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Soapbox: On ‘Leaners’

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soapboxThis is a spin-off from my current project of adapting ideas from Doug Lemov’s taxonomy of effective classroom methods to the rehearsal room. As I wrote my introductory post on the project, I had the following tangential thoughts on a subject that is a mainstay of choral discourse.

It is a widely-held truism that ‘leaners’ are a Bad Thing for a choir. Their failings may be treated as moral deficits: that they are lazy in letting other people do their learning for them. Or they may be seen as lacking in ‘talent’, and thus a drag on the choir’s progress. The literature tends to treat them quite impatiently, with the basic imperative that they just need to get a grip and learn to think for themselves. The very label ‘leaner’ places the blame for their condition squarely on their own shoulders.

But it occurred to me when writing about Lemov’s techniques that there are two kinds of leaning going on in choir, and they need quite different solutions.

If someone is basically just singing along happily in their comfort zone without particularly stretching themselves, then they do indeed need the kinds of interventions that you might prescribe for ‘laziness’. Make the task more complex by giving them something specific to achieve; raise the stakes. The general belief that this is an unhelpful level of engagement is right, but equally it is the director who has created an environment that lets it happen. So when we spot it, our response should not be to bark at our singers for drifting off, but to give them something stimulating enough to hold their attention.

The other kind of leaner isn’t just passively singing along, but is clinging on for dear life. The active leaner is considerably less skilled than the passive leaner, but they are developing a lot faster. Singing in a group is a great way to help someone learn music as it gives them a complete immersive experience in which to match their actions and ways of being with those who can already do it. The last thing these leaners need is to have the stakes raised; they are already working at full capacity, and if you overload them any further they will spiral out into their panic zone.

The main thing the director needs to achieve is to prevent the second type of leaner turning into the first type. Someone who starts off terrified of attempting anything, but finds their feet by riding pillion on other people’s voices can, if stereotyped as a ‘weak’ singer, get left there feeling that that is the only way they can possibly do it. So their progress needs celebrating (so they believe they can improve), and their challenges gradually ramped up to increase their independence (so that they continue to improve).

I wasn’t sure when I start this post whether I was going to categorise it as a ‘soapbox’ article. It started out analytical rather than ranty, but as I’ve gone on, the thing that has crystallised in my thinking is this:

If we have active leaners in our choirs, it is our job as directors to support them, not denigrate their attempts to live up to what the rest of the singers do. If we have passive leaners in our choirs, they behave that way because we let them do so. Any time you hear a choral conductor complain about the leaners in their choir, they are actually complaining about the poverty of their own rehearsal technique.

There, that ended up quite opinionated, didn’t it? I had better return to my project of analysing techniques that can improve things.

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