Running Successful Sectionals

When was the last time you ran a sectional with one of your choirs?At what phase in your rehearsal process did you incorporate this best practice?

Sectionals are a valuable tool to use at all phases of repertoire learning.However,in his 1980 article about sectionals, Timothy Mount implies that less than half of directors incorporate the activity. While this article is old, based on my conversations with colleagues, I do not think this has changed. However, as long as your singers are of high school age or older, sectionals can be used successfully in almost any context: professional and amateur, educational and community, worship and secular. Mount’s article points out that The Robert Shaw Chorale spent more than half of its rehearsal time in sectionals when preparing for a European tour.

Like most of you, I wear many hats as a choral director. There are very few of us that work with just one ensemble type. In my high school job, I am fortunate to work with “traditional” men’s, women’s, and mixed ensembles, as well as jazz and madrigal choirs. In my church job, I work with youth and adult choirs. I have found great success in incorporating sectionals with all of these ensemble types. Of course, sectionals most likely are not feasible with elementary or middle school students, unless there is an adult musician closely supervising the process.

In the months leading up to the winter concert season and Advent/Christmas, I made a conscious effort to incorporate sectionals more regularly. Though we all have the best of intentions to teach well-rounded, literate musicians, many of us go through phases where we get set in the regular “drill-and-kill” mindset of teaching notes and rhythms when we get to crunch-time. However, whether we are teaching a school group or community choir, we have those participants who are further along in their music literacy. Unfortunately, these members of our ensembles are often the ones that disconnect when we revert to this practice. We should empower them more as leaders to maintain engagement across our ensembles.

The youngest group with whom I recently tried sectionals was my freshmen women’s chorus, and while I prepared a fair amount prior to their first “outing,” I would classify their first experience as a failure. In our next class, I pointed out what I observed in their first sectional venture, and I asked them how they could improve for next time. In the case of this group, they had no prior experience being student-led in sectionals, so I had one group model the activity in front of the class. Afterwards, students came up with a list of ways to run a “successful” sectional, which we have been building upon for the past few weeks. While many of these are obvious to us, sometimes we need to spell it out, especially to our younger musicians. I do feel that this list is widely adaptable to other ensemble types, including worship and community ensembles.

Below are some of the highlights from the checklist I developed with the class:

  1. Set a clear goal of what needs to be accomplished. If musicians are unclear as to what the goal is, they should clarify with the director.
  2. Understand responsibilities. Avoid having “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
  3. Speak up if you need help with a specific section. If you have a question, or if the section leader is going too fast, say something!
  4. Leave the room in the same condition in which you found it (or better). Most of us are probably having sectionals in a space shared with other colleagues, so make sure that any equipment (chairs, piano, stands, etc.) is returned to the correct place.
  5. Do not use phones or tablets unless they are assisting the sectional. While we all deal with the modern-day distractions of electronic devices, I have had groups use them well in sectionals. For more demanding pieces, I will record parts and email MP3s to my choir members for use in sectionals.
  6. Be in close proximity to each other. I also find it helpful to have all choristers either sit or stand.

If you aren’t already doing so, I encourage you to consider using sectionals, both in the early learning and advanced stages of repertoire. For further information, I highly recommend reading the article “Section Rehearsals” by Timothy Mount, which appeared in the October 1980 Choral Journal.

Good luck in your sectional endeavors!