Rehearsing Efficently with Bristol A Cappella Music Team

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As I reported a while back, as well as spending two days coaching the full chorus at Bristol A Cappella at the end of April, I also had a two-hour session with their music team in the evening.

In some ways this was a rather over-ambitious programme of activities. We had an hour between finishing one session and starting the next, and a change of venue also probably helped refresh our attention, but we were nonetheless all pretty tired when we reconvened.

But notwithstanding these hurdles, the timing offered advantages that wouldn’t have been available on a stand-alone session. We had a shared experience during the day we could point back to for examples, and we made explicit use of this at the start by going through a structured reflection process based on my conductors’ four questions.

The primary purpose of this was to share a process the team can use at their monthly meetings, but it had the bonus of clarifying the agenda for our second day of coaching. There was at least one specific approach to technique that I may not have taken in the quite the way I did were it not for this discussion among section leaders. (And another activity got planned in over the post-workshop dinner, though that may have happened even if we’d not had the training session first.)

Another advantage was that we could consolidate some of what we’d worked on during the following day. A goodly chunk of the session was on efficient rehearsal techniques, and we built in activities during the Sunday that gave the music team chance to practice the feedback protocols we had worked on in the context of an actual rehearsal, not just a role-play.

And of course, doing training on how to coach right in the midst of actually doing coaching keeps me honest. I was aware (to the extent that there is any spare attention when you’re deep in the music) that I was giving the team the tools to analyse my own technique as much as their own. Any time I caught myself giving a diagnosis rather than going straight to intervention, or attempting to give too many interventions at once, I mentally kicked myself.

One of the things I love about the musical music team methods I shared during the session is the way they reframe mistakes as incredibly useful information. I had asked the section leaders to bring a song to sing in quartet that was at a relatively early stage of development for this purpose, and we were able to use the process of sorting out all the little glitches that occur when working on new music as planning aids for when they take it into rehearsal.

The basic principle is this: any point where a section leader stumbles when singing a song in quartet for the first time is a place where their section is likely also to need support. The act of fixing momentary errors directly prepares the section leader to help their singers navigate the same passage. In the process, we also identified where are good spots to pick up just before the moments that needed extra work and what the director needs to do gesturally to help the singers through there.

Some of the challenges also offered opportunities for discussions about teaching methods. For instance, a lyric that had a hook line than came in slightly different versions at the end of each verse gives a specific challenge to memory and version control. Each person in the room had particular memory strategies that they use as singers to deal with this kind of challenge, and the discussion meant that all section leaders went away with a wider variety of solutions to the same problem to use with their sections.

The other thing I love about these processes is the way that the simple acts of singing together one to a part, and of listening to each other sing in quartet increases the depth of insight the team have into both the music and each other. What they’ll find as they go back into rehearsal is that, not only are they able to head potential musical difficulties off at the pass having identified them in advance, but the extra confidence they have gained in the process actually prevents some of the problems cropping up in the first place.

Efficient rehearsing, that is, is not just about the precision and fluency of your interventions, but is set up in the depth of musicianship you develop in your preparation time.

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