Starting in the Middle

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When I was working up to my Grade 1 piano exam aged 8 or so, my piano teacher introduced me to a game of ‘lucky dip’. This involved identifying all the passages in my pieces I was stumbling over, writing each on a piece of paper, and putting the paper in pot next to the piano. During each practice session, I would then take one piece of paper out at random and work on that passage until I could do it three times in a row correctly, at which point I would throw the paper away and pick another.

At the time I kind of recognised that she was getting me to engage with difficult bits by turning it into a game. But what I didn’t realise until years later was that she was also training me to be able to pick up the musical thread anywhere in the piece without having to go back to the beginning. This is a skill that I think would benefit quite a lot of the ensembles I have been working with in recent months.

Now, choirs that rehearse from sheet music have an easier job with this kind of random access than those that work primarily from memory, as they have external reference points on the paper to help them pick up. But either way, reducing the distance you have to back up to focus on a specific passage boosts the efficiency of your rehearsal in two specific ways:

  • It reduces the amount of time you spend just singing through music in order to get to the bit you want to polish
  • It leaves less time for everyone to forget what they intending to do when they got there

So the closer you can start to the bit you actually want to work on, the more your rehearsal picks up pace. So you get more time spent on productive work, and you also get everyone feeling perkier, more on their mental toes, as you minimise the time spent just marking time. You get both quantitative and qualitative gains.

And on a longer-term basis, you get a different relationship with the music. In developing the capacity to parachute in to any moment as a start-point, people have to build a stronger internal representation of the shape of the piece. They need to conceptualise it, rather than just singing along with their memory of it. They start to become in control of the song, rather than the song being in control of them.

Now my observation whilst coaching is that directors routinely over-estimate how far the group needs to go back to get in. And the reason they do this is because they’ve tried starting a bit nearer, and people found it hard to get in, so they went back to a place where they found it easier.

But hang on – the best learning happens at those places where you can’t quite do it but will be able to given a couple or three tries.

Of course, those couple or three tries feel like a distraction from the main purpose of the moment. Here we are trying to balance a chord in bar 53, and the singers are getting hung up about how to start singing in bar 51. So the obvious solution is to back up and start in bar 40 where we know it’s easy to get in.

And for the immediate purpose, this makes sense. But it leaves the singers no more able to come in closer to the focus point than they were. It is an exercise in production rather than production-capacity.

So this is something that needs balancing out. If you always ask the singers to come in at random places while they find this difficult, they’ll use all their brain capacity on coming in and never get to think about what you want to work on. But if you always bring them in at a place where you know they can, they’ll never get better at coming in at any place.

I’ll write another post with some practical ideas for helping develop this skill, but for today the message is: it’s worth challenging yourself and your singers to develop it. The pay-off more than rewards the time and effort spent on acquiring it.

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