The Habit of Persistence

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I don't do very much one-to-one coaching - my primary focus is on ensembles - but occasionally I'll do a few sessions with someone to help them along their way. Usually it is a friend of a friend who has found me by word of mouth and wants help with something that they find is getting in the way of their full enjoyment of a choral experience - typically vocal strain, tiredness or hoarseness by the end of rehearsal.

When I say yes to these requests, it's because of a combination of the personal connection, the fact they are usually able to come on a weekday afternoon when I am pretty flexible for time, and because I don't like the thought of people feeling uncomfortable in choir. It's not what choirs are for, and people should be going home feeling lit up, not hoarse.

But there's a specific pay-off I gain from these sessions: I learn a lot about how adults with some choral experience but no specific vocal training relate to their voices. A one-on-one session gives the chance for really close observation and listening as you work through vocal tasks. And this is useful because this is a profile of singer I meet all the time in my work with choirs.

As you may imagine, the typical vocal needs of such a singer are (a) support, (b) continuity of breath, (c) the shedding of extraneous tension, and (d) help in reliably accessing the head register. Get these sorted and you should be able to sing all night and be ready for more.

But from these sessions I have also learned about the novice's mental relationship with what they sing. I start off thinking what they need is legato, but come after a while to think what they need is persistence.

A careful note-at-a-time approach to exercises and melodies is what indicates a need for both more legato and more support. This is both a technical need for continuity of airflow and an imaginative need to think about phrases rather than notes. There is a need to follow through each note to the next, to persist beyond the moment. This in itself feels like a basic singing/music task, not a comment on the relationship with learning.

But then, working with exercises that end with a held note, the exercises will typically be repeated back at me with a much shorter note than I have demonstrated. It takes the specific instruction to 'hold that note at the end longer so you have time to listen to it' to get the exercise as I demonstrated it to come back to me with anything like the same shape. (Incidentally, this is a great example of the way people hear through the filters of the way they think about music.) There isn't as yet the mental habit of staying with the sound for any length of time.

And then, as we work with an exercise, as soon as they have done it once, the singer is looking to me for the next instruction, and seems surprised that it is to be asked to do it again. There is no pre-existing expectation for repetition.

And why should there be? Those people who have been through the discipline of music lessons in childhood take this for granted, because we were taught it young. But we weren't born with it. Someone had to train us into the habit of persistence, of repeating an exercise whilst attending to how it's going. And then going back and doing it again the next day to check we can still do it.

So the task becomes one of training in working methods as much as vocal technique. Adult learners are great, of course, because they are so willing to take control of their own progress, so the instruction, 'when you do an exercise, do it three or four times over immediately before you stop to think about it,' is helpfully specific in enabling this.

And it seems to me that developing the habit of persistence in practice methods is the foundation for developing musical persistence within the phrase. You need to get deeper into the musical bit of the brain to move from note to phrase, and you need to have a certain intensity of neural firing to get there.

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