Chances are high that if you’re leading a small madrigal group you’ll also be singing in it. Conducting and singing are complicated tasks alone let alone doing them simultaneously, so what are you supposed to do? There are a few things to consider when you’re getting started. First, don’t expect everything to run smoothly the first time you do it. It will get easier over time just like how playing the piano with both hands gets easier over time, but it does take time and practice. Second, avoid doing both for as long as you can in order for you to both get used to conducting and spend more of your energy analyzing the group. You should still know how to sing the music and if someone else were conducting be able to join in at any time, but don’t stress yourself out if you can avoid it. As you get more comfortable conducting ease yourself into singing as well. At the same time you’ll be weening the choir off of having a fully engaged conductor, which is something you’ll have to do anyway for performances.
This, of course, is an ideal situation. There will probably be weeks where an entire section can’t make rehearsal, and the only way to practice a given song if for you to sing too. Case in point, just this past week I had to sing and conduct because all of the altos were either sick or swamped with work. So I handled it in not the most optimal way possible. I tried to do everything at once. It didn’t totally crash and burn since I knew how to sing the music, and the rhythm wasn’t too complicated, but I really couldn’t do anything aside from sing and conduct. Judging the quality of the singing was just not happening. I probably would not take this approach again if I could avoid it.
So what other methods are left besides doing everything?
Here are a few:
- Have several members of each section learn at least one other part than their usual.
- Have a choir member sit out and evaluate while you sing and conduct.
- Turn the rehearsal into a part rehearsal.
- Focus on other aspects of singing like pronunciation, breathing, sight-singing, etc.
- Sing pieces that don’t require the missing section.
- Sing the songs and omit the missing section.
Having some members of each section learn parts other than their own is very useful. Benefits include enabling the choir to be more flexible at performances and rehearsals and the individual developing a greater understanding of the music. The drawback is when choir members forget which part they’re singing and jump back and forth between the original and the new one. Another drawback is that it gives more work for the individual. It also assumes that the song is already learned. Asking the choir to learn two parts simultaneously when a song is introduced is probably unrealistic, but you never know. It never hurts to ask.
Having someone sit out while you’re singing and conducting is a very good technique because it encourages choir members to analyze how the group sounds and takes the pressure off of you, the director, to offer commentary. As a former choir member I’d also suggest that you give the person sitting out some ideas on what to look for. I know the few times I was asked to offer commentary I didn’t have much to say because I didn’t know what to look for. When I sang I was mostly concerned with being on pitch and on time so my analysis rarely went beyond “we sound reasonably in tune”. Chances are there’s at least one person in the choir who is in the same position and probably more. Suggest they look for things like intonation, expression, breathing problems, tempo, etc. Getting the choir involved with analysis is especially good when you’re weening the choir off of your fully focused conducting, so I’d use it at some of the rehearsals when everyone is present too.
If there’s a song that you’re just starting to work on and need to pick out notes for, a good time to do it is when you’re low on people. The reason for that is when the choir is fully present you want to make use of that time by singing together. Spending a large chunk of time picking out notes for the basses is a pain and wastes time for all the non-basses in the room. But when you only have enough people to sing two part music anyway, why not take the time to work out the tricky sections. If you’re prepared enough you can even split the choir into each part and have them work through their parts on their own. This is when midis come in especially handy because it means you don’t have to bring another keyboard with you or record yourself singing the parts.
Focusing on other aspects of singing, while both useful and important, should probably not be the sole focus of a practice with few participants. The main reasons for this are boredom and advanced preparation. Your choir came there to sing, so chances are they will not be amused if 2 hours is spent working on pronunciation. Also, you’d need to come to rehearsal prepared with 2 hours worth of information on pronunciation and breathing and whatnot. Augmenting a sparse rehearsal with more of these aspects of singing makes a lot of sense though. If you’re trying to avoid 2 hours of singing unison or two part songs and you’ve come prepared with ample material, padding the rehearsal with this information ought to be very effective.
The last two options, singing pieces that don’t require the missing sections and just omitting the missing sections on the songs you planning to sing should probably not be the default if you can avoid it. Chances are the two part songs you have don’t need the work and many songs you encounter don’t work without all the sections present. A song without the melody line isn’t much of a song.
So you have many options when it comes to avoiding singing and conducting at the same time or making the most of rehearsals when you have to do both and aren’t fully prepared to.
What if you’re not planning to sing during performance?
If you’re not planning to sing with the choir in performance you should probably not sing during rehearsal unless it’s absolutely necessary. And by necessary I mean a part is either empty or low on people for that rehearsal. The reason you wouldn’t want to sing with a weaker section regularly is that the section may become dependent on you and then at the performance–when you’re not singing–the section is likely to fall apart. If a section is really weak and not likely to improve it’s a much wiser idea to move a strong person from another section or try to recruit a stronger person into the choir or offer to work with that section individually or continue singing with that section but also sing at performance.