It’s the beginning of the season and you are handed a packet of music to learn by next week’s rehearsal. It’s like the first day of school. You feel all the emotions – excitement at new “school supplies,” anticipation of seeing choral friends after a long summer break, and readiness for new challenges. But with an hour’s worth (or more) of new music, where do you start?
1. Prep the music. You likely were given a mix of piano-vocal scores, perhaps some zeroxed music (hopefully copyright-permissions-granted!), and maybe even an orchestral reduction of a major work in book-form. Ask permission to punch holes and otherwise mark up the music (in pencil!), and then put it into a black notebook. If your director has given you a program order, even better – put your music in concert order. If you have a book-type score, like Verdi’s Requiem or such work, decide whether you will take it to an office supply store to get the binding cut off and a spiral binding put on, or if you will fold and unfold the score to get the pages to lie flat.
2. Listen to recordings of the music with the score. It’s tempting to dive right in and sight-read everything, but you will save time and unnecessary mistakes by listening with the score. Try finding the music on YouTube, Amazon Music, Spotify, iTunes, your library, or your own music collection. Listen for the overall “feel” of the piece. Mark tempo changes, dynamic changes, meter changes. Mark entrances in each voice part. Write in beats for difficult-to-count measures (in the accompaniment and in the vocal parts).
3. Run through the music at the piano. At this point, you have a choice: You can start by reading through the accompaniment or by reading the vocal lines. Reading the accompaniment can give you a good feel for the harmonies and overall form; however, you may not play the full accompaniment until later in the season, depending on what level of singers you’re working with. If they will need a lot of part-plunking, don’t spend a lot of time learning the accompaniment at this point. It is important to become familiar with the voice parts, particularly entrances and harmonies. If it helps, write chord names above homophonic sections (especially if you are reading more than 4-part harmony, like in an 8-voice double choir piece). Mark entrances in each voice part so they are quickly spotted – either with a highlighter, or a circled note, or an arrow.
If you are new at reading parts, try reading soprano + alto or tenor + bass and then expand your eyes to reading alto + tenor and soprano + bass. After reading two parts, expand to three. Another good exercise, particularly if you are going to lead a sectional, is to play the accompaniment while singing one voice part. This will draw your attention to hard-to-find entrances and tricky intervals.
4. Mark your music
a. Mark challenging sections with a post-it note or note them on a separate piece of paper and come back to them later. For the first and second read-throughs, you don’t want to spend too much time on nit-picking. Your goal is to get a feel for the overall arc of the piece, harmonies, and choral entrances. Everything else can come later.
b. If the music indicates more parts than the standard SATB (like SSATB) and they are not marked after the initial measure, label each score. (This will save you headaches when you are asked to play the alto part and it’s on the third line down!)
c. If the accompaniment is an orchestral reduction, listen for “the main thing.” What cues will the choir be listening for in performance? Mark these and prioritize them – leave other stuff out, if need be. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Tremelos can become pulses or vice versa; groups of sixteenth notes can sometimes be simplified into eighths; octave runs can be simplified into single lines. Your goal is to provide support for the choir in the form of a solid harmonic foundation and a good knowledge of form – so that you can make music together in rehearsal as well as performance! The “frosting” is whatever color you can bring in from the orchestra part – the percussive drumming in the bass, or the piercing treble of the brass, or the pizzicato of the strings. As you listen to recordings over the season, start marking what instruments you hear in the score. Think about how you can accomplish the same feelings and colors at the piano in a pianistic way. Don’t try to play everything in the score! Reductions are often not written by pianists, and they should not be treated like a piano solo but as an approximation of color and timbre and feel.
5. Take good notes. When in rehearsal, take note of places that need more practicing. Circle the places in your music, make a note on a separate piece of paper, or slap a post-it note on tricky places. When you return to the piano in private, work the hard spots first.
6. Plan page turns. Later in the season, after you’ve gained some familiarity with the music, focus more on learning and polishing the accompaniment. Practice hard page turns. Write in the score where you want to turn and which hand will turn. Practice these turns. This may sound excessive, but it’s like writing in fingerings – If you will write in your planned fingering/page turn and practice it the same way each time, you will gain security in performance and will lessen your reliance on those “I hope this works out” moments.
The more you accompany choirs, the more these steps will become intuitive. Listening first and marking your score well will help you learn a lot of music in a short amount of time. Much of our job as accompanists is “faking” – there is no way to learn such a vast repertoire unless you are good at finding shortcuts. This doesn’t mean sloppy playing; what it does mean is doing your homework efficiently and well. When you put in the time to prep, it will pay off in big ways: the choir will feel like you are listening to them (“You always play my entrances” or “You always seem to know where the altos need help”), the director will feel like you know the score, and you will play confidently and musically. Your reward? Another stack of music!