Rehearsal Technique: Singing in Fast Forward

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ffwThere is a rehearsal technique that emerged during the early months of Magenta’s existence that we have continued to use because it is rather effective, and I have been finding it useful to reflect on why it works. Its primary purpose is for memory work - for getting a piece that is basically learned off the page and securely into our brains - but it seems to have all kinds of benign unintended consequences.

The technique works like this. We sing the whole piece through with the music two or three times in succession (two if we’ve already run through it during the rehearsal, three if we’ve only looked at patches so far) very quietly and very fast, then drop the music and sing it at the correct volume and tempo from memory.

The pertinent elements of the technique are, I think:

  1. The combination of quiet and fast. The origin of this idea was the observation of how people sing to themselves when they want to fix music in their heads, so the technique aims to replicate in rehearsal what is a natural learning mode anyway.

    But there are all kinds of other features it brings to the rehearsal process that I hadn’t envisaged when we first introduced it:

    • The opportunity to sing with a focus only getting the stuff into your head helps people’s confidence no end. At this point in the game, security is what people most crave, and the chance just to focus on this and nothing else smoothes away distractions born of anxiety.
    • At the same time, it becomes much easier to hear the whole texture when singing sotto voce. People suddenly become much more confident about their own parts as their intuitive understanding of how the whole fits together is deepened.
    • Songs that we have learned bit-by-bit over time stop feeling long when sung at double speed. People suddenly get a much better sense of the overview of the whole when the start and end aren’t so far apart. It’s like looking at the song from a distance to see it all at once
    • Likewise, each bit is repeated much sooner than it would be if you sang the song through several times at the correct tempo, so things that are only just secure in memory get reinforced faster
    • And of course, it would be completely counter-productive to try and sing a song four times straight through in full voice, as you’d just get vocally and mentally tired, so this technique allows the benefits of repetition without downsides of getting stuck in a rut
  2. Going through the whole sequence without a break. The short-term musical memory is astonishingly effective, and this technique force-feeds it like a Strasbourg goose. (As a vegetarian, I do feel like there should be a better metaphor here. It is, unlike literal force-feeding, a pleasurable process, but it shares with foie gras production that quality of over-doing something in order to get extraordinary results.) If you speak in between, you pull the attention out of those depths of the musical brain into which it has delved, and break the thread. But taking just a second or two between each sing to regroup keeps you right in the zone.

    Interestingly, the body language on the final run-through is very relaxed, very musical, though with relatively little eye contact between singers. You get the feeling everyone is connecting with the music rather than with each other. The gaze may be turned inwards but there is loads of ear-contact.

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