further adventures in concert revision

I’ve done a blog post on the topic before, but I thought I’d update with a really cool process that occurred this month with my Treble Choir. I hold two concerts for the expressed purpose of preparing for a public performance/demonstration of learned skills through their literature, having them listen to and analyze how they did, revise their work based on their feedback, and then repeat the process via a second concert of the same literature.

The class this year is a year-long honors course with 28 students. These singers are brought in via teacher recommendation only, based on video submissions from prior chorus classes: if/when they consistently earn indicator scores in their video assessments that warrant an honors choir opportunity, I invite them to join. Jen Etter is also allowed to recommend 8th graders who have earned this opportunity so they may enter as Freshman. This year the group is comprised of 5 Freshman, 17 Sophomores, 4 Juniors and 2 Seniors.

In addition to two combined selections (our annual Malcom Sargent arranged Silent Night processional with Chamber Singers and the combined finale with all three choirs of There Has To Be A Song) I ended up working on four songs with them. First was Wondrous Morning Star arranged by Phillip Keveren for the purpose of developing tone, part independence and ear training as there is a fair amount of chromaticism. Second was Song For Christmas Day by Peter Warlock. I discovered this song online a year ago, and found that it has never been published nor performed in the United States. I got ahold of the original manuscript from the choir in England who performed it in 1993 and decided it would be a combined selection for the Treble Choir and Chamber Singers sopranos and altos. The Treble Choir’s skills developed so well by November that I decided to give it just to them. It requires a lot of technical skill to pull off, as it is not only chromatic at times, the tempo flies and incorporates some crazy skips and harmonies along the way. Third, I gave them a pretty arrangement of the English Carol, On Christmas Night arranged by B. Wayne Bisbee. This brought in the opportunity for some solos and great homophonic singing. I switched up the voice parts, bringing the soprano 1 part down the octave and giving it to altos, and then soprano 1s and 2s sliding down to the voice part below them. It was a much better fit for their voice ranges. Finally, we concluded with a song I arranged over the Summer for them, a beautiful song by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys called Love and Mercy. I felt this would be a nice opportunity for them to learn to apply choral tone to a contemporary selection.

The journey to the first concert was an interesting one. The ensemble was a bit younger, so developing their ears and especially their tone took some time. One of the challenges we really struggled with was the concept of not allowing the vowels to determine their tone; their tone was changing to speaking voice tone whenever they sang their brighter vowels. They also took awhile to start refining both their pitch accuracy and their intonation. Both were inconsistent, even leading into December. They came a long way and demonstrated growth. But it was still a work in progress. At the core of my program is my goal to teach my students through three overarching levels:

  1. teach my singers the skills and vocal pedagogy necessary to become a vocal musician, regardless of genre.
  2. establish these skills in my singers – individually – so they can display them when required to demonstrate them.
  3. transfer their skills from the, “I can do this when I think about it and focus on it” box over to the, “I do this now automatically without even thinking about it” box.

The intent is for each of my students, over time, to developmentally move from one of these to the next one, landing on the final one if they stay with me for multiple years. Treble Choir as a group this Fall was struggling to get to the second level. I could hear their skills at level 2 in their usual video assessments/submissions, but it wasn’t always translating to the work we did in class as I kept adding new layers of expectations on them.

When we approached December, I moved our final rehearsals into the performance space and there we discovered where the real gaps were in their skills. You have to listen differently in a new space without necessarily singing differently. They started doing the exact opposite. They were a bit wigged out by the different space, feeling more exposed on stage to the point that they really did start singing differently and many times their foundational training was weak if not missing altogether. By the time the first concert came on Monday, December 12, we had worked hard to get as much of our skill set shored up as possible. We put it all to the test that night in front of our first audience.

Our following class on Wednesday, I put a grid up on the board. Across the top is our performance indicators, and in a column on the left are the songs we performed. What we do is listen to the concert recording, one song at a time. Then I have them vote on each indicator how they think we did. For instance, for the indicator for notes/pitch accuracy, I will say “1”, and all those who felt it was a “1” (did not meet) raise their hands. Then I say “2” (partially meets) and have those who felt it was a “2” raise their hands. I repeat this for “3” (meets) and “4” (exceeds). I then take the average for the class and put it in that box. So, if all my singers vote a “3” but there are a handful who voted for “2”, I might put in the box a score of “2.8”. Once they have cast votes for every indicator for that one song, I go around and take comments/thoughts/reflections (up until this point they are required to stay completely silent) from anyone who raises their hand and has something to say. Anything that is helpful for us to consider on our revision rehearsal gets added under the “thoughts” column. At the conclusion of class on Wednesday, here was our grid:

I circled the lowest indicator scores from the grid, and this became our lesson plan for the following rehearsal.

The revision rehearsal was next class on Friday. It was the last block of the day of a trying week. One of our singers in the program lost her brother in a car accident the weekend before… and while the impact on us as a school was absolutely nothing compared to the trauma endured by that family, it certainly had a residual impact on all of us. The singers’ energy was low by Friday afternoon, but their focus was very high. I could take that. We began in the chorus room for the first 40 minutes and focused only on the details from Wednesday’s listening that needed the most help. It was a combination of singing, discussing technique, and practicing strategies to better implement them. They did well with it and the improvement was noticeable. One point of emphasis was singing with more confidence, leaning on and trusting in the technical skills they had developed since the start of the term. We then went to the auditorium stage to try them out for the last 30 minutes of class. The results were mixed but it was what they were capable of in the moment. Again, I could take that.

The following Monday, December 19, we had our second concert. I had one singer who alerted me in September that she would be unavailable for Concert #2 due to a family conflict and she was 100% excused. But I had 4 others who also did not make it due to illness. One of them was one of our strongest sopranos, and two of my absent singers were Altos, already my smallest section and the one voice part which needed to sing out much stronger for balance issues we identified on Wednesday. For a choir that had confidence issues, missing 5 of our 28 students was not insignificant. We talked about it during warmups and then just went for it. As they got on the risers that night, no one was more fascinated to see how they’d do than me! The concert went well and we could tell it was a much more musical performance.

We met in class the next day. We went through the same listening process as the previous week, filling out our grid based on the concert #2 recording. They did NOT see their scores previously assigned from concert #1 when they did so. It was only afterwards that I added those scores to the grid. Here it is, their scores from concert #2 listed in black, the scores from concert #1 added underneath afterwards in red:

We all found it interesting that the only song that appeared to sound not as musical the second concert (On Christmas Night) was the only song we did not focus on during the revision process. Yet those song scores for concert #2 met our goals (any score between a 2.9 and a 3.1 or so is the target score for every indicator) and were closely aligned to the scores of the other songs. In other words, we were significantly more consistent for concert #2. I was extremely proud of the students in Treble choir after the second concert – not because they did “well”, but because they showed so much musical growth where additional musical growth was most needed. It was a real learning experience for them and reinforced that the class is not a talent-based course, but a skills based course in which they can continue to demonstrate growth over time.

The benefits of going through this process each concert season? Too many to even begin to mention. But the overarching benefit is to get my students to understand the role and responsibility that they have as musicians. My favorite analogy is to reference the Impressionist painter, George Seurat who used “dots” of pure color on his canvas to create his paintings. Below are two pictures of the exact same painting:

We know that our audiences look at the lower picture. But training my singers to look at the same painting from the top picture’s vantage point is one of the great joys of my job. I believe that this is an essential component of training my students to become musicians, not just performers. And when they do understand that it’s the essential pieces that make up the whole, it is my hope that they will never approach either their singing pedagogy or their music the same way ever again. This remains my own annual Big Audacious Goal. The concert revision process each term is a really cool microcosm of developing that.

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