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Rehearsing at Home

Tips for Practicing Music at Home

Written by Steve Scott and Rob Mance

In the era of virtual rehearsals, here are some tips on practicing at home. The purpose of this article is to share best practices that choruses like Central Standard and Music City Chorus employ.

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Materials Needed

Consider the following materials when rehearsing from home:

  • A space free from distraction is best for rehearsing at home. Also take into consideration how your sound will travel.
  • Water—stay hydrated
  • Your sheet music
  • A recording device, both audio and video
  • A pitch-giver (pitch pipe, piano, keyboard app, etc.)

Getting Started

Start with a warm up. Harmony University produces a warm-up series that includes physical, mental, and vocal warm ups. Suggestion: do a physical warm up, then a mental warm up, then vocal.

Spend a little time each day developing your personal musicianship. Start with something simple like interval training. They also have exercises for note identification.

Rehearsing When the Objective Is Learning a Song

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1. Learn the notable features of the song:

    1. Note the major parts—or form—of the song: introduction, verse(s), chorus(es), bridge, tag, etc.
    2. Note key signatures, meters, metronome markings, and any other tempo-related markings (rubatos, ritardando, accelerando, etc.).
    3. Highlight when your parts sings perfect intervals with another: octaves, fifths, fourths, unisons. This will build awareness and will aid in tuning. Music leaders can help you here!
    4. Note any duets, features, and voice crossing (esp. Baritones).
    5. Try to determine your note’s function in the chord. Knowing whether you are on the 5th or 7th of the chord can affect tuning. Music leaders can help you again here.
    6. Discover any special chords requiring attention to tuning or balance, e.g. Basses on the 3 (aka church chords), “chimey” sevenths (when Tenor is on root and Lead/Bari is one full step below on 7th), etc.
    7. Note any key changes or difficult harmonic passages, including ones with tritone substitutions.
    8. Highlight challenging sections due to range and tessitura.
    9. Make comments on lyrics, especially how the arrangement highlights the text

Directors: use the opportunity to go through new pieces with your singers, having them make rehearsal markings directly onto their sheet music. This might include the breathing plan, the length of breaths, on what beat final consonants should be sung, instructions on when to turn diphthongs or when to move from vowel to voiced consonant, etc.

2. Singing with Learning Media

    1. Get an overview of the song. What is the harmonic language? who has the melody? what is the vocal/emotional/performance apex?
    2. Learn the melody. Everyone needs to know and have sung the melody—no exceptions.
      1. Using the Lead part-predominant track, turn the other parts off using the balance function so all you hear is Lead.
      2. Gradually bring up the volume of the other parts after each iteration until you are confident singing the melody with other parts.
    3. Learn your part.
      1. Using your part-predominant track, turn the other voice parts off using the balance function so all you hear is your part.
      2. Gradually bring up volume on the other parts after each iteration until you are confident singing with other parts.
    4. Sing your part against the other solo tracks:
      1. Using a part-predominant track different from yours, turn the other voice parts off using the balance function so all you hear is that part.
        1. e.g. if you sing Baritone, sing with only the Bass playing. Repeat until you are confident you can hold your own against the other part.
      2. Repeat with all other parts.
    5. If at any time you are hesitant, go back to your part in isolation or the melody in isolation to gain comfort and competence.

3. Sing and Plays

At a keyboard or piano, play one part that is not your own while singing your own part. We recommend starting with the Bass part. If you sing Bass, start with the melody.

    1. At first, this will likely be a VERY slow process. It doesn't matter if at first you're singing and playing a new note every 30 seconds! In time, the process will get much faster as you get used to playing one part while singing your own part. You will get a much deeper understanding of the music and greater awareness of how your part interacts with each of the other parts.
    2. Repeat the process until you have sung your part while playing each of the other parts on the keyboard, one at a time.

Rehearsing When the Objective Is Rehearsing a Known Song

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Once you have learned your part and its relationship to the others, stop using the learning media. Use rehearsal recordings instead where possible. Continuing to sing with learning media reinforces a different interpretation, different vowels, different inflections, different dynamics, different executions of initial, internal and final consonants, different turnings of diphthongs, different phrasing, different breaths, the wrong (or no) emotion for a phrase, etc. In other words, to continue to use your learning media once you know the notes is to work at undoing everything done at chorus rehearsal.

Chorus leaders: make chorus performance recordings of individual repertoire pieces available to your singers so that they can continue to rehearse with the chorus. This also limits the temptation of singers going back to the learning media to rehearse a song that’s already been learned. Only distribute recordings that are both recent and the best examples of what you want from your chorus. This will make sure that your singers are singing with the most up-to-date material.

Solution? Shift from note-learning to performance. Many times, this is done without full run throughs. Ask yourself when was the last time the chorus director let you sing the song all the way through without stopping? Answer is likely: rarely. There is a good reason. At this point in your learning, you shouldn’t need more repetitions on a song. What you need are repetitions of excellent vocal production and engaged performance.

1. Vocal performance

Pay attention to:

    1. Intonation. Use a product like TonalEnergy Tuner throughout your rehearsal to monitor your personal intonation.
    2. Tension. Specifically watch for tongue tension and tension in the neck and head.
    3. Alignment. Even while sitting, you can still achieve relaxed abdominals for inhalation and the head comfortably over the shoulders.
    4. Dull vowels. This usually translates to a lowered or flattened tongue arch or an overly-arched soft palate. Vowels should sound like they do when you speak regardless of regional dialect. Monitor this by gently pressing your finger into the muscle just under your chin.
    5. Decreased air pressure, especially as you ascend in pitch. Pressure is the enemy of healthy singing. Remember that vocal folds thin out as the pitch gets higher and thus our capacity to withstand air pressure decreases the higher we sing. Solution is less air as you sing higher.
    6. Vocal tone. Record yourself singing your part solo, singing against the learning media if the song is new, or possibly singing with a recording of the chorus performing the song. Listen back to the recording, making note of successes in your performance, as well as opportunities for improvement in future recordings.
      1. Do this frequently. If you need advice on what to work on, share the recording with one of your musical leaders.

Isolate difficult vocal passages and practice them until you can’t get them wrong. Sometimes working backwards one note at a time can help. Example, sing the notes in measure 35 until you can’t get them wrong. Then sing measures 34 and 35 together. Then 33, 34, and 35. Do this until the difficult passage is no longer difficult. You can even break this down and do it note to note. No joke, this is how Steve passed his undergraduate piano proficiency test.

2. Visual Performance

Consider the following:

    1. How do the lyrics connect to emotion?
    2. How would I look if I earnestly said this to another human?
    3. No phrase should sound like the one that preceded it. The minute it does, you’ve stopped paying attention to the lyrics.
    4. Physical gestures should be a natural extension of human emotion.
    5. Are there compelling examples of this song from outside of barbershop? within? How can these examples inform your personal approach to performance?
    6. Video record yourself performing a song. Watch back the recording, making notes about successes and opportunities in the performance.
      1. If you want feedback, share the video with a member of your performance team/visual leaders.

One way to connect more to the text is to write it down separately. Make notes about specific word choices. Note how the poem is organized. Practice speaking the text aloud as if it were a monologue. Analyze how you can be most effective. Remember, many songs have super-objectives—“if I say these words, she’ll stay”—and our success in achieving the super-objective comes down to our efficacy in delivering the text. Ask yourself at any point: “Do I believe what I’m saying? Would another human believe me?” If not, change!

Note how much of the visual performance can be done not uttering a note!

3. Coaching

Use members of your music team and performance team to set up individual, virtual PVIs and performance coaching. Singing as an ensemble online, where everyone can hear everyone else, might not be practical. However, we can use this time productively with one-on-one coaching.

Helping each individual become a little bit better will help make the ensemble much better!

Final Thoughts

Take plenty of notes on your sheet music. Highlight text, circle notes, note meaningful relationships, etc. At the end of your rehearsal, set goals for the next rehearsal.

Leaders: plan for several weeks, keeping the video rehearsals fresh and exciting for your singers. For example, invite a guest coach one week to lead an activity. Another week, have your visual team teach a new choreo plan, etc. Keeping your program varied and interesting will keep your singers motivated.

Include an afterglow: after the formal video rehearsal is done, this is a great time to have social time with your fellow singers. Once you’ve wrapped up the official meeting, allow all your interested singers to get snacks and beverages and hold a virtual afterglow. Keeping ourselves socially connected will help us stay in the best place to advance as singers.

Things to avoid:

  1. Distracted rehearsing. If you are doing another task while you are singing along to the learning track, you are passively engaged in at least one of those tasks. A good example of this is rehearsing in the car. You should pay attention to the road, other drivers, etc. not whether you are singing the resolution to the tritone substitution correctly or whether the pronunciation of “you’re” is yore or yewe (hint: it’s the second). Further, you can hardly sit with good alignment or get a good released breath in most automobiles. Note: We’re not saying you can’t sing in the car. Just don’t call that your rehearsal!
  2. Singing to learning tracks after you’ve learned your part. Take the opportunity to do more than just get the notes right. What separates amateurs from professionals lies in this point.

Things to do:

  1. Be purposeful in gaining personal musicianship. This is a good opportunity to develop yourself. Use it!
  2. Be consistent. Singing is a fine motor skill like dancing or other sports, and requires distinct repetitions of isolated muscle groups to gain proficiency. Everyone can sing, but it takes dedication to develop the necessary muscle coordination if our goal is to make meaningful music.
  3. Have fun!