Perception, Imagination and Technique

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Since writing earlier in the year about the effectiveness of duetting as a coaching and rehearsal tool, I’ve been reflecting again on why it works so well. One key point about it is that it’s not about the people who are singing – it’s the people who are listening who have the chance to grow. It offers people the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the music they sing – how the parts around them interact – and also about the voices of their fellow singers – tone colour, vibrato, vowel shapes, expressive nuances.

But what is interesting is what the brain then goes on to do with all that information.

Articulating what you’ve heard verbally is a useful part of the process, since it brings categories of perception to the ensemble as a whole, giving each other things to listen out for next time. But if you try and make conscious changes to your performance in response to the mutual feedback, you find yourself over-compensating and increasingly struggling to control what you’re doing. Besides, if you’ve duetted all combinations of parts, you have far more information about what you’ve all heard than could possibly be acted on consciously all at once.

Rather, what I think is going on is that process of paying close attention to a sung duet, then articulating what you heard, is a way of training your powers of perception. Until you stopped to think about it, you may not have been making such fine-grained distinctions between vowels colours or timbres, or how these interact in different parts of the voices. And it is this capacity to perceive in detail that underlies the improvement in ensemble performance that you get from duetting: each individual observation is useful in itself, but the increase in perceptiveness you get from making it is much more fundamental.

Because, if you think about it, if you can’t perceive something, you can’t imagine it. When I was a child I used to try and imagine a colour that nobody else had ever seen before, but yearn as I might to be truly creative, I could only ever conjure up colours that I knew, let alone anyone else. However wild our imaginings, they are always built from the stuff we perceive in the world around us.

At the same time, the reason that learning new analytical concepts is so empowering is that it allows us to perceive patterns that were always there, but previously hidden to us. So our knowledge of the world gives us filters to organise and make use of information from our senses, while our senses feed our brains the material from which to build our creative conceptions of how the world is, and – most importantly – how it could be. So, if we want to be able to bring colour, nuance, expression and an apparently telepathic level of ensemble to our performances, we need to be able to hear those qualities first. The level of our artistic and technical attainment is absolutely bounded by the quality of our perception.

This is because our control over our performances is regulated by a feedback loop that monitors what we do, compares it to an imagined ideal, and suggests changes to bring the real sounds closer to the ideal. This loop can either be individual (when we practise by ourselves) or involve other people (such as the conductor in a rehearsal, or the instrumental teacher in a lesson). Either way, we practise until we can reliably ‘get it right’ – where getting it right means the external reality matches the internal vision. So, if we don’t have the perceptual skills to make fine-grained distinctions, we reach an apparent ‘match’ and stop practising sooner than someone who can really hear the differences.

A rehearsal method that builds our powers to listen, then, underpins both our capacity to fulfil our artistic vision in performance, and the detail and richness of that vision in the first place.

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