Hannibal Smith’s Tweet to All Choir Ninjas:

I love it when a Plan comes together


As teachers and students get in the groove to prepare for Festival Season this spring, Sheet Music Deals asked me to share some thoughts about preparing choirs to put their best foot forward and show off the hard work they have accomplished during the year.  In Part I, I offer strategy tips to help teachers see the big picture, begin transformative planning, and set goals for their choirs’ tone and sound.  This ground work lays the foundation for Repertoire Selection, Practice and Performance.

Over the years working with choirs, I have learned and re-learned the ever important and seemingly simple lesson of starting with reality.  Painful as it often is, we have to accept who we are as directors, with our own mix of strengths and weaknesses, skills and talents, before we couple them with a realistic assessment of our ensembles so that we can continue to grow into the musicians we envision ourselves and our choirs becoming.  Key reality checks include:

  • Set clear cut goals to plan your time so that you actually have time for musical planning in the midst of the administrative avalanche.
  • Continually RAP: Reflect, Assess and Plan for next rehearsal / future
  • What ineffective habits did I experience in the rehearsal?
  • What are the key things holding me back – and my choir back – that I want to change?
  • What is my potential as a director and my choir’s potential as a performing group? What planning do I need to do to get us both going in the direction I envision?

These five questions are not a one-time evaluation, but a continual and repeating cycle I use and encourage my clinic participants to use in pursuit of continual improvement.  Education and the classroom provide experiences, memories and discipline, but learning is ultimately something we do for ourselves.  Our students and our performances are our very best teachers if we open ourselves up to self-awareness, one of the most valuable and difficult life lessons we can model for our students as we teach ourselves.  Equally important is the need to create an environment where it is ok for us to struggle, fail, get up again and improve.

By creating a safe environment for discovery, I have found that practice becomes “authentic”, which evokes its own amazing sense of concentration and engagement.  These are the key ingredients for success – behind the curtain – that have made many of my choirs successful.  The curtain itself is the magic mountain of planning.

Have a plan for everything 

By strategic planning, your results will appear to others – including your students – as an effortless flow of music, creativity and focus.  Your students will perceive this flow as your confidence, mission and clear direction.  Key planning tips that should guide every practice rehearsal with any age level include:

  • Ground zero: Start off will clear procedures and routines.  These norms set the framework so that students successfully focus on their role in the classroom/rehearsal.
  • Begin every rehearsal with tone development. This is your moment to inform sections what you want to hear in their performance from the beginning.
  • Detailed lesson plans, based in your careful score study, should include assessment, skill layering, your plan for sequential teaching and creative repetition based on these principles and the results of your last rehearsal.

Work on Tone and Sound

  • After envisioning the tone and technique fundamentals you intend to achieve with your choir, focus on YOUR CHARACTERISTIC CHORAL TONE, the “sound in your head”. You are the voice teacher and your students rely upon you to help them learn how to use their voices properly, control their breath and bring out the beauty inside of them. Some helpful tips to lay the groundwork and assess progress include:

1. Are well-defined and have an intentional purpose.

2. Are sequential and build on each other.

3. Change as your choir builds bench-strength. All Choir Ninjas command a diverse and flexible skill set.  You can’t always lunge, you also need to fall, punch and turn.

  • RECORD YOUR WARM-UPS at least once a week. This is the very best way to “face the music” and either correct course or be delighted with the results you are achieving with your choir.
  • Consider having another choral professional or clinician listen to your warm-ups so that YOU can listen. There’s nothing like live listening to increase your own listening powers, trigger your choir to concentrate on an “Event” and simulate real-time performance energy.

Expect sound development throughout the entire rehearsal

  • Envision your choir’s development and plan accordingly so that it happens. Choir Ninjas practice auditory yoga:  each activity of the lesson builds up to the next towards an apex.   One of the key traits of high performing directors is their ability to envision and create a unified directional thrust for the practice session.  Likewise, directors who envision practice as fragmented events receive fragmented performance results.
  • Seal the Deal. Leave enough time to practice, polish and perfect the key learning from practice up through the apex activity.  This step produces an artistic performance and your choir will hear the difference.  You will be amazed, and the impression it leaves will last to next rehearsal.  (i.e. Learning!)

The discipline and planning that are involved with effective rehearsals begin with your vision for your choir, but translate into razor sharp focus, intense and engaging rehearsals, and the creation of the energy necessary for others to feel the music flowing through you.  You have the skills, training, discipline and desire inside necessary to succeed.  These tips to will help you manifest them and lose the doubt…   Given these building blocks, you are ready to tackle repertoire, and I look forward to sharing my thought about effective repertoire selection in Part 2.

Denise Eaton
Executive Choral Editor

BriLee/Carl Fischer


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