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The hierarchy of rehearsal effectiveness

As featured in The Harmonizer.

The four sets of rehearsal "gears"

Music leaders must make hundreds of decisions about how to work with their group in a variety of situations, especially when the energy of the group ebbs and flows. Think of this as rehearsing with several sets of rehearsal gears, depending on the rehearsal terrain! It’s helpful to start in a lower gear and work your way up gradually, letting the momentum and energy of the rehearsal flow into the next gear.

1. Lowest gear: instructional language

“Pianissimo at bar 37,” “Take a breath after the word ‘on’ in bar 12,” “Keep the tip of the tongue touching the back of the bottom teeth.” It is specific, analytical and unambiguous. It’s important information, but if that’s the only method you use to affect how people sing, you will never get everything done.

2. Next gear up: expressive language

“Sing this phrase intimately,” “The tone needs to be less espresso and more frappucino,” “The vowels are a wire and the consonants cable-clips–they articulate the line, but don’t cut through it.” Metaphors invite a more active and imaginative involvement from your singers. But this still involves the leader talking.

3. Higher gear: vocal demonstrations

These appeal directly to the singers’ mirror neurons, inviting direct emulation. In the time it takes to sing a phrase, you can demonstrate notes, rhythms, phrasing, vocal production, pronunciation and characterization all at once. You don’t have to use words to explain, you simply show.

4. Top gear: conducting embodiment

It’s not “gesture,” since it’s not just about the physical aspect of moving your hands and arms. This instead involves that sense of becoming the music itself. This is the holy grail of directing: getting to the place where the connection between director and chorus starts to feel like telepathy. Directors risk alongside the performers, and they become vulnerable with every singer.

You can’t go straight into top gear from stationary; you need a lower one to get you moving. And when the terrain gets more difficult, you change gears, over and over. Overall, the aim is to keep in the highest gear at any moment in order to complete your journey in the best time with least expenditure of energy and most artistic performing.

-Dr. Liz Garnett is the author of “The British Barbershopper: A Study in Socio-Musical Values and Choral Conducting” and “The Construction of Meaning: Gesture, Voice, Identity.” She blogs on conducting, arranging and other musical matters at