Building Choral Stamina

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marathonI’ve had several conversations recently with directors about the challenges involved in learning big pieces. Big implies, at the most obvious level, pieces that go on for longer than usual, though that also usually brings with it a degree of expressive size too. There are three distinct dimensions to the stamina demands these pieces place on a choir, and while they are interrelated, it’s worth identifying them separately:

  1. Physical stamina: This is the most obvious dimension. Singing is a physical activity, and you want to get to the end of a long piece without sounding tired. Of course, the most strenuous demands of longer pieces usually come later on, too, so it’s not just a matter of sustaining the energy until the end, but having enough resources to respond with the necessary sense of build. A want of physical stamina is most often heard in waning breath support, with an accompanying loss of resonance in the tone, especially at phrase ends, and sometimes loss of tonal centre too. Choral traditions that use physical movement have the difficulties exacerbated by the need to supply oxygen to their limbs as well as voices.
  2. Mental stamina: You can hold a short piece in your head without much difficulty. Longer pieces need more explicit attention to mapping out the overall shape. (I recall singing Elgar’s The Kingdom as a student, having rehearsed different bits each week, but having really no concept of how they all fitted together.) A want of mental stamina shows in a sense of expressive flat-lining in the middle of the piece, the sense that the journey from the excitement of the start to the excitement of the end is all a bit undifferentiated.
  3. Vocal stamina: This is a subset of physical stamina of course, but worth considering separately for those elements that are specific to singing, such as range. You may have a top B flat in your range, but if you’re not accustomed to holding it for 12 bars at a go, you may find your early attempts to do so less than successful.

Steve Armstrong tells of a method the Toronto Northern Lights used to deal with stamina issues when rehearsing David Wright’s monster arrangement of ‘Alabamy Bound’: they took to singing it twice through (with moves). This succeeded in giving them plentiful physical and vocal resources for the song as written, but left them feeling, after performance, like they hadn’t given everything they could.

This teaches us a useful lesson: you don’t always have to develop the skills you need in the piece you are going to apply them to. On the basis of their experience, I’d suggest singing other repertoire items twice through as a way to build physical stamina for the newest, most challenging music.

You also want to be strategic in how you introduce challenges – if you have your eye on a really tough piece in the future, what can you learn en route to build towards it? Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a great set of training wheels for the Missa Solemnis.

If you are doing a large choral work, you’re not likely to make this mistake (except perhaps during the afternoon rehearsal before an evening performance), but if you are working in a genre where you can run through the whole piece regularly, you are likely to make the mistake of doing so. The temptation is to do this to get used to the demands of the piece, but in fact what it does is practise struggling with it. You don’t train to run marathons by running marathons.

Practising in shorter units does two things. First, it makes sure each section is rehearsed with both the physical/vocal commitment it deserves, and with the attention to expressive detail that can get glossed over in longer pieces. Second, it requires a degree of understanding of the overall form, and the capacity to start in the middle. As my Elgar example showed, though, this overview function needs to be shared by all; if the director is the only person who understands the structure, then you lose this as a method to build mental stamina.

And of all aspects of choral craft, stamina is one that needs attention well in advance of when you need to use it. The relationship a singer has with a challenging piece is completely different if their first impression is, ‘Gosh, this is going to be hard,’ or, ‘Hey, this is just the sort of thing I’ve been getting better at!’.

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