Soapbox: Why You Need to Learn All the Parts

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soapboxA while back I had a conversation with a relatively new director - not a complete novice, but still feeling like she was in the learning phase of the role - about music preparation. It emerged that she did not feel the need to learn to sing all the parts prior to directing a piece - whereas I had taken this for granted as something you'd do as a matter of course.

Whether or not I persuaded her of the rightness of my position (which, as you will see, I still uphold), it was an interesting conversation as it made me question things I took for granted and work out why I took the position I did. So I thought it worth recapping here. It is, after all, a practical question that affects every choral director.

So, the argument for not learning to sing all the parts was that the director is concerned with the overall sound, the composite, which you can learn from recordings and/or the same learning media your singers use. It is the section leaders' job to deal with the detail of each of the parts.

Now, each of these statements I can agree with. There is nothing wrong with either point - I just don't think they add up to removing the need for the director also to be able to sing anyone's line on demand. Here are the additional points that I think shift the balance:

  • It gives you a direct and experiential understanding of your singers' learning process. You will discover which bits are fun to sing, and which bits are tricky. That means you can anticipate where they will need extra support, and get that support in before they have got it into their heads that they 'struggle' with the passage. This will save you all a lot of time and grief in the long run.
  • It allows you to demonstrate anything at the drop of a hat in rehearsal. Phrasing, shaping, articulation, colouring - all the artistic details that bring the notes to life are in the director's job description. Yes, you can go a long way just demonstrating on the melody and expecting the other parts to transfer the interpretation, but ... I suddenly find a sub-list developing of why demonstrating different parts is valuable:
    • It makes the singers on the accompanying parts feel valued
    • It draws the attention of singers on the melody to the wider musical texture
    • As a result of these two factors, you get an improved cohesiveness to the overall sound, as everyone is operating with a more engaged level of musicianship
  • It drastically improves the director's diagnostic ears. When you listen to the overall sound, you can hear when it's true, and when it's out of focus, but if you know the detail of every part in the texture, it is much much easier to home in on where the wobbles are. Sometimes this is a note issue that you had thought you had delegated to your section leader, but that they hadn't picked up (it is all too easy for a part to sound fine in isolation but contain a mistake that conflicts with the overall texture when it is reassembled). Sometimes it's something more subtle, like a difference in vowel or placement between two parts, or just a failure to grasp how they are supposed to fit together. But having spent the time to know the parts gives you a real head-start in sorting these things out.

Of course, you may object that the director doesn't have the range to demonstrate all the parts. I know, few of us do. But you can shift things that are way out of range into a different octave, and the singers will forgive you if you have to sketch rather than fully perform bits that are at the edge of your range. So long as you are clear what it is your demonstration is intended to show, they will get the point.

And this is only partly about demonstration anyway. That's the bit that the singers will notice, but the other benefits are arguably deeper and further-reaching.

I suppose the last objection (or possibly the first) is that the director works so hard already, and this is a lot of extra work. I have so much sympathy for that view, and also so little. Your composer/arranger will have done this in writing the music for you, after all; if you use audio learning media, the person who prepared that will have done it too. It wasn't too much work for them, and they don't even have to face your singers every rehearsal.

Besides it's only 'extra' work from the position of not having done it before. That doesn't make not having done it before right. And it's the kind of work that pays for itself again and again and again. In more efficient rehearsal, so your singers get to a good standard faster, and in allowing them to reach higher standards too.

And the great thing is this. We are always asking, 'What can do to help my singers achieve more?', and often this involves skill acquisition that is difficult as well as time-consuming. This may consume some time, but it's already within your skillset. You can learn parts. If you don't already do this as a matter of course, it is an easy way to significantly improve your capacity to help your singers in ways that go deeper than you think looking at the task from the outside.

This tickled me, as I have always learned all parts, because not being a natural sight singer I didn't feel comfortable stuttering and staggering my way through note by note when needing to help someone in front of the chorus. I had considered this habit a sign of my inexperience/incompetence and now I find I'm a "proper" director rubbing shoulders with the good (working my way up to rubbing shoulders with the "great" - one day?) Whoo hoo! Thanks Liz. X

Thanks Liz for a really useful article, as usual :-)

Up until now, I've always tried to learn all 4 parts, but had recently considered 'cheating' (my term) on one song to 'save time'. As you say, we then had issues with one part as I hadn't experienced singing it myself to realise the timing of the entrances was difficult. We do need to understand the whole, but unless you understand the individual parts, you won't be able to diagnose the issues that arise (or even, as you've said, forestall them).

I'm not sure what you mean by learning all four parts. At first, it seemed like you needed to be able to sing them in a quartet. Then given your reasons, something less is clearly needed, also something more.
You need to learn the parts so that you can demonstrate, this can be from the score or at the keyboard so you don't actually need to memorise.
The more part is in the analysis.
I think you need to check all four parts for traps, particularly excuses for flatting.
You need to be aware of chord voicings, particularly during key changes. Once you have done this homework, you can probably sight read from the score anyway.

Hi Ron,
I didn't necessarily mean to memorise, but certainly to have sung through the parts enough that you can do so when needed fluently and without stumbling. Strong sight-readers as you say will be happy to let the score be the primary storage device for the music rather than their heads. (Less confident sight-readers become better sight-readers through doing this of course :)

Even a strong reader though, as you say, needs to know where the traps are, and whilst one can spot a lot of them just by eye, there are some that only reveal themselves in the singing.

I agree with you totally Liz, but I would say that because as a director who teaches by ear I HAVE to know all the parts!

Not every choir has the luxury of having section leaders.

I would also add to your own points:

+ learning all the parts can give singers more confidence in their director. They will also appreciate the work that has been put in and you will act as a good role model to those singers who struggle to learn just one part.

From the Front of the Choir

Ooh, I like that role model point, Chris, yes.

And, yes, not all choirs use section leaders - but the person whose thoughts gave rise to this post did, and used their existence as a reason for not learning all the parts, so it needed pointing out that the director still needs to do the work even if they do have that amenity.

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