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My recent reading of Daniel Coyle’s book spawned not only the some arguably rather arcane thoughts about Schenker, but has also had me reflecting on the implications for rehearsal methods. Much of his discussion focuses on what deep practice looks like in individual pursuits such as learning an instrument, and the challenge then becomes how to generate that experience in a group learning environment.
Ensembles offer both advantages and disadvantages in this respect. The advantage is the social nature of learning. People who are more confident in a particular skill can model it for those who are just developing it, keeping the desired result fresh and present in their consciousness. The disadvantage is the possibility of coasting. In an ensemble there are other people to hide ‘behind’, and you can periodically switch off your active learning engagement and just go with the flow without necessarily being called to task.
Repetition is the central principle that Coyle identifies as vital to achieve a state of deep practice, and therefore promote myelination – the neurological process of developing expertise. You need to get the specific neurons involved in the skill firing again and again and again. But this isn’t the same as running on autopilot – it is a process of honing. Significant skill development works at the edge of you ability, at the level where you’re still making mistakes, but are close enough to the goal that you can correct them.
This suggests, the following style of rehearsal:
- Rapid alternation of music-making and instruction. Frequent music-making is needed to get the neurons firing, whilst instructions are needed to constantly adjust and refine the results – but they must be brief so as not to delay the next firing of the neurons. Likewise, the music needs to be taken in small chunks so as to get frequent feedback on how to hone it.
- Feedback needs to be information-rich: specific, detailed, targeted. The director pays attention not only to the whole sound, but to the individuals involved in producing it in order that the instructions are tailored to each person’s needs at that moment. Compare: ‘That vowel needs to be matched’; ‘Altos, can you brighten that ‘ee’?’; and ‘Emma, if you lift your cheeks it will help bring the sound forward.’ All are useful instructions, and sometimes you’ll only need the first one, but by progressively focusing in on the detail, you get help to the person who didn’t manage to change with the more general directions. (Also, everybody you didn’t just name now knows you are paying attention to individuals and is less likely to drift off in case they’re next.)
- Learning activities are designed to get members of the groups to intensify each other’s experience, to produce a more feedback-rich environment: e.g. pair- or small-group-work, exercises that hand round leadership, activities that use elements of improvisation
- The level is pitched to stretch. This is the most challenging thing to achieve in a group situation, where what constitutes ‘just beyond reach’ will be different for each individual. The way to achieve this is to combine musically holistic goals with detailed attention to individuals in the goals’ realisation. When aiming for a particular expressive trajectory in a phrase, for instance, the fluent sight-reader may need to be stretched in terms of their communicative involvement, while the person who really feels its emotional shape may need help with breath management.
Fortunately, none of this is a great surprise. As I’ve been writing this, my memory keeps coming out with pithy moments from choral practitioners like Howard Swan, Abraham Kaplan, Wilhelm Ehmann, Henry Coward – fabulously idiosyncratic writers about the rehearsal process whose books you read and know it would have been great to sing in their choirs.
What Coyle has offered, then, is nothing particularly new in terms of what we should be doing. What he does offer, though, is an explanation of why certain behaviours are more effective than others. We all know that talking for too long is something we should avoid when rehearsing a group. But it’s somehow more motivating to replace the thought, ‘I should shut up and let these poor people do some singing,’ with the idea, ‘I wonder how quickly I can get the neurons firing again after this feedback?’.