Conductor's Corner: Tips for Healthy Rehearsals

As wonderful and therapeutic as choral singing can be, the rehearsal process is sometimes stressful for both singers and conductors. Here are a few ideas for creating a hospitable and healthy space that enhances the body, mind, and spirit of all involved. 

Have your singers stand up.

Most choral conductors make it a practice to have their singers stand periodically during rehearsals. Standing invariably improves the sound as the breath is allowed to flow more freely. What conductors may not know is that standing up may help improve singers’ overall health. 

Recent studies warn of the dangers of too much sitting. One found that the adults who sat the most were at an increased risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and were also at greater risk of dying prematurely—even if they regularly exercised. Another study calculated that every single hour of sitting in front of the television after the age of 25 reduced the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes! 

You have no way of knowing how much your singers are sitting—either at home or on the job—but it’s a good bet that it’s a lot. So pay no attention to those groans and complaints when you ask singers to “rise and sing.”

Make rehearsal a “safe place.”

It is the conductor’s job to create an atmosphere for effective learning and collaboration. That means no singer should leave a rehearsal feeling that they have been beaten up or ridiculed. “The old model of the tyrant maestro still exists, but it is not the most common one or the most effective,” said Joshua Habermann, music director of the Dallas Symphony Chorus and the Santa Fe Desert Chorale. “Most conductors now want to treat their singers, whether professional or volunteer, with a great deal of kindness and respect.” 

That does not mean that rehearsals are “loosy goosy, with love and happiness for everyone, but no good results,” Habermann said. “The best conductors understand the choral instrument very well and know how to motivate other humans in a positive way, rather than doing things that shut them down.”

Use mistakes and missteps as an opportunity for exploration.

“Nobody sings a wrong note on purpose” Axel Theimer, music director of Kantorei and executive director of the VoiceCare Network, said. “You have to believe that every note that everybody sings is the one he or she thought was on the page. So you might say, ‘You sang a different note. Was it higher or lower? What was the reason you thought you needed to sing that note?’ 

“You don’t hit the bull’s eye all the time, but that does not mean you are a failure,” Theimer says. “Singers have plenty of opportunity to feel wrong and bad in their regular lives outside of singing. Singing should be recreation time, or the real meaning of the word, re-creation. They should be able to leave a rehearsal energized and feeling better.” 

Speak the truth, with kindness.

The big test, of course, is when a performance is looming and the chorus is not where it should be. “I’ve had those moments,” Habermann says. “Sometimes I’ll just say, ‘This is not going well, is it?’ and then everybody laughs. It is the thing that everybody knows but does not want to say and it has become this unspoken tension.”

“All you are doing is acknowledging the truth and you can potentially gain some allies,” he said, “because the truth is, everybody wants the same thing—to make great music. It is in those moments when we are really challenged, that we do best to try to form those alliances and stay in a psychologically healthy place. Because that is when it is most important.” 

Let go of the need to control—yourself or your singers. 

Tensions naturally rise as a performance nears. But don’t let that undermine the psychological health of your group. “You may wish you had another rehearsal,” Theimer says. “But it makes no difference. You don’t. You are wishing you are somewhere else that you are not.

“It is better to arrive at the actual performance, and say, ‘this is how much I know, let’s do it,’” he said. “For singers, that’s much more satisfying than being told right before going on stage, ‘Hey, this is really important, try your hardest, don’t make any mistakes.’ The best performers are totally absorbed by the music, not by the technicality of making music. So get out of the way and allow yourself to be the musicians that you are at that moment and not something else.”

Invite agreement on a common set of standards and values.

What is your choral group about? Why do you get together every week? What are the group norms and expectations? Often an organization’s mission statement will give some clues to these shared values. “I used to think mission statements were very philosophical and impractical,” Habermann says. “But now I think they are invaluable because they help you in creating the culture. Then it’s not what the conductor wants or the ensemble wants but this is what we are all about. 

“Especially in those difficult moments, it is something you refer back to. This is our culture. We have a responsibility to each other. And we are not living up to our common agreed upon cultural values. It becomes much less personal and, psychologically, much more healthy and puts people at ease.” 

This article is an online accompaniment to the Spring 2013 issue of The Voice, focused on Singing and Wellness.

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