Practice, Practice, Practice

Choral conductors and singers share their own practicing best practices

What does it take to get to Carnegie Hall? Or to a memorable choral performance? Everyone knows the answer. But many are the music scores that sit unattended in car trunks between rehearsals. And many are the frustrated choral conductors who wish their singers would put in the time that the music deserves.

Singers are frustrated too, of course. Practicing can easily take a back seat to work, family, school, and other life obligations. And choral conductors understand what their singers are up against.

“Our world right now is overwhelming to people,” says Jennifer Tibben, music director of Bella Voce, a women’s chorus in Reno, Nevada, who herself leads seven choirs and has six children at home. “People are brain dead when they get home from work. They want to come to choir because they love to sing, they have friends there, and they love the music.”

“It’s their pressure valve,” says Jesse Parker, music director of the Maryland-based Voices 21. “It’s what they do for themselves.”

So are there ways to make practicing not just another burden, but an enjoyable and productive experience? We asked singers and music directors of volunteer choruses—from small elite ensembles to large community choirs—to tell us about the tactics and tools that work for them.

Setting the Right Expectations

The conductors we interviewed said that they tried to communicate clearly to their singers the importance of practicing. But they weren’t “throwing fits or chairs,” as Parker notes.

David Morrow, conductor of the Wendell P. Whalum Community Chorus and the Glee Club at Morehouse College, sees his role as more of a cheerleader than a scold. “I tell my singers, ’you practice so we can rehearse.’ The end result is a beautiful concert,” he says. “But you can only rely on their enthusiasm to do the work. They are volunteers. You can’t dock their pay!”

Voices 21 recently polled singers about their expectations for the standards of the ensemble. With that input, the group established a list, one item of which was the expectation that singers practice outside of rehearsal. “I try to keep that message going throughout the cycle of rehearsals,” says Parker.

At Ensemble Companio the need to practice outside rehearsal time is a no-brainer —something that is understood and agreed to by those accepted into the elite group. The ensemble gathers singers from around the Northeast United States for once-a-month weekend rehearsals and performs its concerts from memory. “You have to gradually memorize over time,” says music director Joseph Gregorio. “That really requires the singers to put in time away from rehearsal.”

Expanding people’s ideas about what constitutes practicing also helps encourage buy-in. “If you’re not able to vocalize or get to a keyboard, you can still sit down and practice your words and rhythm,” Parker tells his singers, “or sit silently in front of your score, and study it, like ‘The Inner Game of Tennis.’”

Ryan Heller, music director of Chorus Austin, encourages his singers to practice regularly—but in small bites, so that they don’t get discouraged or overwhelmed. “I am asking 200 people to get as close to perfection as possible with three hours once a week of rehearsal,” he says. “Sometimes singers get so tightly wound, they want to get it all right out of the gate.”

Providing Direction

Tibben tries to help singers connect what happens in rehearsal to their at-home practice. “Lay musicians don’t process through music the same way as professional musicians,” she says. “They need from me, ‘Next week, I am going to hit this and this and this. Work on that ahead of time.’ If we’re working on 16 pieces, it helps to have some focus.”  

Tibben also regularly asks singers in rehearsal: “So, how do you work on this at home?” “There is some peer mentoring that happens,” she says. “My leaders who do practice regularly can share what they do, so it’s not just me telling them what to do.”

Voices 21 has its section leaders take detailed notes about aspects like dynamics, breath marks, and phrasing during rehearsals, which are then emailed to all chorus members.

Provide Learning Aids

Ensemble Companio videotapes all rehearsals and posts them on a closed YouTube channel. “If you are having a hard time wrapping your head around one portion of a Bach piece, you can go back and rehearse it,” says Greg Pratt, who sings tenor with the group.  “We publish a set list along with it, so you don’t have to scroll through the entire thing to find out where you’re going.”

Choral Practice Aids
Single Parts

Voices 21 has a password-protected “green room” on the group’s website where learning aids are posted, including parts-specific mp3s created by tech-savvy singers that allow singers to listen to their parts alone or with others and pdfs of scoreswith all the markings in place. “There are a number of ways to encourage people beyond sitting down at the piano plunking out your part,” says Parker.

Choruses also direct singers to online resources such as Cyberbass and Single Parts, which provide mp3s for many of the major choral works. The programs allow users to change the tempo of tracks for learning purposes. Single Parts recordings have actual voices on the parts, which some people prefer.

Recordings work well for Jane Denney, with Voices 21. “I am not an instrumentalist,” she says. “I can bang out my part, but don’t ask me to play the bass clef.”

Jody Call, a soprano with Bella Voce, makes her own audio recordings of rehearsals. “I was never a student of music and only have very amateur means to pounding out notes on my piano,” she says. With a recording, “I can listen while walking or driving or sitting at the keyboard. That really helps me hear the other parts while honing in on my part within the mix.”

Create Your Own MIDIs

Ensemble Companio makes its own midi files for each voice part—with the singer’s part in the left ear and the other parts in the right ear. Produced using a program such as Audacity or Finale, the midi files don’t have words, only the melody. Each voice part is assigned a different instrument, such as clarinet, oboe, viola, etc. “Some people hate them,” says Wilke, “but it is a little better than the electronic sound of some midis, and in the absence of being able to practice every week, they are the best stand-in.”

Not all music directors are big fans of practice tapes. Tibben worries that they may be “perpetuating lack of skills.” “I tell my singers, ‘if you get stuck, use your solfege.’” She does like online keyboards, though. “Not having a piano at home really isn’t a good excuse,” she says. “With these keyboard apps you can find your starting note.”

Inside Singers’ Practice Sessions

Singers have found many creative ways to work practicing into their busy schedules. Michael Rafaele, who sings with Ensemble Companio, sits down at the piano in the evenings in the few minutes before his six- and four-year-old daughters insist on climbing up on his lap. Cailin Wilke, also with Companio, snatches time to listen to and study her choral music on the train commute to work from Hoboken. Here are tips for successful practice sessions at home or on the go:

Schedule it. “Whether you’re a plumber or a physician, your daily life puts demands on you that are paramount,” says Greg Pratt of Ensemble Companio. “I try to map out time on a bi-weekly basis, and create a map for myself so I know where I need to get to by next month’s rehearsal.”

Get a feel for the whole piece. A number of singers said they listened to several recordings of a choral work before breaking it down for specific practice. “I find it much easier if I can hear where a piece is going as a whole piece, not just my particular part,” says Julia Briggs of Voices 21.

Rafaele of Ensemble Companio makes sure he has the music in front of him the first few times he listens to a recording. “That helps me to not introduce little inaccuracies, like a snippet of the tenor line creeping into my bass line,” he says. “Once I have done that, I can listen to a recording in my car or in my office and it helps reinforce what I have already taught myself.”

Warm up. Even a short warm-up can help pave the way for a more satisfying practice session. “Sometimes I’ll start with an easier piece as a warm-up,” says Wilke. “Practicing after a workout or run also works, because my body is warm.”

Isolate problem areas. To help her master missed notes, Ruth Buffa of Bella Voce plays her part against another (usually soprano) until she can get her part with no piano help. To master words, she writes or types words over and over. “It’s all about repetition,” she says.

Denney of Voices 21 makes notes in rehearsal of the places where the notes or text or dissonance makes her part difficult in relation to others. “Then when I’m at the piano I am focusing only on those ‘target notes,’” she says.

Pratt of Ensemble Companio focuses on areas where he is least confident. “I am not strong in memorization,” he says, “so I frontload the things I’m not sure of.”

Mark your score. Singers had a number of ways of making their scores more user-friendly. Denney color-codes dynamics from light blue for pianissimo to red for forte.  Pratt uses Evernote, a cloud-based notebook, to create road maps to help him memorize the music.

Do what you can, but do something. “Remember, you don't have to practice for an hour at a time,” says Buffa. “Break it up. Small practices are way better than none.”

Get together with your fellow singers. Several singers said it was difficult for them to practice alone—but they don’t like working on a piece in front of family members or roommates. Several said they have convened small groups of singers to practice together between rehearsals. “You get stronger on your part when there are just a few others,” says Briggs. “And it’s not as intimidating. But you do need someone who is able to lead, to handle the keyboard.”

Know when to let go. With practicing, there can come a point of diminishing returns, several conductors and singers noted. At some point you have to “let go” into the music.

Bella Voce 
Jennifer Tibben, music director 
Ruth Buffa 
Jody Call
Chorus Austin 
Ryan Heller, artistic director
Ensemble Companio 
Joseph Gregorio, music director 
Greg Pratt 
Michael Rafaele 
Cailin Wilke
Voices 21 
Jesse Parker, music director 
Julie Briggs 
Jane Denney
Wendell P. Whalum Community Chorus 
David Morrow, conductor 
Catherine Marks  
Armand Peterson 
Diana Strommen

“I experienced a lot of stress at first,” says Pratt, who came to Ensemble Companio after years singing in a cappella groups in college. “There were areas that I just was not confident. I learned that I didn’t have to be 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time. It was important to accept where I am and cut loose and say, ‘You have what you have. You need to make music now!’”

Don’t be afraid to experiment. There are many ways to practice. “Don’t let your lack of confidence or lack of formal experience in one area cloud your ability to experiment and find methods that work great for you,” says Pratt. “Just because nobody else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s not going to work for you.”

The Pay Off

There’s no greater testament to the virtues of practicing than a beautiful performance. “That’s why I’m a big fan of practicing,” says Gregorio. “A great performance where you’re really making music does not have to be out of reach.”

Parker agrees. “Nothing works better than success,” he says. “It will encourage your group to put even more into it for the next concert.”

Growing up playing the flute and piano, Wilke detested practicing. But she says singing with Ensemble Companio has changed her attitude.

“When I put the time into it, it’s always rewarding,” she says. “It’s like, okay, I know more of this piece than I did yesterday. And it is quite something when you see how everything comes together. I wish I had understood that more when I was younger.”

Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco.

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