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Messiah Sing-a-long advice

The community chorus at the school where I teach has performed the "Messiah" often in its entirety every Christmas for 80+ years at Christmas. As new community choirs have sprung up in our area and as the culture has changed it is becoming harder and harder to get singers committed to a weekly rehearsal schedule. We are thinking of re-envisioning the tradition this year and turning it into a sing-along. We plan to hire the orchestra and soloists as usual.
 
Has anyone been successful with a venture of this nature. Did you have a core choir and invite the audience to join in. Did you have 1-2 mandatory rehearsals and have the sing-along choir "perform" the choral numbers. I'm very interested in how you structured the process to ensure its success and the things you learned to do/not do the next time.
 
Thanks,
Dr. Kevin D. Smith
Music Department Chair
Eastern Nazarene College
Quincy, MA
on September 10, 2015 9:08pm
Hi, Kevin,
 
The community choir that I direct has had a Sing-Along Messiah for quite a few years now (seventeen I think???).  We use professional orchestra and soloists. We have a choir onstage.  For those audience members who wish to sit in sections, we have the front of the audience mirror the sections of the onstage choir.  There are those who wish to just sit with their friends and sing, rather than in the sections, so audience can do that as well, but they are behind the "sectioned" audience.  There are also those who simply come to listen, and they can sit in any seats not used.  We use an audience conductor.  This give some direction to the audience, and helps them be more confident joining in.  It also saves me from constantly spinning around on the podium when conducting the choruses.
 
We usually have about 3 or 4 rehearsals to prepare the chorus; many singers do not really need that much, but there are enough new people each year, that this seems good to do.  The one truly mandatory rehearsal is the one with orchestra and chorus, which we do on a different day than the performance.  We combine with the chorus from the local community college, and many of them have never sung with an orchestra.  This rehearsal allows us to run every chorus we are singing in its entirety.  This rehearsal is also not in the concert venue (a cost issue).
 
On the day of the performance, I rehearse in the concert venue with the soloists and orchestra first, so the orchestra can know what the soloists are going to do with recits and cadences in the arias.  The singers usually "mark" this rehearsal, and we often do not run an entire aria until the performance. The reason for this soloist rehearsal on the day-of-concert is that I found the soloists actually like it better if they don't have to travel to our area on two different days (they often come from an hour or more away).  The chorus comes for the last 45 minutes of this day-of-performance rehearsal so they can hear their sound with the orchestra in the concert venue, and hear the solos that run directly into their choruses (i.e., "Oh Thou That Tellest" & "Glory To God").  At this rehearsal we do not sing any choruses in their entirety.  Conservation of voice and energy is a big consideration.  When we started adding the separate chorus/orchestra on a different day, the orchestra was VERY grateful (we used to run everything on the concert day).
 
This is what we have developed over many years, and it fits our needs and works well for us.
 
I wish you all the best.  This can become a terrific community tradition.  Feel free to contact me if you have any other questions!
 
Steve Szalaj
Applauded by an audience of 2
on September 11, 2015 5:03am
Hi Kevin,
 
May I suggest that you contact Phee Price (pheeprice(a)gmail.com), the Exec. Director of Civic Chorale of Greater Miami (FL). This group is in it's 45th season of annual Messiah Sing-In's. Founded by Dr. Lee Kjelson (RIP), it was one of the first groups of its kind to do this in Southern Division. CCGM is currently conducted by Dr. Ken Boos, Miami Dade College (kboos(a)mdc.edu). Phee and Ken can give you many good ideas about this fun community event.
 
Best wishes,
Kathleen Shannon
on September 12, 2015 5:09am
Handel!  Messiah!  Audience sing-a-long without rehearsed choral musicians on stage!  Sounds like a musical disaster waiting to happen in my view.  The key words in your post are "as the culture has changed" and the point about getting singers committed to rehearsing.  Handel's Missiah is a masterwork of great difficulty.  Even professional choirs and orchestras have difficulty with the score.  Think of the melismatic passges alone.  An UNREHEARSED audience is going to sing those pages without choral leadership on stage?  I don't think so.  In fact, even with a rehearsed choir on stage leading the way, it is treacherous.  You might reconsider the "culture has changed" situation and change the program entirely.  Keeping with the 80 year Christmas tradition, consider appropriate Christmas literature for orchestra alone, along with traditional carols sung as a sing-a-long with the audience and orchstra.  Traditions are fine, but where the culture has changed, I'd suggest keeping musical integrity at the top of your planning list and redesign the program.
on September 12, 2015 6:00am
I would also suggest you contact a colleague of mine in Calgary, Christina Jahn, who belongs to an organization, Voicescapes (www.voicescapes.ca), that sponsors an annual sing-along Messiah there. They have a very interesting model, in which they invite a different guest conductor each year, and contribute greatly to the development of our young aspiring solo singers in Alberta by holding an annual round of auditions for the solo roles. She will I'm sure give you some good ideas as well.
 
Best,
Len Ratzlaff
University of Alberta
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 12, 2015 6:28pm
Ooh!  But you're in Quincy and that changes everything!  Messiah Sings are very popular in the Boston area, and with all the good music schools and excellent choirs, you can count on a lot of drop-in singers who know the score cold.  Interestingly, I've never been to one that had a rehearsed choir on stage.  The hosting organization usually intersperses its singers with everone else.  Usually the soloists and orchestra are professional and well-rehearsed, and everyone else drops in, just for the evening and sits, more or less, by section.  It usually feels somewhat like a concert, and somewhat like a fun choir rehearsal.  
 
Some families may want to sit together.  Encourage everyone to get themselves organized and squish together and toward the front before you get started.  People who don't know the score particularly well will be tempted to try to sit off by themselves so they aren't embarrassed by wrong notes, but that makes it harder for everyone to hear their parts and stay together.  Not everyone will want to sing.  Some people will want to follow along with a score and just participate for the parts they know really well:  (Halleluia chorus.)  That's just fine.  
 
If you are doing a "sing" instead of a concert, then make it a "sing."  Be friendly, don't expect perfection, and everyone will have a wonderful time.  These can be great recruiting events for your choir, community outreach to new audiences, and a way to get young singers interested in classical music.  People who would be nervous about coming to audition for your group WILL come to a sing.  And it is your chance to prove to them that your group is fun, welcoming, and that mistakes don't get you pointed at and shown the door.  It's a LOOOOONG piece of music.  You can cherry pick the parts you feel most comfortable with and let the soloists do most of the heavy lifting.  You don't have to sing everything in the Christmas section.  Next year you can do some different movements.  If you want to do a particularly difficult movement, there is nothing wrong with asking everyone to start at the trickiest part and run it a little under tempo once before you really get down to singing it through.  Make sure everyone feels a little challenged, a lot successful, and very uplifted listening to the professionals.  
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 12, 2015 7:59pm
A resource that you may find very helpful in staging a singalong Messiah, is part-predominant tracks of the choruses. These will allow you to get maximum value from one or two rehearsals. Our CDs use real singers against the backdrop of a professional choir and orchestra. Also, we have special pricing especially to accommodate singalong concerts allowing you to buy CDs in bulk at reduced cost. ("Seattle Sings Messiah" was one of our biggest customers for these when we launched our first web site in Sept. 2001.) You can even enter into a licensing agreement through which you can make your own copies of our CDs for only $6.50/copy. (Many amateur choirs have taken advantage of this opportunity over the years.)
 
Jim Taylor, President
 
 
P.S. We were able to sell MP3 tracks of individual choruses, but web site issues have temporarily made this impossible. - A new web site is coming soon.
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