Choral Learning Curves

Sitting in my choral rehearsal last weekend, I was struck with how laborious the process of music learning can be–for the singers and for the conductor as well. For non-professional choirs, the first few months of the year can be a painful period as singers find their way into the complexities of the music. Conductors start to encourage singers to study their music between rehearsals with increasing urgency as the weeks go by.

For many choral singers, learning music on their own can be challenging, especially for those who don’t have the keyboard skills needed to play more than just their own part. Learning one part, without the other parts or accompaniment, doesn’t usually get a singer very far. Once back in the rehearsal room, surrounded by other voices and the accompaniment, the music learned without a context soon fades away.

Conductors and composers have developed a number of tools and techniques to help singers prepare outside of rehearsals. Alice Parker, a conductor, composer, and teacher working in the choral field for more than 50 years, believes that a good place to start is to study and learn the text with rhythmic precision, forming a strong foundation for dropping in the pitches later.

Singers can access a variety of online tools to help with their practice and learning. Two free websites, Silvas Woodshed and CyberBass contain MIDI files that highlight separate choral parts. While CyberBass features all classical works, the selection on Silvas Woodshed is more extensive, and includes a small selection of 20th-century works. Additional sites where materials can be purchased include Rehearsal Arts, which carries a selection of classical works where the part is sung by a professional teaching singer with the accompaniment behind–much easier to listen to than MIDI files. Difficult passages are slowed on special tracks called StudySpots. ChoraLine in the UK also carries quality materials, although these are all classical except for a small selection of pieces by popular contemporary British composers. Very few works by contemporary American composers are available on these sites.

Conductors will often create rehearsal materials for their choir if none are available. Examples might include playing the vocal parts on the piano, recording them, and circulating them as MP3 files. Some contemporary composers will provide MIDI recordings of their work highlighting each vocal part. Some choirs will provide recordings with a soloist singing individual parts with piano accompaniment, although making such recordings is time consuming and can be expensive.

My hope is that one day there will be a comprehensive virtual library of learning tools for contemporary choral works. Since this material can be the most challenging to learn and commercial recordings may not be available, this would ease the learning process and encourage more choirs to tackle contemporary works. Composers and conductors (with permission) could place audio files into the library for singers to access.

What tools do you use or recommend to facilitate the learning process of choral works?

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