Rote-Learning and Musicianship

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Years ago, Jonathan and I took some ballroom dancing classes. It was fun it its way, but the classes weren't very good because we were simply taught a set sequence of steps for each dance without any guidance on how you would vary them in different circumstances. So we could never quick-step in a room smaller than the one we learned in, for instance, because we'd have hit the wall before we got to the turn.

I am reminded of this sometimes when working with amateur singers who have learned their music by a rote method such as learning tracks. They may have a strong and accurate grasp of the notes (the big benefit of this approach), but they lack the mental flexibility to hold the music in their heads and change their performance of it at the same time.

The problem with a rote-learning relationship with the material is that it embeds the manner of knowing the music into the physical habits of performance. There is no distance between the concept of the song and the enactment of it. So, any time you try to change the execution or delivery of the performance, you are thereby also messing with the storage of the music.

This makes changes disproportionately difficult, and - worse - means that when a singer who's had their head messed with like this takes a moment to remind themselves of how the music goes, they revert back to the old version. The manner of learning the music in the first place becomes the means to prevent it getting any better.

So, how do you go about developing this capacity to hold the music separately from yourself (aka musicianship)? Here are some of the strategies I use in my coaching:

  • Encourage the use of sheet music as a reference tool in rehearsal. Even if you are not a sight-reader, finding the way round the song in this visual form helps the process of random-access as you are quite literally holding the music outside yourself. (It also, in time, makes learning to read it easier)
  • Build song maps, and use them to practise starting at lots of different points within the song
  • Duetting - and especially listening to the other parts as they duet - requires you to think about the music as it works from lots of different perspectives, not just your own part
  • Slow singing, or as a variant, singing a rhythm song as a ballad, bumps you off autopilot and makes you attend to the detail
  • Singing in different keys makes you listen afresh instead of relying on muscle memory
  • Sing in fast-forward mode to get a summary overview of the song

And for the hard-core

  • Sing each others' parts, either doubling up or swapping entirely

The single principle that underlies all these tactics is this: don't just keep singing through the thing from beginning to end. That may be pleasurable as a pastime, but as a rehearsal method grows frustrating as it has very limited powers to improve performance. Except, perhaps, in the early days when the challenge is remembering how it goes at all. But you don't actually need lots of runs-through for that either: all the above practice tactics will deliver memory - and flexible, robust memory - as well as if not better than basic repetition.

And none of these are magic bullets that will painlessly deliver you into a state of musicianship grace (oof - that metaphor is so absurdly mixed I'm going to leave it for you to laugh at me about). Rather, they are all different ways of challenging the brain, stretching out the cognitive distance between musical structure and its execution by requiring new forms of execution. They are designed to boggle.

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