Soapbox: Backing Off from Backing Off

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‘Backing off’ is a standard metaphor for asking people to sing a bit quieter. In fact, it is so standard that we mostly don’t notice that it is a metaphor. But when you think about it, we don’t usually want people actually to move further away from us, we simply want them to sing in a way that gives that impression – i.e. with less volume.

But in real life of course, ‘backing off’ is also not just a spatial thing, it is also about attitude and behaviour.

Backing off is what we do when it seems as if we’ve been too aggressive or exuberant or pushy. We do it when something dents our confidence, when we encounter a response more negative than we had anticipated.

So, when we ask our singers to back off, they will usually oblige by significantly increasing the level of diffidence with which they sing. They may reduce their vocal support, or make less eye contact with us. If they really care about following our instructions, they may sing slightly behind the beat. There may be musical circumstances in which such responses are desirable, but I can’t think of them off-hand.

If all we really want our singers to do is to stop blasting the other parts out of the water, we can get better results by asking them to listen louder.

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