Score-Study for Church Musicians

Score-Study for Church Musicians

The words “score study” take me right back to music history at 8 a.m. on Wednesdays (you, too?). Grout anthology in one hand, class notes in another, marking cadences and phrase structure and German augmented sixth chords.

Don’t worry - I’m not suggesting you analyze your music for Sunday quite to that degree.

However, the practice of studying a score - before teaching, rehearsing, or performing the piece has its merits.

First of all, as the director, you won’t be caught off guard when you turn the page and find divisi for the divisi or an abrupt modulation to G-flat Major. You’ll also have time to prepare answers for all of Lillian the alto’s questions:

“Where do we get to breathe?” “Do you want us to sing piano there?” “Can I sing the lower part on p. 6? You know I can’t sing above a C.”

Like those early morning music history classes, the time you spend getting to know a new anthem and studying the score, looking at the details, sight-reading, singing, playing, predicting, analyzing, and looking for patterns is not just good preparation for teaching - it helps you become a better musician.

7 Tips for a More Productive Choir Rehearsal

7 Tips for a More Productive Choir Rehearsal

Making progress, learning, improving, feeling a sense of accomplishment - ah yes, a productive choir rehearsal is something we all strive for, though attaining it may be another story.

You might be really organized, good with time management, and good about getting things done on your own, but add a group of chatty adults to the mix and suddenly a productive rehearsal feels like a more distant goal.

How can you get your group focused and keep everyone on task in rehearsal?

Here are a few helpful tips:

Start rehearsal on time.

It sounds like a simple concept, but this is something that requires diligence. Make a commitment to start rehearsal right on time each week and you'll communicate to your group that you value and respect their time (and that you have an agenda to get through!). Which brings me to my next point...

A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life

A few years ago, I wrote a "Day in the Life" post. Lots of things have changed since then, so I thought it might be nice to share an updated version with y'all. Come see what a typical day in my life looks like! My desk, in a corner of our cozy living room

9:05 a.m. - I carry my coffee (half espresso, half hot chocolate) to my desk in the living room and turn on my laptop. I check my email to make sure there's nothing urgent, but I don't normally respond to things right away. I prefer to take a little time in the morning to read (articles and a few of my favorite blogs) and check in on social media and our websites. After this, I respond to a few quick emails, proof my newsletter one last time in MailChimp, and schedule it to send.

Adventures in Bell Ringing: Improvisation Activities


Please note: some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you decide to purchase through any of them, I will earn a small commission. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue creating free content. Thank you for your support!

We've had three rehearsals with our little bell choir now and they're doing so well! As you may recall from my last post, SD and I tried to plan a variety of music for the first few weeks - pieces that called for a flexible number of bells and covered a range of playing and reading levels.

The first night, we had several new ringers and a few that were new to reading music entirely.  (Side note: I was thrilled by this - it's so exciting to me to have new people come out to learn and make music together!).  With this scenario in the back of our minds, we also planned a few improvisation activities that wouldn't rely on music notation.  This way, we could start making music right from the beginning with whoever came that first night. 

Getting Started

We passed out pencils and pairs of white gloves to everyone as they arrived and made temporary bell assignments based on the pentatonic scale.  We used a C-based pentatonic scale (C-D-E-G-A) but you can easily transpose it to another key of your choice.  Each person had 2 bells.

Random Ring

We introduced and demonstrated the basic techniques of ringing and damping and then let everyone try it for a minute or so, freely and in their own tempo.  (This was the perfect setup for our improvisation activity because, essentially, they were already creating a "random ring" effect without even realizing it!). 

Once everyone had a good feel for ringing, we started the activity formally, this time with the lowest C (C3 or C4) chiming three times to start us off.  Everyone was free to ring as frequently or infrequently as they desired and since we were only using the notes of the pentatonic scale, we told them not to worry about damping for the time being.

The goal was to create a sort of "wind chime" effect that would become the backdrop for the familiar chant melody, "Of the Father's Love Begotten."  The first two weeks we did this, I played the melody on the piano with plenty of space in between phrases.  The third week, SD played the melody on the saxophone (the way we hope to play it in worship later this month).


The great thing about this activity is that there are no wrong notes.  The pentatonic arrangement ensures that even if everyone played their bells at the same time, the resulting sonority would be a pleasant one.

There is no real sense of rhythm involved, as it is determined at the individual level, so those with lower levels of musical intuition won't feel self conscious about not ringing in time with everyone else.  Also, there is no reading involved!  Those who are new readers don't have to worry about following the "third line and fourth space" while keeping track of the beat - they can just play, uninhibited.

Rhythm Pattern Card Set by Ashley Danyew.png

Help those you teach learn the language of music.

This printable collection of six rhythm pattern card sets features a total of 192 different patterns made up of quarter notes, half notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and quarter rests in duple and triple meters (32 cards/set).

Rhythmic Canon

Another activity we introduced the first week was a rhythmic canon.  The inspiration for this came from Michael Keller's Developing Coordination Skills.  Instead of reading through the examples in the book (which involves an explanation about ignoring the lines and spaces that are notated and just ringing what you have in hand), we created three shorter examples and notated just the rhythm patterns on a large white board at the front of the room.

Each pattern was two measures long (4/4 time) with a repeat sign marked at the end.  The patterns were numbered, "1, 2, and 3."  We were still in the pentatonic arrangement but we let everyone choose whether they wanted to read the rhythm with one or two bells.  Some opted to alternate R and L, others changed bells every measure, and others played everything with only one bell.  The goal here was to introduce a little bit of notation and get everyone used to reading together (in rhythm) as a group.

First, we read each pattern together (with repeats).  Then, we asked each person to choose one of the three patterns to play and surprise us (the goal was to hear all three patterns at the same time).  Finally, we asked them to again choose a pattern from the list but this time, cycle through all three patterns (with repeats) like a canon (the goal was to have each player read all three rhythm patterns independently).

There are obviously a number of ways to do a rhythmic canon-type activity in rehearsal - I'll leave the creative variations up to you!  Happy improvising!

Starting a Bell Choir

Image credit: This work, "Improvisation Activities for Handbells," is a derivative of "handbells" by Joe Lewis, used under CC BY-SA 2.0. "Improvisation Activities for Handbells" is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 by Ashley Danyew.

Adventures in Bell Ringing: How to Start a Bell Choir

We're starting a bell choir!

This is a new experience for us but we are looking forward to the adventures that lie ahead!  I love getting to work with SD and we're excited to have our own little group to direct, something we've missed since moving back to Rochester.  Here is a behind-the-scenes look at our planning process.

Please note: some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you decide to purchase through any of them, I will earn a small commission. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue creating free content. Thank you for your support!


Filing cabinets full of (hundreds of) bell choir pieces

We've been in conversation with the Music Director about this for a few months now (since the previous bell choir director retired at the end of last year) and together, we decided it might be good to restructure things a bit.  Rather than asking people to commit to play in the group for the year, we created a short-term opportunity for November and December - six rehearsals in all.

Also, we moved the rehearsal time to Wednesdays right before adult choir to encourage people to come a little early and take part in both groups for a few weeks.  We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to participate, regardless of previous musical experience and/or reading skills.  This made our planning a little more difficult but we chose a variety of repertoire and made up a few different bell assignment options, to accommodate the people who came the first week.

We pulled a stack of pieces and resources to take home, things we thought might work for the first few weeks, and began planning.  Working on our rehearsal plan for the first week Since the group is open to everyone, we knew we needed to start with an introduction to basic ringing techniques.  Not knowing the reading level of the group, we planned a free improvisation activity (with everyone playing chord tones) to get the group playing and making music right from the beginning.

Next, we pulled a few rhythmic reading examples from Michael Keller's Developing Coordination Skills (though we notated a few rhythm patterns on the board rather than giving them the printed notation).

We found one of the Thompson/Callahan Begin to Ring books in the church music library and read the three settings of Holy, Holy, Holy (progressively more difficult). These arrangements only call for 15 bells (7 people) so we wrote out optional chime assignments (to double the melody at pitch) to include an extra 4 people, if we got a really big group the first night.  We did the same thing for a setting of For the Beauty of the Earth (17 bells) in Al Zabel's Seventeen Handbell Processions.

I love having handbell acclamations at the beginning of worship (inspired by Music and Worship Arts Week at Lake Junaluska - read more here and here) and we thought this would be a fairly accessible way for the group to contribute to worship, even with our limited timetable.  Peal No. 1 in Hal Hopson's The Creative Use of Handbells in Worship calls for 9 bells (one per person) and we thought we'd use four chimes to double an ostinato pattern, if needed (another 2-4 people).

Last on our agenda was a setting of Simple Gifts (12 bells) arranged by Patricia Sanders Cota in Twelve Bells for Worship.  Again, we found a repeated line that could be doubled by chimes, creating parts for three more players.


A little something fun for the first night

We made copies of the music to encourage people to mark their music (or color-code their part, if desired!).  To save time, we put everything in order, based on our rehearsal plan.Of course, we had to have something fun for the first night - I thought up this idea while we were traveling last week and love how they turned out!

Have you ever directed or played in a bell choir?  What was your favorite part?

The Power of Silent Singing in Rehearsal

The Power of Silent Singing in Rehearsal

Last week, we had our final choir rehearsal of the year. 

I knew it would be busy as we prepared for our spring program on Sunday (nine anthems + narration) but in the midst of moving the piano across the Sanctuary, putting everyone in order, getting the music organized, and listening for spots that needed to be reviewed at the end of our run-through, we shared an amazing teaching moment.

Reflecting on this later in the evening, I said to Steve, “Moments like that can’t be planned.  They just… happen.  I couldn’t have come up with that and written it into a lesson plan no matter how much time I spent preparing.  It came to me in the moment as a reaction to what was happening.  It was pure improvisation.” 

The Adult Church Choir Rehearsal

The Sanctuary Choir has had an exciting year! First of all, look how we've grown from 12 members last summer to 21 members at Christmas time! We have a great group of enthusiastic singers who are very faithful to the music program and are eager to learn! What more could a director ask of a choir? Take a seat on one of the red velvet pews in the back of the Sanctuary and observe one of our Thursday night choir rehearsals...

Sanctuary Choir Rehearsal

7:00-7:10 p.m. - Warm-Ups

  • Stretches, sighs, sirens, humming, chewing, facial massage

  • Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out for four counts

  • Me-ahh (starting with a D Major triad going up: 15-4321)

  • Vi-va (starting with a D Major triad going up: 1234-5656-54321)

  • Vocal Siren

  • Reminders: singing through the consonant to the vowel, sitting on top of the note instead of reaching up to it

Opening Prayer

7:10-7:15 p.m. - Sunday’s Anthem

  • Prayer for Peace (Lightfoot)

  • Reminders: tall mouth-shape, tempo changes, dynamics, cut-offs, more breath preparation before entrances

7:15-7:20 p.m. - Service Music (all a cappella)

  • Introit: O Worship the King (Traditional Hymn)

  • Prayer Response: Breathe on Me, Breath of God (Traditional Hymn)

  • Benediction Response: Amen (Danyew)

  • Reminders: breathing together, imagining first note before singing it, singing into the sound around you, enunciate!

7:20-7:50 p.m. - Anthems

  • Come to the Water (Hasseler) - new

  • Reminders: direction of phrases (most important word of phrase), breath preparation, phrase-shaping

  • An Hour of Hallowed Peace (Danyew)

  • Reminders: "hushed" text painting (singing the word in a way that depicts its meaning), breath support for soft singing, preparing to sing 5ths, direction of phrases (most important word of phrase), phrase-shaping

  • Jesus, Savior, Friend (Glass)

  • Reminders: consistent tempo, syncopated rhythm review, tall mouth shape/vowels, confidence, relationship of vocal parts to accompaniment

7:50-7:55 p.m. - Announcements

  • Choir picture is up on the website!

  • Joke Time

7:55-8:00 p.m. - Talk Break

8:00-8:30 p.m. - Anthems

  • You Are the Song (Courtney)

  • Reminders: syncopated rhythm review, parts review, relationship of vocal parts to accompaniment

  • The Gift of Love (Traditional Hymn) - a cappella, rehearse in circle

  • Reminders: look up!, blend with people around you, direction of phrases, phrase-shaping, dynamic contour

Prayer Circle

What does your church choir rehearsal look like?

Rehearsal Relationships

IMG_0310 It was a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon.

With a calm breeze and clouds drifting lazily across the sky, it was the perfect day to be outside enjoying the summer weather.  We, however, walked purposely towards our indoor destination; I found my mind preparing for what was to come that next hour.  Yes, it takes this mindset, this level of dedication to truly be successful in rehearsals.

As a younger musician, I dutifully set aside the time to practice but made every excuse possible to finish early, give myself more breaks, or take the lazy way out.  When the clock struck the magical number, my practice would immediately halt.  Often times, practice sessions like this kept me from ever really getting in touch with the musical depth of whatever I was studying.  I couldn’t immerse myself beyond the mere surface of the piece – for fear of who knows what… losing track of time, heaven forbid.  I struggled in performances to keep myself interested in what I was playing – imagine the poor audience!

I refuse to refer to myself now as an “older musician,” but as hopefully wiser, I’ve discovered how exciting and passionate rehearsals can be.  During my time at Eastman, I found myself with stacks of repertoire and not enough hours in the day.  Rehearsal time was precious and had to be productive.  I began practicing pieces in sections, studying and preparing my scores outside the practice room, and keeping a journal of what I practiced, time spent, and what I learned each day.  What a difference!  Practicing no longer felt like a chore and I had a very real way of charting my progress.  Suddenly, I became responsible for my own growth as a musician; I focused my time and energy on identifying problems and creating solutions.

So here we are on a beautiful Saturday making our way to a rehearsal of Brahms’ Sonntag.  This piece was originally written for voice and piano, though we transcribed it for tenor saxophone and piano.  The character is a young man pining after his “beloved,” a young woman in church who may or may not even know he exists.  We struggled with the interpretation of this piece – is he serious?  Is it sad?  How are the two verses different?  It often feels like you’re handed a stack of puzzle pieces and asked to make sense of them.  The text, the character, the composer’s intentions, the time period, the accompaniment, the musical phrases, the necessity for breath… which takes precedence and when?  There is no clear road map, unfortunately.  It’s a method of trial and error.

“Let’s try it again,” one of us encourages.  “This time, let’s bring out the subtext in the second verse a little more and see how that feels.”

Constant evaluation.  Passionate disagreements.  Music over text.  Text over music.  German translations.  Creating phrase shapes in perfect unison.  Breathing together.  Dialogue.  Setting the scene.  Sensing the text not spoken and learning to speak through the piano interlude.

“It’s laughter,” I said.

“What?”  Steve responded.  “What are you talking about?”

“The interlude - this measure that seems to come out of nowhere and is interrupted by your entrance – I think Brahms was writing in laughter.”

“Just because the word ‘laughter’ appears in the next line doesn’t mean that Brahms wrote ‘laughter’ into the musical interlude,” Steve said skeptically.

“This is just my interpretation, but I think this interlude represents the things the character won’t or can’t say aloud.  It’s his thought process.  He catches himself dreaming deeply about this beautiful girl and calling her his ‘beloved’ and maybe he realizes that she sees right past him and it’s impossible that they could ever be together.  Maybe he starts laughing at himself and then realizes that he was in the middle of telling a story – interrupting himself with verse 2.  It’s plausible, you have to admit,” I said, realizing how passionate I was about this revelation.

“Sure, it’s plausible, but who really knows?”  Steve said.  “Just playing the Devil’s Advocate here, what if Brahms just intended it to be nice music in between the verses?  Why can’t we just play this musically – why does everything have to represent something else?”

“For me, assigning ‘laughter’ to that musical figure helps me define it and it changes the way I play.  I need to think and feel something in that measure.  Playing and thinking have to by one in the same for me.  If I play without thinking, I won’t be communicating.  Listen,” I said.

I sat back down, having risen to my feet during my impassioned soap-box speech, and began the interlude again.  Version 1 was musical: carefully-shaped phrases, a decent amount of time at “the right musical moments,” and approaching the measure in question, I swelled and stretched the tempo, trying to fit it into the musical context of the preceding bars.  Version 2 was my attempt at communicating the character’s inner thoughts.  The first few bars were reflective, imaginative.  When I arrived at the measure in question, I played it substantially lighter, very little pedal, and with more forward motion, rather than pulling back.  As such, the entrance for verse 2 seemed to “interrupt” the musical figure rather than waiting for it to finish.

“Did you hear how my thought process changed the whole character of that interlude?  Music over text or text over music?”  I asked.

“I agree with you, I’m not saying I don’t.  I’m sure you could base a whole masterclass off this idea but who’s to say that there’s not another way of playing it out there that’s equally convincing?”

“I’m not saying there’s not but I am saying that we need to choose our interpretation and we both have to agree.”

Give and take.  Discussion.  Communication.  Alternatives.  Perspective.  Respect.  Willingness to try.  Aren’t these the great challenges of any working relationship?  It takes this and more to make a rehearsal work.  It’s mentally exhausting, it’s consumes you, and yet it drives you at the same time.  Did we ever reach an agreement, you ask?  Yes, for the sake of the music and being true to all the clues left to us by the composer, we opted to stay in character – speaking, sharing, thinking, mourning, and in the end, laughing.