Embodying the music

Our ultimate goal should be teaching our students to embody the music they sing. The deeper they connect, the more they will become the art.

As mentioned in Don’t Make Them Memorize, memorizing is not the beginning or ending step to music-making; it is merely a natural bi-product of a specific type of rehearsing that requires a high level of focus and a whole-body approach.

Last week’s article, How To “Teach” Memorizing Music Without Even Trying, mentions how professional actors embody their roles without memorizing their lines. The ability to embody music does not necessarily require memorization as an end game; it is my belief, however, that embodiment lends itself to natural memorization within our rehearsal provided we desire this to be the outcome.

Don’t Make Them Memorize!

Here are 12 rehearsal tips that provide the framework for teaching students how to embody and memorize traditional choral music:

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1) Hook ‘Em Right Away

Try to get them to buy in to every piece from the start. Teach them the chorus, the melody, or bring them to our favorite part. Whatever leaves them wanting more is what we should be striving for. If they like it, they will want to dig deeper.

2) The Big Picture comes before the details

Students must understand the overall feel of the piece, the structure, the melody, etc., prior to being bogged down with details and correcting wrong notes. If the big picture framework is understood, the details will naturally fall into place, sometimes on their own. There are many effective ways to instill the big picture; whatever our approach, we should ensure students have a true sense of the piece they will be expected to embody.

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3) Learn the entire piece quickly

Before a group can embody a piece, they need to have a full sense from beginning to end. It does not need to be perfectly accurate; it just needs to demonstrate the essence of understanding. Most of the notes, rhythms, lyrics, dynamics are accurate, even if the group struggles to find some starting notes for certain phrases, some dynamics, lyrical mistakes, etc. The key is to collectively be able to get through the entire piece without stopping.

4) Explore the meaning

Once the basics of the piece are learned from start to finish, it’s a good time to start diving into a group discussion. Explore the message of the song, what the text means, the backstory of the piece, and/or anything that will help our students to emotionally and intellectually connect. Use the meaning to draw upon the musical choices of the composer. When students connect to the text and to the composer’s musical choices, they will have a deeper ability to embody the music.

5) Focus on one specific detail at a time

After a piece is learned, drawing attention to a specific detail will create a unique focus from the ensemble. An example would be focusing on articulation for the opening section; once the articulation is truly embodied, even at the expense of other musical elements, skip to a different section in the music and apply that same concept. Other specific focal points could be vowels, over-emphasizing dynamics and dynamic contrasts, final consonants, eliminating unaccented syllables, and breath-markings, etc. Each detail should be the sole focal point when it is being addressed.

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6) Run through a large portion of the piece before rehearsing any specific section

We should frequently begin with a complete run-through to reinforce the big picture prior to zoning into a specific detail in a fragmented section within the music. This concept will deepen the group’s understanding of the big picture while clarifying what we need to draw attention to in future rehearsals.

7) When focusing on a specific section in the music, end by singing from memory

When focusing on a specific section in the music (with a clear focal point), conclude that portion of the rehearsal by performing the section from memory. If the memorized run-through falters, have them look at their music once, and then try it again from memory.

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8) Sing entire piece from memory without fear of a epic collapse

Assuming students can sing through the piece from beginning to end, there is no reason why we can’t start or end any rehearsal just trying it from memory. If anything, this will be a barometer for students to become aware of what they know and what they have yet to fully comprehend. When following up by rehearsing with sheet music in hand, they will naturally focus in on the parts they couldn’t naturally recall. When there is only a few minutes left in a given period, I usually move to a final piece, and don’t give my students enough time to take out the music. I just give the starting pitches and pretend they have it memorized…..which they usually do.

9) Invite students who have their music memorized to demonstrate

Simply ask the class, “Who believes they can sing from memory?”  Have those students stand up and sing it. This exercise could entail one section of the music or the entire song. While conducting, change up dynamics, tempo, accents, etc. If students have truly embodied the music, they will be super-responsive to our direction.

Star-Spangled Banner (SAB – Unaccompanied)

10) Have the choir sing through the piece twice in a row, the second time from memory

Let the students know the purpose of the first run-through is to memorize anything they aren’t sure of. Many students will purposefully zone in during the first run-though and set the musical road map in their heads. If the memorized run-through falls apart, have them look at their music briefly and then repeat it again.

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11) Change up the interpretation

Conduct the piece differently every time. Give the students something to watch. They will only be responsive when they have embodied the music. It may also help to give different choir members the opportunity to conduct. A fresh interpretation requires more embodiment and focus from singers.

12) Even if we intend to use music for the concert, experiment with memorization

Sheet music should be a tool, not a crutch. There are certainly times when a choir must use sheet music; if we are performing a major work or have to learn a lot of music in a very short period of time, we may not be able to be off-book. It is important that we teach students how to only use their music when they need it, just like a road map.

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