Play Around with Ensemble Awareness

March 16, 2018

By Brody McDonald

Recently, I have been playing around with some activities that help build ensemble awareness. They have been very effective with my groups, so I thought you’d find them helpful. After all, this is the “Practical Conductor,” right? These things are practical and have proven to work! One activity helps the choir see rehearsal through your eyes, one is a team-building game, and one uses a website to help your singers curb their rehearsal chatter. Give them a try and see if they work for you!

Down in Front

It became evident to me long ago that there is a gulf between what the students think they are doing vs. what they actually do. Singers with dead faces are shocked to hear “Lift your eyebrows!” or “Smile while you sing!” The choir sighs as they hear “Check your posture!” for the 1,000th time. And directors think, “How do you not know this needs work?”

What these singers lack is perspective. One way to help them gain perspective is to have them sing in front of a mirror. HOWEVER, if you DON’T have a mirror in your room, you can certainly play DOWN IN FRONT!

DOWN IN FRONT is pretty simple. I ask one student from each section to come to the front of the room, facing the choir. As we rehearse, each student DOWN IN FRONT is responsible for scanning their own section, looking for the singer who is doing the BEST job. This includes posture, facial involvement, visual tracking of music, attentiveness, etc. – the whole nine yards.
After a while, I stop and ask the students DOWN IN FRONT “Who’s doing the best job?” Whomever they name is now the new person DOWN IN FRONT. This serves multiple purposes:

  1. Singers who excel are publicly praised.
  2. Singers who watch rehearsal have a greater understanding of what the director observes. They now see the range of engagement, from the most to least involved singers.
  3. There is sometimes internal competition vying for the top spot DOWN IN FRONT.

Of course there are variations: you can rotate on a strict timer, you can eliminate the “who’s best?” component and just rotate until everyone has a turn, etc. When you are finished, make sure the singers reflect on what they observed. They will never look at rehearsal the same way again, and they will talk amongst themselves, sharing their observations from their time DOWN IN FRONT.

Choir Dodgeball

We all look for things to do to shake up rehearsal – to break the monotony. This activity is one that I found to be a lot of fun for students and valuable for me as a director.

It’s called “Choir Dodgeball.” No, there are no actual dodgeballs involved. We all remember playing dodgeball in elementary school and the “picking of sides.” That’s what we do here. Pick two students you feel can be good team captains – upperclassmen and/or advanced musicians. Have the captains stand in front, facing the choir. Have the choir perform a song, instructing the captains to watch closely so they will know who they want on their team.

One coin-flip later (you know, for first pick), the selection process starts. Have the captains take turns picking singers to build their team. Make sure you do one section at a time so that each choir is balanced (pick from all basses, then all tenors, and so on).

Once the teams are selected, separate them to opposite sides of the room. Give the captains time to help place their choir in whatever position they feel best and also to give some pointers. Then it’s time for the sing-off! Each choir sings the song (or portion of a song) and at the end, there is a winner.

Benefits:

  • Everyone will be surprised to hear how well each choir does at half-size due to the competitive energy
  • The selection process lets students know that their performance is indeed observable, even to “lay people.”
  • Once you compliment the teams vigorously on all their strengths and their courage, the choir will sound much stronger when re-combined.
  • I’ve done this activity with choir grades 7-12, and they all love it.

Can We Talk?

I can’t even type “Can we talk?” without hearing Joan Rivers’ voice in my head. But I digress… One thing I have found to be universal in choir rehearsals is the desire to TALK.

When my students have been extra chatty, and I find it difficult to keep them in check without clamping down hard, sometimes I will turn to this trick. I will use the stereo system in my room (my laptop is connected to it), and play the soundtrack of Coffitivity.com over the speakers.

Coffitivity.com is a website that allows users to stream audio from a variety of coffee-shop settings. They also have an iOS app. Their assertion is that just a little bit of noise allows people to work more freely than stifling silence or a full-blown ruckus. And to answer your question now: on a personal level – IT WORKS. It’s fantastic, and I’m using their app right now as I type on my iPad.

I’ll play the Coffitivity.com soundtrack while the students are milling around before class begins. They normally don’t realize it is on because they are talking themselves. Then, as class starts, I leave it running. I intentionally speak softly, which is difficult to hear above the murmuring noise. Students will begin to sing louder, stop talking, and stare at your face in an attempt to read your lips. Inevitably, one of the kids will ask what the noise is. This gives me my opening: “I’m sorry, does all that talking make it more difficult for you to work?” There’s a fine line between tongue-in-cheek humor and blatant smart-aleck, so make sure you are on the right side with your presentation.

Once you have done this once, you have it in your bag of tricks forever. Keep the website up and running in a tab, paused. Any time you feel like your patience is running short, don’t blow your stack – let Coffitivity.com do the work for you! When you turn it on, they’ll get the message. And then use it for yourself to make a nice, Zen workflow when you are alone. Your office can instantly become the local Starbucks!

So there you have it – three different ways to help bring more awareness to your choirs. The more singers see, hear, and understand what’s going on in rehearsal, the more they will understand why you teach the way you teach, and the more they will help you out by improving their participation.

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