Industrial versus Artisanal rehearsal processes

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In the world of consumer products, the mass-produced item is cheaper, more plentiful and generally less-respected than the hand-made, bespoke item. This is both because it is replaceable – lose it and you can buy another exactly the same – and because it requires only the ability to operate processes on the part of the people who make it, not the individual acquisition of skill.

We tend to think of artistic products as being inherently artisanal – that is individually-crafted, non-massed produced – but when you think about it there is quite a whiff of the production line about several standard aspects of rehearsal processes in barbershop choruses - and to some extent in mainstream choral societies too.

The principle of issuing teach tracks (aka learning CDs) for people to learn their parts from by ear, for instance, provides a quick route to the performance result without investing in the infrastructure of musical literacy. The production process of sectional rehearsals at which people learn their part in isolation before putting the whole together likewise works on the principle that participants can operate their own part safely without understanding its relationship with the whole process. Indeed, the management structure of section leaders encourages specialization and thus a level of musical leadership where expertise in a single part (as opposed to expertise in all the music) is sufficient.

The advantages that these industrial processes offer is that they can turn a group of relatively unskilled adults into a pretty effective choral body in a remarkably short space of time. They short-circuit the need to extensive musicianship training, and work particularly well in styles that are reasonably predictable and consistent in their musical behaviour.

But they also present commensurate limitations. Someone who relies on teach CDs to learn their part has effectively outsourced their capacity for musical judgement. They will forever be dependent on others to identify when they’re getting it right and when they’re getting it wrong (which is why the audition tape is another standard part of many choruses’ processes). If such a person wants to progress from their spot on the risers to a position of greater musical responsibility - section leader, director – they will have to go and learn precisely those skills that have been short-circuited in the rehearsal process.

Good amateur groups often find themselves knocking up on a glass ceiling of achievement. They can see the next level, but however hard they work, they seem to stay in the same place, like the Red Queen. The problem is, I suspect, that this hard work usually involves increasing the rigour with which they apply their industrial processes.

A more artisanal approach, that saw the need for all participants to develop the core skills of the craft would take a lot more work to get up to the equivalent basic performance level, but would furnish all participants with the background and capability to move up to the next level. If the apprentice isn’t required to use the skills that will qualify them to be a journeyman in their day-to-day work, they will stay at the lowest level forever.

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