The Dilemma of Drill

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Here is a paradox for you. Both these statements are, as generalisations, true:

  1. People need to have sung something at least five times for it to get properly embedded in memory
  2. After the third time through it, people's attention quality drops of significantly

This is one of the central challenges of choral rehearsal. It is not just that, whilst we need repetition to learn, repetition degrades attention. It's that this waning starts before we have done enough to cement learning. So it's not just a matter of not repeating things too much - as this will mean we are not repeating them enough.

Do you see what I mean?

Imagine your choir is learning a new piece of music. The first time through, they will be feeling their way: there will be hesitations and errors, but concentration will be high. Immediate repetition will see concentration levels maintained as people fix a lot of the things they stumbled on first time. The third time through sees a lot more confidence and few errors, and people are starting to relax. It is starting to sound good now, like proper music.

Or do the same thought experiment with an exercise to introduce a new skill, or in applying a change of interpretation to a familiar piece. You get the same dynamic. By the third time through, it's sounding like people have got it.

(As an aside, I now realise this is also a comment on setting an appropriate challenge level for your ensemble. If they can do everything you throw at them first time, you will get through a lot in your rehearsal, but the group won't grow appreciably in skill level. If something takes more than three times through to start sounding competent, you may be throwing more at them than they are ready for right now.)

And here is the dilemma. If you leave it now and come back to next week, they will sing it like their brains have fallen out. If you carry on do a 4th and 5th iteration, the singers will start to get a bit bored - and so you won't really get the benefit of those extra repetitions. Next week the brains may still appear to be AWOL.

So, what to do? How do you find a way to do something enough times that it gets handed over from short-term to medium- (and, ultimately, long-) term memory, whilst still keeping attention fresh enough that the hand-over actually takes place?

There are two basic strategies I have found so far (more suggestions, as ever, welcome).

First, is interval training - in the sense of intervals of time, rather than singing major 2nds! Do enough to get it right once, then put it aside for just a few minutes. When you come back to it, it will still be fresh enough that people can access their recent memories, but they will need to dig for it a bit. They will be having to actively remember, rather than just sing along with their most immediate past experience. Do it enough to get it back to sound assured, and stop again.

If they can do it well on the second go, you judged the interval perfectly. If they get it right first time, they need longer to start to forget. If it takes them more than two goes here, you either left it too long to revisit, or you stopped too soon when introducing it.

Then come back to it one more time at the end of the rehearsal. This will probably go quite well, and augurs well for retention until next time. If your singers complain they kept waking up singing the passage in the night, you did a good job.

Now I have written that, I realise that my first strategy is actually just an example of my second, which is to stretch the singers. When you get to the point when it's starting to sound confident, continue with repetitions, but add something each time to re-engage attention. This can be some simple variant of the task such as singing it on one leg, or with the eyes closed, or without consonants, or bubbling it. I often use these kinds of variants with the toggle principle to turn memory-refreshing run-throughs into an active rather than passive exercise (and also as an opportunity to embed technical skills).

If working with shorter passages, then it becomes more useful to engage with the detail of the music - getting the front of the brains to work on the how while the back-office memory functions continue to chew over the what. So, tweak a technical detail (vowel shape, placement, articulation, breath point), or highlight expressive opportunities emerging from the meanings of lyric or harmony. This has the double benefit of not only keeping the minds focused, but giving them more to hang their mnemonic hats on.

I particularly like moving into matters of artistry during periods of drill. Imagination and meaning are good memory aids, so both learning and retention are better, while you still get the benefit of multiple repetitions. Also, people enjoy it. They enjoy the sense of control that comes from technical mastery, and they enjoy the expressive effects of musical shape. That's why they come to choir.

As I noted in that earlier post about the early introduction of artistry, you can frame this in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs (and, yes, I will be writing in more detail on this in due course). People's cognitive need to know how something goes is more fundamental than their aesthetic need for beauty, so until they've got the basic notes or whatever technical thing you are addressing sorted, they won't pay attention to anything else.

But their cognitive needs are satisfied before their long-term memory is activated, so they drift off as drill continues.

If you then start ministering to their higher, aesthetic, needs, their attention is re-awakened, and the repetition becomes rewarding again rather than semantically depleted.

And this, ultimately, is what mindful, effective rehearsal (and indeed private practice) is about. Obsessive repetition, but every time with a purpose.

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