Music in Worship is Selah's occasional newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational song
Preparing a Score for Rehearsal
Austin C. Lovelace
You cannot properly teach a new anthem to a choir if you do not know all about the text and music and every booby trap in it. If you prepare properly and well, even the most difficult problem is half solved. The first step is a study of the text. Sing every word, noting the vowel sounds, diphthongs (even triphthongs), each beginning and ending consonant (there may be two, three, or more consonants which have to be fitted into a minuscule moment of time), remembering that both the beginning and ending must be sung on the note to which they belong, and that the vowel sound must be on the beat-consonants before. A word having an EE sound on a high note for sopranos calls for altering the vowel, to make it more open. Diphthongs must be sustained on the important vowel for as long as possible, with no sliding or eliding. (My rule for the sound in "light" is "when in doubt, sing AH.") Each vocal line will have its peculiar problems-find and solve them all.
Next, note all of the difficult intervals in each voice. If you will sing each one through, without accompaniment, you will find them! Diminished fourths, leaps of any size, chromatic changes, and modulations may need to be gone over before singing anything else. Then look for any rhythmic problems. A little rhythmic clapping can clear up a spot before it is sung. Look for repetitions of material. If a passage occurs more than one time, make sure it is always the same. If not, mark the variations. Find the hardest spots, and practice them first so the choir succeeds in getting through them the first time through. If the ending is tricky, practice that first, so there is a sense of accomplishment in getting to the end successfully.
Then study every chord vertically. What are the balance problems? Altos singing the fifth of a chord will usually be too loud. Who has the all important third of the chord-even basses get this occasionally. How are dissonant chords to be balanced? Practice these chords sustained and frozen in time until the singers know that each has a different and important role. Find the chords where certain voices will have to adjust dynamics-men singing high, women singing low will need careful balancing.
Finally, check out the metronomic marking carefully. You may not agree, but be able to explain your variation based on the voices, the acoustics, the instruments, etc. Sing through to get the sweep of the melodic lines. For example, Brahms makes one keep tension in the vocal line till the very last note. Note dynamic changes, tempo changes, ritards, accelerandos and be convinced that they fit the music. Finally look for the beauty spots, the gorgeous chords, the climax (singing forte all through an anthem makes it impossible to find one), and the "music"-not just the notes. Imagine a perfect performance in your mind's ear, then when you begin rehearsal let the choir in on the secrets of a great piece of music which they will want to sing for the rest of their lives. Otherwise, don't waste your time on a poor anthem.
Austin Lovelace wrote this when retired from active duty in church work, but he continued to compose, lead workshops, and encourage other church musicians until his death.
Diphthongs are sounds made up of two consecutive vowel sounds, such as "toy" or "now."
Triphthongs are made up of three consecutive vowel sounds, such as "fire" or "our."
Eliding is to suppress or omit a vowel or syllable.