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Dealing with a Large Repertoire

The Collegium is a repertoire group, meaning that we maintain a large number of songs. Unlike school choirs we don’t do a music changeover every semester or Church choirs who have changeover every week or season. In fact we never do a complete changeover. Some songs the group has sung for a decade. Others we just started a few months ago. Right now the Collegium’s repertoire has around 35 songs + 10-15 Christmas Carols, and it’s still growing (albeit slowly). This has its advantages, namely that we can choose from a large body of music when it comes time to performance and songs that we’ve worked on for months don’t have to be thrown away, but it has some distinct challenges too, the most significant of which are how to handle newcomers and how to handle polishing.

The number of years each choir member has been in the group varies drastically. A few have been in the group for over a decade–like some of our music–and several have been here for less than a year. People can join at any time so the group could be in the middle of learning a new madrigal or polishing a song that we’ve been singing for years when we have a new person show up to rehearsal. Does that mean we have to start going over parts all over again? What about the other 30 songs in the repertoire that he/she doesn’t know yet? How many times have we gone over those before? It can get a little tedious especially for the choir members who’ve been there for a while. And yet, if we didn’t allow newcomers the group would die. So how do we deal? I’m going to illustrate a few ways we’ve handled it in the past and the current way, which I think works quite nicely with our repertoire size.

Option 1: Whatever we feel like singing

This non-method works fairly well with a small repertoire. You can work on whatever songs you want and chances are you’ll have practiced every song within a month’s time. New people slow down the practice time dramatically, but even so if the repertoire is small enough it doesn’t really matter. It’s a review for everyone else too and soon enough everyone will be on the same page. This method doesn’t scale very well though. As the repertoire grows, haphazardly singing songs will most likely lead to mediocre results at performance time. The blend might be OK, but more nitpicky performance stuff–the stuff that makes songs stand out–will get glossed over because it takes up too much time. Or you’ll spend too much time on one or two songs and the rest of the repertoire suffers. Add into the mix some new singers and things get even more complicated. :-/ I’d say once you have more than 10 multi-part songs in your repertoire this method starts to fail. You need to have more structure in order to effectively manage more songs than that.

Option 2: What Needs the Most Work?

There are some songs that you can pull out right after the Christmas season and not have to worry about whether or not the tempo will slow down dramatically or whether the altos know when to come in, and then there are some songs where there’s a 50/50 chance of either a total train-wreck or a passable performance. Clearly songs in the second category need more work, but how do you work on them without alienating new people or making the currently good songs devolve into potential train-wrecks? The short answer is if you’re strictly working on the weakest songs, you won’t be able to avoid these problems and you’ll introduce some new problems as well. For one thing you’ll be stuck in maintenance mode for a long time because there are always songs that need more work. Second you’ll burn out your singers by making them work on hard stuff from start to finish. Working hard can be fun but not if you’re doing it for two hours straight. Third, after a few weeks of this the choir will start to hate those songs.

During my first two months of directing I took this approach and I basically burnt out the choir on Lasciatemi Morire and April is in My Mistress Face. We had intonation problems with the former and tempo problems with the latter, and I was determined to make them sparkle before we switched over to singing Christmas music. By the time Christmas rolled around everyone was very tired of these songs (including myself to some degree), and we were happy to put them away for the next few months. They had improved over that time, but even now they aren’t on the same level as some of our better songs. We didn’t spend much time seriously going over our whole repertoire either, so the person who joined the choir around the time I took over still hasn’t sung every song. Not good! In moderation, though, this method makes sense. Spend more time on the weaker songs and less time on the stronger ones. Just don’t spend ALL time on the weaker songs and No time on the stronger ones.

Option 3: During Seasonal Work still sing Non-Seasonal Songs

In the past when we’ve worked on Christmas Carols we had a hard time transitioning back into secular songs come January. All the performance notes we’d written out in September were lost after the new year. Tempo markings, intonation, and even what part we normally sing were mysteriously forgotten. It’s important for the director to take note of these things for the purpose of reminding the choir later, but it’d be nice if it didn’t take a whole month to get back on track too. During the 2007 Christmas season we experimented with starting practice by singing non Christmas songs, and then working on more Christmas songs as it got closer and closer to our performance. This method is pretty kind to newcomers since they can become familiar with the other music without having to spend lots of time practicing individual pieces. We’ll get to those songs eventually, and when we do they’ll at least have some memory of what it sounds like.

While a good idea in theory it didn’t work very well in practice. The main reason for this is that a lot of our Christmas Carols also needed reviewing, so the time at the beginning of choir rehearsal which was spent reviewing songs we wouldn’t be performing could have been better spent singing the easier carols while the rest of practice could have been spent focusing on the harder ones. Besides allowing us to have a chance to remember the carols which we hadn’t sung at all sung in the past year, we’d have actually gotten emotionally into the Christmas season a lot sooner. For some reason starting rehearsal with non-seasonal pieces seemed to have delayed this process. Also, the Collegium has a request period at the end of every rehearsal which could have been used to sing songs that are in our usual repertoire, therefore while not explicitly having time devoted to reviewing our normal stuff we’d still effectively have it.

Option 4: Quarterly “Changeover”

This is our current method of high-level rehearsal structure, and so far it seems to be working well. The way it works is we divide our repertoire into three overarching categories + Christmas, and work on one category for three months at a time. Each category has a mix of about ten songs of differing difficulty. Ten songs in three months is fairly reasonable to manage and polish and gives us a decent range from which to pick performance material, especially since our performances tend to be on the short side. The other major benefit is for newcomers. This method enables us to invite people to join at 4 different times of the year. Also since the total number of songs is fairly small per 3 months period, if newcomers join in the middle of a quarter they can work on the current songs on their own without having to invest too much time in it. (We use midis to aid in solo practicing.) The quarter method also enables the group to get immersed in a theme for 3 months. Our current themes are “love” (January-March), “drinking and merrymaking” (April – June), “religious and other”, (July – September), “Christmas” (October – December). Neither the themes nor the quarters they lie in are set in stone–except perhaps Christmas–so if someone can only be in the group during the beginning of the year we wouldn’t have to sing our love songs each time. In addition we use our request time to sing songs which are out of theme. All in all it seems to be working fairly well for us so far.


I don’t know how well this method scales for much larger repertoires than 30 songs. The more comfortable individuals are on their parts the easier it is for new people to pick up the music, so it’s possible that with greater polishing we could double or triple our current repertoire without either sacrificing quality or making it too difficult for newcomers to join. It’s also possible that there’s an upper-bound for the number of songs in our repertoire, that with our level of commitment isn’t really possible to surpass. If/when we reach it I’ll write about it, but until then all I can say is that with my group’s 35 song repertoire the Quarter system works well and we probably won’t be changing it drastically for at least a couple years.

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