Have you experienced this disappointment? You hand out a new anthem to the choir, start rehearsing, and it’s problematic from the first measure. They stumble over rhythms and undershoot pitches. So you slow down and start working individual parts. You barely get through a verse before it’s time to move on. This song you assumed would take three rehearsals ends up needing eight. Everyone gives it their very best, but the song is ultimately disappointing for both you and the choir.
In hindsight, it’s clear: despite the effortless performance on the demo, something about the song proved too difficult for your singers.
So let’s go back to the moment you browsed that new anthem, and consider three elements you can survey to determine an arrangement’s difficulty. The goal here is to identify those songs your choir will learn with ease and sing with confidence.
DOTS AND TIES
Listening to demo recordings is a good way to quickly spot pieces that will work for your music ministry. But once you’ve narrowed the field, it’s time to open up the sample of the printed music. The first component we’re evaluating is rhythm. Scan the vocal parts on every page for “dots and ties.” Arrangements with frequent dotted rhythms and ties will present an immediate challenge for many singers. You’re guaranteed to spend rehearsal time clapping out the rhythms before you can even start singing. Dots and ties often mean syncopation or “pushed” rhythms. Syncopation is popular in current music, but often presents a hurdle for choirs.
Quarter notes, half notes and whole notes are much easier for singers to execute. Look for a majority of quarters, halves and wholes on the page. But dots and ties need not be avoided completely. If there is a syncopated rhythmic figure that is repeated exactly throughout the song–and I mean EXACTLY–then it becomes much more accessible. When the rhythmic pattern is precisely repeated, your singers can master that pattern and start to “feel” the syncopation with every repetition. But even with a repeated figure, those syncopated measures should be the minority of the entire arrangement.LINE AND RANGE
Once you’ve determined the piece is rhythmically simple, scan the music again for “line and range.” Go back to the first page and start following the soprano line. You’re looking for step-wise motion without too many leaps. You should be able to hum through the part without much difficulty. While you’re checking the line, also note the range. Does the line dip below or rise above a comfortable soprano range? If so, does it stay there briefly or remain at one extreme for very long? Singing outside of your tessitura (or comfortable range) for more than a few measures may present a challenge for your singers.
Now that you’ve checked the line and range of the soprano part, move on to the alto, tenor and bass. Even if these parts do not carry the melody, a step-wise line without too many leaps is also helpful in making those harmony lines sing well. Hum through each part. The best part writing gives sing-able, interesting lines to every section. Smooth, step-wise parts will allow the song to fall together with less effort.
One exception is the bass part: in traditional SATB arranging, basses typically have frequent leaps of a fourth, fifth, sixth or even an octave. But still watch the range of that bass line, along with the alto and tenor. Be sure each part stays within the comfortable bounds of each section’s range. When every part has a musical, step-wise line that lives within each respective range, the song will be easier to learn.
HOMOPHONIC VS. POLYPHONIC
After watching for simple rhythms and step-wise lines, there is one last component to evaluate. It’s also the easiest to assess. We’re looking for homophony, which simply means “all the parts sing together.” For each phrase, everyone enters on the same beat, rests in all the same places, and cuts off each phrase together.
Homophonic arrangements are easy to spot. Are there any staggered entrances where the men enter a beat after the ladies? Do the basses hold a note while the upper voices take a breath? Do the ladies sing the second verse while the men echo? Even just a few moments of polyphony will require extra concentration. So if the goal is finding a song that will sing well with minimal rehearsal, avoid those overlapping lines and separate cutoffs. Look for arrangements where everyone breathes together and sings as one.
So the next time you’re searching for easy, accessible songs for your choir, look for simple rhythms, step-wise lines in a comfortable range, and homophonic phrasing. These three ingredients will offer the best path to songs your choir will learn quickly and sing confidently.
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--For more helpful articles for small church choirs, check out these articles: