Peter Bryant

Choral director, vocal coach, and barbershop singer

As a chorus director, I often feel that I have to give as much information as possible to my singers to get them to do what I need. Let's say the basses are singing a note a bit flat. I'll try and help them figure out a way of singing on the pitch by talking about relaxing, maybe getting them to tune into another voice part or countless other techniques.

And this often doesn't work.

This can cause MDs to bang their heads against walls in frustration. “I've told them exactly what they need to do, so why can't they do it?” we cry to ourselves over a triple scotch after rehearsal.

A recent experience with a coach led me to realise that we can often make things a lot easier for everyone by saying a lot less. At the recent Spirit of Harmony retreat, we were very fortunate to be joined by our international coach, Jordan Travis. Fairly early in the weekend, Jordan identified some issues with pitch and designed a warm-up for the next day, including some exercises to help specifically with flat singing.

He was working through the vocal exercises and noticed the basses singing a note flat. He just said to them, “Basses – can you fix the pitch on this note?”

And they did. It was in tune every single time after that.

The key phrase was “fix the pitch”, and it was used throughout the weekend whenever flat singing was spotted. 90% of the time, just using these three words was enough to enable the singers to correct themselves using the skills they knew.

This made me think a lot about my experiences as a choral singer. Very often during rehearsal, I'm unhappy with something about the way I sang a piece of music, and would just like the opportunity to try it again so I can correct it myself. I don't always need instruction from an MD – I already know how to do it better next time. It's important when I'm sitting in the MD's seat to recognise that my singers are capable of self-evaluation, and can often diagnose and fix an individual issue very quickly – if only they were given the opportunity.

It brings to mind a story I was told about David Wright: one of the barbershop world's most well-respected and accomplished arrangers, coaches and directors. When he coaches a group, I'm told that he asks them to sing a piece once, and then just says, “Okay, that was great. Now do it again, but better.”

For MDs, this apparently lazy style of coaching can be incredibly frustrating to watch, not least because it works! We spend our weekly rehearsals digging deep into our toolboxes, trying to find that nugget of genius that will help our singers make the improvements we want, and these coaches just come in and say something as simple as, “just do it better,” and can get the group to perform as they've never performed before.

But I think the reason this coaching technique works so well is that it puts agency back into the hands of the singers. No longer are they just instruments being “played” by a conductor; they're human beings with critical thinking and problem-solving skills, capable of improving themselves without being spoon-fed. This is a hugely powerful mindset shift for both singers and directors and draws on one of the fundamental pillars of what makes great coaching. The best coaches and educators, in my experience, don't explicitly tell you what to do; they ask the right questions and let you figure out what to do for yourself.

So based on this thinking, here are a couple of practical things I'm going to try and put into more frequent practice for my rehearsals.

  1. Never judge the first attempt. It's tempting to go straight into “fixing” mode after hearing something once, whether it's a warmup exercise or a run-through of a song. But this can be frustrating for singers who often just want another shot because they already know they can do it better. A technique I've seen used before is to ask everyone to come up with one thing they can do better next time.
  2. Prefer subtle nudges over direct instructions. If there's a wrong note in the baritone line, just ask the baritones to “pay attention to this note in this bar”. Often, simply drawing attention to where a problem exists is enough to fix it. If not, add more detail to your feedback as needed. If you jump straight to telling the baritones what their note should be, they become passive instruments again.
    • Side-note: This works for concepts as well as specific details. You can say, “Let's pay attention to our vowel matching this time.”

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The warm-up is an essential component of a successful choral rehearsal. Many musical directors include a warm-up in their rehearsal plan, but not all directors actually run the warm-up themselves every week.

When looking to develop other musical leaders within your group, or if you're simply trying to spread the load and show your singers a different face for a while, the warm-up can often seem like a tempting section of your rehearsal to give to an assistant director or section leader.

But I believe that this is a mistake; the front-line musical director should always run the warm-up.

Why should you warm up?

It's always important when thinking about warm-ups that we remind ourselves why we actually run warm-ups in the first place.

The first thing to say is that you should definitely have a warm-up of some kind in your rehearsal. One school of thought says the warm-up should be cut from your rehearsal because your singers have been using their voices all day anyway. I think this somewhat misses the point.

Choral warm-ups are not about getting the physical apparatus ready (although this may be required if you're having an early start). They're about setting the tone for the rehearsal.

Planting the seed

Warm-ups were a strong focus of the Directing class I took at BHS Harmony University in 2019, led by Rob Mance. He had this (roughly) to say about how the success or failure of the rehearsal depends almost completely on the warm-up.

The behaviours we encourage or allow in the warm-up will be repeated in the rehearsal, whether or not we want them to be.

In other words, if we want to encourage our singers to use a particular idea or technique in the rehearsal, the warm-up is the best place to plant this seed by running exercises that promote the behaviour you want. Need to focus on vowel matching? Call attention to vowels during the warm-up.

On the other side of this coin is the idea that undesirable behaviours we leave unaddressed during the warm-up will plague you throughout the rehearsal. If you hear the basses singing flat during the scale exercises and don't call it out, guess what the basses will be doing for the rest of the night. And if members are unfocussed or apathetic during the warm-up, you'll struggle to build up that energy and discipline once you've started working on repertoire.

A chance to craft

It's pretty hard to teach actual singing techniques when working on repertoire. This is because singers are focussed almost entirely on performing the song itself – and so they should be! Trying to introduce general concepts during repertoire sessions, when your singers just want to know how to sing that specific song better, can often be a struggle.

This means that, unless you plan specific sessions for craft, the warm-up is often your only opportunity to introduce and reinforce these concepts. But this is a good thing because it allows you to plant the seed of the new technique early on in the rehearsal, then call back to it during the repertoire sessions.

This doesn't mean you can't mention concepts at all during the repertoire sessions, but it's much more efficient and effective when the technique you're talking about was introduced as part of the warm-up.

The most important part of the rehearsal

For these reasons, it could well be argued that the warm-up is actually the most important part of your rehearsal. It's the best time to teach and improve skills, and it plants the seed for the behaviour you're going to see for the rest of the session.

So if that's true, why do so many of us delegate it?

There are a few possible answers to this. It might be that you're trying to develop the skills of a member of your musical leadership team (assistant director, section leader etc). Or maybe you'd just like the singers to see a face other than yours for a change! These are both perfectly valid things to want, but I'd like to suggest that the warm-up is not the right place to achieve these goals.

Sending the right message

Every decision you take in the planning and execution of your rehearsal has an impact, visible or otherwise. So what is the impact of delegating your warm-up?

Answering this question starts with an acknowledgement: the singers see you, the musical director, as the most important and respected person in the room during a rehearsal. This hierarchical structure is unavoidable, and probably extremely necessary for a healthy and productive conductor-choir relationship.

So if the warm-up is the most important part of the rehearsal, the most important person in the room should do it. Or, to flip the idea on its head and once again quote Rob Mance:

If we delegate the warm-up to someone who the singers see as less important, what message are we sending to the singers about how important the warm-up is?

When I first heard this, a huge penny dropped. I realised that if I wanted my singers to see the warm-up as the most important part of the rehearsal, I had to run it myself. Every. Single. Week.

So that's what I did. I explained to my leadership team that I would be running all warm-ups, for the reasons I've talked about here. And I noticed a few things.

  1. Rehearsals start on time. When singers see the musical director is ready to start, their respect for their MD trumps the need to finish their conversation. I can now reliably bring my singers to order in 10 seconds by simply standing in my position and starting some stretches.
  2. Singers show up on time. When we successfully communicate that the warm-up is just as important as the rest of the rehearsal by running it ourselves, singers suddenly stopped arriving late. Again, this is their respect for you forcing them into making sure they're punctual.
  3. The rehearsal is more disciplined. As long as I run the warm-up in a focussed way, the singers very quickly adopt strong discipline. There is much less chatter, and much more attention paid to whoever is out front.

So what can I delegate instead?

Delegation is still important as a way of developing your team and providing some variety during rehearsals. But you don't need to use the warm-up for this. Here are some ideas:

  • Use sectionals and small group sessions as part of your repertoire rehearsal
  • Give your assistant MDs their own song(s) to direct
  • If you have a break, ask someone to restart the rehearsal with a short game
  • For barbershop groups, get someone to teach a tag

Willing to try it?

This might be a pretty big cultural shift for groups who look forward to variety in their warm-ups presented by someone different each week. But if you do take the step to try taking over your weekly warm-up, I'd love to hear about your experience!

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