Individual versus Ensemble Practice

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One of Magenta’s singers recently asked if we could give some attention to a particular part of one of our songs in a rehearsal because the particular thing she was grappling with is hard to practise by yourself. Not only did this gladden my heart (I love it when people give me information that will help me make rehearsals really productive), but it also got me thinking (which is actually another cause for gladness).

So, I started to classify the skills we need in a choir according to whether you can practise them by yourself or whether you need other people there to work on them.

Things you can practise individually include:

  • Breath
  • Vocal production (tone, range, consistency)
  • Notes and words
  • Memory
  • Identification of areas where you need more help

All of these are also things you can do in rehearsal, and in fact many choirs may spend a lot of rehearsal time on them. Magenta does for sure. But recognising that these are things that we can work on as individuals is useful in two ways.

First, it can encourage people to make that shift from intending to do some practice between rehearsals and actually doing so. Second, it subtly inflects the way we approach them in rehearsal. Instead of being a game of ‘let’s work on this skill together’ it becomes a game of ‘let’s get everyone primed so that they have a clear idea of which skills practise and how to practise them’. You get interested not just in what people are doing, but how they are making sense of what they are doing, and to what extent they can continue to learn independently.

Things you need other people there to practise include:

  • Blend/unit sound
  • Vowel matching
  • Coordination of parts
  • Balance

These are all skills that are as much to do with the ears as with the voices. Sure, you need some vocal control to achieve them, but the focus is much more about giving attention to the whole and trusting the vocal apparatus to come up with the goods. So in one sense, you can see the individual vocal skills as more fundamental, and putting them into an ensemble context as a process of building a more complex structure from basic elements.

But that gives a falsely chronological view of the process. It’s like saying that you need to get the individual notes nailed before you can put them together to make a tune. Whereas the idea of a note is actually something that gets abstracted out once you have a sense of melody. Anyone who has heard a small child singing will know that a sense of contour comes before a sense of pitch. Likewise, the individual’s control of technical elements of singing is something that gets abstracted out of the whole ensemble. The usual progression route is from choir to individual singing lessons, not vice versa.

The process of learning musical skills involves oscillation between synthesis and analysis. Getting a sense of the whole alternates with zooming in on the parts, which then need recontextualising to see if our detailed attention has made more sense of the aggregate.

And, fortunately, the way most choral experience is structured supports this naturally. You have a rehearsal, you do some practice at home, you have another rehearsal. I’m still willing to bet, though, that the more we do by way of individual practice, the more productive the ensemble work will be.

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