Quartet Punishment

Every now and again, my choir director would enforce home learning by testing choristers in quartets. That is, if you hadn’t learned your part, the entire choir would hear it while you sang one on a part without piano accompaniment. The following is such an instance.

We were singing “Up! Good Christen Folk and Listen,” which is here:

Here’s one of the quartets that gave verse three a try:

And here is my transcription of the first phrase.Transcription of the quartet's attemptThe people in this quartet remain anonymous, but moments like these are some of the benefits of recording all choir rehearsals, as I used to do in undergrad. Good times.

Ten reasons to read from parts instead of vocal scores in choirs


In February, 2012, I began a long-term experiment in choral singing. It started innocently enough when I received a large, heavy vocal score of Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore (K. 339), from which to sing only the first two movements. Since it was about 69 pages, I could not use a three-hole puncher on it, and so I figured I would lighten my load by extracting only those movements. At some point in that process, I thought to myself that it would be a good idea to extract just my part in Finale, and just read from that. Sure enough, I had a finished product that only had one page turn in both movements. The above image shows the difference between the first page of the second movement of that piece, “Confitebor,” and its counterpart in my bass part score. Using this, I’ll try to explain why I haven’t stopped converting every vocal score I am handed into a part.

It saves space and paper.

Obviously, the part is much smaller than the vocal score. In this example, I’ve taken a whole page and am left with a little under two staves. The two movements are 23 pages originally, but only take four pages of generously spaced part score. This not only conserves paper, but lightens the whole folder to where it weighs almost nothing. In addition, being able to control the format of the music, the whole program can be in my folder without any fear of something falling out of the folder.

There are fewer page turns.

This much should be obvious. If I can make it so I don’t have to turn a page anywhere in a piece, I have done my job. If it is larger than two pages and must turn a page in a piece, I feel good knowing that I didn’t have to turn forty pages. The entire 47-page vocal score to the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony became only five pages when I sang it last semester. I can usually get an hour program into twelve pages, or six sheets printed duplex. There is a kind of private satisfaction that has to come when the entire choir misses an entrance because it was on the other side of a page turn and they hadn’t made it there yet, while you had seen it coming for several measures.

There isn’t really any valuable information lost.

The most common thing I hear when someone notices my extracted part is that he or she needs to see the other parts in order to sing the piece correctly. While this might be true in some extreme circumstances, a few cue notes can fill in any insecurity a singer might have about an entrance. On singing most pieces once or twice, I’ve noticed that I have not had to see where my note is in relation to other parts. The logic of the piece and memory work together to let me know that I am about to sing the root, the fifth, or what have you. And in that case, the intervals are already clearly in the part, so with all these factors working together, there is no reason one really needs all those parts.

Everything in the part is for you.

Often, I’ve noticed while reading through a full vocal score for the first time, my eyes will fixate on my notes, sometimes grabbing the word if it isn’t too fast. Dynamics, articulations, and word stress can take a back seat until I am told to note them. I feel that this happens a lot in choirs, which is why rehearsals for a single piece can take months in many universities. Since switching to a part, my eyes automatically see everything that I should pay attention to. I see the crescendo that leads up to a forte six measures ahead, I see the articulations, and I see the structure of the whole sentence, which is now all on a single page. I can get straight to the fun part of making music (the “making music” part) much faster using a part.

I can sort out the edition in a way that makes sense to my modern eyes.

I would venture a guess that most choirs spend a fair bit of time dealing with an unfamiliar edition. Our modern eyes are accustomed to seeing a quarter note getting a beat, so when we see an old piece in a fast 4/2 or 6/4, I have the option of converting those sections to 4/4 and 6/8. That way, the beat structures of the measures make sense at first sight, such as in the final sections of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. If the score uses the style that is now going out of vogue of breaking beams between notes of different syllables, I can beam all of the notes according to the beat pattern and show a syllable getting more than one note with a slur. This is also demonstrated in the above example.

I also usually write out all complicated repeat patterns so that I always just read from start to finish without having to retrace steps in performance. If there is more than one line of lyrics, I can choose the one that is being sung.

There is always room to insert a word-for-word translation of foreign texts.

As you can see in the example, I made a word-for-word translation of the Latin, so that I could always have the sense of the line. The same can be done, with the help of Google translate and Wiktionary, with just about any language in which you can sing. And, of course, if the conductor asks what a word means, I can always supply an answer!

The part score can account for conductor rehearsal numbers.

Choral conductors have a notorious habit of calling the place of rehearsal by page number, rather than measure number. This is easily remedied with a few well-placed page number cues. In the above example, the (13) above the first system means that when the conductor says, “All right, let’s go to page 13,” my eyes can just look up and find the spot instantly. The same goes for rehearsal letters. When the conductor yells, “Everyone start at letter C!” instead of flipping page after page, I can glance down, find C, and await the next instruction.

The part score teaches counting!

Singers are stereotyped for being unable to count like instrumentalists can. In fact, I know of some voice majors who did not see a multi-measure rest until after graduation. The fact is, instrumentalists count so much better than voice majors because they don’t have the option of following the accompaniment or other parts on the page to find when to come in next. Singers tend to use the written accompaniment or other parts as a safety net, to the point that instead of learning how not to fall in the safety net, they always make it back to the next trapeze by means of the net. This became stunningly clear to me when I was at the dress rehearsal of the university Christmas concert, which the choir had been preparing for three or four weeks. After we struggled to figure out where to come in several times, some brass players from the university sat down to a Gabrieli piece waiting for them on their stands, and played it flawlessly on the first try. If instrumentalists can do it, why shouldn’t singers be able to do it? They’re not just dialing notes, but are counting them, finding them, and tuning them.

Since using these parts, I have found myself much better at counting to find where I am and where I will be next. I don’t think of that entrance three measures away as “when I come in after the piano plays a loud arpeggio” or “when the conductor gives us all a big cue,” but as “when I have counted three measures.” Before I used the parts, I just didn’t have the same inner pulse going the whole way through a piece like I do now. Certain patterns always look the same on my page, so when there is a particular rhythm coming, I have the advantage of knowing it is coming every time.

They’re just better.

Parts, as a whole, are just a whole lot cleaner, are more efficient, and have more consistency. There is always the same distance between two notes, so that intervals and rhythms suddenly become easier to sing at sight. In my ideal choral experience, the singers would have access to the full score for score study, and be issued parts from which to sing. That way, if there is a visual cue that needs to be used to sing a part, the singer can draw from that full score and make a part he or she is proud to sing from.

If it’s good enough for Monteverdi and Brahms, it’s good enough for me.

There is significant precedent for this sort of singing, too. Not only have people been singing from parts for centuries (the example that comes to mind instantly is any book of madrigals by Monteverdi), but they were doing it as late as Brahms’s day, as seen in his correspondence with his publisher Fritz Simrock, such as the one of October 6, 1878. The motets for which he is ordering those parts (or “Stimmen” in German) are quite difficult to sing—the Op. 74 motets, “Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen” and “O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf.”

Since that first extracted part, I have made 331 parts, totaling 462 pages. This has included music I’ve sung in university, in church, and indeed any gig where I have had the music in advance of the performance. Through all of this, I have become much more familiar with a wide range of music than if I weren’t doing this kind of score study. It’s a wonderful excuse to sit down with a score and become familiar with it. I can usually get through a piece within a half hour or hour, while listening to a recording of a lecture or audio-book. It feels very much like doing a crossword puzzle, except at the end I have a score I can use.

I have come out of this experiment a significantly better musician.