Developing Musical Awareness

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In my post back in March on singing semitones, I started to develop a hierarchy of musicianship by how much of the music singers are aware of. The lowest level is where they just sing their part, and the highest is where they feel as if they’re singing the music in its entirety. And it is a robust generalisation from my experience working with barbershop choruses and quartets in post-contest evaluations that the groups in which the harmony parts could not sing the tune were the choruses that scored low.

Our rehearsal processes can sometimes mitigate against the development of this kind of awareness, however. Section practices are very efficient ways to learn a part, but not at all effective ways to learn the music, for example.

There are two key techniques we can use to develop a greater awareness of the whole musical texture, both of which are susceptible to endless variation.

  1. Sing other people’s parts. The rehearsal process so often involves looking at a single part or a pair of parts in isolation, and this is a perfect opportunity for the other parts to get a bit of sight-reading practice and explore what other people are doing. (This also solves the problem of people wanting to chat when their part isn’t being rehearsed!) If you are regularly joining in with other people’s music during the rehearsal process, you just build a wider sense of what’s going on, in a very embodied, experiential way.
  2. Listen to other people’s parts. My friend Toby Balsley made a great contribution to my effectiveness as a coach when he pointed out that when a quartet is duetting, it’s the two people who are listening who have the opportunity to grow. It’s alarming how little rehearsal time we spend giving singers the opportunity actually to listen. (And yes, I’m aware that point 1 above is culpable in this regard too!)

    Of course, just because people have their mouths shut does not mean that they are absorbing anything through their ears. The key is to give people something specific to listen for, and then tell them what they could do with this information. For example, listen to where the bass goes high and where it goes low. The bass line drives the harmony, so when it comes high, that gives musical energy, whereas when it goes low, that relaxes the music. Or, when duetting the baritone and the bass, asking people to listen for where the baritones had colourful notes, and what words these came on. That tells them something about how the arranger has used harmony to interpret the lyrics.

The nice thing about these techniques is that they can be integrated into the rehearsal without adding any extra time to it. Frankly, I think that extra rehearsal time spent on musicianship is time well spent anyway, but we can use these principles to make our standard processes for learning music more effective vehicles for producing more intelligent, secure and authoritative performances.

Hi Liz

You've got it spot on when you say "give people something specific to listen to". It's never enough to just encourage people to listen more.

It's something I use a lot and I call it the 'focus of attention'. It applies equally well to listening, singing, moving, etc. If you give somebody something very specific to focus on, you immediately engage their attention. Also, if you change this focus each time you do a song, it makes the whole experience much richer and reveals the many layers present in the singing of any one song.

Chris @ From the Front of the Choir

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