Conducting pattern, part 2

by kattiewampus

My choir has surprisingly strong opinions sometimes. For example, I never imagined that a concert attire of “all black” would elicit so much discussion. When I announced my decision during the rehearsal, you would have thought I was making some sort of incredibly avant-garde request.

All black?”

“What about white and black?”

“Can’t we have an accent color or something?”

I was genuinely surprised at the extent of their reaction. To me, all black is standard concert attire. All black is simple. All black is professional. All black is less visually distracting. All black means everyone is automatically coordinated.

This was one of the few visions I had for the choir on which I stubbornly held my ground. And when they were up on the stage, singing for the first time during our church service, I couldn’t help feeling pleased at how uniform they looked.

My choir is also very democratic. They like to offer spontaneous suggestions about how we ought to spend rehearsal time. Sometimes I have a hard time with this because it makes me feel like I’m not in control and it feeds my not-so-secret fear that the choir thinks I’m incompetent. My gut reaction is to tighten the reigns and insist that we follow my schedule for the evening. But I’ve also learned to be grateful for these suggestions, and to flow with them. After all, I don’t know what I’m doing, exactly. So, I think one of the best ways to learn how to effectively rehearse with the choir is by listening to the choir members when they are telling me what they need. I’m learning to be sensitive to their suggestions and requests, and to view their thoughts as a constructive component of our rehearsals, as well as a way to encourage participation, commitment, and better musicianship overall, rather than as a personal threat to (or criticism of) my directing abilities.

My choir is also very diverse. The youngest person in the choir is an eleven year-old boy soprano and the oldest person has grandchildren. Their musicianship levels are widespread, ranging from accomplished musician to amateur music appreciator. About half of the choir does not actually read music and learns by ear instead. But the bottom line is that no one is there out of a sense of obligation – they are there because they want to sing. I think that makes an incredible impact on what we are able to accomplish. They bring to the table a variety of backgrounds, skills, musicianship levels, and abilities, but their dedication, commitment, and work ethic in rehearsals is the same – and it really is evident when they perform.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I said at the end of my last post, I was feeling very ambitious about what we could accomplish until I actually looked at my calendar. I realized that we had five rehearsals left before the church Christmas program, and three rehearsals before our next performance. We had four pieces of music to learn. This might not seem like an insurmountable goal, but you have to remember that we had spent the previous month learning one piece.

The next song in our line-up was an a cappella arrangement of “Down in the River to Pray.” I was excited about it. They were excited about it. I realized we only had three rehearsals to learn it. I decided to postpone it until the spring. I wanted to do the song justice, and I wanted to be able to focus on learning our three Christmas pieces. Instead of “Down in the River,” two choir members (namely, my parents) suggested that I substitute the hymn, “O Worship the King.” It was an easy, page-long, a cappella option with which everyone was already familiar. I made a few “artistic” choices to add variety and interest to what was otherwise a four-verse repetitive hymn. We ran through it for about five minutes at every rehearsal for the next three weeks and it was good to go.

A day or two before we were scheduled to sing it, I happened upon an unsettling realization: the hymn was probably too short. When the choir sings during the service, it’s almost always when the offering is being taken. So, there’s sort of a space of time to fill while the offering bag is being passed along the pews by the ushers. If the piece of music intended to fill that space is too short, then you end up with ushers silently processing down the aisles, offering bags traveling silently across the pews, and everyone is sort of holding their breath awkwardly, waiting to move to the next section of the service and fill the space with sound again.

So, I made hasty arrangements with the church pianist for that Sunday to have some “filler” music ready to play softly in the background in the event that we finished before the offering was over.

As it turned out, the timing was perfect. No filler music was necessary. The choir pulled off another eleventh-hour rise-to-the-occasion and exceed-expectations phenomenon and did a wonderful job singing a cappella (not to mention looking great in their all-black concert attire). I had survived my second performance as choir director.

We could now focus solely on the Christmas pieces, and those were another story entirely.