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Teaching the Parts

September 17, 2010

I went over this in a previous post, but here’s a more thorough explanation:

When I teach parts, I use a bottom-up approach. Because the highest part is the easiest to hear, generally, I begin with the basses, teach them a phrase, then I teach the tenors. Then I combine the two parts together. Then I teach the alto separately. Then I combine that part with the lower two. Then I add the sopranos, sometimes without teaching the part because they’ve been sitting there figuring it out this whole time. Notice that this method gives the harmonic structure first, with the basses, and then the internal parts, which are hardest to hear, and that the tenors get to sing it 5 times. Then I do the next 8 or 16 bars, then I run it together. I try and tackle issues of pronunciation and cutoffs from the very first time I teach those parts. If I encounter something particularly hard on the list of things to learn, I do it right at the beginning. Then I go to something easy, then I go BACK to the hard thing and so on. You have to keep careful tabs on your group. The instant you feel you’re losing them, you have one, “Keep it up, gang, we’re making good progress” and then maybe 5 more minutes before you are completely wasting your rehearsal time. When your chorus is frustrated, they won’t learn well.

If you have the time and the technology, you can play the parts separately into a multi-track recorder and distribute them as MP3s. I usually make multiple tracks, one with the sopranos in the left audio channel and everyone else and the accompaniment in the right, one with the altos in the left channel, and so on. It’s a little time consuming, but if you know what you’re doing, it takes less time than pounding those parts out every rehearsal from now to doomsday.

With the solo singers, I usually let them get through the song once without commenting on it; then I go back and point out errors if there are any. I do like to look at the structure of the songs with the soloists. If the song is well written, the music and the drama move together, and singing a song well requires a knowledge of how the music is helping the drama. Key changes, changes in the accompaniment, where is the highest note, does the character change her mind in the song; these are things a music director can add to the actor’s knowledge of their role that the director may not be clued into. When I feel I may be stepping into the director’s territory as we make a musical decision, I tell the singer, “now this decision is between you and the director, but you should be thinking about…” Get your solo singers to THINK about what they’re doing. You’re never too young to be intelligent about your performance.

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