Soapbox: Back on Teach Tracks

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Before you read this: I know everyone will hate me by the end of this post. So I'd like you to know a more helpful one is coming up next time

I know, I know, I have something of a downer on the whole thing of learning tracks, we’ve been here before. Though actually it’s not so much the tracks themselves that I have an issue with - even I am not so churlish as to deny their various usefulnesses - but with the lazy and unhelpful habits they facilitate in people who should know better. Today my gripe is with arrangers and chorus directors who don’t bother to do their jobs properly and expect teach tracks to take up the slack.

The fundamental point (and I had better get this out before I annoy everyone too much!) is that parrot-fashion mimicry is not the same as learning. And that even accurate mimicry is not possible if your brain hasn’t grasped the meaning of what you’re copying. You know how it’s hard to catch someone’s name if they’re from a country whose language you’re not familiar with? It’s like that. ‘Learning the dots’ has to involve making sense of the music if it is to succeed, and this is no more guaranteed through listening than it is through reading. We sing what we understand, not what we hear; and if we don’t understand it, we make inferences that may or may not end up being valid in the context of the whole.

So, onto my first gripe - with my fellow arrangers.* I spend quite a lot of my life as a coach helping people nail the tricky bits in a chart that they’re struggling with. And of course I’m happy to help. But not infrequently I do wonder if the arranger has actually sung these lines themselves. Properly sung them, I mean, expressively and at tempo, not just checked out that they can sing a particular interval in isolation. Because often the reason the singers are struggling is because the lines are oddly-shaped, counter-intuitive and musically disorientating.

Now, it’s not that I am the best sight-reader in the world. But I’m better than most, and would usually expect to get most lines you find in pieces that an amateur choir might attempt at first or second, or at most third pass. If I’m having to go all slowed-down and left-brained to get my voice round a passage, I have no idea how the arranger thought that people who can’t even read music were going to manage it. And there are usually much more singable possibilities available had they taken their time to find them.

These passages probably sound fine on the notation program or piano, and they likewise usually sound fine on the learning tracks (though this is sometimes due to post-recording editing - clever what you can do these days). So the arranger seems to think that if an expert singer with the opportunity to do multiple takes, autotune the wobbly bits and move notes around on the computer can manage it for the tracks, everyone else will pick it up automatically.

Those of us who have worked much with human beings realise the folly of that assumption. And the outcome is a lot of wasted rehearsal and coaching time and a much higher level of singer anxiety than needed.

I feel a bit sorry for chorus directors who have to pick up the pieces of these acts of arrangerly laziness. They have their work cut out not just untangling the technical difficulties, but also managing the singers’ feelings, trying to keep them enthused about the song as a whole despite the awkward-to-sing moments.

But my sympathy is limited by the director’s own lack of effort. So often the procedure is to send the singers off with the tracks to ‘learn the dots’ without any groundwork to prepare them for the difficulties they are going to face. Expecting people to go away learn things independently is of course a Good Thing in principle, but if your primary learning tool is already predicated on a lack of musicianship (i.e. tracks rather than literacy), it seems like an abdication of responsibility to ask people to do this without any support. You have only yourself to blame if your singers turn up after 2 or 3 weeks, or however long you’ve given them, fluent at failing at the hard bits; they have assiduously practised that failure in the absence of any guidance on how to avoid it.

It is really quite easy to work out which bits your singers are likely to struggle with. These are the bits that you as a director stumble over as you sing through parts in preparing the music. And your process of working out how to master those sections will inform your teaching strategies when your singers need your help. Does it need slowing down? Which parts do you need to establish first to anchor the others? Do certain gestures or movements help you feel that rhythm? Until you have worked out a process to teach yourself to sing it, you are not ready to ask anyone else to learn it.

And once you have taught yourself, do some work with your singers to help them before you send them off to struggle alone. Build a warm-up exercise around the tricky rhythm, teach the key change as if it were a tag. Put them in a position to greet the challenges with confidence when they meet them on the learning track. Give them a chance to feel good about themselves.

The fundamental rationale for using tracks as learning method is that it is supposed to make things easier for singers, especially those who did not have the opportunity to learn music literacy in childhood. They’re not supposed to let arrangers and directors off the hook of doing their own work thoroughly.

* Not all my fellow arrangers all of the time, obviously (and possibly not excluding myself, though I’m pretty careful about this). These bits I am being so arrogantly grumpy about are generally just moments in otherwise rewarding pieces of music. But they occur just often enough to get me feeling ranty about the misery they cause singers.

Hi Liz --

My upcoming manual, Teaching Choral A`Cappella Singing Painlessly, include specific, step-by-step guidance for using parts-learning CDs effectively. Also my paper, The Power of the Positives, covers Berne and Harris. Would you like me to send you a copy of either one?


Thanks for the offer Stephen - they sound just the kind of thing I'd be interested in!

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