Diary of an Ensemble Leader

August 22, 2012 3:13 am by Patrick Gazard

Patrick Gazard is the author of Rhinegold’s new book, How to Create a Successful Music Ensemble. Here he shares his journey taking the High Wycombe Music Centre Stage Choir from a local Music Centre choral concert to the Music for Youth festival in Birmingham.

Saturday 3rdMarch 2012

Today’s Music Centre Choral Concert presented us with the ideal opportunity to run the set we have decided upon for the Music for Youth competition with the band, especially the strings (who sounded gorgeous!). The church acoustic made for a great sound. A few errors in performance, but none serious, and overall this was a good dry run for the Regional Festival.

Saturday 10th March 2012

Although the choir sang well last weekend, a brief listen back to the recording highlighted a major issue – the voices weren’t blending well. The MFY mentors/judges will mark us down if they can hear so many individual voices, especially in the more lyrical songs. The problem is that our standard rehearsal room, a school classroom, has no acoustic to speak of, so I needed to find another room.

I negotiated a one-off swap with another Music Centre choir for today’s rehearsal and spent it working on blend and voice colours. The aim was to make it sound as if four different choirs were doing four different songs, changing the colours for each number. The session, in what was a much more suitable room, was very successful, and I’m grateful to my colleague for agreeing the swap.

Wednesday 14th March 2012

Today was the Music for Youth Regional Festival. The choir sang well and, with the strings raised and stood behind the singers, partly ‘dulling’ the drum kit and bass, everything seemed to go fine. The soloists delivered under pressure, and there were some effective moments. Not perfect, but not bad considering the timescale.

The mentors praised us highly, commenting on everything we’d worked on. There were even complimentary comments about my arrangements, which was an added bonus! The concluding remark of ‘exciting things happening here’, coupled with no apparent negatives on the comment sheet, makes me wonder… we only entered for the experience of entering – we are at least three years away from national standard – aren’t we?

I later emailed the band, thanking them and putting them on standby for Birmingham. I also tipped off a potential harpist, as I promised to take her with us if we reach the finals. Just in case.

Sunday 15th April 2012

Today we performed at a private party. This was the first time the choir had been invited to do an ‘outside booking’, and it was a tough gig. It’s the end of the Easter holidays, and with no way of communicating with them not all the choir turned up. The senior boys (through no fault of their own) are still very inexperienced. Fortunately we had a capable student accompanist, so I opted to help the boys by singing with them. It wasn’t easy, but we were somewhat saved by the bathroom-like acoustic of the location, resulting in our sound floating over the listening crowd. The detail of the words and dynamics weren’t highlighted and the overall sound was convincing enough, certainly at distance anyway. I was aware of the acoustic setting we’d have when I agreed to the booking – I may not have agreed to it otherwise! In the end we went down surprisingly well, and it was a good learning experience for the singers. One more step along the public performance road!

Tuesday 1st May 2012

We are through to Birmingham! I can’t believe it! Very exciting – now the hard work really starts…

Saturday 5thMay 2012

Bad news. Our young male soloist and tenor lead has announced that he is leaving the choir with immediate effect, and cannot come to Birmingham. This is upsetting news for all of us. However, I remember former England World Cup-winning rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward’s maxim: ‘Success does not happen in a straight line’. We will just have to accept this and carry on – it’ll be tough on the more inexperienced lads though…can we really do this?

Ongoing rehearsals

Having been to Birmingham the year before and performed in the same hall, I’m in the lucky position of being able to visualise the stage layout in advance. I’m determined to use the space as effectively as possible, meaning that the sections should be more spread out than they were at the Regional festival in March. I want to make use of the risers/levels for both band and choir, so the singers need to learn how it feels to be isolated from other parts and not to be able to hear anything very clearly. To that end, we have started to experiment with unorthodox positioning in our Saturday morning sessions. Rather than just using all four corners of our rehearsal room (which was becoming increasingly squashed and unsuitable) we’ve tried using the corridors outside. My pre-recorded backing tracks have proved useful (there is no way of getting the piano in the corridor) as we’ve started to spread out, with the first sopranos going to the far left of one corridor and the seconds to the other end – all good practice for the bigger stage. I had planned to go outside at some point, but have so far been foiled by the Great British weather.

It has become clear that we need one more proper rehearsal with everyone in a larger venue, so I’ve organised an extra practice for Sunday 1st July (two days before Birmingham) in the place where we did the Regional festival. Such close proximity to the actual performance is not ideal, but it’s the only date I can realistically expect all the band musicians to be available, as they have so many other things going on (the Jubilee/Olympic effect won’t make things easy!). It’s certainly better than nothing anyway.

Saturday 16th June 2012

Today we had a Music Centre concert. It wasn’t ideal timing, as our songs sounded rather tame without the band behind them, but it gave us a chance to run a couple of the Birmingham numbers, plus one other. One of the numbers, which had choreography involving the singers running on stage whilst singing, didn’t really work in the dry acoustic, and splitting the choir into two (running onto stage from the left and right) resulted in weak, low impact vocals. A disaster? Quite the opposite, as it caused me to rethink my plans. Our final performance will undoubtedly benefit from this experience, proving the importance of running all competition songs in public at least once before the actual day.

We changed the choreography so that the singers would walk on, not run, and no singing started until the whole choir was on stage to ensure maximum impact in what is, after all, our opening number.

Saturday 23rd June 2012

One week to go, and I am not convinced that everyone is practising hard enough at home. Certainly some of the younger ones don’t seem to understand the scale of what they are about to do in Birmingham! In order to combat this I have produced four CDs with recordings of the four instrumental backings on each. These have been distributed to one person in each part (Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto, Bass) who then emailed the others in their section – they were instructed to get individual email addresses during the rehearsal. I cannot do this myself as many of the choir are young and it would be inappropriate for me to have their private email addresses.

The harpist, who cannot make next weekend’s extra practice, was at today’s session, running through her parts and checking the new one that I have just written. It seemed to work but at the end of the rehearsal I noticed that the 17-year-old student pianist, who has already MD’d two pantomimes despite his age, was changing and ‘improving’ my harp part! As his edits were in fact correct I let him off, and promised him a chance to do his own arrangement for the Stage Choir next year.

Sunday 1st July 2012

Today was our extra rehearsal – one hour with the choir and band, the only one we will have together before the performance. The priority for today was to ensure that the band knew what was happening in each piece, and to check that their parts worked. The first number, with all musicians and singers entering the stage during the performance, proved entertaining as well as tricky, but once the players picked up what was going on they were cooperative and willing. The choir sang OK but not well – indeed, some watching parents were a little concerned, but I was happy. The mechanics were the key factor today and we will just have to trust that the music will happen on Tuesday. Overall, this was a tricky but vital rehearsal. Everyone went home reasonably clear as to what is due to happen and where they fit in, and I emailed all the band members to thank them for coming and working so hard.

Monday 2nd July 2012

I discovered today that the viola player cannot join us, so I rewrote the second violin and cello parts to cover the viola entries and any vital harmony.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

National Festival of Music for Youth, Birmingham

This is it! We arrived in plenty of time, and requested an opportunity to walk on the stage and get a feel for the venue – unfortunately the request was denied, but it is always worth asking. However, a chance did actually arise because the lunchtime workshop finished early, and, after a quick check with the helpful technicians, the stage was ours for a short time. The singer who was due to enter the stage first got the chance to walk on and work out where to stop – provided he knew what was happening the others would follow. With the band and choir entering during the first number it was crucial that as many of them as possible should see the stage in advance. 20 minutes later, and all was done.

Around 15 minutes after that, we were on stage, mentally and physically prepared. Apart from a small delay in getting all the choir on (the piano ‘vamp til ready’ approach proved useful here!) there were no major mishaps and all went well. I am certain that it was the best performance the choir has ever given and the mentors later endorsed that.

MY TOP TIPS!

  1. Choose the right rehearsal space, and negotiate with other colleagues if necessary
  2. Record your rehearsals and performances to analyse afterwards – this will help shape your rehearsal programme and improve your performance.
  3. Give consideration to the physical placement of your performers.
  4. Make sure you have a good system of communicating with the members in your group for those last-minute messages!
  5. Encourage your group to practise at home as much as possible – make it easy for them by providing backing tracks etc.
  6. Writing/arranging the music yourself gives you more potential for adjusting the music to suit your group and makes it easier to cope with last minute problems such as missing parts. It is interesting to note that around a third of the groups selected for the MfY Finals use music specially composed and arranged for them by their Musical Directors or the groups themselves.

More guidance on implementing these tips and other strategies for running a successful music ensemble, along with detailed guidance on arranging music yourself, can be found in Patrick’s book, which is available now from Musicroom: http://www.musicroom.com/se/id_no/01047803/details.html

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