to sing it.  With a few tries, it becomes easier.

When you know the entire piece, you can play your rhythms off the other parts.  It’s so much fun!

I attended Riverside Church in NY many times.  Fairly often, the organist would cut out on one verse of a hymn.  On many occasions, I found myself part of a little madrigal group, with all 4 parts being sung in a small area of that huge space.

When I was in college, there was a high school chorus in Ill. whose director gave them one pitch at the beginning of each rehearsal, period.  The students did the rest.  It was a public high school, not specialized.

One more anecdote:  in grad school, we sang the Verdi “Requiem” w/the NY Philharmonic, a wonderful experience.  The orchestration is so dense, and has so much brass, that Zubin Mehta wanted to go out into the house to listen for balance.  (The Westminster Choir was behind the orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall.)

Mehta handed his baton to Placido Domingo, who was the tenor soloist for the concerts.  This was before he had started conducting frequently, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Domingo knew the entire piece, not just his own solos.  He was cueing the horns, the individual chorus parts, and asking for specific expression from the strings.  It is not possible, most likely, to do that in that work while sightreading.

So I’m all for maximum participation during rehearsals, even during down time.  Go for it!

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