The Stimulating Rehearsal

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A friend of mine was telling me recently how she and her co-director had re-stacked their chorus using a method of assessing each singer’s voice for its type of resonance, and using that to determine placement. She remarked how quite a few of the singers were really quite agitated about the part in the process where they had to sing alone to be assessed – even though it was only ‘happy birthday’, and done in private, not in front of everyone else. Still, they felt the process was worth it when the restacked chorus sounded significantly better than before.

Now, the thing about this kind of story is that it’s supposed to be about the value of the stacking method, but you can’t help wondering how much of the improved sound is actually a result of the process. That little dose of adrenaline the singers got from their fear of singing alone will have shunted them up the Yerkes-Dodson curve to a state of enhanced performance, whilst the steps taken to keep the process not too scary will have prevented them over-shooting into counter-productive anxiety.

(As an aside: I have in the past worked on the theory that the way the act of restacking forces people to listen anew accounts for much of its benefit. I still think that, but am adding the notion that the mild arousal from an unfamiliar placement is also part of the process. I’m sure specific stacking methods improve on the results from random re-stacking, but I’m equally sure that random restacks offer a good deal of benefit for very little outlay of time.)

So this anecdote got me thinking about what we mean when we call a rehearsal ‘stimulating’. The characteristics that usually come to mind include: interesting, varied, engaging, a certain sense of ‘ooh I wouldn’t have predicted that from a standing start’. But there’s also this element of challenge, and it’s not just in the technical dimension of stretching current abilities, it’s in the personal dimension of emotional response.

To get that little adrenal kick that lifts performance, there needs to be just a whiff of fear or doubt or dauntedness. Not so much that the singers are consciously aware of feeling anxious, but just a sense lurking in the back of the mind that something is at risk and so they need to raise their game. The risk in choral contexts is entirely artistic of course; if people mess up nobody gets hurt (well, except the music). But people care about the music and will step up to the plate to save it from damage.

Of course, if people are to experience risk as exciting rather than frightening, they need a psychologically safe environment. People need to feel that attempts will be honoured even when they don’t come off. They need to know that they won’t be punished for failure, so long as their failures are achieved heroically, with daring.

An anecdote of my own adds another useful insight here. Recently we spent part of a Magenta rehearsal working on a song split into quartets. We had some safety strategies in place, including priming people in advance so they could do extra preparation on their part, and including in each quartet a singer with experience of a range of tactics to use the group to support individuals who struggled. But it was still a challenging activity all round (and we really got the benefit of the practice gadget from it!).

The point of this story isn’t just that we did this slightly scary thing and everyone grew as a result. The reason I mention it is that although we didn’t do the quartet thing until the second half of the rehearsal, you could hear that brightness and ping that arousal puts into voices right from the get-go. In fact, you could hear it in the speaking voices as people arrived. And the brains were on the case all evening; there was less faffing and distraction than there sometimes is and fewer errors of inattention. The up-for-itness ignited by the challenge infused everything else we did.

Now, this is definitely in the category of benign unintended consequence. There were all sorts of reasons for flagging the activity in advance, but the effect on everyone’s sympathetic nervous system for the rest of the rehearsal wasn’t one of them. But it will certainly make me think about how I introduce challenges in the future. Building people’s anticipation looks like a great way to leverage the benefits of the challenge to enhance the regular skills development/maintenance work.

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