Remote Rehearsing and Trust

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When I asked the Telfordaires Music Team what we’d look back on this period and see as something we gained from it, our bass section leader Eddie identified increased levels of trust within the chorus. This not only warmed my heart, but offered some interesting thoughts to reflect on about the structure of activities and how they shape relationships within a group.

When he talked about trust, Eddie was thinking primarily about the way the practicalities of remote rehearsing mean people spend much more time singing to each other than singing together. It makes you feel more vulnerable to do this, but by the same token your fellow singers are moved to be more supportive in recognition of this. We do much of this in smaller groupings – sections, pairs/threes – so that it’s a more personal and private environment in which to put yourself on the line. This also allows reciprocity – if everyone is taking it in turn to do this, everyone is in the same boat.

This pleased me for artistic reasons as well as social connectedness. One of the central elements of drama teaching is the use of trust exercises that help a group develop norms that allow people to be emotionally, and therefore creatively, vulnerable. For all that choral singing is good at creating social bonds, there isn’t always this same culture of openness and valuing individual contributions, and I think it has the potential to bring all kinds of extra dimensions of communicative power to people’s singing.

The aspect of it I have particularly been noticing, as I’ve been working with individuals as vocal coach, is how much I cherish the extra insight into both the voices and the people it offers. As a conductor I always enjoy the musical connection with expressive people, especially in performance when I’m not distracted by having to monitor what needs working on next, but this is primarily a visual contact with individuals; the sonic dimension is necessarily a corporate impression. In a choir, you don’t want to be aware of the timbre of each voice in performance, but having the chance to learn this in rehearsal feels like it is deepening my musicianship at the same time as I am helping the singers with theirs.

I have been very grateful that before lockdown we had spent two years building the culture and working relationships that allowed this to work. We had had moments of hearing each other individually as we developed a voice timbre spectrum to inform choral stacking, and in pair-work too. We have also developed reciprocity in feedback through using internal coaches, and got fluent at protocols that phrased feedback in terms of what we wanted rather than what was wrong. Most importantly, we have established the principle that making mistakes is part of the process.

There is another dimension in which I have noticed remote rehearsing necessitating more trust, and that is in how I work as a director and coach. At the most basic level, when so much work is done with mics off I have to trust that people are doing the stuff, and doing it with the kind of approach I would wish them to take. Given that my primary function in normal life is as guiding ears, there is a huge hole in what I can do for people. And I’m not minimising that lack.

But at the same time, conductors are always saying we want our singers to take more responsibility for what they do. Well, we’ve got that now. My central means to influence what people do in real time, the link between ear and gesture, is gone, so I just have to believe that people are intelligent and on-the-case and are processing and applying the guidance they get in larger-group settings using that love of music that brought them to sing in a group in the first place.

Of course, the one-to-one work does allow me to be of some use in offering direct feedback, but at the same time is making me have to put more trust in other people to run parallel sessions while I do it. On a normal chorus night, I’d regularly circulate round the section rehearsals, available to answer questions, and sometimes guiding the process if I think I can help it be more effective. I’m not doing that in remote rehearsing, partly because I am using that time for individual coaching, but also because it feels more disruptive to me to have an external face pop up into the group. It’s more important that they feel safe to sing to each other than that I witness what they’re doing.

So now I’m relying on the feedback my section leaders give me about what they did, what went well, what difficulties people are having. And I love reading this feedback. It is thoughtful and caring and analytical. Sometimes there are requests for suggestions of how to deal with a particular challenge, sometimes there are suggestions for other activities or approaches that might be useful. In some ways I see much less of my team than before, but in others I learn a lot more about how they operate.

So, when Eddie said that an increase in trust is something we’d look back on as a benefit from lockdown, he spoke for my approach as a leader as well as the relationships within the group. It is so easy to concentrate power in your hands as a director. (And, it has to be said, it is intensely pleasurable to hold the choral sound in your hands; it can be hard to let go to make room for other activities.) But when I am forced by circumstance to let go it turns out I get the opportunity to see others shine.

As a not very confident singer before, I’m finding myself actually volunteering to sing to my section in the Zoom rehearsals. If you’d told me I’d do this happily, even two months ago, I wouldn’t have believed you!

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