Sunday, April 26, 2009

Getting the best out of your choir 5: preparing for performance PART 2

Last week in part 1 of preparing for performance, I looked at some of the difficulties choirs face when it comes to performance: nerves, fear of failure, not being in the moment, having unrealistic expectations, and not being prepared. In this post I’ll cover the rest of the issues that I consider to be important when preparing for performance.

take your time

When the nerves kick in, or when you think the audience aren’t enjoying it, or when you’re not truly in the moment, everything starts to speed up. The songs race, the choir leader gabbles, and the whole thing’s over before you realise it. This nervous speediness mainly affects the breathing and attention to detail.

To avoid this, make sure you are breathing deeply and easily. What might be just a few seconds in real time can feel like and age in ‘stage time’. You will get used to this and gradually learn to take things much more slowly. The audience will be patient and attentive if you need time to find the right starting notes, or if you stumble over an announcement.

Although you know the songs inside out, this is probably the first time that your audience has heard them. They need to have time for the words and the music to sink in. They will happily listen to several repeated verses of a song, and will need more time if the song is telling a story in English.

To help the singers take their time, don’t start the concert with anything tricky. Choose something simple but effective like a round or a chant with simple words and long sustained notes. This will calm the breathing down and give the choir a chance to settle into their new surroundings. The choir need a little time to get used to the stage lights, size of the auditorium, acoustics of the space and the particular audience.

One of the most vital times not to rush is when starting a song off. Many novice choir leaders who are nervous think they need to get every song off to a perfect start in quick order. But if you get the start wrong, everything else will fall apart. Take time to give out the starting notes properly and make sure that the choir have received them. Let every singer know that they should ask if they haven’t heard their start note properly. Make sure all eyes are on you before you begin the song. And if (heaven forbid!) you do go wrong or give the wrong notes out, just start the song again. The audience will visibly relax now that they realise you are all human after all! In fact, it’s sometimes a good idea to build a ‘mistake’ into the concert for this very reason.

the shock of the new

No matter how much you’ve rehearsed and prepared for your concert, much of the experience will be totally new. You will never have done this exact concert before, there will always be an element of novelty. There may be new songs in the repertoire, new choir formation on stage, new members standing next to you, new venue, new structure for some of the songs, new ways of entering and exiting.

This novelty is exciting, keeps us on our toes and breathes life into old material. It is entertaining for an audience to see a different kind of concert every time you perform. It is thrilling to try out your new songs on an audience. But you have to realise that new means unfamiliar and untested. It won’t always go swimmingly, you may stumble slightly. So factor this into your performance and don’t expect everything to be perfect every time. There will always be a balance between slick and well-rehearsed material and the danger and edginess of new, even improvised, elements in a concert. Be prepared!

stand and deliver

Your last rehearsal was wonderful. Everyone was firing on all cylinders and the overall sound was awesome. But now you’re on stage and it all sounds a bit off, rather muddy, and not resonant at all. You begin to doubt that the choir is that good. Maybe the last rehearsal was a fluke?

Singing in an unfamiliar venue can be a real shock. The acoustics will be different from your familiar rehearsal space. You may end up standing in a choir formation that is not optimal due to the size or shape of the stage. Because of this you may not be able to hear the other harmony parts as strongly as usual. You might find it harder to produce the required dynamics because it feels like you need to be singing loudly all the time just to hear yourself.

Your perception may be very different from your usual rehearsals, but for the audience, the sound may be totally spot on. In this instance you have to trust your director totally as she is the one out front who can hear the overall mix.

So don’t let the venue put you off. Take your time to tune into the new sound and new positions. You may need to adjust where you stand slightly, or incline your head differently. Especially in smaller ensembles, you may need to stand much closer than usual in order to hear each other properly.

what you feel, what they feel

You can’t judge the overall quality of a performance by what you feel as an individual. This may seem strange at first since surely if you feel that the concert was a real belter and that you sang better than you’ve ever done before, then surely the concert must have been brilliant with the audience loving every moment?

But there is a strange kind of effect that goes on in any kind of performance. What you feel, what your fellow singers feel, what the choir leader feels, what the audience as a whole feel, and how good the concert was overall can all be different!

I’ve written about this before (How was it for you?), but it’s worth stating again.

You are just one part of a team, and each audience member is just one part of a much larger organism. Individual experiences don’t reflect the whole. If you remember this, then you can focus on the songs, being in the moment, doing your job well, and performing as well as you can.

As soon as you get carried away with how you or the audience feel, you can get knocked out of the present moment and everything can go pear-shaped.

Perhaps the whole of the front row look bored and sleepy. You assume they hate the show and that puts you off your stride. You begin to doubt that you’re any good. But after the show, those same audience members come up to you in the bar and tell you it’s one of the best concerts they’ve ever been to.

You get to the end of a particularly tricky song and really nail it. You feel so proud that you didn’t make any mistakes and feel that you are on particularly good form tonight. You look around at the other smiling singers and feel that you can do no wrong. You are bathed in a warm glow of self-satisfaction and pride. You know you will knock the audience dead and that every other song in the concert will be performed superbly. You take your eye off the ball and start focusing on the audience rather than the song. You sing loudly and proudly without noticing that you’re drowning out your fellow singers. You are so full of yourself that you forget that the director has cut the repeat at the end and you find yourself singing out loud, wrong and alone.

Tonight you’ve discovered that sweet spot in your voice. You just soar through the songs and have more fun than ever before. You can’t wait to get to the bar after the show and share your joy with the other singers. But you are faced with a lot of gloomy faces. The majority of the choir think it’s one of their worst performances. The director is depressed because nothing went as well as in the dress rehearsal. The responses from audience members are lacklustre. You begin to doubt your own judgment and feel depressed. Maybe you’re not such a good singer after all.

To help avoid these ups and downs, you simply need to focus on the job at hand, do what is expected of you to the best of your ability and really be in the music. At the end of the concert you will feel whatever you feel. Hopefully you will have had fun and done the best you can. Everything else is outside your control. The next concert is the next concert, and when that arrives, you will treat it with beginner’s mind as if it’s the first time you’ve ever sung in a performance.

on with the show!

I do hope these points have been of some use. Performing in public is a very different beast than the normal weekly choir sessions or a concert rehearsal. Sometimes things won’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped, but by considering some of the points I’ve raised, I hope you can find ways of avoiding some of the pitfalls. And if something does go awry, then maybe you’ll now know why!

next week

Next week, in the sixth and final post in this series on how to get the best out of you choir, I want to look at the importance of self-reflection, how to build on your successes, and how to learn from your mistakes.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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