Last Wednesday I spent a fun evening with Silver Lining chorus in Coventry. It was the last session of a learn-to-sing course they’ve been running over the last few weeks, which has been both successful and popular. My session was intended as a transition from the course into the new repertoire the chorus would be starting with the participants who chose to stay on, and involved teaching a short version of my arrangement of Mamma Mia preparatory to the chorus learning the full version.
Now the challenge we set ourselves was not merely to learn all four parts of a song in a single evening, but for all singers to learn all four parts. This is possibly not as insane as it may sound, since I had originally written the arrangement for a workshop Magenta ran on the same lines, so I had designed the parts to be easily learnable. (One thing that really keeps you honest as an arranger is when you know you’ll have to teach everything you write down.) Still, it was a reasonably challenging task for singers who are accustomed to singing a single part, and learning that from a recording at their leisure. There were some who really didn’t believe we would make it!
In fact, the singers did a fabulous job. The warm-up finished around 7.55, and we had the top three parts working as a trio by 8.30, with each third of the chorus taking each part in turn. We had it working in four parts and off the sheet music by 9.10, and so had twenty minutes to spend on visual performance before a 9.30 finish.
Thinking about it on the way home, I came to the conclusion that the learning was so quick because of the pace of the session. There was very little white space, not least because I was constantly aware of the singers’ desire to sing what they had just learned again before they had a chance to forget it. I think this facilitated quick learning in several ways:
- At a simple level, we wasted very little time in chit-chat, so we maximised the time spent learning.
- A sprightly pace encouraged alertness, so that the quality of attention people were using to learn was high.
- Spending more time singing than talking allowed us all to get thoroughly into the musical parts of the brain.
The last one is – to me – the most interesting. Anyone who knows me will know that I like to take a reasonably high energy approach to rehearsing, but the experience with Silver Lining suggests that the energy is only part of the story when it comes to effective learning. Rather, the common injunction to minimise talking in rehearsal isn’t just about efficiency of time use, but also about efficiency of brain use. Talking pulls us out of the musical bits of the brain, whereas singing pulls us into them.