The Evolution of Online Rehearsals

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A few weeks ago I led a session for The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers on Principles for Remote Rehearsing. It was a good opportunity to bring together a lot of what people have shared over the last 4-5 months and extract some common themes from the various successes and failures. In the process, two more over-arching observations emerged. Edit: the first of these apparently is enough to fill the rest of this post, so the other will come another day.

The first observation is how varied the approaches to remote rehearsal have been. In normal choral rehearsals, you mostly know what you’re going to see. There are variations between choral traditions to an extent, and between the approaches needed for different skill levels, but these are variations on a common theme. Having visited a lot of choral rehearsals both in the course of research for my second book, and in my decade of freelance coaching, I feel quite safe in this generalisation.

In virtual rehearsals, the range of both rehearsal activities and approaches to organising the sessions has been wildly more varied. Deprived of our core standard behaviour – singing stuff together, with interventions to make it better – choral leaders and their singers have leapt into the empty space with a dizzying profusion of ideas they would not previously have dreamed of. The first and most important point here is what a testament this is to the collective imagination and creativity of our choral culture.

All kinds of certainties have been turned upside down: the relationship between musical and social activities, the relationship between individual, small-group and whole-group activities, the nature and location of leadership within the ensemble. Who, in our previous lives, would have organised their rehearsals on a monthly or six-weekly cycle of different types of session? Who would have had periodic ‘section take-overs’ in which one part runs an entire evening? How many directors would have spent much of the evening working with singers on a one-to-one basis leaving other choir members to lead a succession of other activities?

The metaphor that leaps to mind is the geological event known as the Cambrian Explosion. This was a moment in pre-history when mostly single-cell life-forms suddenly diversified in myriad different types and shapes of creature. That’s a ‘moment’ in geological terms of course – i.e. millions of years – but remarkably few millions compared to the previous rate of change.

(I learned about this from Stephen Jay Gould’s wonderful book Wonderful Life, which is a fascinating tale not only of the evolutionary processes involved, but also of how new discoveries forced a radical rethinking of the narratives used to understand evolution.)

The thing that’s boggling about the Cambrian Explosion, as Gould tells it, is that, whilst pretty much every animal phylum of today started out then, it also produced a bunch more animal forms that we don’t see today. We are used to think of evolution as ever-increasing variety, but actually this is a story of sudden, dizzying variety, of which only a subset survived.

A few short months into our new choral environment, we can see this process of profusion and reduction happening already. One of the reasons we burn through new ideas so fast is that not everything we try works. We are constantly dreaming up new things to try, picking up ideas from others, adapting both home-grown and borrowed material in the light of experience. Some of these experiments survive in the new environment and become reliable mainstays, whilst some die out almost immediately. Some ideas thrive in one group, but wither in another, in an interesting form of memetic speciation.

It has been fascinating to watch, and to participate in. It has certainly put the consistency of our face-to-face rehearsals, noted above, into perspective. We may have previously thought that a professional cathedral choir in rehearsal looked very different from an unauditioned community choir, in much the same way that a Doberman and a Chihuahua look quite different. Now you look at them think, hey they’re not just both mammals, they’re both dogs! Practically the same thing!

Every so often people stop and wonder how we’ll do things differently post-pandemic in the light of the adaptations we’ve had to make during it. I’m not sure how many of the technological solutions will follow us back into the rehearsal hall, but the new social relations and organisational habits might. I look forward to looking back at this post in summer 2030 and reporting back to what will by then be my past self on how it eventually turned out.

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