The Inner Game of Choral Rehearsals 3: Will

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The second central Inner Game principle is Will. This is about the performer’s capacity to choose how they do something, to take control. But again, crucially, it’s not about getting it right and all the judgements that implies. Rather, it assumes that the ability to do something in one way rather than another is a more fundamental skill that is not only logically separable from, but actually precedes the decision about how it should be done.

Say, for example, you wanted a particular vowel shape on a particular syllable, but your choir was struggling to achieve it consistently. It may be that the local accent has a particular way of pronouncing that vowel that isn’t appropriate for the language of the text, or it may be that you’re singing in your own language with a group of people from all over the country with 20 different ways of pronouncing it. At first sight it looks like the problem is that the choir can’t get that vowel right. But the underlying problem is that they either can’t perceive the distinction you are trying to make or don’t have the control to choose how to change they shape it. (These two are linked of course – I may post another time on the relationship between perception, imagination and technique.)

So, if just telling them to change the vowel shape hasn’t worked a couple of times, then it’s time to stop beating up on them about it and find a way to help them change vowel shapes at will. You need to move the goalposts from ‘am I getting this right?’ to ‘how do I change the vowel?’.

So, tactics might include:

  • Have the choir sing the passage in a variety of different accents: Scottish, Texan, Italian, Scouse
  • Have each member of the choir invent a different way to pronounce the vowel for the rest to copy
  • Substitute a different vowel every time the target one occurs (‘Ave Mar-oo-a’)

The point is that if you can learn to do something in fourteen different ways, learning a fifteenth is easy. But you can only free yourself up to learn the first fourteen if you stop labelling them ‘wrong’.

Magenta demonstrated the effectiveness of this technique last winter when I was away for a couple of weeks after an operation. Working on the ‘when the cat’s away’ principle, they had (they tell me) great pleasure in singing ‘We wissssshhhhhh you a merry Chrisssssssstmas’, complete with skiing actions because they knew I’d never let them sing it that way. In the process they inadvertently got control over the relative length of consonant and vowel and we had no more early or obtrusive sibillants over the entire Chrisssstmas season.

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