Singling-Out 2: Adrenaline Control

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yerkesinglingI wrote back before Christmas about the principle of singling out individuals in rehearsal - when and how it is useful, when and how it may be counter-productive. As I worked through the different scenarios and examples it got me reflecting on, I realised I was mapping the focus on individuals vs group onto the Yerkes-Dodson curve that charts arousal and performance level.

A focus on individuals makes everybody feel slightly less psychologically safe - not just the people singled out, but everyone else too as they become more aware that they too are individually visible. This results in an increased level of arousal.

If the choir is being a bit dozy or passive, then this is exactly what you need: a bit more alertness and focus in the brain, a bit more energy and readiness-for-action in the body. If the choir is anxious or floundering, though, this is the last thing you need, as adding adrenaline to an over-stressed performance just makes it worse.

Conversely, a focus on the group makes everybody feel connected and less self-aware, and encourages the relaxation and widening of perception associated with the parasympathetic nervous system.

If the choir is antsy or frazzled, this will help settle them their nerves and find their groove again. But if the choir is smooshing around together in a blendy but rather “after you; no, after you” kind of fashion then you need everyone to step up and lead a little more.

The Yerkes-Dodson curve can thus act as a diagnostic device to guide the director’s tactics with regard to individuals vs the whole. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are in a homeostatic relationship, and the approach we take in rehearsal has the capacity to help keep the two in an optimal balanced for music-making.

Of course, singling-out (or not) is not the only tactic the director will be using to maintain this balance, but it is interesting for the way it maps so neatly onto the graph. The two poles of the dialectic are resolved not through a Hegelian synthesis or a simple compromise, but are actively adjusted in response to the needs of the moment.

It occurs to me that homeostasis may be a useful way to think about many of the dilemmas/controversies of practical philosophy played out in choral musicianship: soloistic vs blended approaches to ensemble (and by extension, conflict between voice teacher and choral conductor); musical versus vocal approaches to choral pedagogy; inclusivity versus excellence. These are all debates maintained with some heat, and with many good but mutually contradictory points on both sides, and a dynamic, contextual approach to resolving them is going to be more satisfactory for the needs of real musicians than any purely philosophical solution, however elegant.

And back in real life: the example I have had at the back of my mind through all this theorising is a singer of my acquaintance who professes to have a poor sense of rhythm. Actually, my observation is that much of the time her rhythm is fine. But when she gets flummoxed, it goes to pot. And she can tell that she’s out of time, and that makes her anxious, which keeps her floundering.

Pointing out her error would be about the most counter-productive thing possible at this moment; she is already horribly self-conscious, which itself is further undermining her sense of timing. But working with her within the music can help. What she needs at these moments is reassurance and reconnection, and actually just to metabolise her excess adrenaline so that she can trust her sense of ‘feel’ again.

Interesting thoughts. I recently read a book called "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. In it she addresses how introverts and extroverts respond differently to such things as individual attention ... might be an added inflection to your notions of choral work.


Thanks for dropping by, William, and for the book recommendation. I will follow it up!

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