(Rehearsal) Planning for the Unknown

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During the abcd Initial Conducting Course I led earlier this year, I had several conversations with conductors about how to manage rehearsal planning in the particular circumstance that you don’t yet know the much about the choir you’re planning for. How do you work out what will be appropriate repertoire when you don’t yet know the skills and experience of the singers you will be working with?

This is a circumstance that can affect anyone who is lined up with a conducting job they’ve not yet started, but it is felt most strongly in early career musicians who don’t yet have a fund of previous similar experiences to draw on.

So, the first thing is to do what profiling you can. For those moving to new teaching jobs, the age of the children you will be working with gives you quite a lot of information about what to expect, and you can also glean a good deal from what kind of repertoire your predecessor was using with them. If they have any recordings of recent performances, this will also tell you a lot.

For those engaged for a choir project where the choir leader is recruited before the singers are, there’s a lot more guessing needed. You will know about the social context the singers share (workplace, young offenders institution, care home), but you may not know whether you will be working with 6 or 60 of them. The key here is quiz the organisation that has set up the project carefully about their aims and expectations, as this will tell you how they are presenting the project to potential singers, and thus what kind of experience the singers will anticipate.

(It will also give you an early warning signal if the organisation’s aims are unrealistic; if you’re going to need to manage their expectations, best start early. So long as you focus on delivering a project that embodies the values they care about, you can scale down or simplify the specifics to something achievable.)

But even with the best profiling you can do, you will have far less information before you start than you will have after even one rehearsal. When you’ve worked with the group once, you’ll have a feel for what skills they have and which they need to develop, and also the speed at which they learn.

The most important thing is thus to bring a plan to that first rehearsal that guarantees success at something. Prepare to teach something short and simple, that uses primarily the middle of the voice, and preferably with a clear rhythmic profile. You want to get everybody feeling lined up in a groove together at the earliest possible moment.

And then build from there. Short, simple songs often concatenate well. Use it as a round, add one or more harmony lines or accompanying riffs. If it turns out the people you have learn fast, add more and build a more complex form; if they take longer to pick things up, keep it simpler. The primary goal is for people to feel good about singing with you, so feed them as much as they can manage, but no more.

Of course, you will have wanted to plan for more than this first encounter before you get going, not least so you can tell people what to look forward to. But the repertoire planning needs to embody a similar kind of flexibility. Make your best guess as to the complexity of repertoire you think would be appropriate from your profiling, but have plans for what to add if it turns out your singers learn much faster than you expected, or what to leave out if they need more learning time. This may be adding/dropping entire pieces of music, or it might be adding/removing complexity from a piece. If the parts are too hard, everyone could sing the tune; if basic song is too easy, add a descant.

Planning for the unknown thus takes considerably more depth of thought and imagination than planning for a choir you know well. You are in fact planning for a range of potential choirs, and you find yourself having to mentally rehearse multiple different scenarios. But once you start to think through the range of possibilities, it isn’t an infinite range, and they are all contingencies you can prepare for.

What will happen in real life, of course, is that it doesn’t play out exactly like any of the scenarios you have played in your head. But the experience of having thought through and planned for a range of possibilities means that you have strategies to handle much of what comes up, and the skill to invent new ones in response to circumstances.

I think the key thing to note is that just because you know you are going to have to be flexible doesn’t mean you need less planning; it means you need more. It’s not just that the plans give you confidence, important though that is, they give your singers confidence. Ah, they will think, we are safe in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. And, feeling safe, they will trust you and cooperate to make it work.

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