Performance and Skill-Development

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During the Telfordaires’ penultimate live rehearsal session of 2020, I found myself uttering words that I had not used since early February: ‘That’s about ready to perform, now.’ Not that we had anyone to perform to as yet – whilst we have negotiated our way round the logistics of covid-safe rehearsal, we are leaving the complications of adding an audience to the occasion until the Spring, when hopefully case numbers will be down and social occasions commensurately easier to manage.

[Edit: and between scheduling this post and its publication we went back into lockdown so we're not going to be rehearsing live for a bit now either. Deep sigh. Hang on in there, friends.]

But that moment got me reflecting once again on the relationship between performance and skill-development. I’ve written before about how the experience of performing repertoire contributes to its development in ways rehearsals can’t reach. To say something is ready to perform doesn’t mean that it’s a finished product (we’ve got plenty of work still to do on that song), but that it is at a stage when not only is it good enough to be worth sharing, but performing it will make it better.

The first thing that struck me was that the extent to which this process contributes to a choir’s development varies considerably depending on your typical performance patterns.

For a repertoire chorus like ours – that is, one that maintains a gradually evolving performing set in which any one song might stay in the repertoire for anything between a year and a decade – it is built in, in much the same an instrumental soloist would approach it. Even when you are preparing pieces for a special occasion (e.g. contest), you plan less high-profile performance occasions en route, and then expect to get the benefit of the intensity of preparation for that event at all the subsequent performances you continue to use that material.

For choirs that work on a concert model, of preparing a full programme over a period of weeks or months that you then perform once, it’s a very different shape of experience. It’s relatively rarely that such choirs can offer the same concert repeatedly (it’s hard to fill a venue of a size to present a major choral work multiple times), so the skills honed in performance need to be carried over to the next programme, rather than being used to hone the current one.

I suddenly have a new insight into the role of tours in the life of concert-based choirs. It’s not just that sharing an adventure off your home patch is a very bonding experience, but that by moving around you get the opportunity to present the same programme several times and thus benefit directly, immediately, and cumulatively from the uplift performance gives you.

For perspective, at the opposite end of the spectrum from concert choirs we find stand-up comics. You prepare your set by yourself at home, but the interaction of material, delivery, and audience response is so integral to the craft that you are effectively doing a lot of your practice while actually performing. (One of the reasons I stopped doing it was that I had got to a point where I couldn’t get better without doing more gigs, and I couldn’t do more gigs without cutting back on my coaching commitments, so I chose to step off rather than simply stall.)

The second thing that struck me was that lost performance opportunities are part of the dilution of experience we have had to cope with since last March. It’s not just that we miss the sense of occasion, and the way that preparing for performance makes rehearsal more meaningful, we’ve actually also lost an integral part of our learning process.

I noted back in the autumn that the exigencies of remote rehearsing tend to attenuate the opportunities to get neurons firing intensively, and in losing performance opportunities, we have also thereby lost key moments to build myelin. I suppose the practice-gadget nature of some of our risk mitigations offers some compensatory game-raising, so it’s not all bad news.

We were already planning out 2021 around the aspiration to reconnect with local audiences over the Spring and Summer, but these reflections have clarified my thinking about making this part of the path back to normality, not just the destination.

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