Sow to reap

“You always reap what you sow; there is no shortcut.”

While this is not an original thought, it certainly is very true. In the context of a choir, it is my experience that some singers are sowers and others observers. You have some singers that make an effort to know their music well and that are focused during rehearsals. They are the ones driven to master their music and they will even make an effort to do more at home especially on the occasions that you ask for it. Those are your sowers.

The observers come in two groups. Both groups essentially “want to be taught”. They see the primary responsibility of learning their music not as their own, but as that of the conductor/music director.

Of the two observer groups, one group will be conscientious about attending choir rehearsals and will do what you ask during rehearsals. If your time management is good they will eventually learn the music and contribute significantly to the final product. It is maybe unfair not to call them sowers since they do more than observe the planting process. They are on the field with the sowers but only sow if supervised properly. A better description might be “seed carriers”.

Then you have the observers. The ones that will, without hesitation, miss a choir rehearsal in order to attend xyz (and here you can literally fill in anything in the place of xyz). During a performance, they totally depend on the other singers in the choir to get through a piece. (They are also the ones that are the most offended when told that they do not know their music!) It is a strange phenomenon that it is very difficult to get rid of them, they insist on being part of the choir, yet they are not there for the music. They primarily want to be part of the choir experience in order to be there at harvest time, but they want to get there with minimum effort.

The best thing any conductor can do for his/her choir, is to identify the observers and to strongly encourage them to take up another activity. Even if it includes the fantastic soprano with the incredible solo voice.

For the choir director: identifying observers means having a strategy (and actually implementing it!!) to regularly test/evaluate every singer. You need a “paper trail” that takes the emotion out of the process and leaves with you with facts. E.g. “the attendance register shows you only attended three out of the last 8 rehearsals” is very different from “you seldom attend rehearsals”. Or “you have failed the last three repertoire tests” is very different from “you don’t know your music”.

In the spirit of modern “quick fix” and “ten steps to success” solutions, here are 7 habits every chorister can be encouraged to cultivate, that is guaranteed to turn them into awesome sowers 🙂

  • Show up. Never miss a rehearsal. Prioritize it above all else.
  • Read through your sheet music every day. Reading is not the same as singing! Memory is built on visual, auditory and (vocal) muscle memory. The simple act of reading through your sheet music once a day will go a long way in helping you master your music.
  • Spend time on the text. Make sure you understand the text. This is especially true if you’re singing in a foreign language. If the choir director does not provide a translation, then google it. When reading through your scores, pause and meditate on the text. Read the text separately from the score as if it is a poem so that you can see the big picture (in terms of the text). When singing one tends to focus on the word you’re busy with – but if you are able to subconsciously place that word into the context of the entire text, you will both remember your music easier and also be contributing much more to the harvest.
  • It is good to listen to other recordings of the music you’re learning, but be careful not to spend too much time on this. You are going to deliver your own unique version of this song; you certainly do not want to be a carbon copy of an existing recording.
  • Once you know your voice part, record yourself singing it, and if you are able to, compare the recording to a piano (or a piano app on your phone). You can even use your phone to record yourself during a regular choir rehearsal. The difficult part here is actually listening (critically) to yourself.
  • Once you know your part fairly well, observe yourself in a mirror singing it. Or video yourself (on your phone) and watch yourself singing your voice part accompanied by a cd or other recording of the song.
  • Improve your intonation skills. There are apps to help you do this. Or simply download a piano app and practice singing seconds, thirds, minor thirds etc.

Happy singing!