returning to the familiar
from evy's notebook
I remember sitting in a coffee shop across the table from the conductor of a choir I was singing in, who had graciously offered to mentor me on my journey of learning choral conducting. We were exchanging thoughts on leading choirs, and I was discussing the stress felt by an ensemble when learning a large amount of music for a concert. Each term, this choir had three months to learn over an hour's worth of music, and sometimes it felt like we were still struggling to get all the notes correct only days before the concert. I asked him if he had considered reusing pieces from previous terms when planning the program for a future term.
"Some choirs sing the same music over and over, recycling their greatest hits," he replied, "and you can do that if you want, but we're not one of those choirs."
It seemed like my conductor thought that returning to old music was a cheap trick, cheating even, and this perspective continues to fascinate me. It's true that rehearsing known pieces of music can be an easy way to fill a concert program and can feel less impressive, but returning to the familiar has so many advantages.
There are many stages to learning a piece of music. At first, it is completely unfamiliar and must be learned either by sight-singing (reading the notes on the page and, in real time, figuring out what they should sound like) or by ear (hearing the piece and memorizing what it sounds like). This process requires a lot of focus and mental capacity, meaning that the first three-hour rehearsal of a term is likely to be exhausting. By including pieces that the singers already know and intermingling those pieces throughout the first rehearsal, the singers get breaks from this strenuous learning process.
But my favourite aspect of returning to familiar pieces is getting the chance to iterate on them. Learning the notes is only the first stage of learning a piece of music. After some mental bandwidth is freed up, the singers can focus on how to blend their voices together, can discuss the story they are telling through the music, can experiment with pronunciation and tone colour and loudness. These are my favourite parts of learning a piece of music, and when there is too much music to learn in three months, it's hard to spend much time on this kind of polish.
Having several months of rehearsals to focus on the musicality of a piece is a special thing. It isn't lazy or cheating, it's strategic. There are so many skills that singers can work on in a choral context, and one way to bring a diversity of them into each rehearsal is to program some music that many of the singers already know and love.
Today's experiment was to set a timer for an hour and write only within that hour. I finished the first draft within 30 minutes (though I'll admit I cheated a bit by thinking about this post for the past couple days), and I spent another 15-20 minutes editing.