Something mysterious and wonderful is happening with my church choir. This is my attempt to arrive at more detail about how we went from fog to focus with limited rehearsal time.
There were good reasons, surely, for people to be distracted. Two singers arrived later than usual, changing the sound. In addition, there were some rehearsal instructions that had not made it to their ears yet.
The anthem was Immortal Love, For Ever Full by John Greenleaf Whittier and Philip R. Dietterich. It had special meaning for one choir member who had known the composer.
Individual choir members were saying “What do I sing?” “We’re slowing down!” and “Something’s wrong!” We were running short on rehearsal time, so someone had to get everybody to focus on the service that would begin in a few minutes.
“What do I sing?” resulted from the unison first verse changing to 3 parts in the second. Two parts now appeared on the same treble staff. If someone is a little pressed for time, especially, that can be cause for confusion.
“We’re slowing down!” turned out to be a breathing arrangement that hadn’t been learned yet. During a verse written as a round, each of the 2 parts could have taken a breath with the comma in the text. But then they would have been breathing at different times. My thought was that we had too little time to go with that choice.
Alternate choice: The women had 2 half notes, separated by a comma. Breathing between 2 half notes is not a problem.
The men had 4 quarter notes, also with a comma in the middle. For everyone to breathe together, the men, with very little rehearsal time, needed more space to breathe. (We had no time to rehearse cutting a quarter note short, breathing quickly, and continuing in tempo.)
The way it worked was for everyone to look up (at me), take a breath while watching me conduct the slight stretch in rhythm, sing the next measure, and listen to the piano. I continued playing in tempo immediately after the breath.
“Something’s wrong!” Now we’re on page 3 of the anthem. And yes, there’s a meter change and a faster tempo. Although I was conducting with large motions, everyone was looking down at the music.
So… next, everyone watched me, I talked through what I was conducting (counting), then sang while conducting, then played the piano part while counting aloud.
I especially like the way the anthem is voiced. To make an impressive ending to the middle section, the composer asks the choir to crescendo on an ascending line. Following their final phrase in the section, the piano continues outward, above and below the voice parts, continuing the crescendo.
The ending is equally effective. In it, the singers are in the middle of their ranges, similar to the way hymns typically are written. The piano part surrounds the voices, adding to the sonority without duplicating their parts.
I learned something from this piece. The keyboard can be used to enhance the other parts, rather than always “helping” them. Although I sometimes play parts and sometimes the accompaniment, this was a clear use of enhancement during an entire piece.
Last Sunday, due to choir members’ other commitments, we found ourselves singing with 4 members. I went into the rehearsal with concerns about volume and how many voice parts could be accomplished.
So we sang through the anthem, Have Thine Own Way, Lord by Pollard, Stebbins, and Scott. So far, so good! In this arrangement of the well-known hymn, the listener’s impression is of the serenity of a lullaby. One of my first thoughts upon hearing 4 people singing the piece was that the arrangement was an excellent fit for our circumstances of the moment.
Verse 1 is for men’s voices. When I asked our only bass of the day to sing out, he delivered. A soprano then suggested that the alto, who has low notes, sing with him. Even better!
It took a little cajoling to get everyone to hold their music up, look up, listen to each other (so the women could enter together with the men at the beginning of Verse 2), and send their sound to the back of the sanctuary. Someone picked a spot on the back wall, which helped everyone focus and feel confident.
I found myself not playing the voice parts. No one needed that. Instead, I found ways to enhance what the singers were doing. So I was there, supporting them, adding to their sound, but not competing.
The piano part added to this wonderful hymn is perfectly fine, but I felt that we could benefit from less of it. So I cut the introduction and the interlude to 4 bars each. Also, in one verse where the accompaniment asked for a constant repeated chord in the bass, the right hand was duplicating the voice parts. I omitted the right hand. And then, rather than interfere with the singing, I used the bass chord to add rhythmic interest. That was accomplished by playing harmonic rhythm (nuanced chords) between times. I omitted the chord printed under the choir’s last note in a phrase, and played beginning with their first rest between phrases. So the music continued, and the singers were heard.
Had the singers begun to sound insecure, I would have played whichever parts I wasn’t hearing. But they didn’t need it!
Something I learned about rehearsing
I found myself listening to each person’s concerns, but didn’t go there. With limited time, my focus had to be on why each person was expressing each concern. Becoming more involved with each detail could have led to any number of tangents, but not necessarily to good results.
That day I kept my cool. It worked!