Hocus Pocus: 12 Tricks for Rehearsal Focus

It’s so easy to allow daily rehearsals to become repetitive and automatic. When we become repetitive, our choir tends to move into automatic pilot; students learn to anticipate exactly what is going to happen and end up focusing less and less. This then leads to decreased retention from rehearsal to rehearsal.

While developed routines are instrumental to the success of any program, the flexibility, awareness, and creativity of the director and students is what moves the rehearsals from repetitive to focused and memorable. We need to continually reinforce our routine, but not get stuck in a rut as a result of our routines.

The biggest factor in creating rehearsal productivity is student focus; the more focused the choir is, the more that can be accomplished. I would rather have 20 minutes of intense focus than 40 minutes of average focus in my rehearsal. Intense focus leads to retention whereas moderate focus leads to the need for rehearsal repetition day after day.

The tricks that I’ve listed can change-up a stale rehearsal in order to create a better focus. Nothing on this list requires additional skill or extra practice; it only requires an awareness of making “focus” the “focal” point of the rehearsal.

Here are 12 Tricks to Increase Focus In Our Daily Rehearsal:

1. Start warm-ups promptly at the bell

Do not wait for students to arrive. We must begin at the first possible moment and ensure all students who are latecomers begin as they enter the room, or at the very least enter the room in complete silence until they reach their seat. There should be absolutely no talking during warm-ups.


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2. Draw awareness to body alignment while singing

We should take the time to have all students concentrate on how they are standing when they are singing.  We can start with a very calm warm-up where we focus on relaxing our body and/or our breathing. Another approach would be singing a basic exercise (5 note descending pattern) and continually drawing focus upon their alignment (relax your shoulders, keep your head aligned, keep your feet firmly planted, unlock your arms, etc).


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3. Warm up the voice with simplicity and introspection

One minute of a hum where we are describing what our singers should be concentrating on will create a focus and stillness in the room as well as a relaxed voice. Let the simple unison sound of the choir continuously resonate as we verbally pop in every 5-10 seconds with additional direction of mental focus (have more height, feel the buzz, focus on body alignment, etc). Think of the hum as choir meditation.

4. Always give the choir a reason to watch

Our conducting choices during warm-ups should require students to watch. For example, if we ask our choir to sing a scale and on the fifth note, without verbal warning, choose to show a fermata, it will require all students to be paying close attention. Inevitably there will be students who weren’t focused and will sing through our fermata. When this happens, cutoff the choir and repeat the exercise again until all students are focused. Follow-up with tempo and dynamic changes, all gesture-based (no speaking required). When using visual stimuli to evoke sound, students will become focused. This is no different when working on a specific piece of music. Don’t always rehearse with the same interpretation. Treat each run-through of a piece of music as a unique performance with different tempos, dynamics, and shape.

5. Engage the Ear

When we teach ear-training with either hand signals or verbally telling our class to sing specific patterns, the students have to actively focus internally as they search internally for the sound. The big bonus is that our eyes can stay continually focused on our students. When we are engaged visually with our students, they will be engaged with us and stay on task.

6. Don’t wait for anyone when rehearsing music

Let our students scramble to keep up with us. If we move from one selection to the next, simply tell the choir to take out the next piece and immediately play the opening chord and begin. Do not count them in. Just start with the pitch and a breath. Move faster than they expect.  Do not give them time to ask where we are in the music. Skip from section to section in a piece of music. Make it clear, but make them work.


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7. Max out at 8 minutes

Keep any activity limited to 8 minutes at the absolute most.  In a 40 minute rehearsal, this could mean a 5-8 minute warm-up, 5-8 minutes of ear-training/sight-reading, and at least 4-5 pieces of music. Keeping it moving will keep them interested; this will help to maintain focus. Very few “a-ha” moments happen after 8 minutes of repetitive rehearsing.


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8. Speed up the pace……….and then slooooooow it down

After creating a grueling rehearsal pace, slow down by asking an open-ended, engaging question. Ensure all students are thinking about the question by rephrasing it while looking around the entire room.  We must draw all students in visually and not call on students until numerous hands are raised and all students are actively involved.


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9. 3 Strikes and then they’re out  (in honor of Baseball Season about the begin)

When the choir is singing through a piece of mostly-learned music, we shouldn’t stop them until we have heard at least 3 definitive things we wish to address. When we finally do choose to stop, address one issue at a time and sing through the same section with that one specific correction as the focus. Once that correction is made, announce the second change and have the group focus on change #2 along with change #1. Repeat with the third change with a cumulative focus. As a result, the students will have sung through the piece with specific, intense, and escalating focus. Mindful repetition leads to retention.

10. Keep everyone singing

The entire choir should be singing the overwhelming majority of the time. All singers can learn all parts in the music. Men can sing soprano/alto part in falsetto while women can sing the bass part up the octave. When we feel the need to focus on one specific section, we must keep it quick and ensure all students are following along. Immediately move to the entire group or to another section with no wasted time. Keep the choir on their toes.

11. Use one section to model a different section’s voice part

If the altos sing with too much chest voice, rather than spend forever with the alto section on their tone, have the other 3 sections sing the alto part independently. Coach the other sections on the alto part and create the ideal tone for the altos to emulate. Sopranos will inherently be lighter at the bottom of their voice, and tenors and basses will be in falsetto. Instead of ignoring three sections to focus on one, we can choose to engage all 4. This example is applicable to all voice parts.

12. Have students serve as class conductors

When students conduct, even with no formal conducting skill, the choir becomes hyper-focused on the conductor’s intentions rather than observing rote gesture. This will better prepare our members for our intentions when we return to the podium to conduct the same passage. It may also open up the group to the understanding of multiple interpretations of the same passage. When students become aware of multiple interpretations and gestures, they learn to be focused on what it is precisely that we wish to communicate.

About the Author:

Adam Paltrowitz is a master educator, composer, conductor, and clinician. During his 21-year tenure as the Director of Choral Activities at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School in New York, his groups have toured throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. He also has pioneered a philosophy that every student is a soloist. Adam's choral program has also gained great acclaim for the cultivation of eight student-run a-cappella ensembles; some of these ensembles have performed on national and local television programs. His compositions and arrangements have been performed by choirs around the world. Adam earned his B.S. in music education from New York University, M.A. in vocal pedagogy from Columbia University - Teacher's College, and Ed.M. choral conducting from Columbia University - Teacher's College. ​Adam resides in Manhattan with his wife, Blair Goldberg, a professional Broadway actress, and their daughter, Lyla, and son, Nolan.

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