December 10th, 2012
Chorus America polled a number of choral directors and singers about the pros and cons of allowing questions in rehearsal. Their answers shed light on different teaching and learning styles and the collaborative process in general.
“Where do I take a breath in measure 25 of my score?” “Isn’t that A-natural supposed to be an A-sharp?” “What page are we on?” Singers naturally have lots of questions during the rehearsal process. But should they speak up and ask the conductor? The answer may depend on the kind of chorus in which they sing.
In Iris Levine’s 36-member Vox Femina in Los Angeles, questions are the norm—up to a point. “We are not the type of group that has consensus on everything,” Levine said. “We are a group of women. Women like to have input and know that their voice is heard.”
In the nine-member “leaderless” ensemble Cantus in the Twin Cities, questions are encouraged, even challenging ones. “I hate the idea of closing off learning something or not being able to choose a better or more informed path,” tenor Aaron Humble said. “Even when conducting a choir, I take the same approach. The more informed the choir is, the better they are going to be.”
On the other hand, during Craig Jessop’s tenure as music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singers knew that the middle of rehearsal was not the time to raise concerns. “With 360 people, allowing questions invites chaos,” Jessop said. Jessop patterned his “no questions” policy after the late, great Robert Shaw. “No one would interrupt him,” Jessop said. “If someone did, a gasp would go up.”
"The more informed the choir is, the better they are going to be.”- Aaron Humble
But how do choruses come up with their policies about questions—and is there a downside to not having clear guidelines in place? Chorus America polled a number of choral conductors and singers on this burning issue. Their answers run the gamut and reveal just how tricky collaboration can be.
Size Really Does Matter
Besides Jessop, several other conductors said they either forbade or strictly curtailed questions during rehearsals. All of them lead or have led large symphonic choruses of 150 singers or more. John Alexander, conductor of the 150-member Pacific Chorale, is one who holds a tight rein on questions during rehearsal. “With that size group you have to have pretty strict rules or the rehearsal is destroyed,” he said.
“I request that no one ask a question during rehearsal unless it’s life threatening,” said Vance George, director emeritus of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. “You have a rehearsal flow that can be stopped in a second, and it’s difficult to regain that flow if a question pops up.”
These large choruses, however, set up their own mechanisms for asking questions appropriately. Each delegated the responsibility for handling singers’ questions and getting clarification from the conductor if necessary to section leaders. “The singers learn in their orientation to the chorus that the section leader is responsible for asking questions,” Alexander said. “If there is something I am missing, then I welcome the section leader asking, ‘Do you want us to breathe here or not?’”
“You have a rehearsal flow that can be stopped in a second, and it’s difficult to regain that flow if a question pops up.”- Vance George
Both Jessop and Alexander allowed section leaders to ask questions during rehearsals; George did not. Jessop also encouraged section leaders to hand him notes with questions prior to a rehearsal. “And I tried to remember at the end of each rehearsal to say, ‘Are there any questions?’ so that people had an opportunity.”
Even choruses that allow singers’ questions have seen the wisdom of adopting a different policy when the group reaches a certain size. The San Francisco Lyric Chorus, normally a group of 40 to 45 singers, did a collaboration in the summer of 2012 that swelled the group to 130 singers from more than 30 choruses. “It would have been impossible to hear the questions or answers,” chorus member Helene Whitson said. “Plus, it would have taken too much time from the rehearsal.”
The solution was to give the section representatives clipboards on which the summer singers could write down their questions. After rehearsal, Whitson compiled the questions, directed them to the appropriate person, and printed answers in the chorus newsletter.
“Obviously, if singers need to know what page we're starting on, they can ask,” Whitson said, “but it saves a lot of practice time to write things down, and then everyone will know the answer.”
What Tone Are You Trying to Set?
Whether or not to allow questions during rehearsal goes beyond concerns about crowd control. “It is about communication and how you set the mood for communication between director and chorus,” said Shel Cullison, a singer who has conducted several community choruses. “Do you want to have a hands off, ‘do not approach the throne’ kind of mood? How do you want to run your chorus?”
Cullison believes that allowing questions is a good way to educate singers who don’t have a great deal of musical knowledge. “With people who don’t sightread as well, you have to get out of your own head and into theirs,” she said. “They’ve never seen it before. There’s anxiety, especially if they are sitting next to someone who cows them.”
“I would say to an amateur group, ‘Don’t ask your friend. Ask me.’ Then they wouldn’t get the wrong answer, and it would cut down on the chatter.”
Humble of Cantus believes that it is also important to consider that singers may have different learning styles. “You need to make sure everyone is getting the information in the way that they need it,” he said. “Some people learn best by listening, some by visualizing. If it’s a really complicated score, I hold up my score and say ‘We are starting here.’”
Levine encourages input and discussion, but within parameters. “When rehearsals begin, I may say, ‘Are there any questions you want to address before we start this?’ Or, after we have done something, ‘Is there anything further we need to know?’ I do that so that they know there is going to be an opportunity for them to ask some specific things. Then, if a question comes in the middle, I can ask them to hold that question, and they know we’ll get to it.”
There Are Questions and Then There Are Questions
Whatever a group’s policy on questions, practically everyone we talked to said there were certain types of questions and questioners that made them groan.
One is the know-it-all who seems intent on demonstrating his or her superior knowledge. “There was one woman where I felt like handing her the baton and saying, ‘Why don’t you lead. You obviously know this better than the rest of us,’” Jessop recalled.
Letting such a questioner persist, he said, is not only annoying but can do damage to the overall morale of the chorus. Jessop took the woman aside and said, “You are one of the strongest singers, and I know you care, but this is detrimental to the rest of the group. Address your questions to me.”
Such interventions should be done in private. “I refuse to embarrass anyone in public, even the annoying ones,” Jessop said.
In most cases, choristers are grateful when their conductor takes on question askers of this type—and are dismayed when she or he doesn’t. One singer said that she and a group of fellow choristers implored their mild-mannered choral conductor to speak with one insistent know-it-all. “But he said he didn’t want to,” she recalled. “He wanted to be nice and not upset anyone.”
What Page Are We On?
Another common type of question is one that demonstrates that the singer was not paying attention. “If choristers didn't feel obliged to chat at every break, or carry on running commentary while the conductor is speaking, most of the questions would be unnecessary,” one singer lamented.
Shauna Fallihee, a singer and voice teacher in the Bay Area says, “When I am conducting or running a rehearsal, I am happy to answer any question except ones that indicate that someone wasn't listening. Asking for clarification or explanation is great. Asking me to repeat myself, not so much. A good rule of thumb is that if you don't know the answer because you weren't listening, it’s best not to ask that question out loud to the conductor.”
Levine concurs: “I don’t want a question, ‘Do you want the altos to take a breath here?’ The likelihood is that I have shown it, or have given the answer.”
"Asking for clarification or explanation is great. Asking me to repeat myself, not so much."-Shauna Fallihee
Don’t Worry. We’re on Track.
Questions that derail the rehearsal process also drive conductors round the bend. “It drives me nuts,” said Levine, “when we’re working on a section, and someone raises their hand and asks, ‘Back on page 3…’ I want to say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ It is adding chaos and removing the drive the director is trying to achieve. We’re not talking about page 3. We are talking about this right here.’”
Levine suspects that most singers are unaware of the careful planning that goes into chorus rehearsals, and how disruptive it can be to be thrown off course. “The average chorister does not know that going back to page 3 not only deters from the plan, but that page 3 is going to be on next week’s plan, so don’t worry about it.”
To help singers understand the process, Levine emails rehearsal plans on Wednesday for the next rehearsal on Tuesday. “That way they know what we will be working on and can prepare,” she said. “Sometimes I send two weeks of rehearsal plans.”
Zeroing in on specific tasks or milestones helps minimize singer anxiety and the questions that flow from that. “In rehearsal, I give them homework,” she continued. “I’ll say, ‘Come prepared with notes and rhythm learned. We will be working on style and tone only.’"
In a similar vein, some conductors limit the kinds of questions that can be asked as the concert time nears. “One conductor allowed no questions about notes during dress rehearsals,” Cullison recalled. “He would say, ‘From now on, we are only dealing with interpretation questions.’ It is important from the outset to set the guidelines for what you want.”
When to Bend
Even the conductors with the strictest rules about questions realize that there are times when they need to bend. “Perhaps a singer just can’t resist asking and it will be a valid and important thing to ask,” Jessop said. “The director has to be a little flexible. Even if you start with the philosophy of ‘don’t interrupt the conductor,’ there will still be occasions where there is a question.”
"It is important from the outset to set the guidelines for what you want.”- Shel Cullison
On those occasions where something really is awry, a singer may have to be brave. “I don’t do it often,” Cullison said, “but if something is wrong and the conductor is not hearing it, I will ask.”
In the end, conductors and singers really are after the same thing—a great performance and a pleasurable rehearsal experience leading up to it. As with any collaboration, there has to be trust among all the players. Levine recalled one singer who came to her after the concert and said, “Wow, once again I had no idea how beautifully this concert was going to flow from beginning to end.”
“I wanted to say, ‘Hello, you have been doing this with me for 15 years. I actually know what I am doing,’” Levine said. But she took the comment to heart. Now she sets aside time at the beginning of a rehearsal cycle to talk through a program—the pieces and why she choose them, the poetry or lyrics, and how the pieces fit together.
“Singers want to be in on the process too,” Levine said. “People come to a chorus for community and collaboration. They want to do things correctly, to be a positive impact, and we need to give them the tools to do that.”
Here are more tips and strategies for both conductors and singers to consider.
Kelsey Menehan is a writer and singer based in San Francisco. She contributes regularly to The Voice and to www.chorusamerica.org.
This article is adapted from The Voice, Winter 2012/2013.