Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

SBO Staff • April/May 2016ChoralThe Practical Conductor • May 23, 2016

Share This:

Brody-McDonald-SMALLby Brody McDonald

One of the most valuable things I ever learned from RD Mathey at Bowling Green State University was how to go to school on someone else’s dime. By this I mean I learned how to watch, listen, and think analytically every second of rehearsal. Now that I’m a director, I realize how valuable my time was when I was a singer in the choir, going to school on someone else’s dime. We want our singers to be better at anticipating problems rather than fixing them. We want them to take ownership of their musicianship. You can’t solve every problem for them. Sometimes they need to be proactive! Towards that end, I share this article with you in hopes that you might share it with your singers, and then use it as a reference point during rehearsals.

Some common ways “going to school on someone else’s dime” helps:

1) But I’m doing it – Most singers think they are doing what the director wants them to. They mean well, so they think their intention translates into action. Unfortunately, most singers don’t go far enough, fast enough. When they watch the director working with another section, they can clearly see how other singers think they’re doing “it,” but really aren’t doing “it” enough. When the director finally coaxes the magical “enough” out of those singers, others who are paying attention should notice and gain valuable insight into their own technique.

2) What do I hear / How would I fix that? – This is a great game to play in rehearsal. The director works with one section and the rest of the choir’s job is to listen along, constantly thinking, “what is the director going to say?” The director could ask the choir “what did you hear? What am I going to say?” In advanced choirs, the director could even ask, “how could we fix that?” In short, spend some of your time in rehearsal pretending you are the assistant director, and will be taking over tomorrow’s rehearsal. By constantly thinking in an such analytical and critical manner, you will sharpen your ears and your musical instincts.

3) Music reading (rhythm and pitch) – During rehearsal, music is flying around constantly. Singers who are temporarily not singing can still learn a lot by following along in the score. Many singers only look at their music when they are singing (sometimes not even then). By tracking music while another section rehearses, you have a chance to reinforce basic reading skills. If the section is doing well, you can watch the “dots” go by and hear the correct matching sounds. If the section makes a mistake, you have a chance to notice and then hear the correction. Much of learning comes from repetition – time spent doing. The toughest skill for any singer is learning how to read. Don’t miss a second you could hone your musical literacy.

Furthermore, when you are not singing, you could internally count and try to fit your part in against the section being rehearsed. If it is a homophonic section, you could “mouth” along with those who are singing, practicing rhythms and vowel shapes even while silent.

4) Do vs. assess – Simply put, you cannot do something and assess it at the same time. By going to school on someone else’s dime, you get the opportunity to learn about the music, the director’s tastes, vocal technique, and much more while not doing. This means that when you do, you can focus on trying to the best of your ability without constantly thinking “how am I doing?” You can simply do, and let the director help you improve. It’s time for others to learn watching you.

5) Bottom line – EOE – Everything Overlaps Everything. Singing is a complex skill, one that requires mental acumen and physical coordination. Getting all the components to line up together to produce awesome singing is difficult. Period. Any chance you have to improve any little piece of this giant puzzle just puts you closer to that end-goal of awesome singing.

What are the by-products of “going to school on someone else’s dime?”

1) Leadership – You become better equipped to be an internal leader, either by performing better or even running sectionals. You know what the director wants. You know what the end product is supposed to be. You know the tools to make it so.

2) Reinforcement – you will get much more insight into vocal technique and practice at music reading, which ultimately helps you grow faster into the singer you wish to be.

3) Building habits

a) Increases your mental stamina / lengthens the period of your mental focus

b) Improves internal culture: singers are better able to diagnose their own performance

c) Reinforces the value of the coach/director

d) Builds analytical mindset in singers

e) Helps release people from the do / assess trap that impedes performance

So here’s your closing visual metaphor… remember in science when you were asked to soak a celery stalk in red water? You let it sit overnight and the next day the red water had been absorbed into the celery, giving it a red hue. Those who are only active in rehearsal while it’s their turn to sing are like a celery stalk that has been splashed with red water. Those who “go to school on someone else’s dime” are the ones who soak up all that red water until its just part of who they are.

Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of a cappella studies. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella style, which will take place June 23-28, 2015 at Wright State University. For more information, please visit and

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!