Soapbox: On Rehearsal Preparation
I have had a conversation with choral conducting students on a number of occasions over the years in which they confess to anxiety in taking rehearsals because their sight-singing is a bit variable in accuracy. Now, feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of taking rehearsals I can perfectly understand – I tend to think that anyone who starts out thinking it’s easy has not grasped quite what the level of the challenge is. And wanting to improve your sight-singing is always a good idea.
But if the source of your rehearsal worries lies in intermittent sight singing, there is a simple and obvious solution in your preparation.
As director, you know in advance what music you are going to be rehearsing, and singing through all the parts is a standard part of learning the score. If there are bits you struggle to get right first time, that’s actually really important information for rehearsal planning – these are the tricky bits that those other imperfect human beings you work with might also need help with. You’ll find that if you practice singing all the parts until you find them easy, not only will you have no call to display the inadequacy of your sight-singing during rehearsal, but the choir will learn also them quicker.
Even if you are a demon sight-singer, you need to sing through all the parts to make artistic decisions. Where should the breaths come? Which notes or words form the focal point of each phrase? How should the lines be shaped to and from these focal points? If you’re going to be demonstrating in rehearsal, you need to be demonstrating a fully-formed artistic vision, since that’s what you want to hear back from your singers.
Of course, this takes time and effort. And the British cathedral tradition – which still feeds so much of British musical life – is predicated on preparing vast quantities of music in very short spaces of time, and thus both demands and cultivates very high levels of sight-singing. The economics of this kind of professional choir force it into a mode of work a colleague once referred to as ‘high-level damage control’. But if (like me) you’ve not been through the childhood training and discipline of daily services of this tradition, you probably have not put in the hours required to be able to process large volumes of music that quickly. So you will need to put the hours in now to absorb the music. You’ll find that each score you prepare in detail aids your sight-singing: depth of musical attention is always rewarded with increased fluency of musicianship.
Even if you have been through that incredible musicianship mill, it is still worth taking the time to explore the music in more depth. It is impressive and exhilarating to have the music pour through you without touching the sides, so to speak. But in that mode, you only ever produce your first instinct for interpretation – you never get the chance to deepen your insights, or to change your mind. As Stephen King tells aspiring writers: ‘Only God gets things right the first time. Don't be a slob.’