Production and Production Capacity in the Choral Rehearsal
One of the foundational concepts in Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is the distinction between production and production capacity.* Production is getting stuff done – generating whatever outputs a particular role is required to turn out. Production capacity is building the wherewithal to do this effectively – it doesn’t make the outputs itself, but it puts you in a better position to make them. This turns out to be a very useful distinction to help both devise individual rehearsal plans and long-term plans for a choir’s development.
Covey’s main point is that it’s all too easy to spend all one’s efforts in production, and never get around to developing one’s capacity to produce any more or any better. Sorry, we say to ourselves, I’m too busy washing my socks by hand to learn how to use a washing machine. But if we want to get any better at what we do, we have to schedule in a decent quantity of activity to develop our production capacity even if – well, especially if – that involves ‘stealing’ time and effort currently dedicated to production.
So, how does this help the choral director? Well, it’s about how we balance the need to get music learned and polished for impending performances and the need to develop the skills of the choir. Learning music has deadlines attached: if the concert is a fortnight Tuesday, better get it learned by then. It also gives a satisfying sense of achievement: you can measure very easily how much you covered in any particular rehearsal, so it is inherently motivating for the singers. So it’s very easy to focus on this as the immediate need. We’ll work on skills after the summer concert, we say to ourselves, forgetting that once the concert is over everybody just wants to put their feet up after a job well done until it is time to start preparing for the next one.
But there are also skills that would make this process happen more smoothly and effectively. Improved sight-singing will increase the speed of learning (understatement of the year there, I think). Better aural and vocal skills will help tuning, balance and blend – cutting down on the time needed to polish the music. Language skills will entail less drill in learning pronunciation for a specific piece. Increased knowledge about style and genre and historical context will offer a more efficient route into a piece’s particular expressive world. Time spent on these ‘luxuries’ always pays off with greater efficiency and better results down the line.
And even if you have a professional choir whom you have auditioned to within an inch of their lives to make sure they come in with a comprehensive set of choral, vocal and musical skills, my hunch is that time dedicated to production capacity is still going to be worthwhile, even though the pressures on rehearsal time for paid ensembles are so much more urgent than for unpaid groups. If you never ask your singers to raise their game, after all, they won’t need to bring their full human capacity to the task. If your singers can do everything you’d want them to, it might be time to up-grade your aspirations.
* I find this quite an irritating book, by the way. If I were just going on its style and tone I would abandon it after only a few pages, but the ideas are just so good that I have to keep going – so I end up having to live with the style for much longer than I’d like. Irritating.