On the Primary and Secondary Effects of Rehearsal Methods

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I have remarked before how rehearsal methods one chooses for a specific reason often have secondary effects that you didn’t necessarily anticipate but that nonetheless chime with your overall aims and ethos. One particular instance of this rule of benign unintended consequences we have experienced in Magenta is the practice of having all members out front in turn to coach the group as a whole.

The routine is this: each person stands out front, and we sing a section of maybe 16-20 bars to them. They feed back (a) on something that they liked about the performance and (b) on something that they would like to see added or improved. (If they accidentally tell us something that was wrong, we rephrase in positive terms; so for example if we’re told the start was a bit tentative and insipid, the instruction becomes, 'Please perform the start with more confidence and clarity'.). We then sing the same section again to give them what they wanted. We then go on to sing the next section to the next person.

Now the reason I started this was largely ideological. As director I have an awful lot of power in our rehearsals, and I like to make a conscious effort to hand it over to others. I tend to think that if I want my singers to perform with individual expressiveness, it’s probably counter-productive to spend the entire time with me telling them what to do. The exercise is thus a deliberate moment of power-sharing; I’d like to think it’s not the only opportunity for other people to have an input, and by guaranteeing that moment of consensual method it makes it easier to keep dialogue open at other points.

At least that’s my impression. It could just be that I look like an autocrat throughout. But at least there are the various useful secondary effects the exercise produces to make it worthwhile in more dimensions than the merely ideological.

At first glance, it isn’t a very efficient rehearsal method. It doesn’t deal with many details at once. But it punches above its weight in several ways.

First, any repertoire choir that performs from memory needs to keep the repertoire active. Once you’ve learned the music, if you don’t keep it alive, the memory decays. So the exercise provides a good opportunity to refresh songs, and by taking each short section twice, it gives everyone the chance to self-correct on details that go missing first time. This makes it immediately much more effective than, say, singing through the whole song twice.

Second, people learn an immense amount by standing out front to witness the overall performance that they can never learn from within the choir. Even a brief experience from the position of the audience tells them so much about the effect our performance has on a listener, and how that tallies with the effects we have been aiming for in rehearsal. And this learning experience is again amplified by the double hearing. People who have been a little uncertain if what they’re asking for as an improvement is valid look so delighted when the choir gives them back the improvement they had half-intuited.

And this delight is in turn a wonderful reinforcement mechanism for the rest of the choir. To see your friends look so happy when you sing more precisely or more expressively or with greater attention to balance is a far more visceral message about the importance of these qualities than merely hearing your director tell you to do so.

It is telling, also, that the things people ask for usually are qualities we have been working on anyway: things we can do but have not yet necessarily developed the consistency to do all the time. The exercise, that is, is excellent for moving skills from the region of conscious competence to unconscious competence. And the process of reinforcement is much more effective for being dispersed within the group. The times when rehearsals feel like a bit of a grind are when the director is constantly banging on about something that the choir needs to remember to do. If the request comes from any and all members of the choir, it makes it more believable that it makes a difference – and each person who makes the request is more likely to commit to that quality when they rejoin the ensemble.

In the chapters on choral discipline in my book on choral conducting, I draw on John Potter’s insight that choirs instil the type of power that Gramsci terms 'hegemonic'. That is, the rules are enforced by the people who are themselves subject to them. So you could argue that inviting all members of my choir to participate in coaching the ensemble is less a democratic act of power-sharing than a cunning way to extend the reach of my power by getting other people to exercise it on my behalf. But if they enjoy it and it helps them perform better, I’m okay with that.

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