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Effective Rehearsal: The Importance of Self-marking the Music

In rehearsal, one of my non-negotiables is that singers must mark their own music, and I'd encourage every director to adopt this practice. Here's why.

I had my first violin lesson when I was six years old. I learned the Suzuki method, which emphasizes listening and memorization throughout the first book in the curriculum. So, during my lessons I'd stand and play, and my teacher wrote notes in the score for my mother and I to use during practice at home. Once I graduated to the second music book and learned to read music, it was still my teacher who marked up my music, and I never gave that any thought until, around age 12, I switched teachers. Suddenly, I was responsible for marking my own scores. My teacher would also give me written feedback in my lesson notebook, but when I looked at my sheet music, I saw my own handwriting.

It wasn't until I got to college that I realized how wonderfully effective this practice was (both of my degrees are from Westminster Choir College, and I sang in the Westminster Choir for four years). Of course, in a conservatory environment where the student body sings together at least once daily, there's no option but to mark your own music. However, there's also a crucial pedagogical reason: singers who mark their own scores are much more likely to retain that information. It's impossible to remember everything in a single piece, let alone the music for an entire service.

Effective learning happens when the information gets reinforced across multiple channels simultaneously. For the parish choir, verbal feedback from the director is often the only source of information such as "Sopranos, this phrase in Tone 6 often goes flat." The verbal element is very important, but it shouldn't be the only way the choir learns. My approach is to give the verbal feedback, and then have the singers pencil something in the score to help them remember. How they do that is up to them, as everyone's mind works differently and a symbol that's clear to me might confuse someone else. I'll usually recommend something (for example, a checkmark to indicate a breath), but ultimately it's up to the singers. If it works for them, it works for me.

Some practical concerns: I keep a pencil pouch in my analogion and distribute pencils at every rehearsal. I also watch the singers carefully to make sure that every score gets marked, and that the marks are sufficiently large and dark enough to be readily seen in diminished lighting conditions (Presanctified Liturgy, anyone?). If the singers seem concerned about "defacing" the music, assure them that they're not (hence the pencils, rather than pens), and stress the importance of large, dark marks.

I also think it's important to be up-front about why you're asking the choir to mark their scores. When they understand the method behind the madness, they're more apt to be cooperative — plain and simple. Just make sure they return the pencils after rehearsal. :)

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