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The Wednesday Workout
Practical Techniques for Rehearsing the Church Choir
By Richard DeVinney
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1993 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
BY THE WAY—YOU START TOMORROW NIGHT
Who? Me? You want me to direct the choir at the church? You're kidding. I've never directed a choir before. I don't know anything about choir directing. I don't have time. I'm not a good enough singer. I can't play the piano. There must be someone else who could do a better job than me. The only kind of group I've ever led was a Girl Scout troop. What makes you think I can direct the choir? I can build a campfire, but I can't wave my arms in front of a group of singers. Try other people first. Try anybody. Pay somebody. Let me know if you get desperate. You are desperate? When would I start? Next week? You can't be serious? How can I possibly start next week? Can't we talk about this?
When your minister asked you to direct the adult choir at your church, you were reluctant. After you got past your disbelief and finished protesting your inexperience, the first thoughts that flooded your head as you tried to grasp the significance of this completely unexpected request had something to do with panic, right? You thought about how little you knew about the job. You haven't had any formal training in choir directing. The few voice lessons you had in college hardly qualify you to tell a whole group of people how to sing. You don't have any idea what to do with your arms in front of a musical ensemble—not to mention choosing music, and recruiting new members, and planning special programs, and keeping everyone happy. How can you possibly do it? The minister was pretty persuasive. There just wasn't anyone else. The church had to have a choir, and you were the only person who could do it, at least while they looked for someone outside of the membership who was more qualified. You agreed to try it for a few weeks, and the very day that someone more qualified than you was found, you would be eager to turn over the baton.
Well, that has all been said, but it doesn't help now. At 7:30 tomorrow night a group of curious people are going to gather at the church, and you have agreed to help them to sing something together that can be done for the congregation on Sunday. One rehearsal! How does anyone put together a choir to sing for worship in one rehearsal, especially if that person has never done it before? My assignment in this first chapter is to get you through the first night. If, after that, you are still alive and willing, the rest of the chapters will be about the rest of the times that you meet with your choir. You've taken on a challenge. But have courage. You can do it. You will survive. You won't get run out of town, at least not after the first rehearsal. Maybe after two or three, but not the first. Trust me. It won't be as bad as you think. I'll help you. Here are some ideas about getting started.
First of all, remember that many, if not most, of the singers in the choir have done it before. For the old-timers, your first rehearsal is only one of many first rehearsals in a parade of directors that goes back twenty, thirty, forty years or more. Most church choirs have members who have been in the same church, sitting in the same seats, singing many of the same anthems for fifty years. Think about it. Fifty years. And they are usually the most faithful ones, so they have been there every week for all those years. You aren't the worst director they've ever had. Regardless of your inexperience, you rank above the minister's wife twenty years ago who didn't know that the men sang lower notes than the women, or the high school boy in the 1960s who was going to show the old folks what kind of music the youth thought the church ought to have.
Can you imagine fifty years in the same choir? Does that give you a perspective that makes this one rehearsal tomorrow night a little less important? It was meant to. The veterans have seen it all before, and they and the choir will survive tomorrow night. The experience of these old hands will be helpful to you, not because you should ask them for advice, but because they have a repertoire of music that they can sing with practically no rehearsal. In fact for them, rehearsal may not make any difference at all. It might even be harmful.
Your first job is to find out what they can already do and then do some of that. What have they sung recently? For the first six weeks you will probably want to do music that they have done before, and not too long ago. So, find out what they already know. How do you do that? If there has been any systematic record keeping about what the choir has sung recently, look into it. Sometimes there's a planning calendar that also serves as a record of the choir's activities. Sometimes the date an anthem was sung is written on the card for that anthem in the library file. Sometimes it's written on the director's copy of the anthem. Sometimes there is a file of old bulletins. You will probably have to go to the church office for this. Every church does it differently, but somebody usually keeps this kind of vital information. Get your hands on some record of the worship services or the choir's work. No matter how much time it takes, do it. Make a list of the anthems the choir has sung during the last two or three years. This is an absolutely crucial first step. You must know what has been done before in order to plan the coming weeks.
As you are putting your list together, make a note of the things that have been repeated. Is there one that was done three times in one year, or four times? If so, that means the choir likes it and knows it. If it hasn't been done in four or five months, there's your first anthem. This is the way to choose the first five or six anthems you will use. You don't have time yet to worry about new music, or your favorites, or anything else except getting started. What about fitting the anthems to a particular Sunday service, with a particular sermon topic or service theme in mind? Well, we'll talk about this kind of planning later. For the first six weeks stick to general anthems of praise or prayer, or general biblical texts. Your first concern is practical. Just find music that can be done successfully and happily by the choir.
When you've picked out your anthems, you have some more questions to answer. Does the choir sing an introit or a prayer response or other service items? You discovered that when you went through the old bulletins. Again, pick out familiar things and plan them for specific dates in the next six weeks.
Now it's time to think about setup and lineup and other logistical things for your first rehearsal. Where will people sit? That's easy. Where they have always sat, for now. There aren't many advantages to the fact that choirs sing every Sunday, Sunday after Sunday, but there is one. The routine is self-perpetuating. Most of the members of the choir can come to the rehearsal, find their folders and their seats, and sing for twenty minutes before they even notice who the director is. That's what a routine does for you. It also will get the music distributed. There must be a customary way that music gets in the hands of the singers. They will have folders or slots or a librarian or some way of getting the music out and keeping track of it. Use it. You may want to improve it later, but for this first night ask somebody how it's done and just let it happen.
The time has come. Fifteen people have made it to their seats. They have some music in their hands that you picked out, and they are ready to sing. Now, be calm. Don't panic. You are in charge. Bluff for a few minutes, then see how it feels. If all else fails, be honest about your feelings. But don't apologize for being there. After all, there are reasons why each of them wasn't persuaded to direct the choir. You're doing it. So do it. Oh, yes. Two or three of the singers have already commented one way or the other on the music you picked out. Don't listen to these comments. You may very well have a complainer in the group. This person probably doesn't like more than four things the choir sings and lets everyone know about it. Don't be surprised by this, and don't let it affect your enthusiasm for your selections. Your enthusiasm is necessary. The enthusiasm of a complainer or two is not. Don't ever try to do music that you, the director, are not enthusiastic about, but don't be afraid to do things that some of your choir members don't like. I'll explain more about this later.
An important thing to accomplish the first night is to get to know as many of the people as possible as quickly as possible. Pick out a kindred spirit or two. Every group—choirs are no exception—has people who are very warm and helpful to a new leader. They will ease your way if they can. They will tell you things you need to know. They will introduce you around. They will encourage you. You need one or two of these people right away, so look for them this first night. Beyond that, try to remember as many names as possible. Maybe name tags would be a good idea for the first few rehearsals. Maybe some of them don't even know everyone in the room.
Oh, by the way, as the director you do have to wave your arms in front of them. Is that a worry for you? Well, you have to do something with your arms, and directors are supposed to wave them at the singers. Usually the singers don't look up from their music often enough to see this phenomenon, but you are expected to do it. This is not a book on conducting. I'm not going to draw the usual triangles and backward capital J's to show you how to wave your arms. But I'll give you one general rule right now if you've never had anyone show you how to do this. The most important move that a conductor makes is straight down, bouncing on an imaginary rubber pad at a point just about even with the belt buckle. This move is called the downbeat. It is supposed to happen at the beginning of each measure without fail. If you don't know what a measure is, you probably shouldn't have let the minister talk you into this whole thing in the first place, but it's real important that you come straight down with your right arm on the first beat of every measure. Once you have moved your arm straight down on one, the rest is somewhat optional as long as you do the same thing every measure.
The second most important thing to know is that a singer can't sing until he or she takes a breath. The conductor must allow for this. In fact, the conductor must conduct this intake of breath. This is done with what is called a preparation beat. This is a beat generally in an upward direction that occurs one beat before the first beat on which the singers sing. (There are exceptions to this, but we won't go into them here.) Get in a good, clear preparation beat and a strong downbeat, and you're in business. The singers will then look down at their music, and you are free to do what you want until the cutoff at the end. In a future chapter I'll tell you how to get them to watch you a little more than this, and what to do if this happens. But you need to get started.
I suppose there was little point in my bringing up the conducting gesture problem because I can't solve it here. If you don't know what the conducting patterns are, you should call up someone you know who does, and have him or her show you. Then, by the way, you have to practice the patterns—a lot. The physical movements related to conducting a musical ensemble must become so habitual that you don't think about them. You will have other things that will require your attention while your choir is singing. The arm motions are just extensions of your thoughts about leading the group and about the rhythmic flow of the music. They can never be an end in themselves.
Well, we got the people in the door. They have found a place to sit. They are ready to sing. We picked out something for them to practice for Sunday. We have you started waving your arms. I guess that does it. You're on your way. Good luck. Your goal tonight in this first rehearsal goes something like this. You want to survive. Depending on how new all this is for you, you may just want to get through it without making too many obvious mistakes. That's not much of a goal, but that may be where you are. Or, your goal may be to simply get the choir ready to sing one thing next Sunday. That may be enough too. But let's suppose you're up to more than that. Maybe you want to set a more lofty goal. The best thing that could happen would be for the singers to go home after the rehearsal saying to each other, "She's going to be all right. She really did a good job for the first time." Wouldn't it be great if that happened? Let's try for that one. The real problem is that they will come back next week. We've got to get busy to get you ready for the next rehearsal. That one will be more difficult.
Each rehearsal gets harder until the honeymoon is over. You know about the honeymoon, don't you? The honeymoon lasts from the time you first walk in the door until a significant number of singers discover whether you agree with them on how things ought to be done. Keep your mouth shut for a while about anything that might be controversial. Don't let them know what you think about things like whether the choir should process in step or whether we sing too many new hymns, and try to make the honeymoon last as long as possible. A good marriage is possible if you are a fast learner, and the time to learn is during the honeymoon. Whatever the case, work hard on the first few rehearsals, and you'll have a good time after that. Choir directing is great fun. Working with singers can be as rewarding as anything you can imagine, even leading a Girl Scout troop. Be nice to the folks. Be enthusiastic. Trust them to accept you and work for you, and you'll want to have the job permanently. Good luck. I'll see you next week.CHAPTER 2
PLAN ON HAVING A GOOD TIME
You made it through the first week. Things didn't go too badly. The anthem didn't fall apart on Sunday. None of the singers got lost trying to follow your arm waving. Nobody has quit the choir yet. It looks like they're going to give you another chance. You've got at least one more week. What do you do now? How can you get organized so that things go smoothly for the next few weeks while you learn what you are doing? It's not as if you're going to try to stall, but you do need some breathing room while you get your act together. What should you do next? Well, the best thing you can do is make some plans—quickly.
Let's begin with rehearsal planning. If you are just starting this job, your first problem is to get going, to get a few passable rehearsals and Sundays under your belt. Long-term planning can wait a few weeks. What about the next rehearsal? And the next? You must plan carefully for every rehearsal. No matter how much experience you have, you will do no better than your planning. Time spent on getting yourself organized and making as many decisions as possible before you meet your singers is the best and most productive time you will spend. You must plan ahead in detail.
Some people are naturally spontaneous. They function best off the top of their heads. They can talk their way through anything. I know two of these people, but that's all. These are people who think on their feet, get their best ideas as they are actually doing their thing, and don't write anything down. They just do it. It's a gift. I am in awe of them, but I have no illusions that either you or I can do it that way. You and I, and almost everyone else, are only as good as our preparation when we get up in front of a group. Ordinarily, the better the leader, and therefore the better the choir director, the more time he or she puts in planning and preparation for the time spent actually leading or directing. A good choir director spends many more hours in planning and preparation than in actual rehearsal. You may not have thought about this when you agreed to take the job, but if you have any experience at all, you know it's true.
Excerpted from The Wednesday Workout by Richard DeVinney. Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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