Choral Technique and Interpretation by Henry Coward
Webpage by contemporary American choral composer William Copper.
Mus. Doc. Oxon.
Chapter Nine COMPETITIONS.
Although choral singing has made tremendous
progress both in quantity and quality during the
last fifty years, and more especially during the
the twentieth century, the great outstanding fact has
been the astounding development of the competitive
musical festival, which has now an assured place in
the musical life of the British Empire.
Therefore it will not excite surprise if I state
that I have received scores of letters asking for
advice on matters relating to competitions, such as
the choice of test-pieces, how to perform them, how
to select voices and train them, balance of parts,
how to maintain pitch, &c. The accumulated
evidence that thousands of earnest-souled conductors
are keenly interested in the varied topics connected
with competitions has greatly influenced me in
writing these pages.
Though designed for the choral society condcutor
in general, I have ever kept in mind the competitive
conductor, who, as a rule, likes to know the why
and the wherefore of everything that affects marks
at a competition. But though I have gone fairly
well into details, I propose to give, in these final
chapters, hints, suggestions, directions, and advice
which the ordinary society conductor would think
too minute, too exacting, or too elaborate for an
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ordinary choral society, but which conductors and
choirs who delight in competitive struggles will
examine carefully to find a few grains of wheat to
add to the desired garner of 100 per cent.
It should be said that in the following pages
nothing is suggested or recommended that has not
been put to the test and found to be of advantage
artistically. My apology for mentioning some
apparently trivial matters is that I know that
competing choirs have nothing to give away, and
nothing must be overlooked which is likely to yield
a point or even half that amount.
THE PENALTY OF COMPETING.
The primary fact which should be burned into the
mind of every competitor, from the conductor to the
humblest member of the choir, is that trouble is
inevitable. This trouble may be taken before or
after the event. If taken before, it assumes the
form of hard work and self-sacrifice. If competitors
refuse to take it in this form they get trouble all
the same, only it comes after the event in the shape
of disappointment and chagrin which may rankle
for years. Therefore, let each competitor be
prepared to take just the kind of trouble which he
or she is called upon to bear, and not begin the
slacker's whine that if it had only been some other
kind of burden or pinch they would have borne it
without a murmur. Really there should not be a
murmur, because if anyone goes into a competition
in the right spirit, the doing, striving, and working
are the pleasant features of the whole business,
just as the exhausting efforts in hockey, tennis,
football, and cricket are the joy of the sport,
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Therefore let the point of view be, Work with
pleasure, and the outcome will be the pleasure
with the work.
HOW TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS
The heartbreaking thing about many societies is
the "Come easy, go easy" attitude of a large
percentage of the members. In a competitive choir
you stand on a different platform. You can regard
inertia as non-existent, and can frame your plans on
fighting lines. Therefore, as you have only to
command and obedience is given, let the following
be two of your working axioms: --
(a) Method is the secret of success;
(b) Divide and conquer.
Do everything methodically in the sense that you
know why you are doing it, and do not try to do too
many things at once. First make sure of the
music, then the words, then the expression, then the
blend and balance of voices, the attack and release.
Of course these things will be considered together,
but let the emphasis be placed on each point in
turn, so that it may not be overlooked.
HOW TO MASTER THE MUSIC
To accomplish this in the minimum amount of time it is
essential that the conductor be absolutely familiar
with every note before the rehearsals begin. I
do not know whether it be telepathy, sympathy, or
what, but if a conductor knows the work, somehow
the choir learns it in half the time, although he may
say little and correct less frequently than if he did
not know the work well.
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Therefore he should obtain the music at the
earliest moment and play it over -- or better, get
someone else to play it -- a dozen times. Personally
I find a score of times preferable. This is to get a
subconscious grasp of the key progressions and a
sense of the harmonic structure. Meanwhile he
should sing every part in succession and put a
circle round every difficult interval for reference at
rehearsal. Specially hard or strange transitions
and unusual discords should be played over and
over again till they have sunk into his inner
consciousness. With this equipment, and con-
current independent study of the words, he will be
prepared to begin rehearsals.
THE FIRST REHEARSAL.
As an index of the earnest, thorough spirit which
is to be characteristic of the whole preparation and
consummation of the contest, tackle the difficulties
at once by the Specializing Method (see pages
13, 14). Take each difficult interval seriatim,
and insist upon every member putting a ring round
each treacherous leap in his or her part.
THE BLUE PENCIL.
Here allow me to digress for a few words on the
blue pencil. It should be a law of the Medes and
Persians that every member has always a blue
pencil to mark all instructions from the desk.
Some clever ones will object to the unnecessary
labour, but insist, or you will pray to be delivered
from "clever but idle choristers," who are a terror
to the conductor. The uses of the blue pencil
are manifold. The mere re-marking of an existing
mark calls attention to the composer's wishes, and
supplementary signs are often needed. The marks
help the singers to memorize the music more
quickly by acting as guide-posts, and when used at
the concert or contest the singer can see these at a
glance, and they are reminders at the supreme
moment of performing. Therefore insist on its use,
for great is the power of the blue pencil. After
this digression we will proceed with the rehearsal.
The cautionary explanations having been given,
the music should be attempted and repeated until
the general "hang" of the work has been realised.
If errors are made, call attention to them, but do not
let them delay you, as you will deal with them later.
As mentioned before, the words are usually the
weakest part in a rendering, more marks being lost
in this section than any other. Therefore, from the
first, attention should be given to the words.
It would be found an admirable thing to have three
minutes' lip, tongue, and mouth (facial muscles)
drill at each rehearsal, going through the articulatory
exercises given on page 84.
After the music has been tried, the conductor
should pattern the words for the choir to imitate
and memorize in the process. The plot or idea of
the poem should be explained, and the meaning of
obscure or unusual words should be made clear.
This will prevent misconceptions and quaint
questions, such as one that arose after singing
"O with what divers pains they met,"
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when a young lady in my choir asked, "Do divers
have special pains?"
The latter part of the rehearsal might be devoted
to arranging special private sectional rehearsals for
each part, the object being to perfect the knotty
points in each division. These private rehearsals
are invaluable. When the Sheffield Musical Union
had Beethoven's Mass in D to get up in less than a
month for the Kruse Festival performance in
Queen's Hall, London, the sopranos formed them-
selves into groups of about a dozen, and rehearsed
at each other's houses. The contraltos, tenors, and
basses did the same, with the result that I doubt if
ever so difficult a work was got up so well in
so short a time. This plan should be followed by
competing choirs, as it not only tends to note-
perfection, but develops that enthusiasm which is
essential to real success -- a brilliant performance,
whether the prize be won or not.
The importance of the voice in all choral work,
and especially in competitions, is so manifest that
nothing need be said to emphasise this fact.
The two features which need chief attention from
a contesting point of view are, first, the selection of
the proper class of voices, and secondly, the
cultivation of homogeneity so as to secure perfect
blend. With respect to the first point, I would
strongly recommend that efforts be made to
include a certain proportion, say 15 per cent. to
20 per cent., of voices which are pure in quality
even though they may be light in quantity. This
applies especially to sopranos and tenors. These
clear, pure voices have a value far beyond their
mere volume of sound. They have a carrying
power which is of great importance in giving clear
outline to the melody or theme, even when it appears
in the lower parts. This purity of tone cuts through
the less pure sounds, and the fuller but duller,
sometimes rather breathy, voices seem to build
round or coalesce with the clear, pure tones and
make a grand compound tone, which is suffused
with the radiance of the lighter, brighter voices.
Therefore if you require, say, twenty-five sopranos,
and you have the chance of taking that number of
full, rich voices which can reach B flat with or
without an effort, you would act wisely to reject
five in favour of the same number of light, pure-
toned sopranos. I have singers in my choir, in all
parts, who are known to have light voices in solo
work, but who are regarded by their colleagues as
amongst the very best singers, on account of the
carrying and binding effect of their voices. Some
years ago the theoretical carrying power of weak
but pure sounds was practically demonstrated to
me. I was in the country, and heard in the distance
a boy whistling. As the lumbering cart which he
was driving came nearer, its noise drowned
the whistling, but as it passed, the pure sound
became louder and louder. This is what I have
realised again and again in my choir. It is the
pure voice, even when it is not powerful, that tells.
For securing quality, unity, and blending in the
choir as a whole, there should be ten minutes'
practice of Exercise 1 on the lines recommended on
pages 22-24. Another plan which I have found very
useful is to have the singers ranged round the
room in a circle. The conductor, being in the
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centre, is able to get to any singer and listen as he
or she sings, and give such hints as are necessary.
It puts the singers on their mettle, because a tactful
conductor commends audibly all good singers and
singing. As both the maintenance of pitch and the
development of artist tone require the same kind of
voice-production, each piece should occasionally be
hummed through, not only to cultivate these
excellences, but to promote good chording, balance,
and blend, for if these points are perfectly secured
in soft singing there is small fear of falling off in
forte passages. The phrase "Sing with your ears"
is a favourite direction, which quickens perception
both in chording and in keeping the pitch.
After the exhaustive treatment already given to the
subject, there seems little left to say on expression;
but there are one or two points which the conductor
would do well to consider, as I have found them
very useful. The first point is: Get steeped in,
and grasp, the atmosphere of the piece during its
frequent reiteration. Always endeavour to get
inside the subtleties of a piece. In this spirit, at
each rehearsal look out for and seize upon any
feature which will bear development in order to
produce a legitimate and striking effect. If the
word or music seems to demand a special emphasis
or shading-off that is not indicated in the printed
copy, put it to the test by getting it performed as
you suggest, and if the effect be good and "in the
picture," incorporate it in the design of expression.
This varying of expression is common enough in
concert performances, but to make any change in
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a test-piece is a very debatable point, and sometimes
very risky, because some adjudicators are fossilized
legalists, who abide by the letter and ignore the
spirit of a piece beyond what is in black and
white. Fortunately the majority of adjudicators are
responsive to everything that is artistically correct,
and they appreciate little touches which show well-
judged perception. Personally I believe there may
be several correct ways of rendering a phrase, and
if the rendering at the contest shows proper
proportion and unity of design I give full marks,
although the printed instructions may not have
been strictly followed.
SINGING WITH IMPULSE FROM WITHIN.
The next point I lay stress upon is this: Inspire
the choir to sing "through the impulse from
within." The ideal choralist is one who learns the
piece so thoroughly that he becomes a reflex of the
conductor's wishes. But there is something even
beyond this, viz., becoming so imbued with the
spirit behind every note and nuance that the work
could be sung without any guidance at all from the
conductor. It is this singing from within that gives the
glow of super-excellence to a performance, because
the ethereal essence of the soul is thereby revealed.
PERSONIFICATION OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSION.
It is when a large body of choralists sing with
this impulse from the inner consciousness that the
expression seems to become personified, as though
it were a living thing. Then every rise and fall of
sound, every accent, pressure-note, or shading-off
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appears to be the manifestation of a sentient being,
a something quite apart and distinct from the
persons who are the vehicle of the sounds.
This facility should be aimed at because when it
is realised the listeners, including adjudicators, are
simply carried away by its subtle effect.
SINGING FROM MEMORY. RESTS.
No singer should be allowed to sing in a
competition who has not learnt the words and music
by heart. It is only by this thoroughness that the
best mechanical results can be obtained, to which
must be added the inward impulse just mentioned.
Still, notwithstanding that the choir may know the
music perfectly, the singers should use the copies at
the performance. A glance will remind them of
critical or delicate phrases, and keep them right
when there are rests. More catastrophes at
performances occur through neglect of "rests" than
from any other cause. The things which make me
run cold when I recall them are connected with the
rests. Of course what is a tragedy to one person
may be a comedy to another. Once when I was
adjudicating at Keighley a choir was singing finely
and with triumphant swing, when an absent-minded
beggar came in boldly at a rest. The conductor
gave a tremendous stamp, and exclaimed "That's
done it." It was as he said. This shows (a) the
importance of calling attention to "rests," especially
where similar phrases have pauses of different
lengths, as in the first chorus of The Golden Legend
and in the "Soldiers' Chorus" from Belioz's Faust,
and (b) suggests that it is too risky to sing without
occasionally glancing at the copies.
There are certain errors which in every season,
and almost at every rehearsal, recur over and over
again with the inevitability of recurring decimals,
and it becomes tiresome to have to repeat the same
old reproof or caution in the same dull, prosy,
matter-of-fact fashion. But if you can convey the
correction in a pleasant or humorous manner, you
gain your point by changing irritation into
Whenever possible I endeavour to get a word or
short phrase to embody a well-understood idea,
and by its use prevent long explanations, corrections,
and tiresome reproofs.
It would be impossible to tell how much time and
temper have been saved by such words as "No
inertia," "Make it cut," or "Cut," "Happy land,"
"Back again," "Thrill." These represent different
ideals, and they give in few words a warning, a
reproof, or stimulus, often while the choir are
The word "Cut" refers to giving the supreme
edge of virtuosity to vocal effort. It sprang into life
at the closing rehearsals for an important musical
festival. The pieces were going splendidly, but still
I was not quite satisfied. Some members with strong
tendencies towards inertia blurred, by their lack of
quick response, the photographic clearness of the
attack, release, words, or expression, which was
necessary to give the desired 100 per cent. in every
division. So I said to them, "You all know that
in making a razor, after all the material has been
prepared, the blade has to be forged, smithed,
hardened, ground, glazed, and polished. In the
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halfting quite as many processes have to be gone
through. Notwithstanding these processes and the
value of the materials, the razor is useless unless it
is carefully whetted -- that is, given a cutting edge.
"Now if it would be foolish not to give the
cutting edge to the razor after the whole of the
work of preparation had been done, it would be
equally foolish of you not to crown your work by
putting forth the final effort of carefulness, alertness,
and overcoming inertia, to give clear words, delicate
shadings, massive climaxes, &c., and thus secure
thrills, by making your singing 'cut.'"
After many a concert members have come to me
and said, "Haven't we made it 'cut'!"
The phrase "Happy land" has proved very
useful. It relates to the common fault of omitting
the aspirates. Everybody knows that they should
be given, but in singing they are frequently dropped.
To call attention to the omission in a direct
way might be taken as an insult; therefore I
call attention to it by the words "Happy land,"
which arose in this way: We were rehearsing
a phrase which contained several aspirates, which
were not given. I did not wish to suggest that the
singers did not know how to do the correct thing, so
I said, "I will tell you a story and you shall apply
the moral yourselves":--
"A man was singing 'Appy land, 'Appy land,
O is not this a 'Appy land. His friend said
'Tom, why don't you mind your aitches,' to which
Tom replied, with superior scorn, 'That shows you
know nothing about music; it only goes to G.'"
The shaft struck home, and now it is only
necessary to say "'Appy land" to correct a
common and recurring error.
However ardent choristers may be, there comes
a time when the incessant strain of preparation
becomes so irksome that a stimulus of some sort is
necessary. It therefore becomes imperative for
conductors to counteract this physical weariness by
some mental uplift. This I have found can be
supplied by any short phrase which represents an
ideal for the singer. These phrases or words I
call "Motto words"; their influence is somewhat
similar to that of "Excelsior" in the poem.
As a practical illustration I will take the words
"The unexpected" and "The impossible."
When preparing for the first Sheffield Festival I
told the choir that the critics would expect very
good voices, but not brilliant tone; grand fortes, but
not overpowering climaxes; delightful pianos, but
not ethereal shadings; clear words, but not perfect
diction. These unlooked-for excellences being
unexpected would captivate and thrill them, there-
fore the point to work up to and for was --
"The unexpected." The words acted like a
charm, an ideal was set up, and all worked until
"The unexpected" was realised.
At the following festival we had several difficult
works in which real perfection was never expected,
because it was thought impossible for a large body
of singers to acquire the vocal technique demanded,
nor could they attain the required flexibility of voice.
It will be seen that to reach perfection we had to
achieve "The impossible." This became our
watchword, and was both a challenge and a
stimulus. Could we do the "Impossible"? Well,
we would try, and, as results proved, we succeeded.
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Motto words should be reserved for supreme
events such as musical festivals and important
competitions. Let each conductor seize upon
some word or ideal which arises out of the test-
piece or the conditions of the competition, and then
he will be able to use the Motto with electrical
Let it be borne in mind that there must be an
ideal, because the words used are simply a terse
way of glorifying the preconceived idea.
THE EXCELLENCE OF CUMULATIVE EFFECT.
The present-day conductor must aim at excellence
in every detail of every piece performed. This is
a somewhat different attitude from that of old.
The unimportant choruses of an oratorio were
treated with scant respect, and all the trouble was
devoted to the favourites. Many a time have I
heard it said, "Oh, never mind this chorus going
badly; wait till we give 'The Heavens are telling'";
or "It does not matter how we sing 'He trusted in
God'; we'll show them 'Who is the King of Glory'"!
This "in-and-out" singing must be avoided, because
every time the mind of the audience is allowed to
lose its grip of perfection it takes some time to get
it back to an appreciative mood; whereas if a
consistent level of excellence is maintained, the
cumulative effect is such that the hearers pass from
pleasure to excitement, ending in rapturous delight.
Several festivals that I recall owe the unique
impression they made to this fact. The works
taken singly were not sufficient to arouse such
wonderful enthusiasm; but as each one in succession
was perfectly rendered, the mind was dazzled and
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the soul was carried away in wonder and rapture.
Therefore, in competitions have no weak or doubtful
phrases. "Leave no unguarded place," but "from
strength to strength go on," and you will carry the
adjudicators with you.
CONCENTRATION AT THE END.
In all important work care must be taken not to
get stale. Always leave sufficient freshness to be
able to give concentration to the final touches.
At the last rehearsals I often let the choir do
very little singing, but call attention to each
topic seriatim, taking the more difficult points
of technique first. For instance, every sforzando
or fp is referred to and patterned, and perhaps
imitated by the choir; staccatos are referred to; all
pianissimo passages are sung; the words in special
places are repeated, points of imitation are tried,
and a word of encouragement given. This
specialization and concentration, while they rest the
voice and the body, call attention to the salient
points which have been already mastered, but which
must be at command at the critical moment of
VALUE OF PRINTED DIRECTIONS.
In the course of the preparation circumstances
may arise which tend to chill or dishearten the
singers. Some important member may be laid
aside by illness; others may be dissatisfied; there
may be disunion, or the work undertaken may be
too great to be done in the given time. In these
and similar circumstances it will be necessary to
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adopt some means to maintain enthusiasm, and to
brace the members for the task in hand. A
cheerful spirit on the part of the conductor is a
great factor. But something is wanted to plead
with the singer when the conductor is absent;
therefore an occasional well-considered personal
appeal in the form of a circular or manifesto often
produces the desired results. As an ounce of
example and fact is of more weight than a pound of
surmise, and precept, I beg to illustrate this point
by circulars, &c., which I issued on one or two
important occasions. These have been in such
request by conductors and others that their
publication may be found very acceptable (see
Finally, I would say that although I have
endeavoured to meet every problem connected with
Choral Technique and Interpretation, there may
be and probably are topics upon which some
readers may require further information. Any
queries on these topics, addressed to the writer,
c/o [Heaven](ed.), shall have every attention.
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