The Inner Game of Choral Rehearsals

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I’ve been threatening since last winter to write about how the Inner Game ideas can inform rehearsal techniques, and the time has at last arrived. This post will outline some big-picture principles, and three subsequent ones will look at how to apply the three central concepts of awareness, will and trust in choral contexts.

But for those who are not familiar with Inner Game ideas at all, here’s a bit of background.

The idea was first developed for tennis (hence the ‘game’ part of the title) by Timothy Gallwey. The outer game, he said, is the game you play against your opponent – and that’s what most tennis coaching and practice would traditionally focus on, since you need to be good at that to win. The inner game is what goes on inside the individual player – their perception of what they’re doing, and their relationship with it – and this also needs to be working well if you are to make the most of your skills.

Barry Green applied these ideas to music in a book first published in 1987, recognising that many of the psychological processes Gallwey discussed affect performing musicians. His focus is largely on the solo performer, though, so there are some interesting extra layers to think about when working through the ideas for choirs.

The core message of the Inner Game is to stop beating up on yourself and let your human capacity for growth and development get on the case. In our desire to do well, we can be very hard, very judgemental with ourselves – but this actually gets in the way of our improvement. Negative emotional states damp down our capacity to receive information – so the harder we are on ourselves, the less effectively we can engage with what we’re actually doing. If we can just stop telling ourselves what was wrong about what we just did, we give the holistic, intuitive parts of our brain the chance to do the complex and magical things they're so good at without interference from the verbal, analytical parts of our brains.

So, this inner game is going on within the choral conductor as we run our rehearsals, and it is also going on within each and every one of our singers. We all know that our singers want to do well, and that in any choir there will always be singers who are less skilled than other singers and desperately anxious lest they let the rest down. (Indeed, quite often the more skilled ones also carry this kind of anxiety too: if you are determined to feel badly about yourself, you can achieve it at any skill level!) One of our jobs as directors is to help our singers stop comparing themselves unfavourably to each other and to start trusting themselves to improve and develop through the rehearsal process.

The next three posts in this series will give specific tools to help us fulfil this task. But let me close this one with a statement of the blindingly obvious: as directors, the language and tone we choose for the outer game of rehearsal will have a direct impact on the discourses our singers have available for their inner games. If we want our singers to stop beating up on themselves, we need to stop beating up on them first.

Oh yes, No one needs to take a beating in rehearsal. A principal I try to apply is to lead the mood of a rehearsal in the general direction of the mood of the music. If the music is cheerful it helps if the group is having some fun. If the mood is sad or tragic, too much levity will keep us from reaching the emotional and spiritual depths required.

I like that principle - thanks for posting about it. It resonates with the idea that we should think about preparing our rehearsals to give performers an emotionally-satisfying experience in the same way we plan our concerts to take our audiences on a coherent and meaningful journey.

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