On Saying the Same Things Every Week – Again

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As I write this title, I realise there’s a pleasant self-referentiality in revisiting this particular subject. Last time I wrote about it, my point was that, instead of getting frustrated with their singers when they find themselves repeating instructions, a director could more usefully consider why their instructions aren’t working and explore different ways to achieve their ends.

Today’s thought shares the point that it is counter-productive for directors to get frustrated by saying the same things week after week, but suggests that this is because sometimes repetition is exactly what is needed.

There’s a choir project I’ve been helping with for the past year, about which I’ve not blogged because the group isn’t the kind of public-facing performing ensemble I more usually work with. But they have been as interesting a source of experience and reflection as any, and they were the source of a nice penny-drop moment recently. (It was one of those where I can see exactly where I was on the journey home when the thought arrived – just turning right onto the Stratford Road.)

I had spent the evening working with a small group, most of whom had been involved in the sessions I’d been running for them over the past months, but a couple of whom were coming back into the ensemble, having last been involved before I started with them. Over those months we have been addressing a regular set of core elements of technique: legato, breathing, vowel integrity, phrase endings, and range. The process has involved repetition of instruction at each visit, and if you asked me now what kind of help the singers needed, it would be a similar list to the one I compiled to start our work together last year.

But there’s nothing like re-introducing people who have not shared those experiences to measure the progress made. Yes, people still sometimes need reminding of things; yes, there is still plenty of scope to develop further; but the work we have done together has really made a difference.

And it has made a difference at two levels. There is the simple level that the lines are more joined-up and shaped, and the breath lasts longer, and the ‘ay’ vowels better matched. People are able to do the things we’ve worked on. But there’s the meta level that they are deploying the techniques at will. You could see them assessing their own performance and choosing what to do to help reach a high note or manage a breath point.

The behaviours, that is, were underpinned by a basic belief that things you can’t quite do could be done if you just found the right technique to apply. When they identified something they weren’t satisfied with that they didn’t know how to deal with, they turned to me for advice. They were also helping their friends coming back into the project, sharing tips and advice that they had found useful along the way. That bit is really cheering – seeing the group’s enhanced skill-level becoming self-sustaining before your eyes.

And we had built this enhanced skill level through patient repetition. That’s how skills work: for a new neural pathway to become the default way of doing something, you need to do it a bunch of times. If you practise it by yourself between sessions of instruction, that will help embed it faster (and one of the things that has made this project rewarding, indeed, is evidence of practice), but you’ll still need reminding about it regularly while you are in the stage of conscious competence.

So when I thought back to the conversations I’ve had when directors complain about saying the same things each rehearsal, I resolved that next time someone says that to me, I will congratulate them for embarking on long-term skill-development. Anything you fix once and it stays fixed is pretty much by definition not a very profound change. Fundamental changes that will facilitate shifts in artistic level take weeks and months of practice.

When Jim Clancy talks about excellence being built in turning things you do sometimes into things you do every time, this is essentially a very patient philosophy. It recognises that consistency requires persistence. If the director gets fed up with the process en route, then may be that’s a sign that it’s time to invoke my previous advice about finding new ways to approach the work, to refresh everyone’s attention.

But there’s no reason why working on something over weeks and months should be inherently frustrating. If the goal continues to be valuable (making the music sound better is an aim that doesn’t pall), and the things you’re working on continue to reward you by achieving that goal, then doing them every time becomes a reliable way to get a musical reward. Celebrate the increments, and trust them to add up into long-term growth.

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