How to Practise when you Haven’t got any Time

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Tl;dr for the time-poor

  • Listen to the music whenever you might normally have the radio on
  • Look at the music whenever you might normally read the newspaper
  • Sing in the shower

I recently started a conversation in the Barbershop Chorus Directors Facebook group, in the belief (correct, it turned out) that there would be a lot of wisdom collected there on this subject. Some choirs work on the principle that you can just rock up whenever you can make it and everyone will learn the music together in rehearsal. But many, particularly those that aspire to more (and more complex) repertoire than you can handle in that scenario, expect their members to do a lot of the groundwork in learning notes and words at home between rehearsals.

And all choirs include some members who have very full lives who find it difficult to make time to do this prep. We want them to keep coming to choir (and indeed to the choir that suits their musical capacities; sending them off to an ‘easier’ choir isn’t necessarily a good solution) for the sake of their wellbeing – it’s precisely when you’re not sure you’ve got time to do something for your wellbeing that you really should do it. But we don’t really want to have them floundering around not knowing music that the other choir members have learned – it holds the other singers back, and impairs their own experience. You get a much better sense of flow and connection if you can sing out confidently.

So we need to find strategies these singers can use to carve out some time and headspace for music in lives that are already over-full.

The discussion included some points about rehearsal strategies – i.e. things that are in the director’s control. Elizabeth Davies’ optional pre-rehearsal section sessions are popular amongst singers who like learning together, though not necessarily viable for the time-poor. She also advocates rehearsing short chunks of music repeatedly so that those who are a bit behind on the notes get several runs at it while you are developing nuance and artistry with those who are more solid. Turns out I’m on record for advocating things like that too, our hearts often beat as one.

The discussion of strategies that the singers themselves can use took two basic directions. One was finding ways to introduce music-learning into the interstices of life, in parallel with other things that don’t require full attention. Driving, walking the dog, ironing, etc, provide opportunities for listening; waiting rooms, sitting on the loo, basically any time you might otherwise read the paper or browse facebook offer moments for looking at sheet music.

The other was the view that it's much more efficient to set aside dedicated periods of learning time. Lisa Robathan made the point that you can get a remarkable amount done in short, focused stints, while Anthony Currington added that you also get better quality learning. Trying to learn you part while half your attention is on other things, he argued, leads a lot of approximation that then takes longer to fix afterwards.

So, putting these two sets of thoughts together leads me to the following suggestions.

First, use your listening-along time – as in, time when you can have music on alongside other life stuff - for holistic learning/general familiarisation. If you are in a genre that uses learning tracks, listen to the full mix rather than your specific part. If you are in a genre that works primarily from sheet music, listen to performance(s) by other groups. The point of this exercise is to get a feel for the whole, rather than to learn your part.

This groundwork will give you an understanding of the harmonic and rhythmic shape of the music, will help you know your way round the form, and will get you familiar with the words. All of these things will help you learn you part much more quickly once you look at the music. Intervals or rhythms that might be hard to read fall into place if you know how the music as a whole is supposed to go, and it’s much easier to read text alongside notes if you basically know what the words are already.

Second, use your reading time to learn your part. Subbing in the sheet music for a magazine while you eat a sandwich or wait for a bus will give you useful little bursts of learning time, all made more effective by your holistic listening. If you need to hear your part as well as read it, go ahead, you’ve probably got it on your phone already. But do also look at the music, even if you are primarily an ear-learner, as this will make sure you that you are staying on-task and actually learning the part rather than letting it just drift by you.

Reading time, that is, is an inherently more focused activity than listening-along time. And you’ll probably have less of it in your day. But even little bites of it can make a real difference, especially if you are also giving yourself a leg-up with your holistic listening. I do my weekly memory-refresh these days over a cup of tea at Telford Services while my electric car charges up, though back when I lived 5 minutes walk from my rehearsal space, I’d keep the music to the coming week’s songs in the downstairs loo to make sure I was up to speed in rehearsal.

You’ll note that none of these activities necessarily involve singing your part; quite often one’s reading time is in public places where other people might not appreciate it. But if you channel your inner Harold Hill, you’ll find the Think Method is actually very effective – at least when you’re learning music for an instrument that you already know how to play, such as your voice. (I discovered this when asked to accompany something on piano at short notice when living in a student dorm. Turns out I actually play fewer wrong notes learning like this than when my shonky sight-reading forms the basis of my learning.)

So, you might ask, when do you actually sing? In the shower, of course, as you usually do. But now you get to use your ablutions to find out which bits of the music you've got and which bits still need work.

The biggest and most challenging step is always to start. Once you’ve got your infrastructure set up (CD in car, score in handbag, materials downloaded to phone, or whatever) it’s easy to keep going. And the reason it’s hard to start is partly because it takes a bit more oomph to set up your infrastructure than to use it, but mostly because your brain likes to hoard your headspace and will do its best to protect you from extra effort. (Mark Forster refers to this active procrastination as ’resistance’.)

So I’m adding some extra oomph here specially for you to encourage you to make the effort, even though it feels like you’ve got too much to think about already. Once you’re up and going your brain will enjoy it, and you’ll have a much greater feeling of achievement on rehearsal night when you’re no longer feeling like you’re always playing catch-up. You already know you like music and enjoy singing, this will help you get more enjoyment still, while earning you the satisfaction of supporting your choir-mates much better.

Excellent! Glad you included the venerable Loo Method, specially good for women (though men also have the option to make good choices). Barbershoppers learn short pieces of music (relative to our symphony/opera conducting studies) so short study periods pay off well.

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