The 175 voice Michael O’Neal Summer Singers had its first rehearsal yesterday and it was a joy being with all these people who had gathered to raise their voices together in song. From what was heard last night I predict it is going to be a very enjoyable and rewarding summer of music making. A number of participants in the chorus have asked me how best to “focus” themselves in rehearsal in order to accomplish their best. Recognizing that the building of a great chorus takes place in rehearsals, and it is there the choral cornerstones are laid, I offer these thoughts regarding choral disciplines necessary for great performance. May they be reminders to all of us that the great cathedrals were built “one stone at a time.”
1. Listen. The essence of a musically intelligent ensemble lies in careful and critical listening. When a phrase comes to you from another section(s) with a particular tone quality, shape, and articulation, it should be answered appropriately. Intonation, homogeneity of sound, crescendi and diminuendi, depend upon how well you use your musical ears.
2. Watch. Your conductor is with you in order to assist you. Only by watching him or her can that assistance take place.
3. Count. The precise articulation of musical ideas cannot happen without clear organization of time. Care must be taken in the treatment of small note values; particularly the second of two eighth notes, the second and fourth of four sixteenth notes, and the short notes after dotted notes. Counting, subdivision and good vocalism will make short notes “live.”
4. Good Diction. The use of words is the main factor that distinguishes a chorus from any other wind ensemble. Unless the consonants are hard, clean and rhythmic, we have no articulation. Unless the vowels are well-formed, well-focused and able to maintain their shape throughout the full dynamic range as well as the full length of a note value, we have no sonority.
5. Breath Support. Taking a full breath and supporting it as you sing is key (along with good vowel formations) to a beautiful tone. Breath support and diction are 90% of the tone.
6. Phrasing. A definition of musical phrasing is the grouping of notes into a unit of musical thought (rhythmic, melodic, or both). Sensitively wrought phrasing is an essential expression of insight into the musical content of a score.
7. Marking Your Music. A pencil is a must at every rehearsal. Choral shorthand is an individual matter. Whatever method you use is fine – as long as it is meaningful to you. The most important consideration is that your markings “remind” you in performance of things learned in rehearsals.