Mixing Music-readers and Ear-singers

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One of the constant challenges the director of an amateur choir is likely to encounter is how to work with a group that includes both people who read music and people who don’t. The two constituencies can have quite different learning styles and preferences, and you want to find learning strategies that work for both.

Now, you can deal with this by structuring your choir to avoid it - if you audition and only accept good sight-readers, for example, or if you commit to only ever teaching things by ear. The former will guarantee to provide only readers, and the latter will require everyone to operate as ear-singers whether they read music or not (and may well see strong readers wandering off to different choirs).

But these solutions are only appropriate in some circumstances. Many choirs would wish to give anyone who likes singing an opportunity to participate, and yet are working with music from literate traditions for which it makes no sense to work entirely by ear when there are some readers about. In real life, you get mixed choirs, so we need to figure out how best to work with them.

The standard approach is, I think, to act as if everybody is a reader, but to run through the music rather more times than you would need to if they really were. The readers read, while the ear-singers pick the music up from them as they go. This is actually quite effective, but has two big dangers which need managing.

First, the readers start to get a bit bored, as they’re not needing so many repetitions of the music to pick it up. Worse, they start to feel a bit superior to the ear-singers, which can in turn break out into unhelpful habits such as skipping rehearsals because they feel they don’t ‘need’ them as much. So, as I discussed on my recent post on hedonic adaptation, you need to keep raising the artistic game through the process of drill to keep them on their toes.

The second big danger is of course that the ear-singers feel inferior, and start to label themselves as ‘unmusical’. The problem with this is not only are they having less fun than they should be (itself a major issue in my book), but because under-confidence is the primary reason for loss of vocal support and singing flat in amateur choirs. And if this starts to happen, your readers get even more smug and you’re getting into a very unhealthy cycle.

The various uses of recording technology to help ear-singers learn music can provide a means to mitigate the time differential in learning music, but doesn’t really deal with the intra-choir politics that can emerge from different skill-sets. And, whilst I recognise their pragmatic value in getting people up and singing quickly, I have all kinds of reservations about them as a long-term strategy – as I have written about already. I do tend to prefer learning strategies that increase skill as well as achieve the immediate aim.

My preferred solution is therefore to develop rehearsal practices that break down the distinction between readers and ear-singers. Part of this is by building the conceptual musicianship skills of the ear-singers in ways that help them start using the written music. Notation started off as a mnemonic aid, after all, and many people who would find it hard to work out their part from the score without help can find it a useful tool to help them retain and revisit their part once heard.

Equally important, though, is to do exercises that challenge the readers to become better ear singers. Teaching short passages entirely by ear gives the ear-singers a chance to relax while pushing the habitual readers right out of their comfort zones. Performing from memory - and associated rehearsal activities such as singing with the eyes closed – likewise stretch readers in dimensions they don’t have to use very much in the normal run of things.

If everybody spends some of the rehearsal feeling challenged, you diffuse the potential for interpersonal politics based on different skillsets. You also send everybody home from rehearsal with that glow of having achieved a bit more than they thought they could. And if after every practice you send your singers home a little bit more attractive to be poached by other choirs, you have – paradoxically – done the best thing possible to secure their loyalty to yours.

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