How to Practice Choral Music
Do you remember when you were young, singing along to the radio? You knew all the notes and words to your favorite songs, and could sing them by heart. I bet when those songs come on the radio now, you can still sing along with no effort at all. How many hours a week did you spend practicing those songs? Do you need to set time aside every week to practice singing old Beatles songs so you don’t forget them? No! Of course you don’t. Those old songs are just a part of you, and come out just as naturally as breathing. Learning choral music should be just that easy.
Here are some hints on how to practice your part, so that when we come together for rehearsal we can spend less time learning notes and more time making music.
How to Practice at Home
1. Play the listening CD. The first step to learning a new song is always to listen to a performance of it. This step takes more than one listening session. The conductors will give you a listening CD when they hand out the music for the next performance. Listen to this CD every day, especially at the beginning. Play it in your car. Play it while you’re cooking dinner or doing laundry. Put it on your iPod and play it while you’re walking or gardening or kayaking. This step is easy, because your brain does not need to be engaged in the music at all for the practice to be effective.
2. Familiarize yourself with the score. Think of the score as your road map. A little preparation in the beginning avoids a whole lot of confusion later on, and can keep you from getting lost in rehearsals. Even (and especially) if you don’t read music, you should take the time to do this.
- With a pencil, draw an small arrow pointing to the staff that contains your part, so your eye will know where to look when you turn the page.
- Glance through the music, noticing where in the music your part divides (where there is more than one note on your staff) and think about which of those notes you’ll sing.
- Notice places where the music repeats so you’ll know when to turn the pages back.
- Mark places where you don’t sing at all. I lightly pencil a big X through sections of the song that will be sung by other voices.
3. Listen to the CD while studying the score. This step requires a bit of concentration. While the music is playing, follow along in your score. Even if you don’t read music, you do read words. Although you’ll want to try to listen to your part, at this stage it is not necessary to know your notes and rhythms. That can come later. Right now, you just want to be able to follow along with the score so that when you get to rehearsal you’ll be comfortable with the piece.
4. Work with the practice tracks for your part. Here is where you start breaking it down and start really learning your notes. A few practice tracks will be provided each season.
- Listen to your part while following along with the score. Try to sing along if you can. Some places will be easy to sing, and you’ll learn those effortlessly with some repetition. Other places are more difficult, especially if you sing an inside note in a piece with a lot of complex harmonies. When you get to these difficult parts, lightly mark these passages with a star (*) so that you’ll know exactly where you’ll need to focus your efforts. When you get to rehearsal and the conductors ask if there are any passages for which you need extra help, you’ll easily be able to find those places so we can work on them in rehearsal.
- Next, put the score away and just listen, over and over again, until you can sing along.
5. Sing your part against the listening CD. To really test yourself, put the listening CD back in, and sing your part against it as you follow along in the score. As you learn the piece better, you’ll be able to erase some of those stars you pencilled in earlier. Good for you! You’re learning your part! Don’t be discouraged if there are still passages you just don’t get. That’s not unusual, even for experienced singers. Just keep working those passages. If all else fails and there’s still a note you just can’t find, there is no shame in just mouthing the words and not singing that note at all in the performance. That’s the beauty of choral singing. No one will notice that you dropped out for a note or a measure.
6. Extra credit: Sing against the listening CD without your music. By now, if you’ve been listening regularly, attending rehearsals, and spending some time each week working with your part, you may not need to refer to your score at all. This is a good way to find out those places where you’re still a bit unsure of your part. It’s also a wonderful thing come concert time to be able to sing from your heart instead of having your head buried in your music.
How To Get the Most Out Of Weekly Rehearsals
1. Show up every week. At home, we learn our parts. At rehearsals, we learn to sing together.
2. Have a pencil with an eraser, and mark your music.
- The conductors will tell you where to breathe; mark those places with a big comma.
- When you come across a specific note that you’re having trouble finding, circle it, so you’ll know that it’s a problem for you.
- If the conductor tells your section that you’re singing flat on a particular note, draw a little arrow pointing up next to the note, to remind yourself to tune a bit higher there.
- Again, place stars over sections that are still giving you problems, so you’ll know to raise your hand and ask for special help there.
- From time to time there will be passages where all of the voices come together to sing in unison. Mark those sections by drawing a big circle around all of the parts so that you’ll remember to tune with the other voices. Singing in unison is one of the most difficult things for an ensemble to do well.
- Write down any instructions the conductor gives you regarding that piece (sing quietly here, sing staccato, sing legato, etc.)
3. Do not talk. When rehearsal is in session, do not talk to anyone but the conductor. Direct all of your questions to the conductor; do not ask your neighbor for clarification. When you talk, you miss what the conductor is saying; when you ask questions of your neighbors, you are preventing them from hearing valuable information, as well as making it difficult for other singers to stay focused on the rehearsal.
4. Stay in the rehearsal. This means that your mind does not wander. You stay focused on what is happening in the moment, and you always know exactly where we are in the score at any particular time. This is especially important when the conductor is working with another section other than your own. Follow along with what is happening, so that when the conductor asks your section to join in, you know what is happening and where to start.
5. Do not hum along when the conductor is working with another section. The conductor is listening to that section to make sure that they know their part. When you hum along you are distracting both the conductor and the other singers, making it more difficult for them to do their job. You are not humming as quietly as you think you are! Generally, the people who hum along do so because they don’t yet know their notes, so singing a whole bunch of wrong notes while another section is trying to learn their part is just plain rude.
6. Come to the rehearsal with your music in order. Before each rehearsal, you will receive an email telling you the expected order in which we will be working on songs. One way of being organized is to arrange your music in order according to the Rehearsal Schedule sent out just before we meet. Or, to keep things simple, you might choose to keep your music in alphabetical order, so that you can easily flip from one song to the next without a lot of unnecessary fumbling.
7. Extra Credit: Record the rehearsal and listen to the whole thing again when you get home. There is so much happening at rehearsals that it’s hard to absorb everything. Sometimes you don’t quite get something, but the group has moved on to another place in the score. Recording the rehearsal gives you a chance for a do-over. If you have a fancy digital recorder or smartphone, you can even record separate tracks for each piece.
Let’s Make Some Music!
Learning choral music requires a bit of effort on your part, but if we each set aside some time each week to work on our individual parts, we’ll be able to come together on Monday nights and turn all those individual notes and voices into beautiful music.
Two guides for reading sheet music:
Basic Musical Principles (a pdf booklet)
A link to the MusicNotes blog with a lesson on reading music.
Keyboards on your computer
For Macs, you can download the free app "Grand Piano Keys" from the App Store.