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.

Showing 10 comments
  • Dan Pfeffer

    I couldn’t agree with you more Michael! Choral singing is like acting. You have to feel and convey the thoughts of the text and make the audience really hear the ‘drama” through the music. In works like Testament of Freedom, I actually read those inspired words of Thomas Jefferson before I started to learn the music. Powerful thoughts like that require an understanding before one can begin to adequately convey it in the music. Much like someone buidling a house, one needs to see the big picture in the blueprints and elevation pictures before he starts the building. And as we work hard in building our house (the song), we can know, during those sometimes difficult woodshedding rehearsals, the reward awaiting us at the end!

  • Kim Peeples

    Here are some of my favorite quotes from my summer readings/studying that I think compliment your thoughts. You have probably read them both before, but others might not have. The first is by Robert Shaw concerning textual artistry (written Jan 1987). “…the more important step is to see that our text is illuminated–even “transfigured”–by a commitment to language simply as colour….the fabulous distinction that vocal sound has from instrumental sound is the aural kaleidoscope of the myriad sounds of speech.” The second quote regarding interpretation, is by Henry Leck (Director of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir). “Ultimately, the reason people are associated with the choral art, is due to the immense gratification received through the aesthetic enjoyment of this art. The achieve of a fine chorus is not just how many correct notes are sung but what is communicated from the soul of the singers to the souls of the audience.”
    Thank you Michael for your commitment to choral excellence and for touching my soul through your work. I love you! Kim

  • Michael

    Kim, thanks for sharing these excellent quotes from Robert Shaw and Henry Leck. I’m very proud of you and all you have accomplished with your students at Brookwood. Michael

  • Michael

    Dan, well said. Thanks for sharing. Michael

  • Charles Claiborne


    I am so glad to see that you have programmed the Thompson and the Hanson for your group. I sometimes wonder why conductors work so hard trying to find new music when there are so many great pieces written only 20 or 30 years ago that are so worthy of being performed if one will only look for them. What is your big group doing this coming year?


  • Michael

    Hi Charles,
    We’ll begin the season with a concert called Choral Gems, which will consist of well known movements from many of our great choral masterworks. The Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet will join us for our Christmas Concert and we’ll be performing A German Requiem by Brahms in March. We’ll present Blues, Ballads and Broadway (The Great American Songbook) in May. In addition to all that we have our Messiah Sing Along, our high school invitational concert, Hear the Future, and our Chamber Singers will be presenting a program entitled Gloria!, featuring the Poulenc Gloria.

  • Phyllis Bearden

    When the words become a part of me, I find it easier to concentrate on the director and let he or she really guide me. If I could memorize all the music this summer, I would because I feel that Michael really conveys everything when he’s conducting.

  • Lilly Chen

    Thanks for this post Dr. O. I love to hear people tell stories about Rober Shaw and other conductors. (I use to have a voice teacher that would tell stories about Seiji Ozawa and James Levine.) Most of the time it’s more gossip like what kind of salad James Levine likes. You rarely hear stories about the conductors talking about the process or their approach to the music. So this is stuff on Shaw is both invaluable and fun to hear-I think…….
    I find your very precise and direct approach to each and every aspect of the music refreshing. (There are no guess work or worse embellishment on the singer’s part.) I’ve never been exposed to this kind of musical training. Notes, rests, etc. on a page was always more like a suggestion for me. I’ve never been that careful as to where one note ended and where one rest begin. (I know this kind of sloppy approach to music is probably your worst nightmare.) And if I wanted to put a s or a t at the end of the word then I did but if I didn’t feel like it. That was okay too. Your level of professionalism has inspired me to become more commited about practice. I have to admit choir for me was more like a social club. You go in, sit and chat with your friends and oh ya, you sing. With MOS I really gotta buckle down and practice. “don’t be a wastin’ people’s time…” I can hear it now…..
    ….during this last rehersal it occured to me that I may need a crash course on singing with a conductor. I think I know what every gesture means but think is still guessing…and I know how much you like that…any suggestions? I’ve been watching this show called “bathroom diva” (it’s American Idol but for opera singers) and in one episode they had the conductor from the Toronto Symphony come in and teach the singers and it was 50/50. I knew 50% of what he was showing and 50% I had no idea….hey do you know if Howard Hanson was influenced by Stravinsky? There are parts of the Songs of Democracy that sound Petrushka-ish. I saw that it was written in ’57. I know that there was a NBC special in ’56 with Stravinsky himself at the baton… wonder if Handson heard it and some of it was still winding in his head when he wrote Song of democracy…or am I barking up the wrong tree completely…

  • Charlie Mathers

    Musically speaking, I am the rankest ameteur, but my sense is that when a composer sits down to write a piece of music, they use an array of different techniques to convey the message of the words of the piece. For me then to learn those techniques of music, I have to know what message they are trying to convey. I have to start with the words. I read them and try to understand them and then rethink them for the entire cycle of rehearsal and performance. I set them aside though for most of the music learning process so they won’t get in the way. I can only process so many things at once. I do understand the importance of incorporating the sounds of the words into the pitches and rythyms of the music. Those sounds are very much a part of the sounds of the music. Words, thoughts, ideas, emotions then technical sounds and then an amalgamation of everything into one consistent message. That seems to be the way it works for me.

  • Cookie


    I learn better putting the music to the words as opposed to the opposite. I have to watch your every direction to us and to do that I must be ready with the words. The pitches, timing, etc seem to fall together with your teaching. Having said that, I always attack new pieces by the words first. (The Latin was very difficult for me.)

    I feel so fortunate to be under your tutelage and love you for giving of your time and energy to train us “in the way we should go”! Blessings, Cookie

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