Semantic Depletion as Coaching Strategy

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A couple of years ago, I was mulling over the challenges that semantic depletion presents for performers. This is where repetition of an individual word sound (or musical element) gradually renders it meaningless by stripping it from its linguistic (or musical) context. The problem for performers is that rehearsal necessarily involves lots of repetition: so how do you refine and perfect your execution of the performance without detaching yourself from its meaning?

More recently, though, I’ve been finding that there are situations in which semantic depletion can work in your favour.

This has emerged when helping people deal with ‘problem passages’ – i.e. bits they routinely get wrong. Now the thing about these passages is that they may or may not be any more tricky than any other bits the performers can handle perfectly well, but they become a ‘problem’ by a combination of experience and labelling. Fluff it a couple of times and it starts to loom as ‘that bit I always fluff’.

And once it has that label, it’s in trouble. Because every time you approach it, the thing you’re most aware of is that you usually get it wrong. And then – surprise, surprise – you reliably live up to that expectation.

Now, the way I’ve been handling these bits in coaching is pretty orthodox: take it apart, and slow it down. Taking it apart gives everyone the chance to become aware of how their part fits with everyone else’s, and slowing it down just gives you time to think and listen. If you’re panicking, you can’t hear – and if you can’t hear, you can’t learn to get it right. More often than not you find that everyone knows their notes, it’s just that their anxiety has been getting in the way of understanding how it all fits together.

But the thing that has been making these standard techniques have a lasting effect has been repetition. Once an ensemble is getting the passage right, the instinct is to put it back in context – at which point all the existing triggers of anxiety are twanged and it clicks back into the old, well practised, panicked and inaccurate rendition. But if you stay with it in slow mode for longer, until you sense everyone getting a bit bored, and then a bit more, this doesn’t seem to happen.

This is partly, I’m sure, to do with depth of practice. If you’ve really rehearsed fluffing something, then getting right a couple of times may not over-write that, even with the advantage of it being the most recent memory of it.

But it’s not just that. As I have observed people going through this process, I notice that after several slow, methodical repetitions, their body language undergoes a change. They become more relaxed, more centred; they seem less goal-focused and more content just to be inside the music. The repetition is no longer about ‘must get this right’, because they have just got it right five times on the trot. (And it’s interesting to note, that while people do get a bit bored in the middle of this process, they don’t seem to mind. Indeed, even the boredom fades after a couple more repetitions, and they just start to resonate to the sounds they are producing.)

Slow repetition significantly beyond the amount needed just to get it right thus starts to strip out the passage’s acquired meaning. It just becomes a sequence of sounds, and those sounds’ experiential context falls away into the past. They get an identity simply as sonority, and lose their meaning as ‘the bit I always fluff’. And because the passage no longer carries this negatively-charged meaning, the singers have no reason to put themselves under pressure about it.

And if you keep it slow right through this point of complete loss of meaning, then everything clicks into place when you put it in context. And when the singers hear themselves sing the passage well for the first time, the surprise and joy they experience hearing it in its full glory stamps it with a new, positively-charged emotional connotation.

And of course, people relish doing the most the things they used to be afraid of.

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