Multidimensional Rehearsal Planning

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urgentimportantChoral rehearsals nearly always have two sets of simultaneous agendas:

  1. Repertoire preparation
  2. Skills development

The two are clearly related. The skills agenda will often be driven by the needs of the repertoire (what do we need to be able to do in order to sing this music effectively?); conversely the repertoire choice may be driven by skills goals (what music will help us learn this particular technique?).

At the same time, they can fight each other. In particular, repertoire preparation is typically a time-bound activity. We need to know the whole work by the date of the concert; or, we need to know all our seasonal songs before the run-up to Christmas. And, like any activity with deadlines, they have a habit of diverting our attention away from things that could be done at any time (and as a result we never actually get round to them).

Two of Stephen Covey’s distinctions are germane here. The first is the distinction between Production (repertoire prep) and Production-Capacity (skills development) that I have written about before. But the time-bound nature of a performance schedule also invoke the distinction between the Urgent and the Important.

It is all too easy to spend our rehearsals focused on the urgency of absorbing notes to the exclusion of developing the skills that will make future repertoire easier to learn. That way we’ll get a lot done, but we won’t necessarily feel in control, but rather fall back on the adrenal rush of ‘it’ll be all right on the night’. Exciting in the short term; exhausting as a way of life.

Now, the reason we tend to neglect skills in favour of repertoire prep is because it can feel like the skills-focused attention is time taken away from our more immediate concerns. But of course, if we have picked our repertoire in dialogue with our skills agenda, we should – in theory – be able to address both at once. The question is how to do this.

A solution I have been developing of late while planning Magenta rehearsals involves moving from a linear approach to rehearsal planning (this, then that, then the other), to thinking of the two agendas as two different axes, and planning for both.

I’ll start with repertoire, mapping out what we need to cover over what period of time (usually about 3 months at a time), and slotting it in on a week-to-week basis so that we will have covered everything. I’ll always aim to have both some continuity and some contrast week-to-week so that we can consolidate music absorbed, but also have a sense of moving on (and so that no rehearsal looks inherently missable!).

I’ll then turn to the skills agenda. There will usually be about five areas where we have specific goals, ranging across musicianship, choral craft and performance skills. Examples for 2011 include: greater independence on parts (less need to lean); greater confidence in using music notation (especially with regard to rhythm); more consistently tight ensemble in performance, and (related, but not quite the same thing) more sense of interpersonal connection within the group; and a more consistent visual effect in performance.

I make a chart with the goals as column headings, then list rehearsal activities that will help with each. This is an on-going task – once you start thinking of them, you keep coming up with more. Some might be stand-alone exercises for use in warm-ups or as attention-refreshers, but many others are ways of rehearsing repertoire. I build a collection of ideas that I will continue to both add to and draw on while we are focusing on those goals.

Then, for each specific rehearsal, I take each piece of repertoire we will be working on, and pick activities from my skills-development collection through which to rehearse each, in the context of where we have got to with each piece and each skill. We don’t have to cover each skill every week (just like you don’t cover all your repertoire every rehearsal), but we do need both continuity and contrast to give a sense of progression week to week.

At this point, I can return to the linearity of time, and map these activities onto the time available in a way that gives a coherent yet varied experience. I’ll then plan the warm-up to prepare for it, and also quite possibly to start introducing skills/techniques we’ll be using in repertoire in the coming weeks.

What I’m finding is that by planning this way, I’m no longer feeling that I’m having to choose between immediate and long-term goals, because at any point during the evening, we will be serving both dimensions at once. The resultant rehearsals are not unlike the ones I’ve always run – I’ve always aimed to keep enough variety of both repertoire and activity going that it didn’t start to feel like a slog. But they have a noticeably stronger sense of purpose, as we can referring to our agreed goals throughout the process, which in turn helps the gains we make to stick.

And having systematized the planning method does give a greater sense of effectiveness after a period when I felt I had rather thrown my educational principles out the window in order to get a large lump of repertoire ready in a short space of time. I could imagine that once we have that balance well restored I might go back to a less systematic, more intuitive way of achieving these aims, but it’s good to know I have a clear method available for those times when I feel it slipping out of control.

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