Curated from Smartmusic’s Music Educator Blog – by our good friend, St. Louis’ own Laura Vaughan –
Having enjoyed more than thirty years in choral classrooms, I’ve had lots of experience with what works, and what doesn’t. Here are a few rehearsal tips that I’ve collected over the years that have worked for me. The first group are specific to classroom management, which are particularly helpful as the school year begins. The second group are ideas that are equally applicable to choral and instrumental ensembles.
Saving the best for last, I also offer some of my favorite choral-specific rehearsal tips.
Start your rehearsal immediately when the bell rings. Students will learn that you expect them to be ready to start every day as soon as class begins. List the order of activities on your screen or board so that students can get their music in order and know what to expect.
Establish an atmosphere of efficient routine and expectations. Students thrive on this, and your ensembles will flourish. Your students will achieve more when you are truly prepared and organized. While we all have days when our best-laid plans go out the window due to unforeseen circumstances, winging it every day will not produce quality ensembles.
“What you allow, you endorse.” This axiom applies to any area of your rehearsal, whether it be posture, pitch, diction, or behavior. That small amount of talking between songs will grow to a deafening roar in a short time. I was taught to be “firm, fair, and consistent” by my very wise cooperating teaching instructor. It has served me well in managing classroom behavior and expectations.
Collect a “bag of tricks” for unexpected days at school that disrupt rehearsals, such as doubled class lengths for testing, power outages, or lock-downs. Include games, exercises, student-led activities, listening games, rhythm-bees, or word search pages. You can make a list on your phone or laptop, create a small card file, or develop a dedicated folder kept nearby. Collect ideas at conferences, professional journals, Facebook groups, or asking other directors for activities they incorporate. I also kept several copies of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul by Jack Canfield in my room. I’d occasionally read aloud a short inspirational story about kindness or someone overcoming tremendous personal adversity. My students loved that!
Keep an emergency substitute teacher folder prepared. No one can take your place, but things like listening activities (and prepared rehearsal tracks for choral groups) can go a long way to prevent your rehearsal from being a total loss. Train a student in each class on how to access your sound system so they can assist a substitute teacher.
Learn and prepare every score thoroughly. You cannot skip this step, even though it is tempting. Analyze the melodies and harmony, highlight parts that are important, study the articulations and dynamics, anticipate trouble spots, and have an aural sense of what you want the piece to sound like. Listen to multiple recordings for different perspectives of interpretation. Practice conducting your selections outside of class, so that you are truly ready for every rehearsal.
Develop non-verbal cues that your ensembles can follow. This saves rehearsal time and your voice. One example is a gesture to the top of your head that can indicate “from the top.”
Try a “speed rehearsal” every once in a while. This would be a time when every piece is performed straight through, no questions would be taken from students, and instructions from you are very brief, or only non-verbal. This also might be a great opportunity to record every piece; either for you to listen to when students are not present, or for the ensemble to hear at a different time.
Invite colleagues or guest conductors to rehearse your ensemble. I gained invaluable insight by listening when someone other than myself led my groups. In some cases, it felt like I grew a new set of ears as I became aware of things I was not “hearing.”
Learn to “read the room.” Sometimes, you can tell from student faces, voices, and body language when it’s time to move on to another piece. Flexibility in your rehearsal plan is a must. Always plan on rehearsing more than you actually think you can accomplish in your allotted time, and then you’ll never be caught without enough material to cover.
Make sure vocal exercises build on previous days or experiences. Be sure to include breathing exercises, tone builders, range extenders, agility and articulation exercises, and aural training. Customize the exercises to keep singers engaged. Directors can also incorporate difficult passages from the literature the class is learning, such as interval jumps, diction, or rhythms.
Direct every rehearsal as if you are working with your top group. Students are very perceptive and will live up to your expectations. This also helps every student feel important and valued; no matter if they are in your beginning women’s chorus, or the highly selective chamber group. An esprit de corps will be fostered throughout your program when students experience being valued at every level of the ensembles.
Demonstrate good vocal hygiene. Be a good example, and they will learn from you. Don’t sing with your choirs! Many directors will sing along with their groups, or even try to sing louder than their singers. If you are singing, you cannot hear what they are doing.
Sing for students as a demonstration, if necessary, when the choir is not singing. Instruct them when they should rest their voices, and when to seek medical advice. Some directors use personal microphone devices so that they can speak and sing comfortably all day long.
If you are fortunate enough to have a piano accompanist in your rehearsal, show them the utmost respect. Recognize their contributions to your performance, and encourage your ensemble members to also show their gratitude. Consider asking your accompanist their opinion on performance aspects. You may gain some valuable insights that can further improve your rehearsal.
Show your passion and enthusiasm for music to your students in rehearsals. Let them be inspired by your example. Tap into cross-curricular connections to spark interest. Are you singing a piece by Mozart? Connect it to historical events they have likely studied. Team up with your fellow educators in the history department. Or, perform that Mozart aria you sang on your college recital for your singers. Invite community performers, former students majoring in music, or colleagues to sing or play works that relate to selections your ensemble is rehearsing.
Show your students you care by attending school events outside of music. This gesture can go a long way in motivating students in the rehearsal, if they know you care enough to attend their basketball game, robotics competition, or play.
I’m hoping some of these ideas may prove helpful to you. Happy teaching!