Remote Rehearsing: Initial Impressions

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Screen-shot from our tea-breakScreen-shot from our tea-break

Well, the internet is fizzing with accounts of how people have been getting on with taking their rehearsals online, so I’m not sure this one is really needed. But I was going to write up my reflections anyway to inform our plans as they develop, so I thought I may was well do this thinking in public, in case anyone was curious about how we actually got on after my last post on the subject.

We used Zoom, and followed a plan sent out in advance with links for each segment of the rehearsal. The first and last segments were all together, with me leading and the chorus doing stuff with mics off – respectively a warm-up, using exercises we use regularly and can all do, and teaching a rhythm exercise for people to practise during the week. We had ten minutes offline midway for a comfort break and to make a cuppa, then 15 mins together with mics on for club business and social time.

In between these plenary sessions, we broke out into smaller groups, for reasons discussed in my last post. We had one session in sections working on one song, another in small groups mixed by section to watch and discuss videos of performances, and a third in pairs or threes working on another song. Meanwhile, I was doing vocal coaching with some of the newer singers, which had been on the plan for March 18 anyway.

We had had two trial runs with the tech in the previous two days, and these really helped. Both to trouble-shoot difficulties and start to find our way round how it functioned, but also to get used to the environment, so that when we met for rehearsal we were over much of the initial surprise of being there together. There was a certain amount of floundering as people navigated their way through what might have looked quite a complex plan on first sight, but everyone was very patient and helpful with each other, which was just lovely. We all learned a lot about how to do this, and also got ideas about how we can set it up better in future.

One thing a lot of people have remarked on in their reports of similar experiences is the impact of everyone being able to see each other’s faces. You could feel the spirits lift as the group gathered together. And it occurred to me that as a director I get this a lot more than the singers do on a regular club night,; I have been aware before of how imprinted I can feel on a group I work with regularly, and how seeing their faces makes me feel safe. Nice for everyone to have this experience, especially in the absence of the harmonic/sonic bonding we usually have.

Another thing that people are discussing is developing the etiquette of how to work together in large groups online. I know ours is a small chorus, but I was pleased how relatively little mayhem we experienced in the trial runs and the mics-on sections of the evening. It struck me that experience of riser etiquette is useful here. People are used to not all talking at once.

Online vocal coaching is something that was well established before we all had to start social distancing. (Or, as my sister-in-law puts it, physical distancing – in service of social solidarity.) There are some specifically useful things about the format: that the singer can see themselves in action, and that you can record for later review. Both of these are available for face-to-face teaching of course (this is why voice teaching rooms often have mirrors), and are particularly useful for individual work as they allow analysis of the effect of quite subtle changes in technique.

This was a very satisfying way of spending a goodly chunk of the evening: I was able to make myself directly and specifically useful to some of our less experienced singers, and to get a better insight into them both as singers and as people. The plan had been to do this in groups of two or three, working with each for a few minutes while the others watched, so they could each observe the differences made by changes, and also get a bit of a rest/processing time between goes. As it turned out, I ended up doing one-to-ones, as one or two from each group weren’t available for different reasons. We were able to work at a pleasing level of intensity, achieving real depth. But it was tiring - you could feel the absence of the processing time that turn-taking would have offered. I’m hoping that Plan A of pairs and threes will work out in future.

Our normal rehearsals go in chunks of between 8 and 25 mins: most activities planned for 15-20, with the odd longer or shorter one for variety. This one went generally in longer slots 25-30 mins, to give space for logistical trouble-shooting and still have time to get something useful done. And we certainly needed that this time. We may be able to compress the slots a little as we get more adept at setting things up to be easier to navigate, and more fluent in following those plans.

In moving to remote rehearsals, we had three very clear aims, in a clear order of priority:

  1. Stay safe
  2. Stay connected
  3. Continue our musical journey together

The first was why we moved to remote work. The second we have done quite well with. We had 22 of a possible 28 there for at least part of the evening, apologies from 4 others who are hoping to be with us next week, and only two who have expressed reluctance to engage with the technology. We are keeping them included in all the messages between rehearsals so they know what we are working on, and we are being more structured than usual about homework tasks also to enable them to have specific things to do. I am also plotting homework exercises that will entail people being in touch with each other between rehearsals, which will give them social as well as musical contact: goal 3 can be one of the means we achieve goal 2.

When I got ‘home’ from rehearsal (which involved walking downstairs instead of my usual 40-mile drive), I realised that world had dropped away and disappeared for the duration of the rehearsal. The Covid-19 situation was the reason we were meeting in this strange way, but it was pushed out of consciousness by the company of friends, by the demands of figuring out how to manage the new environment, by making detailed adjustments to vocal fold adduction and tongue position. And whilst I am still waking up at 4 am, now it’s not to worry about how late and inadequate our country’s response to the virus has been, it’s to hatch ideas for more effective rehearsal protocols to workshop with my music team when we meet on Monday.

We need to keep musicking despite it all.

Coming back to this post at a later date, it may be useful to record a few things that have changed since this first foray into remote rehearsing:

- we have shorted the rehearsals from 2 1/2 to 2 hours (zoom fatigue)
- I now have a PRO account, and we have figured out the breakout room function so we don't need lots of different links for the different activities but can manage them from the main rehearsal space.
- as a result, the sections are back to shorter chunks, no more than 20 mins on any one activity.

I do still send out a detailed plan in advance, so that people know what's going on even if they have to dip in and out with connection issues etc.

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