Distraction Techniques in the Choral Rehearsal

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A recurrent theme in the 3rd and 4th books of the Hitchhiker Trilogy is the technique of how to fly: you throw yourself at the ground, and miss. Obviously, the throwing bit is easy enough; the knack is to get sufficiently distracted during the brief moment before you hit the ground that you forget to finish the process. This leaves you suspended in the air, and the then trick for staying there, and indeed for swooping around and travelling about the place by flight, is not to think too hard about what you are doing.

Like many of Douglas Adams’s whimsies, this is both absurd and weirdly wise. Its very absurdity makes it a vivid metaphor for getting into that state where you can get on with stuff without crippling yourself with over-thinking or self-criticism. In Inner Game terms, it’s about silencing Self 1.

Anyway, it came to mind recently when I was working with a singer who had a propensity to tense up as he reached a certain part of his range. His previous experiences of having difficulty singing those pitches were producing an emotional response that actively got in the way of managing them. So I asked him to circle his hands either side of his head as he sang. This is partly a solution about technique – it usually produces voice-friendly adjustments to posture and head poise as a side effect – but it is also a technique about distraction.

It doesn’t take very much cognitive input to circle your hands as you sing, but it takes more than just singing does, and the shift of attention diverts mental resources away from negative self-talk or anticipation of failure. The additional action isn’t complicated enough to prevent you from singing, but it will interfere with your capacity for self-sabotage, and let the voice soar freely.

By itself, of course, these kinds of distraction exercises can’t fix the ‘emotional scar tissue’ (to use Greg’s Clancy’s memorable phrase) of past discouragement. But they can create experiences of success that will then feed into the re-writing of personal narratives to put the difficulties into the past. It is easier to believe you can do something when you just have.

The other use for distraction exercises in rehearsal is to generate experiences that slightly over-stretch people cognitively, to put them into a state where they will make minor mistakes. Toggle games work well for this, as does the classic improve game ‘Sitting Standing Kneeling’.

The point of doing this is to prepare for performance. Once we can run a piece in a standard kind of ‘performance mode’ – that is with the motor actions needed to produce the musical content fluent enough that we can give our attention to its expressive power – we may feel ‘performance ready’. But all we have demonstrated is that we have a level of control sufficient to manage the music in a familiar environment.

Once we take music out to share with other people, there are myriad new calls on our cognitive resources. Even in performance environments well-protected from intrusion or interruption, simply being in less familiar space is distracting, let alone the psychological impact of feeling your music connect with a whole bunch of people who have never heard it before.

Many of the distractions we encounter in performance situations can’t be simulated in rehearsal, but that almost doesn’t matter. So long as we can find ways to practice adding extra calls on our attention beyond that needed to perform the music, we can build our skills and confidence in recovering from error. Just as the process of strengthening muscles involves lots of tiny breaks in the fibres that then heal back more robustly, the process of strengthening our performances needs us to be good at actively fixing myriad tiny ruptures in the flow of the delivery.

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