On Rehearsal Vocabulary

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‘Don’t think of pink elephants,’ is the phrase Bill Rashleigh uses to get directors to think about the vocabulary they choose. Obviously, everybody immediately does think about pink elephants. A similar thing is likely to happen, he suggests, when a director says, ‘don’t sing flat’. ‘Hmm, flat’, goes everyone’s brains, and the pitch follows the thought obediently downwards.

So, the initial message is that we should couch our requests in positive rather than negative terms. Say what the music needs, rather than what’s wrong with it. This is good advice from Bill, and I’ve found that learning to follow it has had a number of useful effects beyond the simple one of avoiding evoking counter-productive thoughts in rehearsal:

  1. It has helped establish a positive attitude and emotional atmosphere in the rehearsal room. I’m sure there are things to do with physical energy and pacing and smiling that contribute to buoying people up, but the vocabulary is absolutely at the heart of it. It means that singers can spend their rehearsals focused on our goals, rather than having their efforts perpetually insulted. Singers seem to appreciate this.
  2. It keeps both me and the singers looking ahead to what we want to achieve next rather than where we are now. It’s just easier to change if you’re defining all your activities in terms of your future vision rather than your current deficiencies.
  3. This forward focus also encourages us all to engage imaginatively with our vision of how the music should sound, so our aspirations themselves become more vivid and developed.

The other thing I’ve noticed about rehearsal vocabulary – and this emerged from my hours and hours of watching other conductors in rehearsal while researching my second book – is that the directors who use more imaginative and varied vocabulary in rehearsal tend also to be those that have richer and more nuanced gestural styles, and whose choirs seem to be producing the better results. I talk about how gestural and verbal vocabularies may be related in the book; what I’d like to think about here is why choirs respond so well to imagery.

At one level, it may simply be that people seem to sing better – more freely, more resonantly, more expressively – when their imaginations are engaged. There is probably an inner-game dimension here: if singers are engaged with artistic goals, they are less likely to be undermining themselves with the anxieties of self-talk.

But I think that the content of metaphorical vocabulary is also part of it. A direct instruction such as ‘sing this quietly’ works in only one dimension, that of amplitude. An expressive instruction such as ‘sing this reverently’ works in many dimensions. Quietness is part of what makes a sound reverent, but so is tone and articulation and shaping. The metaphor allows us to capture all these elements together, in a rich and complex way that would be awfully difficult to disaggregate consciously. As such, the distinction between imagery and direct instruction in rehearsal vocabulary parallels the distinction between musical and didactic gestures in directing technique.

It also relates to the double meaning of interpretation I talked about here. To couch rehearsal instructions in terms of concrete actions keeps the focus of both conductor and singers on the second layer, that of ‘the plan’, rather than on the first layer, that of musical understanding. Stay here too long, and the performance instructions actually start to build a barrier between the singers and the music – just as didactic gestures are most effective used sparingly.

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