to Rehearse (a chapter of Play It By Voice)
By Peder Karlsson. Chapter version 1.0. Latest update: Fri, Mar 24th, 2023
This chapter, Rehearse, describes various processes for your choir or vocal group seen as a collective musical instrument, where each of the voices are driven by personal musical willpower.
Every day is an opportunity to learn something that you didn't know before. In my experience, it is important to establish modes of practice based on collaboration, curiosity, exploration, musical understanding and musical process, rather than to follow practices based on instruction, static formulas and static roles.
My dream for the different chapters of Play It By Voice is to inspire you to discover new ways of musical exploration together with others, as if you sang together for the first time.
The power of singing together
Do you remember the first time that you sang with a choir?
For me, this happened in my first year of high school at Adolf Fredrik’s music classes in Stockholm.
In the very first music lesson with my class, our music teacher suggested that we would sing one of the songs of Adolf Fredrik music classes’ repertoire, a song that most of my class-mates already were familiar with. She gave a cue, and almost everyone in the class began to sing four-part harmony. This was an overwhelming experience for me. I couldn’t wait to learn my part so that I could be a part of this. For me, there was something magical about how the different parts fit together into beautiful music.
A few lessons later, I knew my part and could sing along with everyone else. To contribute with my own voice to the collective sound of my class was an unforgettable experience.
A few years after high school, I heard Bobby McFerrin in concert for the first time. That was another mind-blowing experience. His incredible sense of pulse, melody and harmony, and the way that he put a lot of different sounds and music styles together into a personal musical expression had a deep impact on me. To see and hear him perform was an introduction to a whole new way of how to approach music made with the human voice and body. With his openness and flexibility towards the potential of the voice instrument, there are so many different ways of putting together a musical composition or writing an arrangement. There are so many different kinds of sounds. Bobby McFerrin is and was a fantastic source of inspiration for me and many singers of my generation and for generations of musicians coming after us. To me, there is vocal music before and after Bobby McFerrin.
What would it sound like if vocal groups and choirs would combine the power of collective expression with the flexibility and power of individual voice expression? That has been on my mind since before The Real Group started.
Combinations of voice sounds
Singing with The Real Group provided fantastic opportunities for our members to experiment with different combinations of sounds, harmonies and rhythms. There was a huge element of “what happens if…” in our rehearsals, especially in the first ten years or so. Step by step, we learned many ways of how to pick the music apart into components, and then put the bits and pieces back together again into different varieties of music. There was a lot of room for personal expression, while we also developed the group as a whole as a musical instrument, where each of us would serve like a “finger in a chord played on a piano”, as my colleague Katarina Henryson used to put it.
A collective voice instrument – instant musical connection
Over time, we learned to leave essential elements of musical expression to the concerts; to the moment of music-making. We didn’t decide in the rehearsals every detail about phrasing, articulation and voice timbre changes, for example. An ability for instant musical connection emerged within our group, somehow, to the extent that new expressions would happen spontaneously in concert, expressions that we hadn’t rehearsed nor sung before.
I am not sure how this works, and I don’t know whether it would be possible to explain this kind of immediate communication in scientific terms. But I do know from experience in numerous situations with different vocal groups and choirs that instant musical communication is a reality. It is possible to be aware of oneself as an independent musical unit and as a part of a collective at the same time. I think this is very important to understand through experience, in vocal music as well as in other parts of life.
A choir is a musical instrument, and so are you.
Every part of the choir – a singer – makes individual decisions while singing. It works as if each key on a piano would have the power to decide when and how to play which note. While also paying attention to the sounds and expressions of the other keys.
About individual and collective sounds
Different levels of complexity
A vocal group is a musical instrument where each of the singers provide a separate part. Even when a vocal group sings written scores, there is a degree of freedom for each singer in how to sing that part.
A choir is a more complex type of instrument, where small groups of people provide separate sections (S, A, T and B, for example) that together make up the whole choir. There is less freedom for each singer to shape their part - until their section learns how to express themselves as a team while singing a song.
In this chapter, I provide a methodical framework as a starting point for you to begin to explore these things with your choir or vocal group.
Individual and collective expression
When I got the job as musical director for Perpetuum Jazzile, I first wanted to figure out how it would be possible for this group to become a collective voice instrument with a degree of freedom of personal voice expression in a similar way like The Real Group. To some extent, Perpetuum Jazzile was already a group like this when I started to work with them. But a large part of the group had suffered badly, I would say, from the prevailing authoritarian culture of Slovenia. Therefore it was necessary to set in motion a transformation of the culture of the group, and to reset some of the singers’ assumptions about individual and collective practice. Luckily, the whole group responded very positively to the new practices for rhythm, intonation and blending that I introduced to them. They could observe that musical progress happened very fast, as a result of new methodology. Quite a few of them were curious about rehearsal methodology details, which was very helpful.
I wanted every singer of Perpetuum Jazzile to understand fundamental elements of practice relevant to the music that they wanted to do. To accomplish this, it was important to invite the singers to an overview understanding of the musical and creative processes. A tool that I used in that process was to be consistent in my use of musical terms.
Over time, the singers would get used to new keywords and begin to say these words themselves. That was an important step for the Perpetuum Jazzile singers to see a pattern of methodology, I think. They became familiar with the idea of giving full attention to one area of practice while temporarily ignoring other areas. This in turn opened up to new levels of musical awareness, on the singers part, as well as a higher degree of patience and tolerance towards imperfection.
Intuition before logic
In music-making, intuition comes first. Logic may follow later. I want singers to get the point musically, and therefore I prefer vocabulary that makes sense intuitively in the current context, even if the words I say may sometimes be academically incorrect or logically "wrong". For pedagogical purposes, I prefer keywords that fit in with the musical context and with the feeling of the moment.
Most amateur choir singers know a lot more about music than they are aware of. When you engage in practice and your musical terms resonate with the singers, then they may connect their intuitive understanding with new pieces of practical and theoretical knowledge.
Practice has to be fun
The more I am involved in interaction with singers and students, the more I get a feeling that we already know this, that we know how to sing and dance together. We know it – but many of us have forgotten. Practice may help, and may also expose our vulnerabilities and feelings of inadequacy. That's why practice has to be fun. Playful. And focused.
Different music styles may call for different kinds of practice
Basically, the whole methodology of what I do when I serve as a musical leader can be summed up in a relatively small number of exercises and related keywords.
At one point, one of my ambitions with this Rehearse chapter was to introduce a set of keywords referring to specific musical skills and exercises that would be relevant for any musical genre. Over the years of teaching at RAMA Vocal Center, however, I have learned not only that the set of keywords that I use in my work is not always compatible with the work of each student, but also that it is not possible to define a set of keywords, skills and exercises that would be relevant for every kind of vocal ensemble and for every kind of music.
Why not? Because the kind of repertoire is different from group to group, for example. Choirs are different. A song in one genre may call for a certain kind of practice, and a song from a different music style may call for another practice method, and for a different set of ensemble singing skills.
There will always be overlapping areas between different music genres, of course, but I want you to keep this in mind as you read this chapter and do the exercises: depending on the repertoire and other circumstances of your group, you may prefer to add or use other vocabulary than what I suggest. I do recommend that you first try out the exercises as described. However, some of the exercises may not apply to your group, or may have to be changed to fit your circumstances. There is also the language factor; some words in English may not have an equivalent term in your language, and vice versa.
Ensemble singers’ skills
What is it that singers are doing while singing? What are the most important things to know about ensemble singing?
For me, the term “to know” refers to an ability to do something specific. Having theoretical knowledge about something is often helpful, but it doesn’t do much in concrete terms unless you know how to accomplish it, physically and musically.
When every singer in your choir has acquired the knowledge of musical factors, then they have a fundamental set of tools to make music with. Not only do they have these tools, they also know how using them fits in with the whole picture.
What do I mean by responsibility? I mean that every singer is responsible for their musical output. It is the singers who make the sounds that the music consists of. To sing with rhythmic precision, accurate intonation, and with sounds appropriate for the music style requires practice. Some of the practice can be done on collective rehearsal time, and some things can only be understood musically when you are on your own.
Why is it often hard to practise?
Your body is the musical instrument. To develop is to change. Musical development for singers means to change something in your approach to yourself, including your physical habits of singing. To change the shape of one’s own voice instrument may be challenging to some people, even when it’s easy to do it in terms of voice technique. But when you push singers too hard about what you think they should practise, then you may get a defensive counter-reaction. Which may delay development processes for months, sometimes for years, in my experience.