Maslow for Choirs: Cognitive Needs, Part 2

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Seventh post in a series that starts here

In my last post, we considered first the acute, urgent kinds of cognitive needs you meet in rehearsal. These are easy to deal with in that they present their demands very clearly, and recede as soon as you meet them. We then went onto the thornier issue of a low-grade chronic need for more cognitive stimulation and the kinds of dampening effect it has on the atmosphere in rehearsal.

Today's task is to suggest things we can do to cure - or, even better - to prevent a choir getting into this state.

The solution lies in the general principle of good rehearsals that variety keeps attention fresh. Specifically, you want to make sure that you offer plenty of opportunities for people to get involved in thinking things through for themselves rather than perpetually being given instructions to follow. You need to make sure you're giving people the opportunity to generate their own knowledge.

There are two levels to approach this, both useful, and both necessary. The first is activities that require mental agility and focus on the details of the musical surface. These would include:

  • Exercises/games that involve the manipulation of pitch content (e.g., numbers games, solfège) or rhythmic structures. Not ones that can be automated as set-piece warm-ups, but ones where people don't know in advance what at least some of the content is going to be, so have to think about it in real time. Games that hand round leadership are good for this (as well as satisfying belonging needs)
  • Ask singers to work out their start notes from the key note rather than giving them every time
  • Starting at different points in the piece
  • Rehearsal techniques that manipulate the sung content of the music, e.g.
    • Singing without consonants
    • Singing only on the first beat of every bar
    • Count-singing (i.e. notes and rhythms as written, but counting the beats out instead of singing the words)
    • Singing to sol-fa syllables
    • Only singing the tonic out loud

The second involves engaging with the music on a wider scale. This is the dimension that any advanced solo performer has to do, but is very rarely addressed in choral settings. Even when there is some kind of overall plan shared to guide the shaping of a performance, this is all too often imposed from the leadership. If the singers draw their own inferences about the music, though, their knowledge will be far deeper and more secure than if it is all second-hand, and will make a better base from which to make sense of the information they are told. So, activities to consider:

  • Song-mapping: get the singers involved in developing an overview of form
  • Texture analysis: identify which passages are homophonic, where the melody travels between parts, which part is featured and which accompaniment at any given point
  • Finding the 'moments': which are the bits that will make the audience go 'ooh!'?
  • Analysing the detail of the text: where are the main rhymes and internal rhymes? Find examples of assonance and alliteration.

All these activities can work as things to do individually, whole-group activities, small-group work or tasks to prepare between rehearsals. And it is a good idea to vary these styles of presentation too - so that those who think best quietly have a chance, as do that those who develop ideas best in conversation.

These kinds of activities can feel quite greedy of rehearsal time. There's so much to do, we think, why waste 10 minutes on having people spot repeated passages? It's in meeting these higher needs, though, that we develop the production capacity of the choir. Treat people like intelligent human beings, and they sing more intelligently.

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