Beginning rehearsal on a new musical work is always a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it is exciting to begin a new piece, and I look forward to starting work on it, foreseeing the day when my ensemble arrives at the point where the audiated performance in my imagination meets or exceeds the physical sound arriving at my ears. It is a mixed bag for the students as well. They too get excited about something new, but they often do not enjoy the struggles and error-prone sounds they are apt to make on their early attempts to play or sing the work. An organized and well planned approach to introducing and teaching new music to an ensemble helps get the learning off to a good start, while creating a relaxed yet focused approach to rehearsing.
There are some proven methods that are of excellent service when introducing a new musical work to an ensemble. The first of these is sometimes referred to as “whole-part-whole.” Begin by presenting a concert-ready performance of the work. This can be done with a live performance or by using a recording. The purpose here is to give the students a model performance which can be their goal. You’re basically saying to your group, “this is what we are working to achieve, a performance that sounds like or similar to this.” At this stage it is also helpful to compare the difficulty of the new piece to one they have already performed. You want them to be confident that because they performed that other piece so well, they can perform this one with excellence too. If the new piece is a step up from anything they have done, then verbally challenge your students to take on the challenge. Tell them that although this is a more difficult piece, they have proved to you by what they have already achieved and by their hard work on the last concert, that they are ready for this challenge, and that you are certain they will ultimately excel at playing this new piece.
Once this introductory stage is finished, it is time to get to work. Begin with clapping or chanting the rhythm of a passage. Because choral scores have all parts visible to the singers, have the entire group clap the rhythm to all voice parts, one at a time. For instrumental ensembles, have all players with the same rhythm clap or chant together, with everyone else clapping or chanting the beat. Starting with the rhythms will help the students stay together once they begin to play or sing the pitched notes.
The next step is to introduce the harmonies into their understanding of their parts. To do this, you can play the chord progression of the music while they clap/chant the rhythms, or if you don’t play piano, you can return to the recording of the work and play it while the students clap/chant the rhythms. Either way, they will hear the harmonies as they perform the rhythms, so that the two become connected in their memory. Having the harmonies in mind will help them sing or play more in tune during the next step.
At this point, the students will be ready to add the pitches. If you are directing a choir, have the students sing the melody without the words, on a neutral syllable. This will focus their attention on the pitches and rhythms, and avoid the becoming a distraction from accurate singing. A neutral syllable can be “bum,” or “ba.” Either of these have a soft unvoiced consonant to keep the music articulated and flowing, and a vowel that is easy to sing in any register. I like using “bum” for music in a low register, because I have my students use the feeling of their lips vibrating on the open hum on “m” for the lower adjustment. If you are leading an instrumental wind ensemble, you might want to use “du” or “ta” to take advantage of the similarity between the “d” and “t” consonants to the way in which students articulate on a wind instrument. It is important that instrumentalists practice signing their parts before playing them. Singing helps prevent them from relying on the instrument to determine what the music will sound like, and helps the student have a clear mental representation of what the music will sound like when it is played. Audiating and singing from what is audiated before playing improves the accuracy and musicality of what is played. As the students make their first attempts to play, it is a good idea to again play the chords, or at least the bass line. Up to this point you have associated the harmony with the rhythms. Now you want to associate the harmonies with the melody, which consists of both rhythms and pitches. From the combined melody and harmony, students will be able to audiate the tonality, and play more musically because they will be aware of the harmonic functions of individual pitches, and of chords of which their note is a part. Up to this point, students are playing or singing their parts one part at a time. Students whose part is not being played or sung continue to clap/chant the rhythm of their part and/or the beat of the music.
With all of this accomplished, it is now time to start to put the music back together. Remember, we started with the whole, and have now taught the parts. Next, we must work toward the whole again, to complete our whole-part-whole method. With the bass line always present because of its importance to the harmony, combine it with background and harmony parts, adding one part at a time. Most music, whether vocal or instrumental, is essentially in four parts, so there will be only one or two parts to add to the bass line before the melody. Saving the melody for last assures that everyone hears and plays musically the inner parts which often go under rehearsed and unnoticed. This is also an excellent time to find phrases, motifs or notes that you want to feature, and to practice playing them with the desired amount of prominence.
By now, you have built a glorious foundation for the melody, and most everyone is bursting at the seams to hear it. With expectations high, and all of the other parts sounding really good, add the melody. If the previous steps have been done properly, there will be little need to adjust balance. You are at this stage merely laying the melody over a well primed foundation, much like laying down a layer of paint over a perfectly prepared wall. The result cannot help but be excellent. Of course, all along the way you should be taking tempos that allow the students to play accurately. This will often be especially true with the addition of the melody. Tempo will be the last thing to come along, after adequate rehearsal of notes has been completed. At the beginning, the goal is a high level of familiarity of how it will sound, and on musicality. Rhythm first, harmony second, inner parts third, and melody fourth will produce satisfying and excellent results.