The Rehearsal Process as Housework

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"I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes -- and six months later you have to start all over again." Joan Rivers

Whenever we talk of ‘polishing’ our performances, we’re invoking a physical metaphor that sees the rehearsal process as one of removing surface blemishes from the music to let its inherent beauty shine through. It involves close observation of its visible (audible) surfaces to notice where attention is needed and the work itself is reminiscent of the rubbing action of actual polishing in the way it repeatedly acts on these small sections.

Of course, there are many ways in which the metaphor of rehearsal as cleaning doesn’t work. The object we’re polishing isn’t actually a pre-existent thing whose level of cleanliness can be observed – it’s an evanescent, temporal thing that we conjure into being in real time. But metaphors are always like this – they bring certain dimensions of a phenomenon into focus while hiding others. And the metaphor of housework draws attention to elements of the rehearsal process we might not otherwise think about.

First, there is that sense of the fight against entropy that Joan Rivers famously noted. You can’t just rehearse a piece of music and leave it in a static state of perfection, just as dust starts to accrue again the minute you’ve finished hoovering. I’ve already talked about this a bit via John Bertalot’s metaphor of the greasy pole.

Then there’s that sense of bringing order to the world. A sloppy heap of papers feels less organised than a neatly aligned pile, much as a group of singers starting a phrase at slightly different times feels less organised than a well synchronised onset of sound. It’s not just that there’s structural similarity between the two domains, the psychological effect on the observer is also similar. One feels a greater sense of clarity and control over one’s life when it’s clear where the edges are.

One of the things I find difficult about housework is the way that you get better at it through practice. This sounds like a good thing, but it’s not if you were planning to be a bit lazy. I might start by intending to give something just a quick wipe-down, but once I turn my attention to what needs wiping, I find myself noticing far more detail available to be cleaned than I had first anticipated. Bits of crud in the corners, stuff on the underneath; then adjacent things start looking shabby by comparison. Where do you stop?

Of course, in rehearsal, you have pre-defined boundaries. You stop today’s work at the end of the evening; you stop this season’s work when the concert date arrives. You know that perfection is impossible in the real world, so you take your satisfaction from how much you can achieve within the inherently finite time available. But paying attention has a similar effect through this process – which is why duetting is such a valuable development tool.

The converse of this sense of escalating improvement through attention is the way we manage to ignore most of the mess in our domestic worlds. Whatever level of housepride or squalour we are accustomed to feels normal, and our housework basically maintains this. We have our own sense of what is a bit too sordid and requires attention, and what feels sufficiently clean and tidy that we can feel pleased with a job well done.

Our rehearsal processes are – alas – often likewise limited in their scope. We are accustomed to performing at a certain level, and if things drop noticeably below this we make special efforts to rectify the problems. But once we’ve got things sounding better than our average efforts, that feels like ‘good’ and we stop aspiring further. Add to this the issues with entropy, and our performances could start to be like the houses of elderly folk who still think of the suite they bought in 1985 as new and don’t notice how stained and saggy it has become because they’ve seen it every day since then and are used to it. Oops.

I though that this metaphor would be useful as a way to reflect on what we do when rehearsing a choir. I’m finding, though, that the longer I play with it, the more it offers potential to help us actually make our rehearsals effective. Here’s a question: what is the choral director’s equivalent of FlyLady’s Shiny Sink?

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