It may be no surprise at all to learn that I have a tried and tested formula for the structure of rehearsals which I use with ANY choir whether online or face-to-face.

WBLs Lutterell Hall
WBLS @Lutterell Hall

I’m always delighted to see my singers and so addressing them and saying good evening/morning/afternoon is essential. There might be things to share with them, there might be things they want to share with all of us! Essentially, a choir is a sociable space for me and so I treat it accordingly.

I start with a movement warm up. It NEVER ceases to amaze me what I can get a group of seemingly sensible adults to do together! Yes, I’ve had Agadoo, Superman, the Bongo song and all sorts of silly dances essential for breaking the ice and getting the body warmed up. There are a handful of people who hate it (they usually get wise to my structure and arrive late) but mostly it’s smiles all round, I’ve been amazed that this translates so well online! Even my corporate clients who I don’t even know get stuck in!!!

ICU Liberty SIngers 2020

We then get into vocal warm ups. I used to be in a choir myself and we spent 45 minutes on vocal exercises….. but I know my audience and so a brief 5 minutes usually does the trick! I try to focus the warm up on something we’ll be using later so, for example, last week I sang ‘The air that I breathe’ and so the warm up involved creating those long notes, because I knew we’d need them later.

WBLS Lutterell Hall 2019
WBLS Lutterell Hall 2019

We then sing a song we know. Something easy. Something without much harmony or potential for confusion. By now, my singers should feel a bit relaxed and well able to get involved. When face-to-face, I can feel the energy in the room start to lift at this point. People are starting to sing out a little louder and with a bit more confidence. Online, I can’t hear anyone and the screens are so small, I have to rely on smiling faces and a bit of guesswork.

Then we move on to the harder stuff, the actual teaching bit. Let’s say for example that I’m teaching my arrangement of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. We’ll have a sing through with the original track first. It warms our voices a little more but most importantly, it warms our ears. It means that we are going to learn something we’ve JUST LISTENED TOO so it’s nice and fresh in our brains. We’ll start with a chorus. For both online and live rehearsals, I will have created backing tracks of my guide voice singing to the instrumental track. I’ll start with the tune (yellow/altos usually in my choirs). I’ll play them their chorus and let them have a go alongside it. I usually need to do this twice depending on how well known the song is. When face-to-face, I can judge how tricky it is. Online I have to rely on them telling me if they’re getting on OK.

We then move to a harmony. We often take the lower harmonies first (this is the way I work – possibly because I’ve got a lower voice). I play them, then ask singers to join in. Twice. In live rehearsals this can be quite dull and so I keep it as short as possible. To maintain engagement, I request yellow singers sing the part in their heads to keep it fresh, without disturbing anyone else. Other singers have to be quiet as I teach the separate parts. Sometimes, if a part is really hard, I teach it in a separate room at the tea break. Online, people can simply go elsewhere and make a cup of tea, put some washing away or check their Facebook page! (I don’t allow phones at live rehearsals – it puts me right off) Depending on the song, at this point, I might play a pre-recorded section of say yellow and green with the backing track so they can hear how it’s building.

Next is more harmony, the blues and then I finish with the reds. Sometimes we do this the other way around – it really depends on the parts I’ve written. If I’ve created a red and blue part which are an octave apart, I might teach them together and illustrate with a recording how it sounds. We then all sing the chorus together with the harmony parts! I then judge if we need to do this again either by listening (live) or by asking singers how they got on (online). I’ve started with the chorus because this repeats throughout the song which means that every time we get to a chorus, it’s usually the same. There’s a sense of relief when the familiarity returns.

To avoid total brain ache, I might choose this point to sing something else. Another ‘easy win’. Then return to a bit more harmony in a verse. For ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ the greens and blue have harmony in verse 2 so I might teach with one week and then leave the red harmony which doesn’t come in until verse 3 for the following week. Then I let the poor singers have their tea break!!!

The tea break is essential for socialisation and good vocal health!

A break is essential especially when live. My community choir used to meet fortnightly for 2 hours and the tea break was a high point with a team of volunteer bakers and biscuits galore. A chance to go and talk to someone else, to catch up with other friends and to be amongst lovely people. Our West Bridgford Liberty Singers usually had 120-140 people so the team break was a military operation with my mum and dad setting up the tea urn(s) and making sure the kitchen ran smoothly. I sometimes used this time to teach other little parts in our upstairs room, sometimes I took the chance to chat to new singers, sometimes I got a cup tea and hid. Now online I use the breakout rooms for people to chat in. It works better some days than others – and of course the whole session is shorter online – I decided very early on that it wasn’t possible to do 2 hours on Facebook live or zoom and so we do weekly for an hour instead.

The second half format was largely the same but there is one essential thing that I always did and still do. We finish with something we love, and something we are good at. It’s a great opportunity to show off something amazing – it’s good for new singers to get to hear the direction we are going in and it’s great for the existing singers to go ‘Listen to us!!!’ From a psychological point of view, we are, literally, ending on a high note. Singers leave the rehearsal feeling that they’ve achieved something brilliant, that they are very much part of our community and that they have a value. To some extent, this is difficult to measure with an online group – I rely on their comments polls and communication through Facebook or WhatsApp.

To maintain the learning, I provide the same audio files from rehearsal on my website. I also post the full audio from the rehearsal on my website and direct singers to it – in case they’ve missed out and want to catch up. I usually teach these parts again too. This makes sure nobody feels left behind.

Next time I’ll talk about all the things a choir needs to maintain the sense of community which may or may not be related to the singing. For now, let’s celebrate with a virtual recording created by The Online Liberty Singers last July – all taught online and recorded at home into mobile phones and mixed in our home studio in Nottingham.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – The Online Liberty Singers July 2019