Why Should We Count? That’s what conductors are for!

How to terrify a choir:

What is it? Make it go away!

OK, instrumentalists, pick yourselves up from the floor and remember to breathe. Laughing that hard is not dignified. You know what that is. I know what that is. But choral music is edited and published so most choristers never see that strange creature, the multi-measure rest.

For a long time I wondered how come the orchestra turned pages a lot less than choirs or pianists did. Then I saw an instrumental score and discovered that they don’t have any notes! All they have is what they play, and then long gaps with a fat bar and a number on top. Choral music tends to include the piano parts, so we may have three pages (or more) of single measure rests while the accompanist is playing away, or the soloist is doing solo things. We don’t count, we listen for cues, or in a few rare cases, follow the piano score until we reach the point where, in theory, we look at the conductor for a cue to come in.

I’ll wait until the other choir people stop giggling at “look at the conductor.”

You see, choirs rarely count.* We don’t have to 😛 Thppppth.

Except when we do, and chaos, confusion, conniptions, and panic ensue. This happened most recently when one of the choirs I sing with premiered a composition for orchestra and choir.** The composer is an instrumentalist more than choir-ist, and instead of giving us the full score, gave the choir a choral score with multi-measure rests. We rehearsed it without sitting there counting out the empty bars. Instead the conductor brought us back in a measure before our entrance. We had this, we were good.

And then . . . the first rehearsal with orchestra. The conductor is conducting, the orchestra is orchestrating, and the choir . . .

got horribly lost. As in Oh-my-stars-where-are-we-help-I-have-no-clue-save-us!!!! lost. For a page and a half. And the conductor, who was busy with the orchestra, did not notice. (Ouch). Finally enough of us kinda sorted out where we thought we should be, and the conductor brought us in where we guessed we were, and the whole group finished together two pages later.

We got better, and a few of us started counting and flashing countdowns for the loooong rests behind our folders, so the people behind us could see.

But I’ve been more lost:

This is how you get lost.

This is how you get lost.

This is one page from Thomas Tallis’s motet “Spem in Alium.” It has 40 vocal parts. Acapella. One page of music. You see the little Roman numerals? Those are the eight groups of five singers, in theory each group standing in a different part of the room.                        This is how a chorister gets lost.

*Professional hard-core choirs count. I sing in one of them. That leaves 95% of choral groups in the US.

**It is the lead on tomorrow’s post.

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4 thoughts on “Why Should We Count? That’s what conductors are for!

  1. I can only imagine the initial rehearsals when any group does “Spem in Alium.” I suspect many, many missed entrances and much confusion. But once it clicks, it’s an amazing piece to hear.

      • Consider me impressed. Bagpipe harmony settings (when we have them) are much less complex and first rehearsals are always quite painful. I guess it comes from breaking the order that gets pounded in from early on to play in perfect unison. Actually first runs of any new tune are difficult, harmony or not, because of that goal of unison.

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