Rehearsal Vocabulary: To Try or Not to Try?

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In the imperfect and work-in-progress world of the choral rehearsal, people spend much of their time trying to do things. That is a given. But it is worth reflecting on how, as directors, we use the word ‘try’ when giving our instructions. There are certain circumstances where it is a genuinely helpful word to use, and others where it is actively counter-productive.

I’m writing about this because, as is so often in the life of a coach, giving someone some advice about this has got me self-monitoring avidly to see if I am actually doing what I suggested he did!

The thing about the word ‘try’ is that it gives permission to fail. Once you have lived with that thought a while, you find that the things you ask singers to do in rehearsal fall quite neatly into those where it helps to gives that permission, and those where it doesn’t.

If you are doing exploratory work, using an approach that is new to the singers, or introduces a skill or concept they may not grasp first time, then they need to feel safe to mess up. It’s okay, if we only did things we can do already, we’d never progress. But that means the first couple of times you try something, you may not be very good at it.

Inviting people to ‘try’ something when they may be feeling anxious about stepping out into the unknown helps them extend themselves. It lowers the stakes, and embraces mistakes as part of the process.

When you are asking your singers to apply skills you know they have used before, or are close enough that you have every reason to believe they can do this, then the word ‘try’ lets them off the hook. In these circumstances, you don’t actually want people to try something, you want them to do it. Giving permission to fail when enforcing the standards you have already established undermines the whole choir’s efforts.

The reason we often misuse the word ‘try’ in the latter circumstance is to soften the power we are wielding. We don’t like to be seen as dictatorial (even – or possibly especially - when we are being so). But there are other ways to be polite without compromising standards. Smiling at your singers is always a good move, and framing your instructions with please and thank you. People basically know if you care about them.

And by reserving the word ‘try’ for when you are asking your singers to take a risk, you express faith in their abilities.

‘Try it a little faster,’ means, ‘I’m not sure if it will sound better at that tempo, so let’s find out’

‘A little faster please,’ means, ‘This music will sound better at that tempo, and I know you can do that’.

‘It needs to be faster, let’s try that,’ means, ‘I know what the music needs, but I don’t know if you can deliver it’.

On reflection, I am pretty sure I have been over-using the word recently. But then again, I have been getting my feet under the table as a director with a new chorus, and quite often have been embarking on things feeling genuinely uncertain about how they were going to go. It was important to me that the guys didn’t feel bad about stuff going wrong in music they knew well when it was due to us not knowing exactly what to expect from each other.

So, note to self: don’t let this become a habit now you’re starting to get a handle on both the repertoire and the chorus’s current skills.

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