Learning

Humour in Rehearsals: Analysing the Prequel

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I’m Liz, and my tragic flaw is that I can’t walk past a cheap joke.

This is how I introduced myself at the start of my session on ‘Humour in Rehearsals: A How-to Guide’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Virtual Harmony University on Saturday. In fact, I had – only minutes before – transcended my tragic flaw to walk past a cheap joke, and it occurred to me afterwards that the one that got away would be quite a good case study for discussing one of the questions that came up in the session.

(Before we go any further, just to manage your expectations about how much this post might make you laugh: probably not much. Jokes are like frogs: once you cut them open on the dissecting table they tend to die.)

Coming Out of the Wilderness

Our second full-chorus rehearsal: this week it didn't rain!Our second full-chorus rehearsal: this week it didn't rain!

Whilst choirs in England are still out in the cold (we are only allowed to rehearse outside as yet), we are at last able to emerge from the Zoom Wilderness. The Telfordaires have now had two full-chorus rehearsals on our regular chorus night, and are rediscovering how to do this ‘singing all together’ lark. This weekend I’m participating in two events at which the return to live rehearsal is a key theme, and this post comes out of my preparation for the experience-sharing I’ll be doing at them.

So, for background, whilst The Telfordaires have had nearly 15 months of weekly rehearsals on Zoom, we have also had a considerable quantity of live rehearsing in small groups since last summer, in 1-hour ‘weekend supplement’ sessions. We got in 14 sessions between August and December (with a month off for November’s lockdown) and were able to restart in quintets + MD in April. So, we’ve had a bit of a run-up to the full-chorus live rehearsals, and have thus been through the process of resumption a number of times.

Rethinking Retreats with Granite City Chorus

Instead of a screen-shot: this is us last yearInstead of a screen-shot: this is us last year

When I spent a weekend in late February last year with Granite City Chorus for their annual retreat, it was in a hotel up in the mountains an hour from Aberdeen from Saturday morning to mid-afternoon on Sunday. As it became clear towards the end of 2020 that we weren’t going to be back to in-person singing in time for this year’s event, we had to reimagine it.

The first thing we did was to shorten it. The pleasures of deep immersion in musical learning away from home are not directly replicable online. Quite apart from the fact that everyone would still actually be at home, the cognitive demands of the medium make remote rehearsing more tiring. Plus of course many participants will be spending their working week with their eyes on screens, and need some quality time away from their devices at weekends.

Melting People’s Brains at Cheshire Chord Company

I didn't get a screen-shot but CCC sent me this one:: numbers games in action!I didn't get a screen-shot but CCC sent me this one:: numbers games in action!On Thursday evening I popped in for a while on Cheshire Chord Company for a session billed as ‘online musicianship games’. As I told them at the start, when people tell you to explain what you do in 10 words, I say, ‘People sing to me and I mess with their heads’. I have a large repertoire of silly things to do that get people feeling like their brains are gently sizzling in butter; the word for this sensation is ‘learning’.

The challenge in planning a session like this is not finding material – I have been borrowing, adapting and inventing this stuff for years – but in crafting it into a longer session. In a regular rehearsal or coaching session I’d use these as ice-breakers, or attention-refreshers: short, intense bursts of brain-stretching silliness as a change from regular skills-based or repertoire-based work.

Performance and Skill-Development

During the Telfordaires’ penultimate live rehearsal session of 2020, I found myself uttering words that I had not used since early February: ‘That’s about ready to perform, now.’ Not that we had anyone to perform to as yet – whilst we have negotiated our way round the logistics of covid-safe rehearsal, we are leaving the complications of adding an audience to the occasion until the Spring, when hopefully case numbers will be down and social occasions commensurately easier to manage.

[Edit: and between scheduling this post and its publication we went back into lockdown so we're not going to be rehearsing live for a bit now either. Deep sigh. Hang on in there, friends.]

But that moment got me reflecting once again on the relationship between performance and skill-development. I’ve written before about how the experience of performing repertoire contributes to its development in ways rehearsals can’t reach. To say something is ready to perform doesn’t mean that it’s a finished product (we’ve got plenty of work still to do on that song), but that it is at a stage when not only is it good enough to be worth sharing, but performing it will make it better.

The first thing that struck me was that the extent to which this process contributes to a choir’s development varies considerably depending on your typical performance patterns.

In Search of Myelin and Flow-states in a Time of Covid

Last autumn, I was reflecting on the relationship between a collection of psychological concepts that have informed this blog, and indeed my work with musicians, over the years: flow, locus of control, team-work, and the process of repetition/self-correction that builds myelin, and thus develops skill.

In the musical world we took for granted back then, the group situation was integral to the process. Having the sense of contributing to the team-effort of pulling something wobbly back together in an ensemble secures your locus of control internally, and – as I observed from a different direction in my last post – the constant feedback from the choral sound around you guides your ongoing self-correction. Real-time feedback is also one of the essential components for achieving a flow-state.

On the Melody of Harmony Parts in the Time of Covid

The value of writing harmony parts that are intuitive to sing is something I have been going on about, in various contexts, for years. At a practical level, it saves you rehearsal time; at an artistic level, it allows performers to focus on singing expressively without needing their technical brains monitoring the detail all the time.

As with so many things, the exigencies of life under covid have brought this imperative into even sharper relief. When we first took our rehearsals online, and found ourselves in a world where people can’t viably sing together, there was a lot of bright-siding on the theme of how this would require all our singers to take more individual responsibility for learning their music.

Conducting, and Teaching Conducting, Online

The new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the appThe new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the app

On Saturday afternoon I spent an hour teaching a session on Basic Directing Skills as part of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ eOnline programme. (As an aside, it’s a fab programme – really varied classes, and there have been a couple or three a week all summer.)

This is a set of skills I have taught many times over the years, but never previously in a situation in which you can’t use sound as part of the learning process. Which is rather the point of directing, isn’t it? The process at the heart of both teaching conducting and the act of conducting itself is to listen to what you’re getting back and adjust your own posture, gesture, and facial expressions to make it sound better.

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