Learning

Soapbox: On the Value of Downtime in Rehearsal

soapboxThis post is inspired by a recent conversation about what different choral groups do by way of a tea break (or not) during an evening rehearsal. I have framed my post as one where I climb up on my platform for being opinionated, but I should let you know that the dialogue it emerges from was anything but contentious. Just a bunch of people saying, ‘We rehearse from this time to that time, and this is what we do by way of a break’.

We all found it helpful and interesting to see the range of options available. I particularly liked the one where they had drinks available for the half hour they had the hall before rehearsal started so that those who wanted to come early could socialise. It seemed a good way of balancing the needs of those who value a cuppa and chat and the task-focused shy people who would rather be singing.

Practice Gadgets as Feedback Tools

The term ‘practice gadget’ is one coined by Daniel Coyle to refer to tactics people use to selectively increase the challenge of what they are working on. The archetypal example would be the way that the popular game of futsal trained up a generation of Brazilian football players, documented in his first book. Working on a smaller scale than soccer, and using a ball with significantly less bounce, futsal makes players work harder at ball-handling and team interaction, leading to a level of virtuosity that the larger, outdoor version of the game rarely fosters.

There is another dimension to the practice gadgets though, not just the amplification of challenge: they provide a feedback-rich experience. The physical interface with the activity talks back to you with a constant stream of information about how you’re getting on.

Myelinating with Mo

The recent LABBS Harmony College brought lots of interesting resonances with the blog post I had scheduled to come out the day after I got home from it. This is not entirely a coincidence of course – at the time I was writing about practice processes and shunting between local and global, I was also refining my notes for a session on rehearsal techniques that focused on Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, and its accounts of how we acquire skills.

But our guest educator Mo Field also gave us a lot to enrich that understanding. Her coaching under glass session with Soundhouse and Avalon quartets on Saturday evening was a masterclass in myelination. She took very little time before she started to delve deep, paring down to two singers each on a single note and spending a long time there before building up to four singers and three or notes at a go. Then when she pulled the camera back to take in wider stretches of music, the singers were able to continue accessing the new paths they had gone down as they had spent long enough there to get them at least partly established.

Thinking Faces

I recently reread Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code to refresh myself before teaching a class that drew on it at LABBS Harmony College. The great thing about rereading things is that you can suddenly spot all kinds of cross-references with things you have read since – connections which, by definition, weren’t available to you the first time you read it.

One of the points that leapt out at me is Coyle’s description of people engaged in deep practice – the behaviours that lead to myelination and thus the development of skill. They display a characteristic facial expression, a kind of intent squint that makes them all look rather like Clint Eastwood. So of course I went to refresh my memory of his face and laughed out loud at the results of a google image search – my screen reminded me of a class or a choir when I’ve just asked them to do something they’ve not done before.

LABBS Harmony College 2019

Arty long-shot of our central themeArty long-shot of our central themeEvery so often, the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers replaces its usual programme of regional education days and training events for chorus directors and quartets with a single grand shindig. The last Harmony College took place in 2016, to celebrate the organisation’s 40th birthday, and it was so well received that it was decided to programme them into the events cycle every three years.

Hence, 330 of us – mostly but not exclusively LABBS members – gathered together at Nottingham University last weekend. This was a significantly larger number than three years ago (to the extent that the organisation kept having to go back to the university to get more bedrooms allocated), so I don’t see Harmony College losing its place in the cycle any time soon.

The Robot/Human Dialectic

There’s an exercise I like to do with ensembles in which they toggle between singing as if they were a robot and as if they were a human being. It’s interesting because you think before you start that it’s primarily about expressiveness – turning both vocal and facial empathy for the music on and off. Which it is, but it also turns out to be about technical control. The robot mode typically displays not only a more angular rather than flowing sense of shape, but also much cleaner synchronisation of rhythm and word sounds. You lose something by turning off your humanity, but you gain something too.

I recently had a conversation with an individual singer about managing his relationship with these two states. He generally gives his primary focus to accuracy (an attitude that you have to like), but feels this can result in a robotic delivery: ‘I don’t think I know how to sing a melody like a Lead, while still doing all the stuff on placement, timing etc,’ he said.

Atomic Quartet Coaching

AtomicI spent Monday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Tuesday with Atomic Quartet, who had come up from Cornwall for an intensive bout of coaching both as quartet and as individual singers. They had initially suggested doing PVIs (‘personal voice instruction’ for those unfamiliar with the acronym) on the Monday, followed by quartet coaching the next day, but I inflected this model into a more flexible approach that shifted between individual and ensemble work more fluidly.

I remembered the way that Rivka Golani taught viola at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All her students were entitled to a certain number of hours of one-to-one tuition as part of their course, but rather than seeing them one at a time, she used to have all of them together for one day a week, observing as she worked with each in turn. Her students spoke very positively of this experience, and I observed strong bonds of trust between them.

On Repetition

The French for rehearsal is ‘répétition’, which captures an interestingly different aspect of the process than the English term’s implications of ‘trial run’. Things need doing more than once to secure the combination of mental concept and motor actions we experience as ‘doing it right’.

But simply repeating things isn’t enough. It is easy to spend a lot of rehearsal time repeating the same errors and inadequacies you are already quite good at. Improving the music requires a change in behaviour.

This process of making changes, then routinising them is a recurring theme of this blog over the years. I’ve looked at it via Kotter’s model of organisation change, through the Dilts Pyramid, and most directly through my model of the Intervention and Enforcement Cycles (which itself crystallised in the wake of reading Doug Lemov’s ideas on effective classroom habits). Oh, and then with additions from Chip and Dan Heath last year.

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