A Virtual Visit to Ocean City

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In place of my usual warm-up pics, a screen-grab...In place of my usual warm-up pics, a screen-grab...

It’s a good 3-4 hours by train to Plymouth, so previous visits in that direction have usually been for a whole weekend, sometimes taking in multiple ensembles in the South-West en route. Tuesday evening I popped down for an hour or so, in one of the silver linings of taking rehearsals online. Ocean City Sound had warmed up before I arrived, and continued their evening after I had left – including, I understand, welcoming another visitor, this time BABS Chair Martin Bagelow.

We divided the hour into three sets of activities, aiming to maximise engagement. When you’re all together in a room together, the context binds you together and the novelty of a visiting coach sharpens the concentration. When you’re all logging in from your own homes it takes a lot more cognitive input to stay connected with the virtual activity, so there’s much more need to be structured about it and to refresh attention with changes of task.

Our first activity was to introduce the method devised by Jay Giallombardo for learning music with a combination of sheet music and learning tracks. It offers a way to get music learned both more quickly and more accurately than the ‘singing along whilst ironing’ approach – it takes more focus, but saves a lot of time, both in personal practice and in chorus rehearsal.

It seems to me that we’re particularly feeling the need for accuracy in a context where we can’t sing together effectively. In a normal rehearsal, when you make a minor error, those around you pull you back onto piste and you self-correct almost without noticing. In the absence of this mutually corrective stream of sound, we’re all going to need to be clearer in our own minds about exactly what we should be singing. We worked through an example with everyone learning the baritone line to a fragment of one of the less-frequently-sung polecats so that everyone had experienced the process together.

Zoom is actually quite well suited to this kind of activity in a presentational sense, though of course you don’t get very much information back about how people are finding it (eye contact, the sound of the voices). So it was very helpful that intermittently throughout the process their director Bethany asked questions and made observations informed by her knowledge of the singers and their previous experiences that helped keep the content and pacing connected to group.

One of the interesting points Bethany made afterwards was that the systematic structure of the method also provides a series of exercises you can extract to target particular rehearsal needs. Hence, she plans this week to set the chorus the task of practising a song that needs some attention to rhythmic accuracy just mouthing the words.

Another hazard of the absence of a binding social context is that instructions sometimes get lost. You can make them as clear and specific as you like, but if they land when somebody’s brain is busy processing something they’ve just done, they don’t register. Then people end up in their breakout rooms not knowing what to do. This happens all the time in normal rehearsals of course – and people catch up by looking round to see what’s going on and get steered back on task by their friends.

For my own rehearsals I have been sending out detailed plans in advance, with instructions for each chunk of time, in the first instance to compensate in part for inadequate command of the technical side of things, and then because that’s what had become my habit. It became clear on Tuesday that even with a decent grasp of the technicalities, we still need to compensate for the lack of social cues with back-up written instructions.

Still, since one of the points of the small-group sessions was to make sure people got some decent social contact as well as musical input during the evening, if they did nothing but have a bit of a chat, we’re still winning.

We finished with a session of duet-coaching, the first time I have done this with singers I didn’t know more or less what to expect from. And because I was responding just to what I heard, without the context of longer-term projects of skill-development, I was much more aware of its potential as a way to spread the virtues of individual singers throughout the chorus. With each individual I worked with, there were specific things they were doing well, as well as things I could help them refine. It then became everyone’s task on the second sing-through to emulate both the original virtues and the refinements.

You can tell it’s working when subsequent singers are already doing the things you’ve just worked on with someone else. Given the general lack of aural feedback in this medium I was more than usually gratified to be able to hear this. And an email from the club chair that Bethany forwarded to me afterwards included the comment that, ‘Liz tasked us making us concentrate as if we were rehearsing on the risers.’ In the normal run of things that may not sound like an extravagant compliment, but anyone who has experienced remote rehearsing will understand how pleased I was to read it.

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