Learning a New Piece
I recently asked my readers to suggest some topics they would like to see discussed in this choral blog. I’ve received many great ideas and will be including as many as I can in the next few weeks and months. Today I’m going to talk about learning a new piece of choral music. The question was whether it was best to learn the words and music at the same time or one at a time. There is no easy answer to this and I think if you’re considering as an individual how to learn your music, you may just have to experiment to find what works best. Still, I believe you’ll find most conductors have a specific approach to teaching a piece and therefore I’ll discuss mine.
First, however, I’ll mention that Robert Shaw, the single most important influence on my own musical life, would sometimes wait until very close to a performance to add text. His successful “count singing” technique was so effective in rehearsals that his choruses would often sing with a precision that other choirs could only hope to achieve. Mr. Shaw used to say that “God was not pleased with wrong notes” and his desire to make sure that the music was performed exactly as the composer had written it helped create those legendary Shaw performances. This is not to say that Robert Shaw was not concerned about text. He probably cared about words and their meanings more than any other musician with whom I have worked. He did, however, think it was important to have to have all pitches, rhythms, dynamics, etc., learned well before you start adding words.
While I follow many of Mr. Shaw’s practices (it’s hard to argue with success!), I don’t spend as much time on count singing as he did and I also believe in adding the text sooner rather than later. I think the average singer in a community chorus or church choir rehearsing once a week needs to have more time for the words to become part of the music and, perhaps even more importantly, part of his soul. That’s why I’ve spent so much time in our Summer Singers rehearsals talking about the texts of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom and Howard Hanson’s Song of Democracy. With the text of the former piece by Thomas Jefferson and of the latter piece by Walt Whitman, we have words which are most likely pretty important! It is my belief that involving those texts early in our rehearsals helps them really “live” in performance. Now getting to that performance must still involve many steps, and we will count sing, sing staccato with words, speak rhythmically with words, sing and tune chords without concern for meter, etc., etc., before we finally reach performance day. All this to say, I think that in the learning process the sooner we can begin to understand the “gestalt” of the piece, the more complete will be the ultimate performance.