How Did That Go?

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question markI’ve had several conversations with choir directors over the years about the experience of coming off stage from a performance and having your singers ask you how the performance went. Apparently I’m not alone in finding this a slightly baffling question.

The immediate response is, ‘Well you were there too – what do you think?’ It feels odd to be asked to pass judgement on an experience that the questioner was also participating in. But from the singer’s perspective, of course, it makes perfect sense to ask, since their routine experience in rehearsal is to look to their director for feedback on how they’re doing.

So there’s an interesting difference here between the director’s state of mind in rehearsal and in performance. In rehearsal, you’re using your analytical, or diagnostic ears. The task is not just to perceive what’s going on within the ensemble, but also to articulate it.

In performance, though, this feedback function transmutes into a role that’s much more about regulating than reflecting.

You’re still listening and diagnosing, but the response is much more immediate, living within the flux of the music in real time. And of course it’s entirely nonverbal – not only is there no opportunity to speak to the ensemble, there’s no time to frame thoughts in words. Thinking in sentences takes time, so by the time you could complete a verbal thought about music, the moment has passed (along with several others that you’ll have missed as your attention was on your verbal thought).

It’s not surprising, then, that directors find it hard to say how a performance went the moment they come off stage. They’ve just had an extended musical experience in which they’ve been living moment-to-moment within the music without accessing the mental register needed to answer any question, let alone one about the peformance. They have as yet neither the global perspective needed to make general comments on the experience, nor the vocabulary immediately to hand. Given a few minutes to reflect, they’ll be able to develop an opinion, but the question is usually asked before they get a chance to corral their thoughts.

And of course the reason the singers themselves don’t have a clear idea of how it went is because they too have been deep within the music. For all they’re in the habit of receiving feedback from their director, I’d be willing to bet that in rehearsal they have a pretty clear idea of how things are going too. Singers make just as many judgements during the rehearsal process as their directors – judgements, indeed, that the director does not always have the perspective to make. (Just as the director is useful for making observations from a position not available to singers with the group.)

So, they’re used to having a reasonably conversant awareness of how they’re doing, and when they come off stage with only have the vaguest memory of what went on, it can be a bit of a surprise. Which is why they immediately ask the director for their perception.

The key thing in all this, though, is that our best performances are achieved in this state of flow. Our analytical, verbal brains are only needed in performance for significant trouble-shooting, and are actively counter-productive at other times. (This is why you sometimes find the only clear memory that remains from a performance is recovering from an error.) So, next time someone asks me how a performance we both participated in went, I will try to remember to reply: ‘If you have to ask, it probably went well.’

Hi Liz

You've honed in here on the difference between conductor's and singers' state of mind in rehearsal and in performance. In an ideal world both singers and conductor are "deep within the music" during performance hence the analytical part of their brain is not in consciousness.

This is a common dilemma in any kind of artform: when do we allow our inner critic to step in? Sometimes creative people let it in too soon (beginner singers will be worrying whilst they're performing), but most of us leave the analysis and editing until after we've been through the playful stage (rehearsal?). (Getting a bit lost here -- maybe scope for a whole other post!).

But I believe performance experience is far more complicated. Why can one singer believe that it's gone really well, whilst the person next to them thinks it's the choir's worst performance ever? On reflection the conductor might reckon that the night's concert was one of their best, and yet the singers come off stage feeling miserable as if they've failed. And sometimes everybody on stage realises they've blown it big time and then the audience give them a standing ovation!

At the risk of appearing to be a shameless self-publicist (me??!!), I wrote a post about this subject on my own blog a while back:

Not everyone experiences a concert in the same way


Hi Chris,

Thanks for the link to your post. I had a hunch you might have written about it, but couldn't find the link (or indeed properly track down my memory of it) at the point when I was writing this!


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